Day 3 & 4: UJIA Glasgow Poland Trip

October 29, 2019 | Blog, Glasgow, Read UJIA, UK

By Sydney Switzer, Scotland Youth Programmes Coordinator

The end of our time in Poland went by quickly. By Friday morning we had all become quite close and we went from place to place as a cohesive group, experiencing things together. We really got into the flow of things, and began to make higher connections to the deeper meanings of the trip and what our explorations meant for us both as individuals and as a community.

Nothing can really prepare you for a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, what can often be seen as the ‘climax’ of a trip to Poland. The stories we had heard, the sites, the empty synagogues – nothing really prepared us for the vast emptiness of Birkenau. But following our visit to Auschwitz, we experienced so many wonderful things which reminded me of the vast fullness of our lives.

We began our day in the small town of Oswiecim, the Polish name for the now infamous town of Auschwitz. In the main square, we stopped outside number 13. In the early 20th century, this house had belonged to the great-great-grandfather of one of the participants in our group. He showed us photos of his family as they moved from Oswiecim in Poland to Kosice in Hungary, through Vienna and London to eventually settle in Glasgow. He showed us photographs of his family who survived the Shoah, as well as photos of those who didn’t. It really brought to light for the group how this was not some removed history, but we were literally learning about our own family.

Huddled in the tiny lobby of our hotel back in Krakow, we stood in a circle lighting Shabbat candles. Everyone was exhausted from our 5:00 am wake up and hours trekking around Auschwitz, but we all took a moment before our showers and resting to mark the onset of Shabbat together and to honour an age-old tradition which connects us to Jewish people everywhere.

After Kabbalat Shabbat at the historic Izaak Synagogue where Krakow’s pre-war Jewish community had also celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat, we headed over to JCC Krakow, where we joined university students from Hillel in both Krakow and Warsaw for a spirited Shabbat dinner in the Sukkah. Friday night was one of our first points of contact with members of today’s Polish Jewish community. We were no longer in the abandoned synagogue of Lancut, or looking out over the destroyed crematoria of Birkenau – we had truly come from destruction to renewal.

We spent Shabbat day seeing the town of Krakow, visiting elaborately muraled synagogues and the harsh grey walls of the Krakow ghetto. We spent the afternoon strolling by the sunny Vistula River and exploring the streets and alleyways of what was once the vibrant Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. As Shabbat came to a close, we gathered on the edge of the Podgorze District, what was once Krakow’s overcrowded ghetto, for our Havdallah ceremony.

It seemed a fitting end to our trip – all of us with our arms around each other, blessing the wine and spices. Some people said they hadn’t done Havdallah since they’d left primary school, and it felt like we had come full circle in our journey. Throughout our time in Poland we had looked at our Jewish histories – where we came from, how we got there – and as we left Poland, we switched to thinking about our Jewish present.

I feel incredibly honoured to have been a part of helping this group explore this part of their identity, and to have learnt so much from them. From witnessing unexpected reactions and seeing moments of understanding, to having fun with an incredible bunch of teenagers (we did have fun in between the hard moments), it was an amazing experience, and it couldn’t have happened without the support of UJIA and the dedicated work of so many members of our team!