This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.
Today’s thoughts are from Jodie Franks, who is in shevet Avichai and is a nivcheret Hanhallah.
The first time I went to Poland was the Tribe trip for year 12 students, back in 2015. That trip can only be described as a whirlwind of emotion. Our fantastic Rabbis, Rebbetzen and educators took us on a journey through history, but somehow also made me think more about myself and my future. We cried – a lot – but also laughed an inappropriate amount, which, looking back, was a very healthy coping mechanism to deal with the mental overload of what we were seeing each day.
I see that trip to Poland as a major step in my maturity and growth as a young adult, and I could not recommend it enough. Each one of us returned home with a drive to do something significant in our lives, to make a change or to start something new. Some people decided to become more religious, whilst others wanted to work on their relationships with family members or friends. I personally came home with a renewed vigour to take opportunities, to, as my educator said, “live for those who can no longer live”. I remember feeling excited about the new things I would start doing with all the time that I would somehow create. I also attribute my desire to go to sem mostly to what we learnt in Poland about the great yeshivot established in the pre-war era – who am I to break that tradition of learning!?
Sixth form was a busy and complicated time, so it was only when I arrived in Israel at the start of my gap year that I really took on the lessons I had learnt from going to Poland. I resolved to take every opportunity that came my way, and appreciate every single day that I have been given to learn and grow. At this point, when my midrasha offered a trip to Poland, I did not even think twice before refusing. I had ‘done’ Poland, and was satisfied that I had cried enough, and did not need, or want, to go back.
A year later, I somehow ended up on March of the Living, representing Bnei Akiva. I came ready with my tissues, thinking I would know exactly how I would feel at each site we visited. I honestly did not think that going back to Poland would really benefit me. I was proved wrong almost immediately. March of the Living was an intensely educational week. I learnt so much about European Jewry before, during, and after the Shoah – and I still don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of holocaust education. I was on the student bus, which meant that I was with a diverse, international, group of people, not all of them Jewish. This allowed for fascinating discussions to take place about topics such as the role of Hashem in the Shoah, and modern Polish attitudes towards the holocaust. Our educator, Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum, found a way to connect with each one of us in his group, and include us all in his narration of our history. Having been before to some of the sites we visited, I was able to really internalise what I was seeing on an educational, as well as an emotional, level. This has given me a much better grounding to inform others about the holocaust than I have ever had before. We were also privileged to hear from multiple survivors who accompanied us on our trip. Knowing that opportunities to speak to survivors are becoming more limited meant that the whole group felt a deep level of appreciation and respect for the stories we heard. On the day of the march itself, with 11,000 people from all over the world walking from Auschwitz I to Birkenau, I felt an innate solidarity with klal yisrael, as a friend of mine remarked “if Hitler saw us all as one people, why can’t we see ourselves as such?”.
Being older and (slightly) wiser, I am able to think more realistically about the direction I want my life to go in after coming home from Poland. With hindsight, I realise that going back to Poland a second time meant that I could not only continue to process the intense emotions related to seeing such a dark point in the history of the Jewish people, but also form connections with a new group of people and learn about the holocaust from multiple perspectives.
My message for whoever has actually bothered to read to the end of my ramble is that you should never think you have ‘done the Poland thing’. If you have never been, March of the Living is a fantastic and well organised trip which will give you a perfect balance of an emotional and educational response to the atrocities committed during the Shoah. If you have been to Poland before, remember that each time you go will be a completely different experience, and that it is impossible to take everything in on only one trip – going back again will consolidate your knowledge and emotions.
I strongly recommend and endorse March of the Living UK, and hope to see a strong cohort of BA-nicks on next year’s trip!
This article is written in memory of Rivka bat Binyamin.