Have you ever asked yourself how much you know about how the Jews of Europe were killed in the Holocaust? Surely, we know too much. But have you ever asked yourself - how did the Jews live before they had become victims? You will find that there is a troubling imbalance in how much we know about how they died than about how they lived.

 

When trying to learn about and understand the Holocaust, the thriving life of European Jewry prior to World War II cannot and must not be overlooked. While the Holocaust is primarily associated with death and destruction, learning about how Jews lived gives us a glance into the rich tapestry of culture that existed before European Jewry was destroyed. We cannot meet the Jews of Europe in the ghettos or at the entrance to the gas chambers. Decades of Holocaust related trips to Poland from around the world have unjustly done exactly this. Our approach is entirely different.
 

 

A total of approximately nine million Jews lived in the twenty-one countries that were later occupied by Germany during World War II. One of the the largest and oldest Jewish populations in Europe was concentrated in Poland. On the eve of World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. Of these, 3.1 million were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. In a matter of a few single years, 800 years of Jewish life in Poland were destroyed.

In our imagination we often stereo-typically visualize Polish Jewry in black and white, as a uniform society that led a strictly observant Jewish religious life, spoke Yiddish, men with beards and women with a handkerchief to the heads who lived in small villages and towns (shtetls) and worked as poor merchants or craftsmen and were housewives, respectively. However, the Jewish population of Poland was far more diverse and colorful. A large portion would indeed fit the description above, but nonetheless, there were Polish Jews who were highly educated academics, there cosmopolitan Polish Jews who were assimilated into Polish culture, others who were Zionists who strove for a national Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, and others who felt Jewish culturally - but Polish nationally, and seeing their future in Poland, they fought for equal rights and Jewish cultural freedom.

As we embark on a meaningful journey back to Poland, the land where some of the greatest developments in Jewish history have occurred throughout the centuries, and where consequently, the Germans will establish the factory of death that would claim the lives of six million European Jews, we will  gain a glimpse into the lives of the Jews that were destroyed, thereby enabling us to learn not only about the events of the Holocaust, but why these events were so devastating and how ramifications of this great loss still resonate with us today.

 

Our journey will be a uniquely meaningful one. It will not be a simple sightseeing tour with a tour guide that tells you what happened here and what happened there.  Our guides, all trained by the Yad VaShem training Program for Educational Tours to Poland, in Israel (the most prestigious Holocaust education, research and commemoration center in the world) have been trained to be educators, to invoke and facilitate critical thinking, to raise intricate moral questions and dilemmas, to present and analyze human complexities and to pick-apart the Holocaust as not only a Jewish catastrophe, but nonetheless, as a human tragedy - inflicted on human beings by human beings.

 

As we examine how the events of the Holocaust which led to the destruction of European Jews mainly on German- occupied Polish soil, we will confront the difficult questions surrounding the perpetrators,the bystanders, the Gentile rescuers, the survivors on the day of liberation and their unbelievable journey back to life. And finally, we will ask, how was it humanly possible? What are the universal teachings and understandings of the Holocaust that are relevant to our world today?

 

It is crucial to contextualize the Holocaust and on our journey will do so through the personal stories of real people and real communities, which will help us relate personally to those who had lived through it. The Holocaust did not only destroy lives of individuals; it destroyed communities, structured life, and a rich culture that has never been recreated. What was erased - had vanished forever. Exploring the Holocaust from this perspective of getting to know the Jews of Poland first by how they lived and not only how they died,  will enable us to view the destruction process, the loss and tragedy, as more profound.

Prewar Jewish Quarter in warsaw, where the jews constituted a third of the city's population