Poland-Israel Mission Blog

Read a follow-up testimonial by Rebecca Silk, and a blog written by members of the 2014 UPJ Mission to Poland and Israel.

Follow-up testimonial
Rebecca Silk

This mission was run by the Union for Progressive Judaism in Australia. The trip had two parts- Poland and Israel.

In Poland a tour of history, remembrance  and memorial and in Israel  a visit of commemoration, celebration and exploration of some contemporary issues.

The group was well prepared educationally via introductory sessions in Australia that covered the broad sweep of Holocaust history as well as highlighting some of the individual stories that were re visited  during the tour. We were   as prepared as one can be emotionally  and were well supported on the mission with the presence throughout of Sandy Hollis, Educator and Rabbi Steve Burnstein from the Saltz Centre. In Poland we had a local logistics person and high calibre local guides.

There were visits to pre war locations of thriving Jewish culture in Poland : Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw.

There were visits to concentration camps and death camps. – Auschwitz- Birkenau, Belzec and Majdanek.  Time was  allowed for reflection, remembrance and memorial  ceremonies at  the camps.

Included were visits to museums, cemeteries and  memorials in Krakow and Warsaw as well as visits to current Jewish communities in Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw.

Every day in Poland  there was a balance on the program between horror and despair and then  uplifting experiences. For example the day at Auschwitz Birkenau was followed by Erev Shabbat and dinner with some incredibly  enthusiastic reform community members in Krakow. The day in Warsaw visiting the ghetto site, the   Jewish cemetery, memorials to the ghetto martyrs was followed by a lovely  dinner, debrief and meeting with community members.

There were also unscripted serendipitous events that added layers of meaning to the mission. In Lancut where we visited a pre war synagogue we met the Polish man who voluntarily cares for the building  and described himself as “a Jew in my heart.” In Warsaw where we were viewing a remnant of the ghetto wall we happened to meet  the 93 year old man who campaigned successfully for that remnant to be made into a memorial. And at Majdanek, the last camp that we visited we had a small ceremony of remembrance at the memorial. As we finished our ceremony a group of Israeli schoolgirls joined us around the memorial and together we sang songs and finally the Hatikva. It was quite a moment.

In Israel as a  mission of hope we went to various parts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Our visit to Yad Vashem was very meaningful after Poland.

We commemorated  erev Yom Hazikaron by joining with several thousand  diaspora young people ( including those on Shnatt program) at a  ceremony held at Latrun. And we commemorated next day at a smaller and moving ceremony to honour the Machal, the volunteers from  overseas who fought ( and some died)  in wars since 1948. We celebrated Yom Ha’azmaut at Kehillat Yozma, a vibrant progressive community in the town of Modi’in and returned to Jerusalem to be part of the street party on Ben Yehuda. We also experienced  the joy of Shabbat in Jerusalem

The program provided  a wealth of historical and current  input- from the fascinating social history and walking tours with Paul Liptz ( Saltz Centre) to the inspiration of Anat Hoffmann from I srael Religious Action Centre and the human rights lawyers  who work with the olim. We joined a Rosh Chodesh service with the Women of the Wall and went on  a “freedom ride” program with IRAC.

Rabbi Gillard Kariv gave us the good news about the strength of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and Mark Regev, spokesperson for the Prime Minister provided a dose of reality politics.

In Tel Aviv we went to a Mechina program- a gap year program, for young people that is run by the Progressive movement and includes studies in Judaism and social action. We also went a graffiti tour of South Tel Aviv which included the history of Tel Aviv and some background on it’s thriving arts scene.

What did I get from this tour?

In Poland I got a truer picture and learned things I did not know about the Holocaust. I also had  the  uplifting experiences of  meeting some remarkable  people who are keepers of our  heritage and others who are renewing Jewish communities in Poland.

In Israel I learned a lot of history in a most accessible and fascinating way. I saw first hand some of the amazing social justice work that is  being done by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.  It was moving to be at  the commemorations for Yom Hazikaron and the celebrations for Yom Ha’azmaut  in Jerusalem.

Listening to the mix of  speakers and programs also made us  grapple with some of the current contradictions and complexities that abound in Israel.

The tour was well organised -  a credit to the UPJ. It  was also a  success in large part due to the excellent education and guiding from Sandy Hollis, and the sensitive  support from Rabbi Steve  Burnstein. This mission   has many layers just like Judaism itself . If you are up for it, the rewards, I have found, are many. 


24 April 2014 (Krakow)
Rebecca Silk

Today the group started to get an impression of Jewish life in Krakow. We walked through the  cobbled squares and streets of Kazimerz, the Jewish quarter. We saw the Old Synagogue built in the 15th century which is preserved as a museum; the restored Tempel Synagogue, beautifully ornate inside, -a Progressive synagogue from the 1870s and the small Rema synagogue beside the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis and it was very moving to see a memorial wall made from fragments of gravestones.

It was clear that for centuries Jewish life in Krakow was rich, connected to other centres, such as Prague, and part of the fabric of Krakow.

The group saw a photographic exhibition at the Galicia Museum. This museum strives to educate and preserve the Jewish heritage of Polish Galicia. It contains a photographic exhibition called Traces of Memory, that shows major sites, such as Belzec death camp, as well as isolated places, such as a field where 67 Jews were murdered, or a forest, where a memorial has been erected on the site of Jewish graves.

After a lunch at “Hummus and Happiness” we went to Schindler’s Factory. This is a museum about life in Krakow under Nazi occupation, which includes the story of the fate of the 68,000 Jews who were in Krakow before World War II. At the end of the exhibition are Schindler’s office and reception rooms, as well as pictures of some of the people saved by Schindler, including some who were known to members of the group.

Not far from Schindler’s Factory was the Wall of the Ghetto. It was chilling to see the section of the wall that survives. It looks like a series of tombstones. The last stop of the day was at the Square of the Ghetto Martyrs, which was inside the ghetto. On one corner was the pharmacy where a  righteous Pole Tadeusz Pankiewicz provided medications and a place of safety for the ghetto inhabitants.

At the end of the day, Rabbi Burnstein reminded that we are commanded many times  in Torah to remember. He also suggested that we reflect on kedoshim (holiness). He said that it is impossible to know how we might behave when faced by the extreme conditions that the Jews of Krakow suffered. However he said that what we can do is to perform small acts of kindness towards our other people. In this way we are also fulfilling another important mitzvah, which is to choose life.

25 April 2014 (Auschwitz/Birkenau)

Carolyn Davey

Our second day was one of reflection when we went to the first visit to a concentration camp.

We left at 8.00am for the hour journey from Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

We stopped at the memorial outside and held a simple ANZAC Day ceremony that Sandy Hollis prepared, ending with the last post.

We began the tour of Auschwitz and went through the rooms in self-imposed silence. The mood of the group was one of horror at the reality of the autrocities committed by the Nazis during this period.

Some of us walked to Birkenau, stopping and reflecting on what we had seen.

We stopped at the train stop for the Junger run and looked into the distance at the menacing tower of Birkenau.

Walking through the entrance sent a chill through me as I looked at the reality of the extent and huge size of the camp. It was cold and overcast, which reflected the way we all felt.

We spent four hours wandering the camp, seeing the way the camp was organised and feeling for all the inhabitants.

We lit the candles that ARZA had given us and said yahrzeit with our hearts and were pleased to leave the oppressive environment.

This evening we will renew ourselves at a shared Shabbat service with the local community.

26 April 2014 (Shabbat in Krakow)
Brenda Kahan

What an amazing experience this has been. Yesterday was spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A most somber experience, partly because for the first time, I could actually see the scale of the whole operation. We walk from 10am until 4pm, and still couldn't cover the whole area. In Birkenau alone, there were 90,000 inhabitants and the vast majority of people arriving at the camp never became prisoners because they were sent immediately to the gas chambers.

From the sadness of that day, we went straight into a Shabbat service held at a restaurant belonging to a Polish Reform Jew joined by five members of the reform community. Led by the guitar-toting Rabbi Burnstein, who is accompanying us - a young American based in Israel with a great personality - the whole thing was very casual, ending with dinner and a singalong of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen music. 

This morning, we went to the Tempel Synagogue, which is not a working shul but is kept open for tourists. We were the only ones there so started an abbreviated service and gradually were joined by more and more people wandering in and joining in. I felt very emotional about being with Jews from every part of the world and being able to share Shabbat. There is a saying: "More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews" and this was never more evident than this morning!

27 April 2014 (Lancut/Belzec/Lublin)
Golda Lieberman

After an early start we left Rzezow to travel to Lublin.

Our first stop was at Lancut Memorial Synagogue, where we saw the remains of an old synagogue guarded by a remarkable man who talked to us in self-taught Hebrew about the community that used to live there and the artifacts which have been collected for the place. The synagogue had been burnt but has been restored as a monument to its former congregation. 

We then travelled to Belzac extermination camp memorial, which was one of the traumatic sights to greet us. Over 500,000 people were exterminated at this camp in a very few months. The were no names recorded at this camp, so as tribute common first names have been inscribed at the memorial. Very few records were found, but an ex-railway worker painted the scene of the camp, giving some insight into the camp layout. We travelled to Lublin where we met representatives from the very small community and we shared cups of tea and looked at the religious objects saved. It was so refreshing to see and experience the sense of renewal in a city which had be devastated of its community by 95% . Dinner tonight was at a Jewish restaurant, where we shared the most wonderful dinner in the old city.

28 April 2014 (Yom Hashoah)
Dennis Levy

We left our hotel in Lublin and proceeded to a cemetery dating back to the 15th century. It is a little neglected but contains the graves of many sages.

From there, we proceeded to the Yeshiva established in the 1930s by Rabbi Meir Shapiro with monies raised in the USA and Europe - a magnificent building which now has been converted to a hotel.

Unfortunately this Rabbi passed away at the age of 42 in 1936, and over 30,000 people attended his funeral, including Polish dignitaries and army personnel. The Rabbis had to give dispensation to allow the funeral to take place a few days after his death to allow time for those wishing to attend.

Our next stop was Majdanek, which is on the edge of Lublin. It is the sheer size of this place and the way the camp was set up which really hits home. We walked for over an hour inspecting the barracks which was very depressing.

At the end of the walk, we arrived at a circular memorial which contained the ashes of some of the murdered. A group of Israeli children from settlements adjacent to Gaza joined us for a short Yom Hashoah service which was uplifting and emotional.

After this we drove to Kaziermez Dolny for afternoon tea. This is a village on a river and a place where Jewish life was active before the war.

After a two-hour bus trip we arrived at our hotel in Warsaw.   

29 April (Genscha, Umschlagplatz)

Today we finished the Poland leg of our tour in Warsaw.

Before the war Warsaw had the largest Jewish population of any European city.

We visited the Genscha Cemetery.  Dating back to 1799, it is Warsaw’s largest Jewish cemetery with over 200,000 graves.  It also includes mass graves for thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.

At the entrance of the cemetery is a listing of notable people who had been buried in  this cemetery.  The name “Sonnenberg” appeared on this list  - which was of particular interest to Norman and David – participants on our tour.  We located the gravesite and found there a most impressive monument.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established in Oct. 1940 – over 400,000 Jews were held within its boundaries.  We were taken to two remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto wall  which have been preserved as monuments.

In addition we were taken to Umschlagplatz – a square from where over 254,00 Ghetto residents were sent to Treblinka over the course of two months in the summer of 1942.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started on 19th.April 1943.

We walked to the site of the final battle against the Germans – with the Ghetto being finally liquidated on 16May 1943.

We also toured the Nozyk Synagogue – the only pre-war synagogue  in Warsaw which still stands.  The synagogue was completed in 1902 – and is a most elegant structure.

1 May
Norm Sonnenberg

An early rise yet again. 0500.

Met as group on foyer for 20-minute walk to meeting point for Women of the Wall. It is Rosh Hodesh and they are allowed to pray together, wear tallit and hold a full morning service.

After getting through security we approached the Kotel, and you could hear a rising noise of various groups doing the morning prayers.

Also was a very noisy group of chaps just next to the collection of the Women of the Wall. A mixed Orthodox and reform ladies. Our ladies joined them and the 3 boys wandered off to see the other side of the divide. Males supporting the WotW stood above and behind them to add volume.  

I wandered down the Wall and into an arch where various men were doing their prayers. Very mixed ways of davening.

Lots of swallows flying around and returning to nests inside the wall.

Was accosted by three beggars during my wander.

Went back to behind WotW and their service until 0830.

Off up “slight” incline and found a place for bagel etc.

Taxi to the Supreme Court and met a very vibrant lawyer who had petitioned on behalf of IRAC for equality for both women and non-Orthodox groups.

Tour of court and then taxi to Beit Smuel where Steve works.

We enjoyed a talk by a young lady who was finishing her rabbinical studies and was assisting Anat Hoffman. She is the driving force of WOW and was amazing.

It was only 1200 and we wandered up yet another slight incline to a burger place that was well received. Steve did well.

Paul Liptz, who had been with us since the court tour, took over and we walked to  Meir Shearim, the most Orthodox area of Jerusalem. As we walked, he gave sociological and political insight into the Orthodox community (poverty and lack of secular education offered to the children etc).

By 1500 were done; then walked back to hotel via Ben Yehudah St; enjoyed drinks in Brenda’s room before dinner.

I'm doing blog, as still not 100%. 

2 May

A later start today took us to Yad Vashem. We met Paul Liptz, who explained a little about Yad Vashem and then sent us on our self-guided tour.  Our group concentrated on different areas, having had much material presented to us on our time in Poland. The museum presented information in a very powerful way and our two hours there just touched the surface of what we could see.

We took lunch in the café there and it was nice to just sit and chat and relax after a rather confronting morning.

We walked to the Har Herzl museum area, but it closed early for Shabbat so we took taxis to the Jewish market where people were buying for their Shabbat dinner. The fish looked great, the meat looked great (such big steaks), the fruit looked great and the spices smelled wonderful.

The group walked to Beit Shmuel, where we joined Rabbi Steve Burnstein and his family for Kabbalat Shabbat. We heard the siren for the start of Shabbat, followed some time later by the mezzuzin call and the church bells as the evening began.

We enjoyed a wonderful service and shared a wonderful dinner on our Shabbat together in Jerusalem.

3 May (Shabbat)

Three from our group went to local reform congregation after breakfast; the other five went to the Great Central synagogue  a few doors up the road. Typical Orthodox congregation, but huge auditorium and many non-Jewish visitors during our time there.  Then went to local Conservative service just across the road from the hotel, where we enjoyed a nice service, finishing at 10.50am.  After that, the adventurous five went off to the Arab Market, where we found lots of stuff to buy. Sue bought special kippot for our 2 nine-year-old grandsons.  Lunch was good and eventually back to hotel by 1400.

At 4pm, we enjoyed a walking tour with Paul that focused on local cultural changes in housing styles, with the original occupants, such as the elite German Jews, changing to overflow of ultra-Orthodox communities.

He spoke virtually non-stop for 2 hours and despite the heat was again fascinating, explaining changes and a little of the politics.

We then went back to Beit Shmuel to meet Steve and Gilad Kariv who gave a drash and then spoke about the work of the local Reform movement and its place in politics, as well as the development of Jewish identity and involvement of local young people and the Diaspora's  support of their progress..

Havdalah and then off of to dinner.

4 May (Yom Hazikaron)
David Sonenberg

We started the day at a ceremony at the Machal Memorial.  Batsheva – the wife of an Exodus hero and herself the guardian of countless children in Marseilles immediately after the war - told of her experiences.  This vibrant 89 year old experienced life on one of the early kibbutzim and early years of the State.   The moving ceremony included testimony of some of the Machal fighters – people who volunteered from all over the world to fight in the War of Independence in 1948.  We then paid a visit to the Burma Road lookout to see firsthand the terrain and the territory that they had to traverse in that war, trying to fee Jerusalem from siege.

Lunch was at Abu Ghosh.   The restaurant – Abu El Abed - offers great food (will deliver to Sydney and Melbourne).  The Mayor of the village (8000 inhabitants) greeted us and spoke to us about peace and being Israeli Arabs.  The original inhabitants of the village in Israel came from Chechnya.  The families grew and now the villagers are made up of five inter-related families of the original inhabitants.   The son of the restaurant owner, Fahdi, spoke to us about his youth and his hopes for the future.   Fahdi first attended Neve Shalom, an integrated Arab / Jewish / Christian school and later a Jewish school in Jerusalem.  He attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now works as a stockbroker in Tel Aviv.  The villagers of Abu Ghosh consider themselves Israeli Arabs and are loyal to the State of Israel, although concerned about some of the choices that are being made in Israel today.

We also had a quick visit to the Benedictine Monastery in Abu Ghosh.   Dating back to  the 12th Century, it is a beautiful and tranquil place.

In the evening we went to Modi’in.   Founded in 1995, the city is a model city with beautiful parks.  The second largest Reform community in Israel, Yozma,  is to be found here.  .There are 1000 families associated with the community  and it encompasses Kindergartens, a school, Bnei Mitzvah programs, volunteering, outreach etc.  We took part in a Havdalah ceremony that marked the end of Yom Hazikaron and the beginning of Yom Haatzmaut.  We were addressed by a pilot from Operation Solomon and enjoyed music and singing from the children of the school.

The day ended with dinner in Ben Yehuda together with thousands of excited children, partying adults and loud music.  

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