By Rachel Metalin
Eleven Upper Canada College students ranging from Grades 10 to 12, my father, colleague Anne Kaye and myself embarked on an incredible journey on March 10.
For the subsequent nine days, our group toured across Poland and the Czech Republic on a Holocaust education study tour. We learned about some of the darkest moments in history as well as some of the most incredible acts of courage and humanity in the face of evil.
In Warsaw, we learned about the Nazi’s largest ghetto and some of the most inhuman conditions the inhabitants were forced to endure. We also visited the site of Mila 18, the stronghold of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and a testament to courage against unspeakable oppression.
In Tykocin, we toured a quaint pre-war village called Shtetl and walked the path of former inhabitants who were led to the nearby Lopuchowa Forest and murdered. Three mass graves remain today. We saw Operation Reinhard at its most terrifying at the Treblinka extermination camp.
Before leaving the Warsaw area, we had the opportunity to visit the charms of the Old Warsaw town square and eat at a traditional Polish restaurant.
Our group visited the sobering Majdanek concentration camp, which is unique for its proximity to a major city and because it remains one of the only extermination camps that the Nazis didn’t have time to destroy. We not only witnessed the relics of cruelty, but conducted a special ceremony in which each member of the group dedicated his participation in the trip to a specific victim or survivor of the Holocaust. It was a terrifically moving experience for us all.
We visited Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, toured the city square, ate more great Polish food, visited Oskar Schindler’s iconic factory and had the unique experience of hearing the story of Polina, a 90-year-old Righteous Among the Nations non-Jew who risked her life during the war to hide, shelter and feed Jews. Her dedication to her fellow man was truly inspiring and serves a model to which we should all strive.
We spent an entire day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious complex of Nazi extermination camps, where approximately 1.5 million people (mostly Jews from all over Europe) were murdered. The day was educational, horrifying and sobering, and really brought us together as a group. My highlight of the trip took place in Birkenau, where, in front of a gas chamber/crematoria, students gathered around my father and I who said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead). It was a moment to honour the many nameless, faceless victims of a senseless atrocity.
Travelling west to the Czech Republic, we visited Terezin, known as a “model” ghetto that served as a transit camp for many destined for the extermination camps in the east. We also had two days to enjoy Prague, and the magnificence and splendour of the city certainly helped to lighten the mood of a heavy trip. It was incredible to walk along the Charles Bridge and see Europe’s oldest synagogue.
Planning and leading this trip alongside Anne Kaye was truly an honour for me. I had been to many of these sites before, but guiding these young men as they served to bear witness to history was a privilege as an educator and a human being. Our trip not only brought together a group of unlikely people — from all backgrounds and faiths — in an experience we’ll never forget. But it also enabled a younger generation to serve as a voice to stand against intolerance, which makes both myself and the broader UCC community incredibly proud.
Here are photos from the trip: