Last summer I went on a trip that changed how I view the world. I traveled with NFTY (an international Jewish youth organization) with a hundred other teens to Europe and Israel for five weeks. The trip was designed for Jewish teens to see the past of our ancestors in Europe and the future of our people in Israel. I was fortunate to be grouped with many of my childhood friends.
We spent the first week of our journey in Poland, which was undoubtedly the hardest part. It was only a few days, but they were filled with our slow realization and horror of what happened to the victims of the Nazis who walked through those gates. We’d all studied the Holocaust on many occasions, but walking through the sites in which the atrocities had occurred was completely different. The same thought kept running through my mind: these are the same steps my ancestors, and many others, took to their deaths. I remember the solemn look on my friends’ once cheery faces as we walked silently down the train tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the end of road there were two unforgettable sights: to our right was the massive church that the Nazis prayed in before and after “work”, and to our left were the remains of the gas chambers that had taken countless lives.
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One by one, the friends I have had my entire life began to break down in their own way; most were crying, but all were silent. This silence spread over us as we toured through Auschwitz-Birkenau; through the housing units, through the examination rooms, and through the standing cells. From the exhibit displaying human hair that was taken from those admitted to the camps as part of the dehumanization process, to seeing the claw marks covering the walls of the gas chambers: the things we saw will forever be images burned in my mind of what happened to innocent people there.
After the first excruciating week, it was time to make our journey to Israel. Almost immediately after we landed, we set out to camp in the Negev Desert for four days. This was the highlight of my trip. Hiking for hours on end and then concluding each day under the biggest, most star studded sky was incredible, until we had to sleep through a sandstorm and we all woke up with dreads afterwards. We were invited to stay in a Bedouin tent for one night after learning about their culture. They then took us on camel rides, taught us about their customs, and fed us their traditional meal.
Another memorable activity on this life changing trip was joining the Israeli Defense Force. From the second we stepped onto the stationed grounds, we were Israeli soldiers. Every Israeli citizen must join the army at the age of 18, a very different custom than our voluntary service in America. Commanders our age began screaming instructions at us in Hebrew (though we weren’t fluent) and the hardcore discipline began. We wore official uniforms, marched everywhere, and went through training as any other Israeli soldier would. At the end of our training, we were allowed to shoot an M-16, the standard gun in their army. Although it was a brutal few days, it taught us a lot, including the values of the Israeli army.
Every part of the trip gave us more perspective on life and the world. Everything had a lesson: seeing the atrocities in Auschwitz-Birkenau, camping in the desert, joining the Israeli Army, they all represented something. Appreciate your freedoms, experience your environment, and respect others’ customs.
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