MY TJJ AP JOURNEY
THE CRESCENDO OF A SONG
Bu Adam Palucis
July 26, 2019
Adam Palucis traveled to poland and Israel this summer on NCSY’s TJJ AP (the jerusalem journey ambassadors poland), led by marc fein, NCSY program director TJJ AP. the trip takes teens to poland for 7 days, which is followed by three weeks in israel.
The following are adam’s thoughts and reflections.
I like to relate my transformation this summer to the crescendo of a song. An internal process that continuously grew over the course of the month, where now I am at my loudest, hungry to learn more. Going into the trip, I had set absolutely zero expectations for myself; I did not plan on changing my mindset on Judaism, life, or self-awareness. All I expected was a powerful experience in Poland which would help me better understand the minute details of the Holocaust, followed by a few weeks of fun and bonding in Israel. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Looking back now, I see how irrational that mindset was. How can someone sit in the dark barracks of Majdanek, envisioning the hundreds of skeleton-like prisoners who were crammed into the narrow beds, many of whom will not wake up the next day, and not feel an obligation towards aiding the Jewish people? How can any kid like myself witness the horror of the children’s grave, to stand there and feel as if we ourselves were being killed over and over again, while we hear about little boys and girls who were shot because they did not run fast enough to the woods, and not desire to ensure the safety of the Jewish people? How can any Jewish person, religious or not, enter the beautiful synagogue in Tykocin, witness the power in singing as a unified force, and not have passion towards protecting Jewish values and traditions that had been lost in the once Jewish town?
To be honest, if I could go back and say anything to my old self before this trip about what I would encounter and how it would change my life, I wouldn’t. It was a journey for me, from day one where I arrived in Teaneck, N.J. eager to meet all the members of my new family. I did the usual dance, asking people where they were from, their names, and so on, but I couldn’t wait for the trip to actually pick up because I knew that was when the real bonding would start. I remember the first Shabbat, the singing and dancing, the fun and the food, the unfamiliar faces, and that was where it all started, in a little corner of the world. That was where the song began to play faintly in my heart.
My first raw experience in learning about the Holocaust was the mass grave in Tykocin, where we got off the bus at a seemingly random location in the woods, so random that it hit me. I precisely recall the dirt crunching beneath me as I dragged my feet along towards the destination; they seemed unwilling to cooperate with me. It was as if there were two separate entities tugging for control of my body. My eyes sought the truth of what transpired in the woods, while my body wanted to turn back and spare the loss of innocence that was about to occur. I was afraid of my reaction because I didn’t know how I would react, would I cry? Feel angry? Or worse, even nothing at all.
As we all approached the fencing of the memorial, my stomach started to knot up, and it only got tighter the more that we learned about the heinous acts that happened in these seemingly peaceful woods. When we got back on the bus, I remember feeling so numb and unsure of what to do. Was I just supposed to put my headphones back in and continue listening to music, or engage in conversations that had nothing to do with what we just learned? I had a lot of trouble making a decision, so I did neither. Instead, I talked to an advisor and what I got from that conversation was a drive to ask more, a thirst for knowledge, but also for understanding.
There was a sudden internal change that I took note of, a newfound sense of curiosity about life and Judaism, and I vowed to expand upon that throughout the summer. That was where it all started, and the volume of the music in my heart began to pick up ever so slightly.
The most memorable experience of the entire summer came the following day in Majdanek. Something that really struck me in the beginning of our tour was how there was a dirt path from the camp, which led to people’s houses, probably only 50 feet away. As I would soon come to understand, anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland, and despite all the atrocities committed against Jews, people were still biased towards us, which is proven by the fact that in their backyards laid a cemetery for hundreds of thousands of Jewish people.
Again, another mental note was taken on how prudent it is for us Jews to stick together, because in reality we are alone. Our tour guide shared with us the heart-wrenching stories of people who lived in the camp: a woman who said that the best place to work was in between the electric fence because that was the only place in the entire camp where she could decide her own fate, or a man who scraped his arm on his bed for hours to draw blood in order to quench the thirst of his dying friend.
As we heard these stories- no, the realities- of prisoners who lived in the camp, I kept thinking to myself, how could this happen? How could the Nazis behave in such an inhumane way on a daily basis to the point where it was normal to shoot or torture a few prisoners a day? I began to feel disgusted, and to be honest, I kept blaming the Jewish people for being so vulnerable as to be put in this situation.
How fitting that the most memorable moment of the summer came at a time when I felt the lowest. Our group entered a barrack where prisoners lived in, and my chaburah (group) had to give a ceremony where we both individualized and personalized the large number of 6 million deaths in the Holocaust. I will never forget the following moments. Some shared personal stories, while I shared a diary entry of Eva, a 13 year old girl from Hungary.
In her final entry, she pleaded to be saved from the Germans, but ultimately, met her end in Auschwitz. After we presented, we asked the group to sing with us, and I will recount a part of my journal to share that experience:
“Tani began to sing and we joined together as one, and I have never felt so unified with any force in my life before. The volume of the voices, the pain and sorrow of the song, the people around me, I was so overwhelmed with feelings. We started low and slow, and the feelings began to creep in. I looked into Tani’s eyes which were closed, and I saw how passionate he was. The music got louder. We sang harder. People leaned on each other. I felt my grip tighten on the people around me. Louder and louder, faster and faster, the tears came running down my face until they met their end on the floor of the barracks, the same floor where the tears of my people before me also landed.
My pain merged with the pain of my ancestors, through everything that happened… in not only that barrack, not only in this field, or even Majdanek in general, but the entire holocaust. That merging was the first time I felt like I better understood what had happened to my people. How they sang on the way to their deaths just as we sang to embrace them. I looked into the faces of the people in my new family and I saw that they were experiencing the same thing, and the best part is that we were there for each other. Not once did I feel alone. In fact, I smiled more than anything. I rejoiced at how passionate Tani was, how passionate we all were, how we were able to be in this God-forsaken place and sing to remember the pain and loss. The Germans, despite all their efforts to get rid of us, would be furious that we were able to do what we did today. And in response to that, I keep on smiling.”
From this experience and all of the other memorable parts of Poland, whether it was concentration camps, antique synagogues, singing on the bus, scrambling to wake up early after only a few hours of sleep, I developed a sense of pride for my Judaism. How, despite the death and horror around us, my family grew closer. I had amazing conversations, moments of endless laughter, and genuine bonding time with everyone around me, and that was when I realized that I wanted to be a part of this community back at home. Not just a regular community, but a Jewish one. Where, if I decided to go to synagogue for Shabbat or have a few people over, I would still have those same laughs and conversations that I once did in Poland.
And that got me thinking. What could I do in order to ensure that connection back at home? The song playing inside of me thrummed at its crescendo.
And then came Israel. The two and a half weeks that we spent in our home played a crucial part in helping me scrape the surface of my Jewish identity, but also gave me the time to develop a plan for life at home after this trip. Having my Bar Mitzvah in Israel was such an honor and it truly helped captivate the importance of maintaining those Jewish traditions that had been dangerous to keep during the years of the holocaust. Along with that, I had even more time to build upon the friendships that I forged in Poland, and I made so many memories that are impossible to forget. Everyone was always so supportive and eager to help, and I felt so empowered. I was encouraged to start learning weekly with my JSU (Jewish Student Union) Rabbi, which I am super excited for, and I also plan on becoming more in touch with my Jewish community back at home.
Although the trip is over, and I’m here sitting in my bed wishing that it never ended, I am excited for the future. Excited for how I can make an impact on others, just as how this journey impacted me. I see the hardships that the Jewish people had to encounter, yet I also notice their perseverance and success in their determination. How they never lost hope and continued to practice their traditions until the very end. That taught me something. To be proud of who I am. To reach out to my community. To get more involved.
And believe me when I say this, I will. Because I know that in the hardest of times, when I am least motivated, I have people there to remind me of the importance of what I am trying to do. But let me leave you with a question. After reading this and seeing what I plan on doing, take a moment and ask yourself, “What am I going to do?”
To find out more about TJJ AP in Canada, please contact Hagit at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about NCSY Summer, please click here.