I was a killing field they were strolling through. And the black earth itself seemed unable to contain what was done there.
Jennifer Bajorek, 23, a Rutgers University engineering major from East Brunswick, was walking in an open field at the Chelmno extermination camp in central Poland, where the Nazis had dumped bodies in a mass grave assisted by a machine called a “bone crusher.” Pieces of bone make their way to the surface every winter.
“We picked up little pieces of bone and had a ceremony to bury them,” she said.
It was the most “surprising and sad” experience of a weeklong trip over winter break last month.
Jennifer with her sister Danielle, also a Rutgers student, participated in a Poland trip led by MEOR, an Israeli-based outreach organization dedicated to inspiring, educating, and empowering Jewish students.
During a trip designed to connect students to their Jewish heritage by exploring the vibrant Jewish life that existed in Poland before the Shoah and memorializing its victims, area college students experienced both a sense of loss and a new appreciation for their own lives.
“It definitely gave me a closer connection to Judaism,” said Jennifer. “They showed us a list of names on a memorial plaque in Warsaw and told us if we had been born two generations earlier it could have been us on that wall.” Jennifer and Danielle are the children of Anthony and Randi Bajorek.
This year 133 students from 17 campuses — 33 of them from New Jersey and 21 of them Rutgers students — spent a week in Poland during winter semester break. The group toured the Krakow, Lodz, and Warsaw ghettos, had round-robin Torah classes, and learned about Poland’s great yeshivot that produced renowned Torah scholars. The tour was led by professional guides, Jewish educators, and a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor from England.
The trip wasn’t entirely gloomy. “It was very strange, but there was a lot of singing and dancing,” said Melissa Schapiro of Montclair, a political communications major in her junior year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Really, one of the most poignant moments of the trip was walking out of Birkenau arm in arm singing in Hebrew.”
Although her grandmother is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who has spoken at area schools and at her synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, she said the trip gave her a much broader view of the Holocaust. It also left Schapiro, the daughter of Debbie and Ken Schapiro, with a better understanding of the importance of speaking up for others.
“It is our responsibility as Jews not to look away when atrocities occur in Syria and other parts of the world,” she said. “We have a call of action as Jews not to sit, but to take a stand and not watch as so many non-Jews in Europe did during the Holocaust.”
MEOR Poland trips coordinator Yael Seruya pointed out this generation will be the last to know Holocaust survivors.
“If they do not fully understand what happened and why it happened, which can only truly be done by visiting the actual sites in Poland, then the future generations will be totally disconnected from one of the most important lessons in Jewish history,” she told NJJN in an e-mail from Israel.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg, Rutgers MEOR director and co-director of Rutgers Jewish Xperience, has staffed three of the four Poland trips taken by the university’s students. The excursions give them “a sense of peoplehood,” and what “drove Jews to be Jews even under the most trying circumstances,” he said.
One of the memorable moments included huddling in a cattle car in Lodz while the Holocaust survivor accompanying the group described what it had been like to be transported.
“It was very cold, like 10 degrees outside, and it was very moving,” said Goldberg, adding that a visit to a mass children’s grave in Tarnow also proved powerful.
Afterward, students were asked to write a last letter to a loved one they would never see again. Daniel Konovalov, 21, a Rutgers chemical engineering major from Princeton, whose parents, Oleg and Elena, are natives of Belarus, said the experience prompted him to reflect on his mother who “cooked and cleaned for me, even though I was kind of a brat and she never asked anything from me even when I metaphorically spat in her face.”
“It gave me a great appreciation for her,” he said. “It taught me never to take anything for granted and to make sure you let the people around you know how much you love them.”
Meanwhile, the brutal cold combined with the horror of seeing gas chambers and stark barracks gave Konovalov a new perspective on his own life.
“You always hear about how terrible conditions were, but when you’re there and learn they were rationed to just 180 calories a day and you’re walking through places like Majdanek wearing a warm coat while they had nothing to protect them, you realize how blessed you are,” he said.
Sky Siegel of Millstone, 21, a senior neuroscience major at Temple University in Philadelphia, recalled the group’s final night together in Krakow celebrating Shabbat. After an emotionally grueling week, everyone in the group assembled wearing nice clothes rather than the heavy winter clothes they had worn all week.
“When people came down and I said, ‘Good Shabbos,’ I never meant it more in my life. It was the best Shabbos I’ve ever had,” she said. “After this horrible week, we were now able to celebrate the Shabbos in memorial to all those who were murdered and it was so uplifting in a strange way.”
Siegel, the daughter of Darris and Norman Siegel, said she went on the trip without expectations, but afterward “my life was changed.”
“We sang ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ in the darkest of places, in the gas chambers with scratches on the wall where people died on that very spot,” she said. “We would be holding hands and singing for all the people who couldn’t.”