The scope of a journey made by 14 Princeton University students over spring break was expansive indeed. On a trip sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute — funded by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and tasked with promoting Polish culture around the world — the students set out to explore Jewish life in Poland today and over the last 1,000 years.
The trip was planned in cooperation with the staff of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel (CJL).
CJL associate director Marni Blitz, who served as educator on the trip, tried to ready the students before departure for the possible emotional impacts of the visit to Poland, but, sophomore Mikaela Gerwin of New York City told NJJN, “as much as you can prepare yourself for it, you don’t realize what it is like being there until you’re there.”
Nathaniel Moses, a sophomore from Chicago, said, “In a certain sense I went to learn about history for a week, but somehow it felt personal and intense. I could imagine my ancestors living in these towns and cities.”
The trip juxtaposed the small Jewish renaissance evident at JCCs in Warsaw and Cracow and at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, with visits to the Warsaw Ghetto site, the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, and finally Auschwitz.
Speaking about the 2015 Hillel mission to Poland that spawned this trip, Blitz told NJJN, “I came in with the belief that Poland was a graveyard, and Jewish people do not live there; this was place where Jewish people died.” But her experience at the POLIN museum altered her perspective. She was grateful, she said, “to be in this place that celebrates 1,000 years of Jewish life,” not just as the place where so many died tragically. The trip let the students see that “this was their lives, this was my family’s story, this was my family, in the larger Jewish sense, and my actual family.”
For Matthew Silberman, a senior in philosophy from the Chicago area whose Polish grandparents were all saved during the Shoa by righteous gentiles, the trip, and especially the museum visit, made him realize the importance of acknowledging that Poland was a home to Jews for centuries. “To treat it as a place where we died and only visit the concentration camps is to overlook the rich history that we had and the new community they are trying to build,” he said.
The visits to Poland’s JCCs gave the students a glimpse of the new Jewish community they are nurturing. The centers, Silberman said, are popular among young adults from families who fled Poland because of persecution under the communists or were forced to hide their religion.
Of the young people frequenting the JCCs, Moses said, “Their parents didn’t tell them they were Jewish at all, or hid most of their Jewish identity from them.”
Blitz shared a typical “discovery” story, about a young man who, as it happens, will enroll in Princeton this fall. A survivor spoke to his school class, and when he went home and told his mother and grandmother about it, they said, “You’re Jewish.”
But, Silberman said, “there are not that many around who are Jewish, know they are Jewish, and are proud to talk about it. For those who know and want to learn more, the JCC is there.”
The students met the woman who runs the Warsaw JCC, who knew from childhood that she was Jewish, has lived in Israel, and has command of Jewish texts and traditions. Speaking of her goals, Moses said, “She thinks if she can continue to create this vibrant thing happening in the JCC, Jews will come out of the woodwork like crazy.”
At the Cracow JCC, many of the volunteers are not Jewish, yet they still exhibit a deep interest in Jews and Judaism. Silberman explained, “People think to themselves, ‘Wow, these huge communities used to exist here; in some of our villages, Jews used to be 60 percent of the population.’ So they think, ‘Who were these people?’”
The students clearly felt the weight of the Holocaust during their time in Poland.
“I don’t think the human brain can appreciate at one moment the gravity of six million dead Jews,” Moses said. Regarding visiting Auschwitz, he said, “Mountains of hair, mountains of shoes, china, and tallitot — it was the most emotionally intense moment of the whole trip. There is something about seeing a shoe, and you can picture a person.”
For Gerwin, being in Auschwitz felt like an out-of-body experience. “It was one of those times when you very much withdraw into yourself and can’t necessarily put into words what you are feeling and thinking.”
Blitz said the day at Auschwitz was “one of the most challenging days I’ve ever had.” Visiting as an educator with a group of students was very different from her 2015 experience. “The first time I was dealing only with my own grief, confusion, and sorrow,” she said, “and this time I was dealing with 14 times that.”
The students also visited the site of the ghetto and the large Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. Gerwin said it was difficult being in a place where she felt “such a strong presence of death and evil.” She found it hard to reconcile everyday life in contemporary Poland with what happened to the Jews. “How are people just walking about there? It still feels hurtful in that way.”
Gerwin, a product of Jewish day schools and camps, said she views her generation as being “more subdued in how much the Holocaust goes into shaping American-Jewish identity.” During the trip, she said, “I started thinking about what it meant for Jews being in Poland for a thousand years, what was this wealth of Jewish culture going on before the Holocaust and how it was lost.”
Although the Poles the Americans met were welcoming, the students realized they were shaping a particular story about the Polish experience during the Holocaust. At a meeting with the sponsoring institute, the students found a stack of books about the Righteous Among the Nations, Polish Christians who rescued Jews. The introduction, Silberman said, suggested that “many Poles did their best to save Jewish lives, and therefore Jews are forever indebted to Poland.” Silberman found this problematic. “The reason that what the Righteous Among the Nations did was so incredible was because so few other people did it.”