Before Chantelle Westlock of Hillside went to Eastern Europe in March what little she knew about the Holocaust came from fictional films like Inglourious Basterds.
It was a trip to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland that brought the full horror of the Holocaust into focus for her.
“The first crematorium we saw was at Majdanek,” said Westlock, a junior at Newark Academy. “Outside there was a big memorial full of real ashes from people who had died. We went inside, and I couldn’t take it, thinking about the people being put into ovens.
“I just don’t, and I never will, understand why this happened or how people could do that to other people.”
Westlock, who is not Jewish, visited Holocaust sites in Poland and Prague during a March break trip organized by Sam Goldfischer of West Orange, Newark Academy’s business and finance director, and Amy Schottland, a member of the humanities faculty.
Twelve students, in grades 10-12, departed March 3 and returned March 19. They visited old synagogues, the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, Oskar Schindler’s factory, forests where Jews were murdered, and concentration camps and death camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Theresienstadt.
“The trip was designed to inform and educate young adults about the causes and effects of the Holocaust,” said Stacey Kaplan-Layton, communications associate at the school. “Students were able to experience firsthand the devastating legacy of the Holocaust with the goal that it would help these leaders of the next generation be better equipped to combat prejudice and bias wherever they find it.”
It was a fully immersive experience at a private school where, unlike New Jersey’s public schools, Holocaust studies are not a required part of the curriculum. And because the trip included Jews and non-Jews, it was an opportunity for a reporter from a Jewish newspaper to meet with the students on April 6 and discuss how the Shoa is being taught and absorbed outside of Jewish auspices.
“This trip was uniquely relevant if you’re Jewish — but if you’re Christian or Muslin, you realize it’s relevant to everyone,” said junior Alex Seratelli, a Roman Catholic from Westfield. “I’m interested in history, and as a historian, I thought it was important for me to go.”
“This is not Jewish history,” Kendal Fawcett, a junior, added. “It’s world history. It’s important no matter who you are to learn about it.”
The Scotch Plains resident said their group met a group of Israeli kids, who were “shocked that non-Jewish kids were seeing the camps. But they respected us and appreciated us,” she said.
Some of the Jewish students acknowledged that they were initially hesitant to go. “I didn’t feel it would be best to go with school on this sort of trip,” sophomore Nate Feinberg of Short Hills remembered. “I thought it would be better go with family.”
In the end, however, Nate said he appreciated going with peers. “Spending time with kids my age and being able to talk with them was a good experience,” he said.
Others found they learned more than they had expected. Livingston resident Steven Wilf’s grandparents survived the Holocaust.
“I knew their stories and their friends’ stories and knew all the statistics,” the sophomore said. “I thought before the trip I wasn’t going to learn much. I was extremely wrong. Seeing the camps, I was sad, but it was just eerie. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, walking along the railway — it was a mile long — and I looked to the left, and I looked to the right. It was so big. Only 10 percent of people sent there were sent to work. It was horrible. I just kept thinking how many people there were murdered right away.”
‘We’re all human’
Several of the students said they were disturbed by an attitude among Poles that emerged through several interactions, suggesting that little has changed over the intervening decades.
“I thought a lot of aspects of Poland were appalling,” said Jacob Zack, a senior from New Providence. He described the memorial just outside Birkenau featuring an actual train car.
“People had built newly furnished houses right there, within 100 feet of the train car. I couldn’t imagine seeing that train car out of one window [of my house] and the concentration camp out another,” he said. “I have a lot of concern about the modern world having not learned this important lesson.”
Daniel recalled an incident in Lublin.
“We asked the tour guide if he was Jewish, and he said, ‘No. I’m Polish,’ as if being Jewish was another nationality. Before World War II there were something like three million Jews and it was as if Polish people did not consider them Polish.”
He added: “To think that still, 70 years after the fact — they still have the same thoughts people had before World War II.”
Some students had a difficult time relating to the experiences of their peers during the war. “I felt I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be a child at an internment camp,” said junior Ian Ravin of Verona. “I can’t relate any emotion I’ve ever felt to how bad it must have been to have been in the camp.”
But at a museum of children’s drawings outside Theresienstadt, Annie Tvetenstrand, a junior from Summit, said, she suddenly gained some insight.
“Many of the drawings list the artist who had done it, and on more than half, it said they went off to Auschwitz and died,” she said. “They looked like something I could have seen on the wall in my own elementary school.”
The experience has had a profound impact on several of the students. “One of the biggest problems was apathy toward the Holocaust, and people just ignoring it and letting it go by,” Calli Snook of Bernardsville, a senior, said. “We have the power to stand up, and one person can help make a difference. Even now, there is always the ‘other’ person. There is always someone being persecuted for something they can’t control, whether it’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. This experience strengthened my feelings about not letting things go. If you see things, you need to verbalize.”
Annie, in a written reflection, responded to the Israeli teens who were so surprised that non-Jewish kids were visiting Holocaust sites.
“Why shouldn’t I be here,” she wrote. “Why should only Jewish people be learning about the Holocaust?” The answer, she wrote, is that “Because we’re all human, and we all need to stand up for each other.”
And according to Goldfischer, the trip had an impact on the entire student body.
“Before we left, people were saying, ‘Have a good time.’ We knew we wouldn’t be enjoying ourselves. But after a school presentation [where participants offered some descriptions and reflections on the trip], they said, ‘It must have been a meaningful trip. So their viewpoints really flipped.”