Leading a trip to Poland during my JDC fellowship was like coming full circle. My trip to Poland the summer before 12th grade was the launching point for many things I’ve done since—for spending a gap year in Israel, taking Jewish courses in college, for choosing to spend a year working for a Jewish community. I had always known that the Holocaust was a tragedy that befell my own people, but without any living relatives directly impacted, it was impossible to picture the magnitude of the destruction, understand the implications to diaspora Judaism, or even picture where my family’s roots lie.
During the trip, Nohav, Helsinki’s Israeli shaliach and I had a conversation about
experiential learning. Especially for young people, it is nearly impossible to picture any sort of historical event without seeing something in person. This is especially true of the Holocaust, where the impact of reading books and hearing stories often pales in comparison to the experience of seeing firsthand sites of Jewish life and destruction.
On one hand, these pilgrimages to Poland and Israel often send one-sided, muted messages, such as “we should see these towns and never forget” or “We should appreciate the state of Israel because of the Holocaust.” But our appreciation for the state of Israel should not stem only from this one tragedy. Of course we should never forget, but why not delve deeper into why this happened and how we can prevent anything like this from happening in the future?
After taking Deborah Lipstadt’s class, I have hundreds of pages of notes and documents that can help answer some of these questions. But in-depth discussions with dates and facts and gruesome figures are not appropriate for a teen trip where some of the participants barely understand the English conversation, and as meaningful as the trip was, I felt my intellectual curiosity not quite sated.
All things considered, it was encouraging to hear that the teens found the experience meaningful and inspiring. We had a group of 7, including two older teens who took on leadership roles. Our first day was spent in Krakow, where we toured Kazimierz, the
Jewish old town, and each teen presented facts and stories about the places we visited. The next day we attended March of the Living, and were ones of thousands of Jews marching from the gates of Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau. We heard many moving speeches, including that of a Holocaust survivor, wearing his striped prisoner’s uniform, who had watched his family murdered just feet from where we stood that day. During the march, each of us held a plaque commemorating the 9 Jews from Finland who were sent to the death camps.
As part of the unique story that is Finland in World War II, Jews were allowed to serve in the army–alongside the Germans. This is because, as Finland had recently become independent in 1917, the country was most concerned about Russian aggression. Therefore, they allowed a German presence on their soil. Since as Finnish citizens, Jews were required to serve in the army, Finnish leaders protected all but 9 Jews from being sent away. There are even stories of makeshift synagogues in the German camps on Suomenlinna, the island fortress at the tip of Helsinki. (Towards the end of the war, Finland turned on the Germans, who burnt down most of Lapland upon their retreat.)
The experience of March of the Living left us pensive and exhausted, and the next day we focused on modern Jewish life in Poland. We visited a Jewish day school in Warsaw, where we met with a group of students and the teens shared experiences of what it’s like to be Jewish in their respective countries.
Returning home to Finland, it was easy to let life slip back to normal. But I think the trip framed my year in an interesting way. This year I’ve visited and experienced windows into the lives of young Jewish people in various communities around Europe—Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Vienna, Budapest and more. There are similarities to the issues that young people are facing today in all of these communities regarding antisemitism, lack of resources, lack of interest. But what I experienced acutely on the trip to Poland applies to how I feel about many of the issues facing young Jewish life today—that the harder you look for answers, the more ambiguity arises, and that even small acts can be felt lightyears away.
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