Michigan Hillel Poland Trip
Students from the University of Michigan Hillel spent their spring break in Europe with the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland. This Alternative Spring Break allowed the students to travel through the country and learning about the history of Jews in Poland as well as experiencing and participating in Jewish life there today. 10 students, ranging from freshman to graduate students, led by Hillel’s Rabbi Lisa Stella and Haley Schreier (Education Associate at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills), were able to see and reflect upon what Jewish life had been like prior to World War II, how the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II changed everything for Jews in Poland, how the post-war Communist life in Poland further silenced and shut down Jewish life, and ultimately, how the revitalization of Jewish life in Poland has fared since the fall of Communism.
Three of the students who participated in the Hillel ASB in Poland are from the Metro Detroit Area. Melissa Berlin (Farmington Hills), Francesca Bennett (Huntington Woods), and Avery Drongowski (Royal Oak), each shared with the Detroit Jewish News some of their experiences and thoughts about their trip and what they’ve learned.
Melissa Berlin U of M ‘19
I felt unexpectedly fulfilled as I walked out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We had begun the morning at Auschwitz I, which functioned more as the work camp. It is largely intact and utilized as museum space. Our tour through Auschwitz I left me uncomfortably numb. A museum that teaches the procedures, design and technicalities of the camps is not so conducive to grief. It is challenging to imagine the suffering of soul and body as tourists mill about with headsets, browsing exhibits, led by a docent with a mic. When our group framed the day in the morning, I noted that I was afraid of not feeling enough on the visit. It is a strange concept to want to feel sadness.
The first part confirmed my fears. My numbness disappointed me. I was relieved to enter the Yad Vashem exhibit housed in one of the barracks. The room surrounds visitors with projected footage of Jewish life in and around Europe before the war. It is familiar and natural to me. I welcomed the tears as I witnessed the magnitude of loss, and the grandeur of culture.
While Auschwitz I was articulate and educational, Auschwitz-Birkenau – the main death camp – was vast, desolate and cathartic to grief. I was thankful for the relative emptiness. In a much larger space with fewer visitors, we followed the train tracks past the massive grid of furnaces – lone remnants of incinerated bunkers. Crematoria IV and V are preserved in their state of rubble. This felt respectful to the circumstance. After a group moment of prayer, I stood alone by the crematorium. I looked at a picture of my Zayde’s family, then out at the vast grid of lonely furnaces. I recited the names of my Zayde and his family aloud, then the Mourner’s Kaddish from memory.
I walked away from the crematorium and imagined my great-aunts walking toward it, two by their own will, refusing to allow their sick sister to suffer alone. I passed the length of electric fence and imagined my Zayde walking away from it, his suicide attempt thwarted by a guard, and his statement that in that moment he decided to live. I walked freely out of the camp, up from the ashes. I thought about the words “chaim” and “Kadima”. They would want us to move forward and celebrate life.
An identity rooted in tragedy seems so sad. I completed what I came to do; recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for my family at their grave. Yet, before and after that morning, I did so much more. Like the Yad Veshem projections exhibit, there are 1000 years of traditions and celebrations of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust. Time and again, our people rise from the ashes – but don’t think Poland is only ashes. It is roots. With the ruach of our new friends rebuilding a Jewish community in Poland, there are 1000 years to come. This trip helped me understand that our history is full of tears, but we cannot drown in them, for we have laughed and celebrated so much more.
Francesca Bennett, U of M ’18
As an Ashkenazi Jew with roots in Poland, among other Eastern European countries, it seemed like a natural decision to sign up for a cultural Spring Break trip – a unique opportunity to better understand my ancestry, my religion, and myself. The first half of our week in Poland was spent in Krakow. The beautiful, small city largely undestroyed by World War II, offered us opportunities to learn about the history of the Jewish people long before the Holocaust. In a visit to the Remah Synagogue and Cemetery, we saw with our own eyes the resting place of Jewish people from centuries ago. This quiet, peaceful plot of land remained significant as we continued our learning by visiting the Auschwitz and Burkenau concentration camps, and in hearing about the countless areas throughout Poland where Jews were murdered by the Nazis – in forests, in the streets, and in their own homes. The Remah Cemetery showcased the importance of cemeteries in Judaism as places of honor and rest, and for the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust such places do not exist.
While in Krakow we spent the majority of our time in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, yet also had an opportunity to visit the Main Market Square, the Royal Castle, and other historic sites. As we transitioned to the second half of our week in Warsaw, the scenery changed as well. After almost total destruction in World War II, Warsaw has been rebuilt throughout the past several decades in a combination of communist and capitalist architecture. Although it was more difficult to picture what one might think of as traditional Jewish life in this setting, our visit to the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw for the Friday night service helped us envision our ancestors, living and praying in Poland both decades as well as centuries before today.
This trip was an extraordinary opportunity for myself and my fellow students who participated. In two very different cities, we had a detailed, visual experience, and now have a better understanding of the origins of Ashkenazi Jewry. A country in which the Jewish people thrived for centuries, Poland has a lot to offer not only in the way of Holocaust education, but Jewish education more broadly. Although a complete tour of Eastern Europe might be necessary to completely understand the history of Judaism, a visit to Warsaw and Krakow provides an excellent place to start. I returned from Poland with a greater appreciation for my Jewish history, my Jewish values, and my Jewish identity.
Avery Drongowski, U of M School of Social Work ’17
While I have grown up distanced geographically and generationally from the Holocaust, I have been very much impacted by my Jewish education, American Holocaust museums, and stories of survivors. These narratives have been confined to a set of bracketed years – bound to a historical moment in time. The Holocaust is tragic and will profoundly influence our community forever, and this trip gave me the opportunity to expand that narrative, and explore the story of Polish Jews beyond the brackets of World War II.
The 1,000 years of Jews in Poland is marked by culture, ritual, and rich Jewish life. As I walked the streets of Kazimierz – the pre-war Jewish quarter of Krakow – with my peers, I didn’t have to imagine a time when Polish Jewry was walking the cobblestone streets. I could feel the current of Jewish life that is present there when I visited the JCC, where seniors and families gather to experience communal life, and when we had dinner with our Polish peers at Hillel.
In Warsaw, I didn’t have to imagine a synagogue of Jews praying on Shabbat – I participated in services at the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived the awful destruction of the city. While there is ample evidence of loss and pain, and the community works to rebuild post Holocaust and Soviet occupation, the story of the Jews in Poland cannot be confined to the Holocaust. The people that I met are alive, dynamic, and dedicated to living Jewishly and are not defined by their past.
This trip was so meaningful for me because I was able to connect with this larger story of Polish Jews – a narrative that includes and honors pre-war experiences and acknowledges a living presence today. I was able to connect with the traditions of my family in Eastern Europe that left before the war, but who’s legacy impacts me daily. As I walked through a display at Auschwitz, I was moved to my core by a bin of pots and pans collected by Nazis from suitcases of Jews who were tricked into believing they were heading toward a new beginning. I was awakened in that moment to the significance of connecting my own traditions, which include cooking old recipes with my mom and sister in my great grandmas aprons, to the much larger story of our ancestors in Poland.
Leaving Poland, to honor those that came before us, those that perished, and those who are committed to Jewish life in a Jewish land, I promise to tell this story even with all its complexities.