These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Why I am going on the Heritage Poland 2020/5780 Trip

Posted on January 13, 2020 by Doug Berkowitz

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This blog post was written by PEEP student, Doug Berkowitz, prior to his trip to Poland this year.

Two things that are true about me:
1. I love to travel
2. I really enjoy learning about history
So you’d think that when I learned that Pardes was taking students to Poland on a Jewish Heritage trip, I’d jump at the opportunity. I’ve never been to Poland, so I’d get to travel to a new country. I’d also get the chance to learn about the rich history of Jews in Poland while IN Poland. My instant reaction was that I was absolutely going. How could I not? But then, as I thought about it more, I felt less sure and less enthusiastic.

Aspects of the trip include learning about the history of Jewish communities in Poland, the current Jewish communities in Poland, and the Holocaust. My education at all levels of schooling contained a component dedicated to the Holocaust. It’s an incredibly important, yet difficult, subject to discuss. However, despite this difficulty, I’ve never shied away from the topic and I’m always open to learning more. My uncertainty of going to Poland didn’t center on going to concentration camps. Rather, it stemmed from parallels I drew from my decision to go to Germany in the summer of 2017.

I was more certain about my desire to visit Germany, though I had concerns about two things: being a Jew in Germany and supporting the German economy, especially through “Holocaust tourism.” During my few days in Bavaria, I toured castles, walked around Munich, and visited the Dachau concentration camp. Being at Dachau was heartbreaking. I was physically present in a place that had been an actual hell and saw the death of tens of thousands of innocents. I squirmed as I imagined prisoners stuffed into the wooden bunks in the barracks; I cried when I prayed at the Jewish memorial; I shuddered as I walked through the changing room and showers; I felt a punch to my gut when I walked into the crematorium and stood face to face with the ovens, their doors wide open as if inviting me in.

Visiting Dachau was the most important part of the time I spent in Germany, but it was not the most memorable. What I remember most is that every interaction I had felt like an indication that I didn’t belong there. Was God sending me a message? Did I really not belong in Germany? Or was it all happenstance? After I returned from Europe and reflected on my experience, I knew I hadn’t been mistaken and I made the decision to never go back to Germany again. When contemplating visiting Poland, I wondered how my experience in Germany would affect my perspective and my ability to approach each encounter with an open mind. Would I be able to give Poland a fair shot? How did I feel about supporting the Polish economy through Holocaust tourism? Should I project my feelings from Germany onto Poland and conclude that I don’t belong there either? Would that mean I shouldn’t go at all? I was a bit torn between wanting to experience Poland first hand and not wanting to re-experience the feelings I had in Germany.

In the end, I’m holding to my gut reaction and am choosing to be a participant on this trip. I have friends and acquaintances that won’t visit Poland due to anti-Semitism and the deep wounds that the Holocaust has brought upon the Jewish people. I completely empathize with that sentiment and don’t blame anybody who holds that point of view.

For me, the Pardes Jewish Heritage trip to Poland presents an opportunity to have a shared experience with my fellow students. Though we will be learning a lot about the Holocaust and visiting concentration camps, I’m going to try my best to not let that overshadow my encounters with the current Jewish population living in Poland. I expect this trip will challenge me and provide moments that are emotional and heart wrenching. Regardless of whether I enjoy my time in Poland, I need to have this experience. And regardless of whether I consider returning, I will
encourage others to go to Poland in order to learn firsthand and to formulate opinions based on their own interactions.

In the end, it’s not about the anti-Semites or supporting foreign economies. It’s about keeping the memory of the Jewish community of Poland alive; it’s about sharing their memory with the next generation; it’s about honoring the memory of those we lost by breaking free of the shadow of the Holocaust and creating strong, thriving Jewish communities wherever we choose to live.