These and Those

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

My experience in Poland, 2020

Posted on January 20, 2020 by Branden Charles Johnson

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This blog post was written by Branden Johnson, a PEP student.

Before learning about the Heritage Poland 2020/5780 trip, I had never wanted to go to Poland. I know many people who have been there, and most of them said it was cold, dark, and too sad. After returning from the trip, I can now say: “Yes, and …”. I can now say that I am looking forward to the opportunity to return to Poland.

I don’t want to diminish the intense, devastating aspects of the places we saw and stories we heard. They are real, and they were a significant part of the trip as a whole. But beyond that, we had the opportunity – and privilege – of meeting many people dedicated to truthfully educating about Poland’s past, as well as working to build the country’s Jewish future. It gave me a sense of hope that can seem hard-to-find these days. That was one of the last things I expected to find in a place like Poland.

I took with me another surprise from Poland. I decided to return to the Kotel. That may not sound like a big deal to you, so I would like to provide some context. A little more than a year ago, I swore that I would never go back to the Kotel after a truly traumatic experience at a Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service. I was there as an observer, and to support WOW. But what I saw, heard, and experienced there broke my heart. I decided that this wasn’t my fight. That I didn’t care enough about that space to make it worth jeopardizing my safety. However, after my experiences in Poland, I internalized a new perspective on the Kotel. Six million Jewish lives were stolen from us. Most of them never had the opportunity to see Jerusalem rebuilt, something for which they prayed countless times during their lives. More Jews sacrificed their lives for the Kotel, Jerusalem, and Israel. I never want those lives to have been in vain. As a Zionist and (relatively) new oleh, I want to rededicate myself to fighting to make this country welcoming and accessible to all Jews. I want to work to make it a place that we are all proud to call home. I want to help strengthen the Diaspora by working to strengthen Israel’s commitment to diversity.

Poland has a rich, millennium-old Jewish history whose significance and influence have been overshadowed by the atrocities committed there during the Shoah. We cannot – and absolutely should not – forget that. We have a responsibility to those who died, as well as those who survived and their descendants, to continue to talk about and confront that dark history. There are many people in Poland working to build a new Jewish future for the community that remains, including many who are only now discovering their Judaism. We owe it to them all – past, present, and future – to ensure that the past is not repeated; that “never again” is a promise.