Winter break for college students usually means one thing: stuffing weeks of laundry into a bag to bring home and spending a few weeks between semesters to relax and catch up on TV.
For some students, however, their winter break this year was spent in Poland, walking through concentration camps and soaking up the history of the Holocaust.
A group of local students from Temple University, Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania joined students from 17 other colleges around the country for a weeklong trip to Poland with MEOR.
The six-day trips to Poland — which include visits to the Warsaw Ghetto, various cemeteries, the cities of Lublin and Krakow, as well as Auschwitz I and Birkenau — were founded at MEOR Penn in spring of 2008 with a group of 33 students, according to Yael Seruya, assistant director of MEOR Poland.
It expanded in 2013 to include all campuses for students involved in their university’s MEOR program.
“There is no classroom in the world like Poland,” Seruya wrote in an email. “For anyone that is looking to think deeper about their life and about the meaning and beauty of Judaism, nothing will allow someone to focus and find answer to these questions, and contemplate life in the deepest way possible like sitting and experiencing such places of darkness.”
The trips are aimed for college students and take place during the winter, though there is one trip in the summer for young professionals.
For Seruya, these trips are particularly important for the students to do now.
“Students today are the last generation that will know survivors of the Holocaust,” she wrote. “If they do not fully understand what happened and why it happened — which can only truly be done by visiting the actual sites in Poland — then the future generations will be totally disconnected from one of the most important lessons in Jewish history.”
The students themselves came home with more than a few history lessons.
Jared Karpf returned with more of an interest in perhaps learning his family background.
For the Penn senior who grew up attending Society Hill Synagogue, a highlight of the trip was meeting Leslie Kleinman, a Holocaust survivor originally from Romania who now lives in England but traveled with the students on each trip.
“It was impactful not just because we had the opportunity to meet him,” said Karpf, who’s studying international relations, “but he also became an integral part of our trip where we walked through Auschwitz I with him and then Birkenau, where he spent a majority of his life early on, and eventually went on the death march and managed to escape following the conclusion of the war. But he went through a lot and it was fascinating to learn about.”
The lessons from the trip, which he went on with students from three other schools from Jan. 1 to 8, are ones that he will use in the future.
“The trip was important overall to help people provide clarity on what’s important in life, give a certain perspective across a variety of things and be fortunate for what we have or don’t have, to be grateful that there is a Jewish state,” he said. “Dialogue is important and another thing, too, that was very interesting, but also tragic, is that what we can do from going on a trip like this is become knowledgeable about what took place and to become aware of actual facts regarding the situation and we can combat those that still deny certain things that took place.”
The trip provided a similar perspective for Temple senior Maia Levy, who went to Poland a week after Karpf’s trip.
“You learn to appreciate little things they didn’t get to experience,” said Levy, a Lower Merion native studying anthropology. “There are so many stories we were told of people who had so much hope even though they were literally in Auschwitz, and they had so much hope and so much faith in God and the survivors who got out, they still had the power to live — it makes your problems seem a little ridiculous. Like, if I’m complaining about school or this or that, it puts things into perspective.”
For Levy, a standout of the trip was visiting the lesser-known sites in addition to places like Auschwitz and Birkenau.
For instance, while in Lodz, they visited the Chelmno death camp, where they learned about the multitudes that died there. Their bones were scattered around and, in the winter, she said, because of the cold, the bone fragments pop up from the ground.
“They gave us gloves and we were all looking for bone fragments and we reburied them together and said kaddish,” she recalled. “That was also really meaningful.”
Visiting the lesser-known places allowed her and the group, which became like family by the end, she said, to pay respects to those whose names might not be recorded anywhere.
“It was meaningful because we could do something for the people whose names aren’t on the lists and they’re not documented,” she said. “There’s thousands of those who are gone and no one knows about them, no one knows if they went into the camps, or came out of the camps. So we paid tribute to them, too.”
Both Karpf and Levy reflected on the impact of visiting these sites in the cold weather. It even reached minus 4 degrees at one point, Karpf noted.
“When you go in the cold, you really understand the environmental impact of what people went through at the time,” he said. “We had hand warmers and coats and things like that. People had wooden clogs and a thin piece of cloth for a T-shirt.”
Levy felt the trip gave her a strengthened sense of Jewish identity.
“I see how important it is to be proud that I’m Jewish,” she said. “Not that I wasn’t before, but I feel even prouder because Hitler wanted everyone to be ashamed or afraid to be a Jew … and it was amazing because … Hitler wanted this all destroyed, and we still returned and we still did Shabbat in Krakow, which is something that in 1940 or something you would’ve been like, ‘That’s never going to happen.’”
Amid the historical visits and tours, they were also allowed to hit the bars in cities like Krakow and take in other sights to even out the heaviness of the rest of the trip. The rabbis on the trip even joined them for nights out, she laughed.
Justin Harrison’s favorite moment from the trip came during Shabbat in Krakow when he and his cousin, also on the trip, passed by a room of Chasidic Jews who had already begun their dinner.
They peeked their heads in, recalled Harrison, a sophomore at Temple studying film, and were invited in to join them. They stayed for a few songs, which had a stronger impact on Harrison, from Willow Grove, than he expected.
“After going through a week of seeing Judaism being taken away from Jews, the idea of us being there singing these beautiful harmonies and songs in a place where we probably wouldn’t have existed right now if it weren’t for some miraculous force — that played a big role in that being my favorite part of the whole trip,” he said.
“I was trying to hold in my emotions, but I just burst out into tears because their singing really touched my soul, whatever that means. I really felt an extremely personal connection to how important being Jewish is.”
For him, the trip illuminated the importance of understanding and learning from history.
“If you understand where you came from,” he said, “you have a better sense of where you should be going.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740