A program being launched this month is seeking to change young people’s perceptions of the Holocaust by bringing students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, on archaeological service tours of Poland.
Called “Together, Restoring Their Names,” the program, an alternative to “heavily scripted… death camp tours” such as March of the Living, aims to “craft a new kind of experience for young adults in Poland – one that engages not only Jews, but their peers of all backgrounds,” according to its organizers.
A joint project of iACT, a Birthright followup initiative run by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and Israel’s From The Depths NGO, the project will involve participants in examining Jewish life prior to the Holocaust and incorporate a service component excavating Jewish tombstones used for road building by the Germans.
“Our mission statement at ‘From The Depths’ is to make sure our generation, the third and fourth generation since the Holocaust, stand as witnesses to the witnesses, making Holocaust memory and memorial relevant to us. This remarkable partnership between ourselves and CJP shows the deep interest reclaiming this past, by traveling to Poland on a service and memorial trip with both Jewish and non-Jewish students alike,” From The Depths founder Jonny Daniels told The Jerusalem Post.
“This upcoming trip is a true first,” he continued. “We will be working alongside Polish firemen, students and even ‘Poland’s strongest man’ to remove Jewish tombstones stolen over 60 years ago by Poles and return them to the local Jewish cemetery. This focus on physical work and partnerships with young locals is what makes this trip so unique, and what has led to countless groups around the world reaching out to us, looking too to prepare ‘Service and Memorial’ trips to Poland.”
Matt Lebovic, director of campus services at CJP, said that “Students today want to visit a place like Poland and do more than mourn, which has been the traditional model.”
“Students want to bear witness, but beyond that they want to play a restorative role. This trip was crafted using findings from other Jewish service-learning experiences, largely in Israel. Involving non-Jewish students was essential from the get-go. There is Holocaust denial in the world, and ongoing calls to annihilate Israel. We need allies and partners to ensure another genocide does not take place, this time against Israel,” he said.
“For many years, there has been a notion in the American Jewish community that Jewish youth have been overloaded with the Holocaust, and that this ‘overload’ is somehow damaging to their Jewish identity.
“In our rush to sort of ‘bury’ the Holocaust and not have young people identify too closely with it, what actually wound up happening is that today’s Jewish college students know almost nothing about the Holocaust, much less anything about Europe’s treatment of Jews in the centuries leading up to it. There is no understanding of Israelis’ psychology, much less of the condition of the Jewish people around the world today, without studying the Holocaust,” he added.
The program will have a “huge emotional impact,” said CJP President Barry Shrage.
Examining a thousand years of Jewish civilization in Poland will be very significant for students, he continued, adding that while there is no “perfect followup” for everyone returning from Birthright, programs like this are very important in adding to the multiplicity of post-Birthright options that are now being made available.
One of the participants in the upcoming trip is Makalani Mack, a senior at Brandeis University who serves as a member of the board of the Men of Color Alliance and is active in building relations between the campus’s African American and Jewish students.
“I’m going on the trip to Poland to better my knowledge of the Holocaust and what that traumatic event did to the Jewish community, and to also further my efforts in working for solidarity between Jewish and Black people because I do believe that we share similar pasts,” Mack said.
“I’m overwhelmingly excited about this opportunity and am very appreciative to everyone making this possible for me.”