“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” This quotation from Seneca is one way to sum up why many teachers and students participated in a recent Classrooms Without Borders trip to Poland.
Seventy-two teachers and students traveled there from June 26 to July 4 with Holocaust survivor Howard Chandler and guides Mark Lazar and Avi Ben-Hur as part of the organization’s program to experience the culture, history and life of this multifaceted country. As an English educator and trip participant, I found that the juxtaposition of past and present coupled with preparatory study meetings over the course of a few months provided important context for the travel seminar. As Gabe Brodsky, a graduate of Winchester Thurston, wrote, “I didn’t get nervous about my trip to Poland until late the night before. It suddenly hit me that I was going to be at Auschwitz, in the Warsaw ghetto and in a gas chamber.”
Brodsky’s comment echoes one of the many thoughts travelers had about attending this seminar. How does one state his feelings about visiting places where millions were held captive and yet were hopeful for escape when we today know how the Nazi terror in Europe played out?
Art teacher Nanci Goldberg reflected: “Poland. A trip I thought I would never take and am eternally grateful I did. The trip was very deeply personal for me and helped me reconnect with my ancestry in a way I have never experienced before. Since photography is how I express myself, it was an amazing opportunity to find a way to convey a new range and depth of emotion and feeling. Every day was a new challenge to see, feel, process and capture. I had little time to think about what to shoot, so I just had to let the feelings flow from the lens. This will help me with my teaching because I can speak to the idea of letting raw emotions help me create my art. No sketches, no planning and no idea what was even an option. Just breathe, feel and shoot. Create.”
With cameras and notepads ready, our itinerary began in Warsaw at the Jewish Cemetery. Though this may seem an odd beginning to our journey, it is one way to begin the story of the Jewish community in Poland. The cemetery was established in 1806 and is still in use as a place of burial for Jewish residents of Warsaw. Brodsky noted, “Its intricacy and investment conveys the strength and prominence of a Jewish community in Warsaw before the Shoah. The quantity of headstones, the mass graves and the parts of the cemetery that actually played a role in the Holocaust show just how devastating those years were.”
Though jet-lagged, the teens participated in a cultural program with Polish teenagers the first night, sharing insights about their favorite movies, foods, activities and travels. The evening culminated in learning dances and rhymes in each other’s languages. The playful exchange offered the opportunity for each group to meet someone new and to see that through different cultures they were able to find common ground.
The next day, surrounded by modern Warsaw, the group traced the outlines of the ghetto established there in October 1940. Our guides used a combination of historical fact and first-person diary entries to create a narrative for our tour. Ending our walk at the Umschlagplatz, or place of departure, had a solemn effect on the group, as our next destination was Treblinka.
It was by the memorial on the grounds of a death camp that for the first time Chandler took the microphone to share his story of life in Starachowice up to the day his mother, sister and brother were taken to Treblinka in October 1942. Chandler, his father and older brother Harry, all of whom were eventually deported to Auschwitz, had acquired the necessary work permits to stay in Starachowice at the time. Chandler’s presence was such a meaningful feature of Classrooms Without Borders’ itinerary, and it made the month-long preparations more tangible and significant. Later in the week, we heard of the passing of Elie Wiesel on July 2. Each person on the trip felt the significance of Chandler’s presence and the importance for each of us to carry their story back to our families, our classrooms and our lives.
Visiting the town of Starachowice with him also highlighted the courage it takes to remember the past. He was determined to create a memorial in the town for “the 4,500 Jews who lived in Starachowice-Wierzbnik and were forcibly displaced, persecuted and murdered by the Nazi occupants in the years 1939 to 1945.” Finally, the monument was completed in 2015. The town hall flew the flags of Canada, Poland and the United States in honor of our visit and conducted a ceremony with us at the memorial in the town square. We were treated to a reception in the town hall and heard speeches by historians about Starachowice’s prewar population and Jewish community. Later, Chandler took us on an intimate tour of his home, telling us stories about his childhood neighbors, which reminded us once again of the absence of so many residents as a result of the Holocaust, as well as the different ways individual towns have responded to memories of the Holocaust.
The factories of death, presented in narratives used by teachers and read by students on the trip, are not visible at the Treblinka site. Instead, stone monuments bear the names of the hometowns of those who were brought here and murdered. As our travels continued and students saw Majdanek and Auschwitz, the horror, absence and loss that were not on view at Treblinka echoed loudly through the exhibits of the actual personal belongings and facilities used by the Nazis at those two camps.
Silence and stillness surrounded the places where we walked. Visiting the camp with a survivor transforms the vast landscape from numbered buildings and crematorium ruins to a place where individuals walked, faced death and struggled to hold on. This visit was the most integral and difficult part of our experience. Chandler guided us into Birkenau to a barrack that had been used during his time in the camp and spoke for more than an hour detailing his work duty, life in the camp, identifying key locations and answering students’ questions. Two other trip participants shared stories of Auschwitz survivors: James Lucot, a social studies teacher from Seneca Valley, interviewed the family of Murray Ebner, the only surviving family member of the Bochnia ghetto, while Seth Bisen-Hersh shared anecdotes and memories about his grandmother, Margie Appel, who was brought to Auschwitz in 1944 with her entire family. Margie, her sister and three brothers survived.
Emma Perelman, a graduate of Shady Side Academy, wrote: “After Majdanek, the numbers are so massive that I feel as if the individual gets lost in the masses. Whenever you take the time and listen to people’s individual stories, it makes it real.”
Kate Kander, another student from Shady Side Academy, wrote: “Today, in the memorial at Auschwitz, we saw home videos of the families and lives that were lived before they were taken or uprooted during World War II. The potential that was lost of this culture and of these people is so devastating. People were dancing in the streets, having celebrations, kissing each other, a little girl was eating ice cream, riding bikes, singing, acting, living the lives they should have been able to continue to live before it was all stripped away from them. One of the images that struck me the most was a bride and a groom getting married only a year before the Nazis invaded. My brother will be married for a year this September. His plans for a family, for a life with his wife, a dream for a business and career, the places he wants to go and see are all possible in this life. For the lives of those who suffered in the Holocaust, this was sadly not the case. Another image of briefcases with different handwriting individualized the daunting number of 6 million. One of the suitcases was labeled Saul, my grandfather’s name. The Saul that owned this suitcase may not have had the opportunity to be a grandfather or a father. All he had was in this suitcase, and even that he had to leave behind.”
Sameer Annamraju, also from Shady Side Academy, wrote about the same video and how the short time he spent watching it led him to a fuller appreciation of this Classrooms Without Borders trip: “We need to confront the painful reality of what happened. I needed to shed tears and feel pain to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust. I needed those 10 minutes to realize just how much I love my family. I needed those 10 minutes to realize what death means. I needed those 10 minutes to understand what my role must be for as long as I can speak. I must be a voice for the interminably silent; it is now my responsibility to use that voice.”
Visit Classrooms Without Borders at classroomswithoutborders.org for more information on upcoming programs and trips.
Leigh Ann Totty teaches English at Bethel Park High School.