I was resident director of a study abroad programme for American students in
I will not write about the visits to the camps of
It was the first time either of us had tried anything like it. My students had just had a harrowing day in the camps, and they were not feeling very friendly, to say the least, towards their European counterparts. The twenty or so of us sat down around the tables that Tomek had arranged in a big square. Tomek and I started the discussion off by asking a couple of questions, and then the students took over and Tomek and I remained quiet for the next 90 minutes.
A couple of the Polish kids had never met any Jews before. The Jewish kids for the first time heard something about what it was like to grow up in a culture of guilt. The European kids heard personal stories of survival that some of the Jewish kids told about their grandparents. A couple of the Polish kids had similar stories. They all talked about what they had learned or had not learned about World War II and the Holocaust in school and elsewhere. They talked about their own experiences visiting the camps. They talked about their pre-conceived notions about Jews, Germans and Poles. The students really communicated, asking each other questions and listening to the answers. The discussion was amazing and eye-opening for everyone, including me and Tomek.
We broke the discussion off after 90 minutes and invited everyone to go back to the
I have chosen to write about this intensely moving experience because recently I have read a lot of anti-Jewish rhetoric online, all clearly written by people who do not communicate with anyone who is not exactly like them, and it troubles me.