Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Visit to Oświęcim

I was resident director of a study abroad programme for American students in Prague in 2001. As the programme was in Jewish Studies, one of its main elements was a 10-day study trip through Poland. We started in Kraków, which is an incredibly beautiful city with an extensive historic Jewish section, Kazimierz, as well as remnants of the wartime ghetto on the other side of the river. Our second stop was the town of Oświęcim, better known by its German name, Auschwitz.

I will not write about the visits to the camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau; instead I want to write about a very positive experience in the town of Oświęcim. My friend Tomek runs the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a cultural institute built in and around a reconstructed synagogue, which celebrates pre-war Jewish life in and around Oświęcim. On my second student trip there, Tomek and I had planned a meeting for my group of nine students (eight of them Jewish) with local Polish students and German and Austrian students who were volunteers at the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim.

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 Youth Centre where the Austrian and German students lived and my students were staying the night. They all went into the club where they could drink beer and they continued to talk to each other until the wee hours of the morning. Many of them exchanged e-mail addresses and I know that some of them kept in touch at least for a while.

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.


Anonymous said...

Damnit...this post is too heartfelt, I can't make a stupid comment about it.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Monkey's Max said...

BS, thank you, I appreciate that.

The 2nd comment was deleted because it was idiotic and anonymous, and I did not feel that this post was the place for that.

Anonymous said...

And for the blog world record...I did not post the second comment.

Super ANON
Bengals Suck
Scientology Rules
I Heart Tom Cruise
Matt Damon

Monkey's Max said...

Sorry, Super Anon, by saying the comment had been anonymous, I did not mean to imply that it was you. In fact, I was certain that it was not. I recognise you by now, even in all of your guises.

Anonymous said...

Whew...just wanted to make sure. I have been labled many thing...rightfully so...but don't want hateful to be one of them.

Really Stupid
Really, Really Stupid
and so on are fine however...