When Erica Biegen, a rising sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, signed up to travel with Baltimore-area Hillel students on a tour through Jewish Poland, she assumed the trip would focus largely on the country’s Holocaust history.
Biegen soon learned, and was pleasantly surprised, that she was mistaken.
The tour, which spanned nine days from June 3 to June 11, included visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau and a conversation with a Holocaust survivor. However, it also featured a diverse sampling of everything that Polish culture and the people who comprise it have to offer.
What Biegen and 15 other students learned was that Poland, which before World War II had the largest Jewish population (3.2 million) of any country worldwide, still boasts a resounding Jewish imprint, and that scores of people — Jews and non-Jews alike — are working together to ensure that it develops once again.
“What I most enjoyed was that the trip went beyond the Holocaust and covered so much Polish history and really showed us how people have dedicated their lives to rebuilding and preserving Jewish life,” said Biegen, who was among students from Hopkins, Towson University, Goucher College, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Maryland, College Park. “It was just amazing for us to see this vibrant Jewish life.”
The trip was coordinated and led by Towson University Hillel Executive Director Sam Konig, who is from Vienna and has Polish roots. Other organizers included the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland. The schedule was jam-packed with events and activities that enabled students to get an up-close-and-personal look at the country.
Many enjoyed walking tours of Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz — Poland’s three largest cities — because it gave them the chance to directly immerse themselves in the culture and dialogue with Polish citizens on the street.
For Samara Cohen, it helped dismiss claims she had heard about the country being rampant with anti-Semitism.
“Just meeting people on the street and not necessarily Jewish people helped dispel a lot of stereotypes people have about Poland,” said Cohen, a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park. “It’s really not what you think it is. People there are a lot more open than a lot of people here think they are.”
Students were also treated to a bevy of historical knowledge through stops at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (the largest repository of Polish Jewish heritage in the world) and the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.
Many of the students highlighted their Shabbat dinner at the Krakow Jewish Community Center as one of the trip’s most memorable experiences. It was a chance to interact with their global peers and recognize that they could have something so fundamental in their lives, Judaism, in common with people thousands of miles away.
“It was amazing to be part of a Jewish community in another place … so far from home,” Biegen said.
The trip, a pilot program, was financed by the Polish government. Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, explained that providing these kinds of trips helps bridge the gap between Poland and other countries with Jewish populations worldwide. She also noted that college-aged students, in particular, are ripe for these types of opportunities.
“College students are in an exciting period of transition in their Jewish lives,” Lieberman said. “They are taking what they learned and experienced at home [and are] encountering new traditions, alternatives and perspectives on campus and in the larger world. This combination is like a chemical reaction that transforms their consciousness as Jews.”
While the tour was crammed with events and activities, there was also ample time carved out for reflection as a group. Students and trip leaders were able to share how they felt about different experiences throughout the journey. It was during those moments that Konig, 29, observed the effect each element of the trip had on his pupils.
“From what I can tell, it had a life-changing impact,” Konig said, “And that’s what Hillel is all about.”
David Snyder is a JT staff reporter [email protected]