After trip, Holocaust educators refocus on Jewish life in Poland

Adrian Schrek was working with educators who regularly teach about the Holocaust when the following thought occurred to one of them: “We’re always teaching about how Jews died, but maybe we should be talking about how Jews lived.”

Schrek, director of the Teen Curriculum Initiative, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, approached Taube Philanthropies to ask about funding a trip for these educators to further explore Jewish life in Poland. That’s how a small group ended up in Poland last summer “with the intention of expanding our understanding of contemporary and prewar Jewish life,” said Schrek.

The six educators, with Schrek as facilitator, included Jews and non-Jews who toured Jewish sites together in Krakow and Warsaw.

A shtetl wedding in Poland, circa 1925 photo/menakhem kipnis via wikimedia commons

On March 6, the participants offered a public seminar called “Jewish Life in Poland: An Enduring Legacy” at the University of San Francisco, a natural partner because of its strong social justice mission, according to Paula Birnbaum, associate professor and academic director of museum studies at the Jesuit university.

“We didn’t want to do a stand-alone program where they just go to Poland,” Schrek explained later. “We wanted to build a network of educators who could serve as a resource and community for each other, so they could expand the discourse and understanding among each other.”

In her introductory remarks, Schrek asked the 100 or so attendees what came to mind when they thought about Poland and Jews.

“Many of us see it as a fundamentally anti-Jewish place, the epicenter of the destruction of Jewish life, or a Jewish cemetery,” she said. “But these educators were willing to engage with it to see it as a living connection to the past, and approached it not only as a place of loss, but one of imagination and possibility.”

In describing the path that brought him to Poland, Mark Davis, director of humanities at Monterey Coast Preparatory School in Scotts Valley, said he had been teaching the Holocaust for almost 20 years.

“While I want my students to always remember and never forget, I want them to learn about Jewish life both before and after the war. I want them to know that Jews were not just victims.”

Ben Owens, chair of the department of theology at Woodside Priory, an independent Benedictine Catholic school in Portola Valley, described being baby-sat as a child by a Jewish couple when his parents went out dancing Friday nights.

“They would take us to their synagogue, and it was my first entry into the world of Jewish life,” he said. “I remember the food was always wonderful, but I didn’t learn until later that they both had escaped from Buchenwald. That was my first introduction to people who had survived the Holocaust, and I was touched deeply by them.”

A short film that depicted two stories — an American Holocaust survivor returning to Poland to attend the opening of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and efforts by a young non-Jewish couple to preserve their town’s Jewish history — brought up many talking points that resurfaced during the seminar. Participants talked about Poland’s current right-wing government and commented that it hasn’t shown the same sense of remorse that Germany has about the Holocaust.

At the March 6 seminar

The educators also led workshops on their particular area of research, ranging from Jewish youth movements between the wars to the poetry of Mordechai Gebirtig (who died in the Krakow Ghetto) to Holocaust education in Poland today.

In “Encounters with Commemorative Space in Poland: An Exploration of How We Experience Jewish Sites and Museums,” Maia Ipp, associate director of creative writing at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, began by asking attendees to think of commemorative spaces they had visited where they felt a deep connection, and to think of those where they hadn’t. This provoked a lively conversation about what works well in different kinds of memorial spaces and why.

Rabbi Batshir Torchio, senior educator at the JCCSF, showed slides of exhibits and museums the group visited in Poland, asking whether each constituted a commemorative space. She noted that with the right intention, almost anything could serve a commemorative purpose, even Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, reportedly a highlight of the summer trip.

“The tendency is to go indoors, but there’s so much happening outside,” she said.

Torchio told a story about attending the festival on a Saturday night and wanting to make Havdallah. The educators hadn’t planned for it, so they found a sprig of rosemary on a bush, went into a liquor store to buy some wine and managed to find a candle and a match.

They moved to an alcove of a nearby apartment building on the outskirts of the square, and at some point, they noticed a young couple observing them.

“They were just standing there quietly, waiting for us,” she said. “We realized that this was their alcove and they couldn’t get in, but they had a sense of what we were doing and didn’t want to interrupt us.”

When the group finished, the couple invited them in for a glass of wine. “We ended up interacting with this young, hip Polish couple. Is that commemorating the Holocaust?” Torchio asked. “Fascinating things can happen on the streets of Krakow.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."