When our kids were 12 and 14, we spent two weeks traveling around Eastern Europe. We visited the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where the sanctuary and adjoining walls are covered with 77,292 hand-painted names of the Czech Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
In Germany, the Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum Berlin is just one of the many powerful memorials we visited during our trip. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the garden (with its 49 concrete columns) sits on a 12-inch gradient that disorients the visitor, giving one a sense of total instability and lack of orientation — mimicking the experience of Jews in Nazi Germany.
In the old Jewish quarter, we stepped over little gold squares as we entered trendy boutiques, cafes and art galleries. Called stumbling blocks (stolpersteine in German), they commemorate the victims of the Holocaust by marking where each person lived, the date they were deported and the date they were murdered.
In Warsaw, we walked along the streets of the old Jewish Ghetto where more than 350,000 Jews, forced from their homes by the Nazis, lived in unbearable conditions: Food was scarce, small apartments were filed with three and often four families, plumbing was inadequate and disease was rampant. Many died, their bodies left on the street to rot.
Later that day, we visited the monument commemorating the site where roughly 300,000 Jews were deported to the death camps. They were packed into small train cars with no windows, no room for sitting, no food, no bathroom. Many died during the trip.
We spent our toughest day touring Auschwitz and Birkenau, where more than 1 million Jews were murdered. We began our tour at the site where the trains would have arrived. What we learned and saw that day was horrific. We’ll never forget … but that was the point.
Many friends, when I told them we were taking our kids on a Jewish history trip through Eastern Europe, told me they thought our kids were too young, they would be scared, it was too hard, wait until they were older. Why not go to London? Santa Monica? Hawaii?
But we never shied away from teaching our kids about the Holocaust. They knew who Anne Frank was, knew why the von Trapp family was fleeing Austria. Our son had started to devour graphic novels and read many that dealt with the Holocaust such as “The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft,” “A Family Secret,” “The Search,” “Lily Renee: Escape Artist” and more. He was about to become a bar mitzvah, and we thought this would be a meaningful trip for him, just as an Israel trip was for our daughter before her bat mitzvah.
Besides, they knew they were safe here today in the United States. This was history.
Deborah Lipstadt said, “If the main thing the next generations know about Jewish history is that we were persecuted and suffered, they will lose sight of the tremendous heritage of Jewish culture, theology and wisdom.”
It is in this spirit that we have tried to raise our kids to learn about all their Jewish history— the culture, the wisdom and the theology, but the persecution is part of that, too.
Four years later, I am reflecting on our Eastern Europe trip because, as a mother, I am more challenged now that our kids are older. How do I talk to them about the rise in anti-Semitism in our own country, and from both the left and the right? What do I say to our daughter who leaves for college in the fall?
According to the Anti-Defamation League, “The U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, including a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults and the single deadliest attack in U.S. history.”
Before he killed one and injured three others in an April 27 shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, the attacker wrote about being inspired by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter and by Hitler. This is scary stuff.