On a brisk night in Krakow, I found myself reflecting on my first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, unsure if the bone chilling feeling I held came from sharp winds or from witnessing a harrowing site of genocide. I was 19 years old, surely green yet somehow in the position where I was leading a student Holocaust education trip to Poland. It was the first of a series of trips I led and continue to lead as director of the Boston based initiative Together, Restoring their Names, a Holocaust memory service-learning initiative for undergraduate students. Thanks to the support of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, we continue to bring students of diverse backgrounds on trips to Europe to learn about the Shoah.
Each trip, I learn from our experiences abroad to understand how to most effectively connect students with Holocaust education, and refine our model for future trips. After over a dozen Holocaust related trips to Europe, I have built our trips to have unique elements that differ slightly from other Holocaust education trips:
Before the Trip
Recruitment is key. The right balance of participants can make or break the trip experience. For us, this means a small group of student Fellows who have proven themselves to be engaged through our on campus education Fellowship. Equally important is the background of the student Fellows. In our groups, we look for a balance of Jewish and non-Jewish students with religious, ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity. Students consistently learn more from interacting with peers from backgrounds that on first blush differ from their own, but in reality have many intersectional aspects.
It is impossible to understand the events of the Holocaust without broader context. On Together, Restoring their Names trips, this comes in multiple forms. First, student Fellows research a particular aspect of Holocaust history before the trip. Then, they own that topic throughout the trip, presenting to their peers and answering any questions that come up regarding that topic. This engages participants in ways that other trips do not, for they are not just discovering, they are also sharing.
Second, Together, Restoring their Names trips provide a more broad scope than just the Holocaust. We make sure student Fellows have opportunities to learn about Jewish life before World War Two, contemporary Jewish life, as well as life in our destination for non-Jews. While the horrors of the Holocaust can not ever be truly understood, this provides more background than the traditional death camp tour.
Content and Balance
Even the most intelligent and engaged college students need balance. Thus, we take a number of steps to make sure that what they see on each trip has a chance to be internalized. For example, throughout the course of our weeklong trips, we only ever visit a single concentration camp, and never for more than a few hours. It is equally possible to overwhelm participants with informational and emotional overload as it is to under-educate.
The quality of education is surely more important than the quantity, so, we connect student Fellows with experts on the ground who can provide engaging and impactful educational sessions related to our trip goals. Additionally, we make sure that students feel like they are giving back. In Poland, for example, we partnered with local organization From the Depths to return stolen tombstones to a Jewish cemetery in the town of Olkusz. At the end of the day, we give students the opportunity to digest what they are learning with discussion sections, free time, and by bringing them to general tourist and cultural sites.
The months which follow our trips are where we differ the most from other Holocaust education trips. When our student Fellows return to campus, they engage their peers with Holocaust education. Together, Restoring their Names acts as a platform for students to design projects that they are interested in. This could mean visiting survivors, bringing speakers to campus, setting up Yom Hashoah commemoration events, and more. For example, following our trip to Amsterdam, Together, Restoring their Names Fellows at Brandeis University organized a Yom Hashoah event with survivors speaking that attracted hundreds.
On a day to day basis, students are paired with Survivors for visits in their homes to listen to their stories in intimate settings and get to know one another. Together, Restoring their Names student Fellows and staff also actively use social media to share stories about the Shoah, reaching hundreds of thousands of people since inception. Each year, our initiative strives for more. This year, we will be bringing student groups to Prague and Poland, educating them about the past and mobilizing them to teach others that “never again” rings true.