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From Bearing Witness to Trauma Tourism

The following is a selection from a series of posts about a recent trip I took to Poland and the Ukrainian border, a journey designed by my synagogue as an opportunity to bear witness and bring compassionate relief to refugees from Russia’s brutal war.

This reflection is a bit of a digression, in that it is not so much about a particular experience in Poland, or about something specific I saw or learned. Instead, it’s about a reaction I had multiple times during our journey, and the ways in which I continue to try to process how I feel about that reaction, and what prompted it.

I was talking with my very dear friend Sara recently, telling her about my struggle to be okay with listening to war stories, feeling pangs of sadness, outrage and grief, and then leaving whatever space we were in, and moving on to the next stop. Or in the case of our last stop, heading to the airport.
What does it mean to sit before a woman who fled Ukraine with her daughter, whose parents were able to join her in Krakow, but whose husband remained behind?  What does it mean to hear her tell us that her husband has health issues and cannot serve in the army, so he is serving in other ways, and that her daughter was hysterical for days on end as they fled Ukraine? What does it mean to listen to her describe her trauma and that of her daughter, to imagine the things even she might be unwilling to say, but to ask, as our rabbi did, for her to tell us about her experience, as if we’re asking her to review a book she’s read, or talk about a vacation from which she recently returned?
I thought about the issue of trauma tourism a lot before going on this trip. But having taken two trips for humanitarian reasons prior to this one, and having those trips be and feel purposeful, serious, and respectful, I had no reason to think this trip wouldn’t live up to that standard. But maybe that was a little naive, since this trip was pointedly bringing us into contact with those fleeing a brutal, active war, one with current and future consequences for those speaking to us, for those sharing their stories.
Before I left the JCC where Nomi spoke with us, I went over to tell her how sorry I was for what she was going through, how I hoped her husband remained safe and could soon be reunited with her, and that her daughter would be okay. With that, she told me that she’d had to give her daughter a sedative laced with something else (I don’t recall what) in order to calm her down and that afterwards, her daughter thanked her. “Mommy, it’s the first time I feel calm.” But Nomi’s face flashed agony, a kind of maternal pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Maybe I mumbled something about being glad that the medicine was able to help her. Or maybe I just nodded and walked away. But the look on Nomi’s face stayed with me. And it troubled me.
So a day later on our bus, I approached our rabbi. I expressed my concern that we might be re-traumatizing people by asking them to share their stories with us. He replied that she was doing this voluntarily, and that it’s important to get these stories out. Those two things might very well be true, but does that absolve us of the responsibility to approach these conversations with maximum deference and sensitivity? Should these interrogations come with a kind of warning label? Please be mindful of how you interact. This person has recently left a war zone. She is still in a kind of shock. She is worried about family left behind. She has been displaced from her home and her country. Tread lightly. Ask if it’s ok to ask certain things.And always make sure she has the option of declining to answer. After all, none of us is entitled to anyone else’s story, even if we have the best of intentions in wanting to hear it.
But I didn’t answer the rabbi back with my warning label idea. Instead, I just reminded myself to be extra careful, extra sensitive, and to steer clear of anything that smacked of intrusiveness or prying. Which was why at our stop at a refugee assistance hub, I stepped out of the room the staffer ushered us into to talk about the services offered. There were cots in that room, and one refugee woman was lying on one, while two others stood to the side, talking. I felt like I was violating a place of intimacy. And I said as much to the JCC staffer who took us there. He excused it by saying it was the young woman’s first time giving a tour of this kind. Which didn’t absolve him of the obligation to (help her) make a better choice, but never mind…
At our last stop, the Jewish Agency for Israel, we got a tour of the hotel spaces they use for refugees and for various supportive services provided to them. We were told a bit about their struggles, and even heard briefly about JAI staff members who were outside Ukraine when the war started and have family trapped there, and who were busy during our visit helping other displaced victims of war, even while carrying the still undetermined fate of their own loved ones with them.
We were then ushered into a room to hear the story of a young girl and her family.  This Nomi was all of fifteen years old. Her English was good, but she leaned on a Ukrainian speaker from the JAI for help when she needed it. She was clearly rattled in telling her story, anguished at describing her escape from Ukraine with her mother and her ten-year-old brother, and about having to leave her elderly, physically challenged grandfather behind.
In my head I kept screaming, “MAKE IT STOP. MAKE IT STOP.  TELL HER IT’S OK NOT TO TELL US!” Instead, I turned to the JAI staffer next to me and asked if it was ok if I offered her a connection to my cousin in Israel–where she was headed days later, on her own, as her mother and brother were planning to go back to Ukraine to look after her grandfather. He said it was, so I raised my hand. “Nomi, I have family in Israel. They would love to host you for a Shabbat dinner. Would that be ok?” She nodded her head and offered a shy smile. Then I asked her if she likes dogs. A bigger smile. “My cousin has a dog, and she’s the best home cook in Israel,” I told her.
Afterwards, I went up to Nomi and asked her if I could give her a hug. She nodded yes. So I hugged her and told her over and over, “You’re going to be ok. You’re going to be ok.” It was the only thing I could think to say, and in that moment, I believed it.
A member of our group came up to me afterwards and told me that what I had done was so nice. I told her that if god forbid a child of mine was alone in the world, heading to a new country, having fled a war zone, I would want someone to do that for her, to give her a connection to a caring adult and family.

Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was something I could do, and doing nothing felt awful. To ask a child to unveil her trauma in front of a group of strangers and just walk out seemed almost obscene, and I couldn’t leave it there. I don’t know what I would have said or done if she were heading to Belgium or Argentina. Maybe I would have lodged another, but more forceful, protest with our rabbi. Or maybe I would have revised my notion of whether it’s ever possible to hear the stories of war victims and not be complicit in re-traumatizing them. And who, if anyone, benefits from that…

About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The Forward, and to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half. She blogs about that experience now and again at parentjungle.blogspot.com
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