It was not a typical college winter break at the beach for the 70 participants on “LivingLinks,” Chabad on Campus International’s first heritage trip to Poland. Instead, it was a meaningful trip filled with poignant moments, disturbing images, inspiring lessons and shared experiences.
Students from dozens of colleges across North America spent six days in Poland—bearing witness to death camps, mass graves, labor camps and ghettos, in addition to the resting places for millions of Jews who were murdered there. But it was hardly all gloom, as students also got a glimpse of the vibrant Jewish life that once thrived in Poland.
Rabbi YY Jacobson, the spiritual mentor for the trip, helped students channel their anger and pain into a commitment to sustain Judaism, keeping it alive for the group long after they return home and when they get back to their respective campuses. As a Chanukah menorah was lit in Auschwitz by college students whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, Jacobson implored: “Dear students, in the darkest and cruelest of places, we continued to kindle torches of goodness and holiness. Now, in times of freedom and prosperity, will we allow our flames of Yiddishkeit to be extinguished?”
From the feedback of participants, it was clear that the rabbi’s message resonated. As Ilana Sperling, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, put it: “Today, we are angry; tomorrow, we will be angry again. We will take that anger and use it to form something positive.”
The menorah-lighting was an emotional experience, especially for those whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Andres Schwarz, also a student at the University of Florida, posted on social media: “Now more than ever, I am incredibly proud to be a Jew. Am Yisrael Chai!”
And University of Virginia student Dan Bleykhman wrote on Facebook: “To say it is not personal [is] the biggest lie ever. This is very personal, whether you know a victim or not. I always thought my last name was a rarity, when, in fact, it turns out that there were once many Bleykhmans or Bleikhmans. To think that I once wanted to change my last name to Blakeman is shameful. I will forever be proud of my name. I will forever be proud of who I am. And I will forever be proud of being a Jew.”
“This pilot trip to Poland was a special opportunity for our students to journey through our history—connecting our devastating past with a vibrant present and future,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International. “They witnessed the incomprehensible destruction our people suffered and understand that we have persevered despite it all. The students returned home with a renewed commitment to their Jewish identity, inspired to be part of the future of our people.”
“Poland was home to so many vibrant Jewish communities; the students were able to experience rich Jewish history,” said Rabbi Yossi Witkes, who directs “LivingLinks” and “IsraeLinks” for Chabad on Campus International. “Standing on sacred ground, where millions of our people were systematically and brutally murdered, invokes a wide range of emotions. For many students, this was an inspiring catalyst, empowering and uplifting them to embrace their heritage, be proud of their identity and keep the flame of Judaism alive.”