The following is the first of a series of blog posts from my trip to Israel and Poland, an exploration into my family and cultural roots.
Summer for a teacher offers limitless possibilities. In addition to preparing for the next school year, many teachers work summer programs; some catch up on sleep, reading, and their favorite Netflix series; and others go to the beach or Italy or Honolulu. Me? I chose to study the Holocaust.
I booked a trip to Israel and Poland with the intention of writing something, but I didn’t know what. My great-grandparents were from Galicia, modern-day Poland and Ukraine, yet this would be my first time there. In both Israel and Poland, I would delve into my family, religious, and cultural roots—to wander the old city of Jerusalem and feel its spiritual intensity, to smell the spices of the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, and to see with my own eyes the country where my family hid from the Nazis. To try and fail to understand it all. To question.
The chronological choice would be to visit Poland first and Israel second. Explore the past, and then experience the future. But no, I was eating hummus and tahini on the beaches of Tel Aviv and then visiting the Warsaw Ghetto. I would immerse myself in the vibrant Jewish homeland of today, and then penetrate the painful memories of my people. The rebuilding, then the destruction. To better understand the past, I theorized, we need to see its effects in the present.
I immersed myself in literature, history, and current events before setting off, yet it was a movie, “The Zookeper’s Wife,” that made me realize what I was about to do. The story of how Antonia and Jan Zabninski saved hundreds of Jews by hiding them in cages at their zoo was a sharp reminder about how far my ancestors have come, how much they’ve sacrificed, and how small my problems are in comparison. The movie put things in perspective and emphasized the importance of keeping the memories of the Holocaust survivors alive. I also realized that this goes beyond even the Holocaust, but to genocides and massacres all through time.
This is critical for my generation. For it is my generation that is or will soon be raising the next generation of Jewish people. It is my generation where things could easily be forgotten—far enough removed from the world of our grandparents, but the last to remember first hand accounts of the time.
Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer, built a second home in Warsaw where the ghetto used to be, as a memorial to his parents’ families who died in World War II—the narrowest house in the world. What can I do to preserve my family's memories?
And so, with a backpack filled with a notebook, pens, Schindler’s List (the book), and Nature Valley Oat ‘n Honey granola bars (clearly the best kind), I set off into the unknown, not knowing how it would change me, and that, unexpectedly, I wouldn’t want to leave.