Thursday, August 22, 2013

Volunteer Profile: Shlomi Shaked, 2013

May 2013 PSA on a tour of the AJC with Shlomi Shaked. Photo by Dara Bramson.
Hometown: Holon, Israel

What attracted you to the AJC? 
This was not my first time at the AJC, so I already knew the place and how beautiful and important it is. During my military service in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], my mother, who was born in Oświęcim, suggested that I come to the AJC and be a volunteer. After I was released from the army I decided to make her suggestion a reality. Moreover, I believe that by coming back to Oświęcim, my family’s historical home, and giving tours in the museum and synagogue, my family history is coming full circle: my grandfather, Solomon Kuperman, who I am named after, was the rabbi of the synagogue after WWII until 1955. 

What did you enjoy most about your volunteer experience? 
The best part of volunteering at the AJC is that I meet people from all over the world, from different backgrounds, and religions. It is really interesting to discuss the history of Oświęcim and hear other people’s stories. For many people coming to the AJC, it is their first “Jewish” experience – they learn so much about the Jewish history of Oświęcim and a lot about Judaism in general. I can only hope that with this new knowledge people will understand cultural and religious differences, whether about Jews or other groups, and help to make this world more accepting. 

How has volunteering here affected you? 
Volunteering at the AJC helped me improve my communication with new people. Guiding tours let me express myself openly in front of people, and of course I had the opportunity to make many new friends. During these five months, I experienced and learned so many things, including new information about my own religion, Judaism; I also became familiar with other cultures and daily life abroad. Now I understand how much work should be done in order to make this world less racist, and I deeply believe that volunteering at the AJC was the first step towards this goal. 

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know? 
The AJC is a place that will continue developing and be a place where individuals can experience new and amazing things. The AJC is one big family, which welcomes everyone.

AJC Volunteers (L-R) Shlomi Shaked (Israel), Glib Pronskikh (Ukraine),
Johannes Fe (Germany), Dominik Reiterer (Austria)

Listening to Silence

Holly Robertson, 2012 AJC Fellow 

I found myself in a peaceful field full of purple, yellow, and white flowers; countless orange butterflies; and wild raspberries. Yet knowledge of the space’s past darkened my observations and I felt guilty for finding such a place so beautiful. The Nazi-killing center Treblinka once occupied this very field. Where lupines dotted the terrain, 700,000 to 800,000 Jews were murdered between July 1942 and November 1943. Vasily Grossman, a Soviet-Jewish journalist, described Treblinka in July 1944 as follows:

The earth is throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers. It does not want to keep secrets. And the objects are climbing out from the earth, from its un-healing wounds.” 

Today, 17,000 stone slabs of varying dimensions jut from the earth memorializing the dead; 700 of them bear the names of towns where Jews who perished at Treblinka once lived. When I saw the earth pushing up those stones, I thought of Grossman. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of voices lost and wounds unhealed in the very place I walked. Knowledge of the dead juxtaposed with the beautiful surroundings of the living forests and flowered meadows was unnerving.

Treblinka has remained an empty space since the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of its history. It was this noticeable absence—an empty field symbolically connected to the absence of an entire people—which moved me. It forced me to grapple with how space affects our perceptions of history, memory, and mourning. Recently, thousands of miles away from Treblinka, I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. One line in particular resonated with me: “You have to listen to [silence], and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes—sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen then. But you have to.” The silence of Treblinka is the pain of the world crying. It hurts to listen. But we have to.

Holly Robertson is a Master's candidate at Georgetown University in Global, International, and Comparative History, where she focuses on 20th century Polish history, Polish-Jewish relations, ethnic minorities, and the Holocaust. Her current research traces the interactions between ethnic Muslims and Jews living as neighbors in the Polish borderlands before, during, and after the Holocaust. Holly is a research assistant in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and will be interning for the Office of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova at the U.S. State Department in the fall.

A perspective from Bulgaria

Gergana Karadhova, 2011 AJC PSA participant

Meet my student Todor.
He is fourteen. Likes football. Smart but lazy.
2/3 of the time Todor is bored at school.
1/3 of the time he has a test and thus – no choice.
When Todor is bored he draws swastikas on the school desks.
Strings of dark ink splatters, each an inch-long.
Todor assigns no special meaning to the Nazi symbol. He has heard of Hitler, knows what happened during the Holocaust, and has been told well over a million times that this is punishable. School rules strictly forbid drawing on desks.

Todor is one of my students. But also one of thousands.

In Bulgaria, the history curriculum is structured so that World War II and the Holocaust come up for the first and only time in 10th grade. This means that students are 16 or 17 when they finally get to read the one page about the Holocaust in their textbook. By that time most kids have seen a movie, read a book, or heard from others about the Jews. Yet the delay of formal education on the topic leads to ambiguity of historically accurate information. In countries with growing ethnic conflicts, especially those with Roma minorities, swastikas are turning into a symbol of distrust towards all things established, the state and the system. The anti-Semitic meaning is ignored because in these parts of the world “Jewish” is an increasingly abstract term; so few Jews live here. In Bulgaria, over 90% of Bulgarian Jews left for Israel after 1948.

It is not only the poorly educated and “kids with problems” who search for ways to express their distrust towards the establishment. There is a connection between ethnic intolerance, Holocaust education, and anti-social behavior. Is it Todor’s fault that for 14 years, Bulgaria’s schools haven’t found the “necessary number of class periods” to teach him about the Holocaust?

Gergana Karadhova took part in the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad in May 2011 while studying in Potsdam, Germany. In her current work as a teacher in her native Sofia, she strives to foster awareness in her students about the importance of tolerance.