Thursday, September 15, 2016

Artifact Spotlight: Challah cover

This challah (traditional bread baked for Shabbat) cover was sold to raise money for Kolel Chibas Yerushalayim (est. 1830), a charity that supported Jews who had emigrated to the Holy Land from Galicia, a former historical and geographical region in southeastern Poland and Ukraine. The cover features the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Many Jewish homes in Oświęcim had special collection boxes to raise money for their brethren in Palestine. This challah cover was found in 1990s in a house on Berka Joselewicza Street in Oświęcim. Gift of Aleksandra and Tomasz Kuncewicz.

US Army Captain Benjamin Dratch

In June 2016, Captain Benjamin Dratch spoke at the annual AJC dinner. This is the text of his speech:

Ladies and gentleman, thank you very much for attending the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation Dinner and for supporting the American Service Academies Program. I would especially like to thank Shiri Sandler, the US Director of the AJC, for the opportunity to speak to all of you tonight.

Seven years ago, I attended this same function as a very different person. I was 19 years old, had just completed my freshman year at the United States Military Academy, and, despite a challenging first year at West Point, I still had a belief that I was almost invincible. My experience during the American Service Academies Program profoundly changed my worldview.

I am Jewish and my grandmother escaped Germany in 1936. My first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was when I was 15, and my grandmother walked me through the museum telling me how her life had changed as the Nazis came to power. She told me how her old friends started avoiding her and how being Jewish became increasingly stigmatized. If anyone in my generation was in a position to understand the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust, it was me. But yet, I did not. I thought I empathized with their struggle but I really could not imagine losing my life in a death camp. Somehow, I always believed that it would have been different for me; I would have managed to escape. I now see the error of the arrogance borne from my inexperience. As an able-bodied, white, middle-class, American male, it was incredibly difficult for me to imagine the powerlessness of those being held by the Nazis. There is something immeasurably moving about seeing first-hand the thick brick walls, tall watch towers, and rows of barbed wire surrounding the Auschwitz Death Camp. I finally realized, if I had lived in Germany during the early 1940s, I too would have likely lost my life in a place like Auschwitz. Just as I feel totally integrated into American society today, countless Jews felt connected to their respective cultures in Europe and were unable to imagine the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis. It is easy to grow comfortable believing the world is destined to become increasingly peaceful and humane, but history will only repeat itself if we do not remain forever vigilant and combat hateful ideologies before they gain popular support.

So, you might be wondering, the American Services Academies Program teaches empathy to future military officers but how does that translate into action? This is where I believe the program is truly exceptional. During our visits to different museums and while listening to a variety of speakers, we learned about the many Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives to help the oppressed. Hearing these stories, one thing in particular always stood out to me: all these heroes viewed their own efforts in relatively unheroic terms. They simply stated that helping others was the right thing to do, so they helped. And they didn’t see themselves as having done any single particularly courageous act, they just lived their daily lives in a moral way and when presented with an ethical challenge, like whether or not to help hide a family of Jews fleeing Nazi occupied territories, they acted in accordance with their deeply held values.

In Exodus 23:9, the Torah states that “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Israel.” I have considered this quote often since first traveling to Auschwitz. During my first deployment to Afghanistan, I was initially in charge of many Afghan-born linguists and locally contracted workers who helped on the base. While technically I was in their country, the Afghans were definitely “strangers” who had limited power when working on an American Forward Operating Base. It was educational opportunities like the American Service Academies Program that prepared me to be able to relate and empathize with individuals from such a different background. Talking to many of the Afghans I worked alongside, I was always struck by the common humanity we shared. Just like the average American, the vast majority of Afghans dream of living in a country where their families are safe and they are able earn a living wage. My duties during that first deployment to Afghanistan, and even in my subsequent deployment to Iraq, were nothing that remarkable but I took a great deal of pride in them. I figured it was the little actions that mattered: attempting to do the right thing day-in-and-day-out. That is the way so many Righteous Gentiles approached life and is clearly the way many of you, here tonight, live your lives. All of you could be somewhere else, but you are here, supporting this incredible organization.

This program has given me, and so many other officers, a priceless learning experience that we will never forget. The world is a dangerous place, and the American Military will continue to play an important stabilizing role for decades to come. Your support of the American Service Academies Program helps ensure that future leaders, like the cadets seated here tonight, are prepared to take on the challenges that lay ahead. Thank you so much for your dedicated support of this program and our country.

Volunteer Profile: Imogen Wilkins, 2016

Hometown: Bremen, Germany

What attracted you to the AJC?
I find it important to commemorate and remember the destruction of the Nazi crimes and at the same time link this to being active today against anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. The Auschwitz Jewish Center does both—on the one hand it educates about Jewish life in Oświęcim before, during, and after the Second World War; it also provides anti-discrimination trainings and hosts events on current issues such as the situation of refugees in Europe today. This combination is what makes this place so interesting for me.

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience? Most of all I enjoy giving tours to visitors—every group is different and nearly always interesting questions are asked and knowledge is shared. Spending my time at Café Bergson and working with such a great team have made this year a very special experience for me.

How has volunteering affected you?
I have learned a lot about Judaism and Jewish life in Oświęcim and have gained experience in teaching about them and making them accessible for school groups. I have also become more interested in Polish history and understanding a different perspective on history and the collective memory in this country.

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know?
Few people know of the town Oświęcim and if they do it is probably the last place one associates with Jewish life. However, before the war the majority of this town was Jewish; there were close to 30 houses of prayer and a vibrant and diverse Jewish community existed. I think it is very important that the history and the lives of these people are not forgotten.

In the Shadow of Tragedy: Life After Columbine

Molly Geoghegan, 2016 AJC PSA Alum

“Weren’t you scared?”

It’s the inevitable follow-up question I receive after revealing the name of my high school alma mater, Columbine High School, where the infamous 1999 school shooting took place, resulting in thirteen lives lost. Most people hear the word “Columbine” and associate it with tragedy, a pivotal moment in America’s history of gun violence that began to shine a brighter light on the problem. I think of pep rallies, taking part in plays, and awkward adolescent dances, singing along to Justin Timberlake with my friends.

When I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps this past April with the AJC Program for Students Abroad, we stayed the night in the Polish town of Oświęcim—the original Polish name from which the German word “Auschwitz” is derived. I was unexpectedly struck by the parallel of Oświęcim—much like my hometown of Littleton, Colorado—as becoming synonymous with a tragedy, a scene of a crime. More than 1.5 million people visit Auschwitz each year, yet few are aware that Oświęcim is home to some 35,000 Polish people who maintain normal, daily lives.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to compare two tragedies. A school shooting and the Holocaust are vastly different devastations in entirely separate contexts. But this common thread brings about the same question raised by the photo series in the Kluger House at the AJC , “Land of Oś: Life in the Shadow of Auschwitz,” by Danny Ghitis: “How can life exist in the aftermath of such overwhelming evil?” What’s more, why do people want to visit these sites of sadness?

During my second year of high school, I directed a tourist who was wandering the hallways taking photographs out of the building and to the nearby Columbine memorial. I was angry, not because I was late to class, but because that person saw my school as a place to be mourned, not a place where hundreds of students were learning.

For some, to see something is to believe it. By visiting these locations, perhaps they can fully comprehend what surpassed. But truly, how can we ever understand the magnitude or meaning of such heinous acts? At Birkenau, I was baffled into silence by its vastness alone.

In a world where people select their travel destinations based on reported violence, we must remember that evil can be present and acted upon anywhere. However, if we choose to be afraid of every place that has bore witness to tragedy, then we choose to be afraid of the earth itself. If we cut ourselves off from certain experiences on the basis of terrible things happening, then we, too, surrender to the same evil.

No, I was not scared to attend my high school.

This coming fall, a new group of teenagers will attend their freshman orientation and go on to journey through the exciting and strange years of adolescence.

Birds chirped and flowers were blooming the morning we arrived in Oświęcim as people went about their day. The George Santayana quote greeting visitors in the first bunker of Auschwitz seems fitting: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In carrying on with life, we carry the memory of the past. I believe this is the best and most effective way we can pay homage and move forward.

Let us triumph over these devastations by continuing to live.

Molly Geoghegan is a writer, marketer, and graduate of DePaul University where she was awarded Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in Media and Cinema Studies. A working visa brought her to Dublin, Ireland, where she continues to build a portfolio and freelance. She credits the AJC Program for Students Abroad with motivating her to continue learning and writing about international relations and is currently making plans to attend graduate school.


Rosemary Bornstein, 2016 AJC PSA Alum

I have always loved flowers. Maybe it is because I am named after a plant, and every nickname I have ever had has been plant-based. Or maybe I just appreciate this marvelous piece of life. So when I arrived at the first site my AJC PSA group visited when touring Birkenau, my initial thought was of how beautiful the field of yellow globe flowers was in the bright sunshine. Seven decades ago, this field was the site of the very first gas chamber in Birkenau.

To visit Auschwitz & Birkenau as a person of Jewish descent is to come face to face with the distinct possibility that you may not exist. My grandparents, who fled from Germany in 1934 to the United States were lucky; my extended family was not. I harbored a lot of anger about the Holocaust and what it did to my family. I decided to participate in the PSA in 2016 to visit these places because I wanted to better understand and honor the unnamed millions representing my family. I expected a country full of death and discovered one full of life.

I grew up Catholic and visited a synagogue only once in my life. Judaism was a part of my identity in name only. So when we went to Shabbat service as part of the program, I had very little idea what to expect. I struck up a conversation with one of the Israeli women sitting next to me and pestered one of the other PSA students with play-by-play questions about what was happening. Two groups of Israeli high schoolers were on their visit to Poland and had crowded the historic Izaak Synagogue to almost bursting.

Then, the singing started. As a Catholic, I spent a huge amount of time in church singing, but it was nothing like this. It began quite calmly, the students singing with as much fervor as you would expect from a bunch of energetic high school students wanting to impress their friends. But as it continued, the singing crescendoed until the synagogue was filled with sound. The students began dancing, first in their place, and then joining into a winding coil around the synagogue, moving to the sound of their prayers. At one point, a man climbed onto the bimah and yelled at the students in Hebrew, “We need to continue on with the service or you will all be sent home!” as they had been repeating the same refrain over and over for ten minutes. It was an incredible experience; people I did not know were singing prayers of a religion I do not follow in a language I do not speak, and yet I felt a sense of community. I also felt a sense of peace – my people had not only survived, but were thriving.

After the five days I spent falling in love with Poland, I left with more questions than I had started with. The most prominent of these was whether or not I could truly claim this experience as my own. My grandparents survived, we did not know any specific relatives who had been murdered by the Nazis, and I did not even follow the religion my people were persecuted for. I was journaling about this in my hotel in Kazimierz on my last night in Poland, when I received an email from my Aunt Olga:

“Dear Family,” it read, “A genealogist and Jewish family researcher in the San Francisco Area has been researching members of the Bornstein/Philippsborn families. A couple of weeks ago she sent me the German translation of a short talk given in Berlin recently. The talk celebrated the dedication of a stolpersteine (commemorative stumbling block) for Elise Bornstein Beset, daughter of Jacobi and Thelka Bornstein, a brother of Philipp Bornstein [my great grandfather].” In the email, she included a photo of the small memorial, the concrete evidence I had been yearning for to understand the feeling of connection I felt to the Shoah as a Jewish person.

The next day, I left to volunteer at the Calais refugee camp in France, hoping to honor the sacrifice my grandparents made for my sake and to bring the refugee experience full circle by helping those who are in need today. The most incredible part of this experience was seeing the community they have built within the confines of a refugee camp, reminding me of the incredible resilience I saw in the Jewish community in Krakow.

There is a special beauty in life continuing where it was once destroyed. It is the beauty I see when I think about what my family and I have because my grandparents left Germany when they did. It is the beauty I saw in the faces of the refugees at the camp in Calais, the hope of a better life shining from their eyes. It is in the overwhelming sense of community I felt watching the Israeli students joyfully dance around the Izaak Synagogue while singing in the language of a people reborn.

As my distant cousin stated at the dedication of my family’s stolpersteine: “There is a Jewish saying that goes: ‘Only those people are dead whom we no longer remember.’ This stone confirms that Elise existed, that she lived here and that at some point was taken away to a concentration camp and killed. I believe Elise would have been comforted to know that she now has eleven relatives who have come after her, some of whom live in Germany again. She will live on in us, and we will never forget her story – and we will continue to tell it.”

Rosemary Bornstein is a student at Saint Louis University, majoring in Public Health, International Studies, and French. She intends to earn Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Public Health with a focus in Communicable Diseases, after which she hopes to work in West Africa to combat Neglected Tropical Diseases. Rosemary intends to spend her life advocating for the treatment and victims of neglected diseases and is passionate about refugee rights. She has lived in five foreign countries and visited more than two-dozen others, documenting her journey here.