IKAR’s Central Europe Trip

Germany | Poland | Slovakia | Hungary / June 24 – July 7, 2022

Read this beautiful piece “Returning to places we’ve never been: Rethinking the ‘mission trip’” by Shawn Landres, Zuzana Riemer Landres, and Gosia Szymanska Weiss, designers and co-chairs of our community trip to Central Europe.
Some Reflections:
Shawn Landres: I wrote these words for the Jewish Journal last year before Rosh Hashanah. They capture some of my feelings after the IKAR Central Europe experience. “There is a point of no return in every trip. On our longest and most important journeys, there frequently are no landmarks in sight: the past is untenable and the future invisible. Globally, nationally, locally, personally, we find ourselves at countless points of no return, intersecting and overwhelming, as we work to mitigate climate change, preserve democratic civil society, repair racial, economic, and social inequities, bring the pandemic under control, care for our loved ones and ourselves and more.” What is the point of no return in societies headed away from democratic values, whether in Europe or the Americas or elsewhere? What is the point of no return for Jewish communities struggling to restore themselves after waves of trauma and destruction? How do we keep the lights on?
Jason Neidleman: We were able to find the tombstone of Rabbi Yitzchak Zvi Zafir, my mom’s grandfather, my great grandfather, and Joshua’s great great grandfather. He was killed in WWI while serving as a chaplain and is buried in the Kosice Jewish Cemetery.
Adam Wergeles: Today, I went to the Plaszow concentration camp on the outskirts of Krakow. Because what better way to kill a day than seeing another concentration camp. I have now seen 4 concentration camps. Dachau, during a break from my junior year in Israel, and now Auschwitz I, Auschwitz Birkenau and Plaszow as part of the IKAR Central European Trip (a/k/a The Fuck Hitler Tour). At the beginning of the trip, Rabbi Brous asked us what thoughts we had as we commenced this journey in history. I shared that my concern/curiosity was around the range of the emotional response that I would experience. I have heard stories of people who have had hugely emotional responses to the camps. People have described having nightmares, breaking out in tears and similarly emotive responses. I have always felt those were the “right” responses. The human responses. The Jewish responses.  But I worried that I was not “capable” of such an emotive response (which would surprise literally no one who knows me). I did not have that emotive response to Dachau. I remember it was a freezing cold, gray and dreary day and it felt sanitized of the evil. My thought when Rabbi Brous asked the question was that I was younger then, my age and experience would have deepened my emotional register. I thought to myself, “I’m not a sociopath for God’s sake.” So here is my emotional response to the places that we visited.
Auschwitz 1:  For Jews and others, Auschwitz is both the embodiment of evil and a caricature of evil. The scale of evil that it represents is almost beyond human comprehension. At the same time, as I walked onto the site, my first thought was put a little grass around the buildings and it could look like a bucolic Northeastern liberal arts college. It takes a moment for your eyes to see the barbed wire, the wall where prisoners were executed and the other instrumentalities of murder and torture. As you walk through the various “sites,” there’s almost a Disneyland like quality in terms of moving people through the displays. To be clear, I’m glad that so many people are visiting the site, but it does take on a kind of theme park from hell aspect to it. My greatest emotional responses were to the things that humanized the horror, such as the piles of hair, the shoes, the eye glasses, the huge books identifying the names of 4 million of the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. But the buildings themselves left me feeling cold and detached.
Auschwitz Birkenau: My immediate feeling about Birkenau was two-fold. The sheer scale of the site is staggering. But then, almost immediately, the next thought was that the scale exists to make more efficient the mass murder of Jews and others in a manner never before seen by the world and not seen since. Even the whole “selection” process, immediately deciding who would live and who would die was done with ruthless efficiency, as if we were widgets subject to a standard quality control review at a factory. I wondered what if this intellectual energy had been used for good rather than pure evil. Just think how different the world might look. It’s hard to get your arms around the sheer amount of thought that went into killing us. But then again, my response was not emotional–it was much more intellectual. And again the things that elicited a much more emotional response in me were the stories. Our tour guide told us of a mother with a son and a daughter. The mother knew that she and her daughter were not going to be found fit to work and she kept pushing away her teenage son to save him. He just wanted the comfort of his mother. Finally, he relented and yelled, “I hate you and hope you die.” Those were the last words he spoke to her.  Another example is when the tour guide told us that the “preferred” bunks at Birkenau were the top bunks because those on the bottom had to deal with the constant stream of diarrhea caused by starvation-induced dysentery. Even smaller things caught my attention, like the fact that the Nazis put Red Cross symbols on the cars to fool the Jews being taken to camps where they would be executed. Or the fact that the Nazis put fake chimneys in the barracks to fool the world into thinking that heat was being provided. Those are the small details that cracked me open.
Plaszow: What’s interesting about that camp is that it was basically completely demolished by the Germans as the Soviets were rolling in towards the end of the war and then the Soviets finished the job. Now the place is oddly kind of beautiful. Large untamed meadows sprinkled with periodic and reasonably effective displays, almost like small billboards, describing various horrors of life at the concentration camp. There are also various memorials. I found the place eerily effective. It’s almost as if the removal of the barracks and other edifices of torture and murder freed my mind to contemplate the horror of life at the camp. To my surprise, my emotional response to this felt deeper. I felt as if I were walking among ghosts.