Monday, July 18, 2011

Warsaw and Majdanek

We left Germany and headed east to Warsaw via first class seats on a train. Th ride was about six hours, but time went quickly as we could move around and rest in intervals. Our hotel in Warsaw, Le Meridian Bristol Hotel could not be more posh! The hotel is located in wonderful spot not far from Old Town and adjacent to the presidential home (which consists of buildings on both sides of the road). The rooms, service and food were just as lavish as the location, and we soon found ourselves thankful that we have our last two nights of the trip there. Upon entering Warsaw one of our first destinations was exploring Old Town, and I was thrilled to go to the square, find a table and enjoy some lovely Zywick. It was a fabulous day!

During our initial two days in Warsaw we explored sites related to the ghetto, the Uprising in the ghetto, and Jewish/Yiddish life in pre-World War 2 Warsaw. We saw portions of the ghetto wall that remain standing and tried to envision how Vladka (who was apparently about my height but more frail) could scale those walls with such frequency as she went between the ghetto and the Aryan side. We also visited memorials at the ghetto deportation site, Mila 18 where the organizers of the uprising met, and for the ghetto uprising itself. One of our other stops was to the Jewish historical institute which was a building that predates the war and was a part of the large Reform synagogue that as destroyed by the Nazis. As we walked around we talked about how devastated and destroyed Warsaw was--first with the destruction of the ghetto after the uprising there and then the city wide uprising less than a year later. It was truly awesome to see these sights after having read Vladka's book.

We wrapped up our final day in Warsaw with a private Chopin recital in one of the last Polish king's palaces. It was an exquisite performance by an accomplished pianist. We had champagne at intermission and felt like royalty! We keep asking ourselves 'what are we going to do when we have to return to reality after this trip?'

After two fabulous days in Warsaw, we journeyed south to Lublin to visit the concentration camp/killing center of Majdanek. Since I was there just less than three months ago, I knew just how powerful a sight it can be. I tried to mention to my buddies how much it affected me, but there's no real way to prepare a person for it. It was a beautiful and warm Polish day--somewhat contradictory to the mood the sight evokes. Unfortunately, I know how effective going through such a sight can be with teenagers when you give them a bit of an overview but allow them to explore some of the facets on their own and reflect as they go. Since I know how amazing that process can be, I was disappointed that our group's leader and guide seemed set on lecturing for long periods of time at various parts of the camp. I went into the barracks with thousands of shoes, walked to 'my red shoe' (a shoe that has retained it's red coloring and that is located along the back wall), had my emotional breakdown, walked out to sit down, and reflected silently. Quiet, sincere reflection is a must at a site like Majdanek and many of the participants did not fully have that opportunity. I am interested to see how the tour of Auschwitz I and II turn out.

We're currently in Lublin for the afternoon and evening until we drive to the killing center of Belzec tomorrow, and then continue onward to Krakow.

The Camp System: Evolving Meaning  

During our stay in Germany, we left Berlin for a day trip to two camps used in the Nazi's concentration camp system. About two hours north of Berlin, we arrived at the site of Ravensbruck. Here the Nazis established a camp solely for women--over the course of it's use, Ravensbruck held political prisons (primarily) as well as Jews and other targeted groups. Today Ravensbruck contains remnants of the former camp that has been interspersed with various memorials. Something interesting about the camps outside of Berlin is their history following the Second World War when the Soviet Union controlled East Germany. While Bergen-Belsen was controlled by the British (I believe), Ravensbruck and the other camp we visited, Sachsenhaisen, both featured communist era memorials. These memorials often ignored the Jewish victim of the site and focused more so on the evils of rightist Fascists. It has only been the last twenty years with the collapse of the USSR that these sites have begun commemorating in more inclusive ways. 

Ravensbruck was particularly moving for our program director, Elaine Culbertson, whose mother survived a death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck as the Allies narrowed in on German forces. Even though many of the buildings do not remain, the camp's location remains fixed. Elaine was especially struck by the close proximity of the town near the camp. As opposed to other more remote camps, Ravensbruck borders a beautiful lake used by the locals for boating and sailing. From the camp you can quite clearly see into the center of town--the church and other buildings are easy to identify. Elaine's frustration boiled at the lack of action b the townspeople, not just here but in general in occupied territory. Unfortunately work is being done on the camp and their exhibit was not open.

Heading south about 20 miles outside Berlin, we arrived at Sachsenhausen. This camp consisted of a complex system of numerous satellite camps. The site itself evolved from a camp for political opponents of the Nazis to a part of the concentration camp system. The physical size of the camp also increased over time as the Nazis brought different groups of prisoners to the camp. Such prisoners included those of high priority, such as Stalin's son, who perished in the camp system before liberation. The most difficult part of our tour of Sachsenhausen was the medical building/morgue where experiments were conducted. Everyone seemed moved by the sterile white building with a lingering smell. Construction is also going on at Sachsenhausen to more aptly memorialize the site. 

Both Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen were terribly interesting and moving to visit. To me, visiting the camps is the only way to truly grasp the methodological system put in place by the Nazis. The ground feels hallowed and sacred when I stand at the site of such mechanized destruction and devastation of a people. But our journeys to camp sites are not done. We will visit three of the Nazi's killing centers: Majdanek, Belzec, and Aushwitz-Birkenau. As fast paced and jammed packed as this trip has been, I count my fortune to bear witness at such sites throughout Germany and Poland. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Exploring the Epicenter of Destruction

Once we recovered from a lengthy travel to Germany, we were ready to explore authentic sites for the first time. We traveled from Hannover to Bergen-Belsen, which evolved from a prisoner of war camp and an exchange camp for Jews, to a concentration camp housing Jews from 'neutral' countries and occupied territories, and finally to a displaced persons camp after the war. At Bergen-Belsen we were treated to a tour of their new museum before the facility opened to the public. At this time, our guide, Martin explained some of the unique features or the camp as well as the design of the museum and various memorials there.

The main portion of our time at Bergen-Belsen was spent in four smaller groups exploring the site with various experts. The panel of experts was introduced by the director of historical memorials of Lower Saxony. I ended up with Martin once again as his presentation and emphasis were on images and how to use them in a variety of ways with students. Martin took us to a smaller conference room to have us examine five or so images all connected to the history of Belsen. He asked us to surmise about the images with no additional information. We discussed the images and guessed at what was going on and who was photographed. Then Martin gave use folders containing two levels of information that he uses with students. The first piece of information for each photograph gave context to the images by explaining what was happening in the photo and the time period of Bergen. The last information Martin gives to students allows them to dig deeper into the people, event and period of the photo. Martin's exercise was wonderful and truly increased our knowledge of the history of Belsen. Based on his layered activity, I'm going to create a new activity for teaching the camp system that contains images from various aspects of five or six 'sample' camps--I'm hopeful that by digging deeper they will find greater insights into camp life and the system.

Our time at Bergen-Belsen was wonderful and none of us wanted to see it come to an end. We begrudgingly entered the bus for a four hour ride to the German capital. Unfortunately, the lengthy ride was extended into a six hour ride by a truck accident that backed up the highway to a veritable stalemate. The bus finally pulled up to the Hotel Berlin, Berlin at 10pm and we were treated to dinner in boxed format. Dinner was not all that appetizing but our soon discovered combination of beer and wifi was glorious!

Berlin's rich history quickly became apparent as we spent Wednesday exploring a few key aspects of the city. We began with a drive down Tiergartenstrasse past lavish embassies to the marker for the T4 program, which was responsible for the murder of German citizens (particularly children) who were deemed mentally or physically unfit by the standards of the Third Reich. We then headed to the Topography of Terror exhibit which resides at the former headquarters of the SS, SA, SD, and Gestapo. The exhibit featured excellent information on the perpetuators, various victim groups (particularly German political opponents) tortured and targeted by the Nazi machine, and the aftermath of the Holocaust for the perpetrators and Germany as a whole. The site also contains a stretch of the Berlin Wall which enhances the complexity of the history of Berlin.

After lunch we ventured to two memorials related to Nazi terror: the Memorial to the Homosexuals (who faced a specific terror due to Nazi pro-natalist policies) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has a fabulous exhibit under the actual memorial. The memorials are both distinct and interesting to view as they conjure a variety of emotions. The memorial to Germany's homosexuals appears gender neutral but a window reveals two men kissing to draw attention to the more pervasive persecution of gay men. The memorial to murdered Jews of Europe contains overs two thousands, for a lack of a better term, blocks of varying heights. You can get lost among them and disoriented as the ground undulates in various portions of the memorial.

We then ventured to the Jewish museum of Berlin where the architecture may overwhelm the visitor the to point where the artifacts become less significant. Thankfully we had a guided tour through much of this museum or we would have been completely confused in places. The most notable aspects of this site were the various abstract pieces and locations designed to make you uncomfortable and reflective. The museum is an important fixture in Berlin, but we didn't have a tremendous amount of time to explore it.

Another day in Berlin means another day of exploring sites related to the Holocaust. We began the second day with a trip to the Olympic Stadium and Tower. It gave us a fabulous view of the city and the surrounding region. With the stadium playing such an important role in the Nazi propaganda machine, it was really powerful to view the Olympic venue. After the tower, we traveled outside the city center to Wannsee Villa. The villa was the site of a strategic meeting between Nazi bureaucrats over how to organize and proceed forward with the final solution and the murder of European Jewry. Cristof was our guide through the villa and did a fabulous presentation on photographs. He was also able to explain the purpose and role of the conference in a context that differs from hollywood's view through Conspiracy. It was completely surreal to sit in the room where these members of the Nazi party met to plan for the fate of millions of people.

The bus took us back into the city to go explore the Jewish sights of Berlin. Many aspects of Jewish culture have been excised, but our guide did an excellent job telling us about Jewish life as we walked through the city. The most moving part of the day was seeing the museum dedicated to Otto Weidt and his brush factory, which through his efforts he was able to save some of his blind workers from the horrors of Nazi persecution. Otto was truly a wonderful man who cared deeply for his workers and went to great length to save them. 

Once our official tour was over, a few of us brave souls decided to walk from the hotel to Postdam square and then Checkpoint Charlie. It seemed relatively close on the map but ended up being a solid twenty minute stroll. We had beautiful weather and sunset to provide us with a lovely backdrop for our walk. Along the way we found souvenirs and yummy beer. Cynthia posted on my wall that I should try the Berliner raspberry wheat beer. I found it at the house of 100 beers, and it was glorious! 

On Friday we ventured to two concentration camps: Ravensbruck and Sauchenhausen. More to come on those. Tomorrow we leave for an early train to Warsaw. Will update again when I have wifi in Poland. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bucket List Items

The beautiful Land of Israel was truly an amazing place. During our last few days, we ventured to Jerusalem's historic Old City and out to the Judean desert and the Dead Sea. The final few days were filled with remarkable once in a life time activities--as many of us noted we were crossing off bucket list items each day!

Before we toured the Old City, we wrapped up our time at Yad Vashem with a lecture from renowned Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer who so succinctly explored some of the more controversial aspects of Holocaust studies. Dr. Bauer's lecture was a perfect way to end our time at Yad Vashem. We had a bit more time to explore the campus, so a few of us went off in search of the two art museums--one with works created during the Holocaust by the victims and the other with works by survivors. Both exhibits were wonderful, and the works of victims really solidified my desire to use artwork differently in my forthcoming Holocaust classes.

As we ventured toward the Old City, our bus driver Benny navigated us around crowds of Muslims leaving afternoon prayers and we headed to Zion gate of the Old City. Located by the gate are the supposed site of King David's tomb. Unfortunately, at this point on Friday the tomb was closed. As we entered the Old City, we dodged cars (it's unbelievable that there are even cars in Old City) and came into the Armenian quarter. Our guide explained to us that the Old City which is less than a square mile, is broken into four quarters: Armenian, Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters. We quickly found ourselves in the Jewish quarter which has buildings comparably newer than the other quarters. In addition to stores and businesses, hundreds of thousands of people are squeezed into this walled city. Our tour led us to the remnants of the Western Wall of the temple (which is now a mosque) also known as the wailing wall. Here we were able to partake in the act of leaving a wish or prayer in the cracks of the wall. As our guide explained, the notes all receive a proper Jewish burial and a considered sacred--it was an unbelievable experience to leave a note in the wall and walk backwards thinking about my wish. Check on the bucket list! After the wall, we traveled through the tight streets of the Muslim quarter and followed many of the points along the route of Jesus's final path before the crucifixion. We ended our your in the Christian quarter at the site of the Holy Sepulcher--a site where various Christian denominations vie for rights. While we were there we saw Franciscan monks perform prayers and rituals. The Old City is unlike anywhere else in the world--groups with great animosity toward one another live side by side in some of the tightest quarters of the world,. Within an hour walk, you can experience four distinct culture all within the walled city.

Our final full day in Jerusalem began with a ride through the Judean desert to the historic fortress of Masada. King Herrod commissioned the fortress and used it as a place of refuge until the Romans conquered the site in 70 CE. You could walk up the snake path to the fortress ruins, but thankfully we took the fancy cable car that drops you off at the top. Even at 8 AM the desert heat was oppressive and about 90 degrees. Masada provided us with amazing views of the surrounding mountains, the Dead sea, and Jordan beyond it. After many of the gang purchased lovely Ahava products, we journeyed to the Dead Sea--where the products originate from!

My buddies (Branda, Megan, Dougie, Zuleika and Jessica) and I got our swimming trunks on and prepared for our jaunt in the mineral filled water. We noticed a contraption off to the side of the area where we entered the water but didn't realize it's significance until our delicate feet started hurting from the salt crystals. We're sure the other tourists were laughing at the silly Americans who were startled to find out how much that salt could hurt. Once we were out a little ways we realized how buoyant the water made us and we all started floating. Branda served as our photographer at first and snapped some great shots of the rest of us standing while floating in the water--such a crazy sensation! After some persuading we were able convince Branda to come in and float with the rest of us. We stayed in the cleansing water for about 20 minutes which was just long enough. We had a buffet lunch a the hotel on the sea, and then drove north to the natural oasis of En Gedi.

When stories tell of people wandering the desert and coming upon an oasis, En Gedi is a perfect example! Benny dropped us off at the gates to this natural reserve, and our tour guide told us it would be a short hike to the natural springs. He even called it a "child's path"... Well it certainly started off fine but with over 100 degree temperatures and climbing uphill a bit, we were all exhausted when we reached the springs and waterfall. Thankfully the water was delightful and refreshing, and the waterfall was the much needed shower I'd been craving! Branda again played photo documenter while Jessica, Dougie, Megan, and I waded in. Branda captured some fabulous moments and used her skills to capture herself along with us in some shots. What a wonderful way to round out our time in Jerusalem! We finished the evening with one more meal on the Mamilla's rooftop restaurant.

On Sunday morning, we left Jerusalem for the museum of Massuah. This museum was designed for students to not only gain insight through study of content but also through application and creation base on knowledge gained, Massuah's key exhibit features the testimony of the Eichmann trial, which is regarded as opening up dialogue about the Holocaust among survivors, particularly in Israel. The testimony was amazing, but the most amazing part of our time at Massuah was getting to meet Shomlo Perl, who's story is captured in the book and film Europa, Europa. Mr. Perl disguised himself as a member of the Hitler Youth and survived the war as part of the HJ. 

From Massuah we drove to our hotel in Tel Aviv for a six hour stop over before our journey to Germany. The Crowne Plaza hotel was amazing and served as a nice resting place for us. Unfortunately, the rest only lasted so long when we boarded a bus for the airport at 1 in the morning. Despite a lengthy day of travel to Frankfurt and then Hannover Germany, the second country of our trip has treated us well so far! 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Remembering at Yad Vashem

The Mamilla Hotel in the heart of Jerusalem is our home during our stay in this wonderful city. To say that this hotel is modern would be a vast understatement! The hotel has brought together old with new in a terribly fascinating way--many of the stone walls of the hotel's main areas are original to the location. At the same time, the hotel has a terribly unique design in it's common areas and even within it's rooms. We were told that usually guests receive a guided tour to go over the room's features. This makes sense after you enter the space that does sort of look like a hotel room, but with a twist. Within the traditional design, the Mamilla has created bathrooms that are partitioned by seemingly clear glass from the rest of the quarters; however, you discover that a simple flick of the switch creates an opaque glass in place of the see-through version. The Mamilla is certainly starting us off on a high note!

Our first morning in Jerusalem began with a lavish spread of foods in the hotel's first floor restaurant. There were more choices than I could imagine, but with a relatively sensitive stomach, I limited myself to only a few items. After breakfast and coffee, a few of us Internet addicts went out in search of wifi--to our great delight, this ancient city is filled with 21st century people who also need their connectivity. So, wifi hasn't been that hard to come by (so far).

To start our exploration of Israel, we headed for Yad Vashem the largest museum and memorial site dedicated to the Holocaust and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry. Rather than a singular building, Yad Vashem is much more of a complex. With this design it serves a multitude of purposes--artifact-filled museum, hall of remembrance, memorial to the children, memorial to the deported, path of the righteous among the nations, art museums, video centers, learning centers, a library, archives, and an educational institution. Yad Vashem appears more like a beautifully designed college campus at first glance.

Our acquaintance with the the site, began in the main exhibit, which much like other Holocaust museums was designed with very purposeful techniques in mind. Cold stone walls contain you in a very defined space, you can see the exist from the entrance but your path is blocked, flooring changes particularly in the ghetto section where stones and train track from the Warsaw ghetto have been laid, images/video/and sound floods the senses as you move throughout the space, and finally when you reach the daylight of the exist you find yourself overlooking the outskirts of Jerusalem. Within the museum, I was struck by the use of artwork from victims and the varied ways people made art in such trying circumstances. Based on the artwork alone, you can tell how vast Yad Vashem's collections must truly be! From a teaching perspective, I hope to use the artwork to juxtapose with my lessons on culture during Weimar and Nazi identification of degenerate art. Hopefully, students will see the varied works as expressions of resistance by those forced into ghettos, camps, hiding, and overall, inhumane conditions.

With our time limited, many of us hustled around the "campus" to see its various memorials. The warm sun and clear blue skies added dimensions to our walk as it was not only hotter than the indoor locations, but the bright sun also served as an interesting hopeful reminder as we viewed memorials to those lost. Also during are time at Yad Vashem, we had mini lectures from a woman connected to their education center (whose name I did not catch) and our trip's Stephen Feinberg. Both of these were very intriguing, especially discussion of the museum's mission and goals. Fortunately, our time at Yad Vashem will continue for a few more hours as we will have another lecture and be able to explore some of the other wonderful aspects of the site.

Upon returning to the hotel, many of us gathered our energy and headed out to experience more of Jerusalem. After navigating the kosher restrictions at lunch, we should have been prepared to find the same requirements elsewhere, but when a hostess asked us "meat" or "dairy" we were sent into a discussion on just what exactly did we want! With a great spot at an outdoor restaurant, we were able to people watch and just take in the city. We again had the fortune to have dinner on the rooftop with the most amazing views of Jerusalem, in particular the Old City. This was the perfect way to wrap up a full day in one of the world's most historically rich places!

Arriving in Jerusalem

Our long day to Israel began in Washington, DC with a half day at the USHMM. We listened to a presentation by one of the museum's curators, Susie Snyder, who discussed various forms of resistance that can be found throughout the museum's permanent exhibit. After the excellent presentation, we had free time until we needed to meet the group at 1:15 in L'Enfante's lobby to leave for Dulles International. Douglas and I took advantage of this time to have lunch at one of my favorite museum cafeteria's at the American Indian museum. We shared a delicious flat bread taco, and then went up to the 4th floor to see what the museum had on the Cherokee. Since Douglas was raised on a Cherokee reservation in Western North Carolina, he actually recognized some of the people featured in the exhibit. Unfortunately, we did not have more time to look at the fabulous museum, so we headed to meet the group.

Thankfully the Dulles' check in and security moved extremely quickly, and we made it to our gate with plenty of time. The flight to Frankfurt went by rather quickly as I was able to sleep at least a bit during the eight hours. Luftansa took care of us and fed us quite well, and somehow the eight hours went by without too much boredom! We hustled off the plane in Germany, and made our way from one terminal to another after shlepping our bags for quite some distance. We made our way through tight security as we neared our gate for our final leg to Israel. After each of us received a thorough pat down from German security guards, we were prepared for the flight to Tel Aviv!

This leg was just over three hours long, and thankfully I, as well as many others, we able to sleep a bit on this flight. We arrived in Tel Aviv in the afternoon at around 3pm. Customs took a bit of time as it was a busy place, and we finally managed to head out of Tel Aviv for Jerusalem about 4 in the afternoon. Our drive took us from sea level around Tel Aviv through the rolling hills and mountains in Jerusalem. As we entered this vastly historic and holy city, we were taken aback by the architecture and buildings around us. Words do not really sum up of perception of the city! This was especially true after we sat down for dinner Wednesday evening on the roof of our very swanky and new hotel. The hotel's rooftop restaurant had absolutely marvelous views of Jerusalem, and the weather was simply outstanding! In addition to the fabulous setting, we were served an absolutely scrumptious meal of many courses served family style.

With a cappuccino in some of our systems, we were set to head out and explore downtown Jerusalem. Since our hotel had such a fabulous location, we easily able to get to the bustling parts  or town. Near the pedestrian walk, a small group of us decided to get a drink and soak up the wonderful night. After this lovely time, we headed back for a much needed night's sleep

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Beginning: Washington

Upon arrival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., I met up with Douglas from North Carolina. We were so thrilled to see each other and begin our journey! Dougie "Fresh" and I traveled to the L'Enfante Hotel via a cab (thankfully the cabbie did not hit any pedestrians). Our excitement for our trip grew exponentially as we entered the hotel, found out our rooms were not ready, and quickly discovered that several other participants were waiting in the lobby. We shared names and stories with one another, and it was already very clear what amazing group of people we were going to spend the next three weeks with.

After chatting in the hotel with more arriving participants, it was time to head to the USHMM museum for our orientation meeting. The 27 participants introduced ourselves as did our leaders Stephen Feinberg and Elaine Culbertson. Stephen and Elaine are accomplished teachers and Holocaust educators who have been affiliated with USHMM for decades. They have been running this trip for many years and have prepared for us an extensive schedule for the next three weeks. With their orientation, we quickly knew that Stephen and Elaine run a tight ship, but have created a truly wonderful itinerary for us!

For dinner, we ate at the hotel and had the honor of listening to Holocaust survivor, Henry Greenbaum. Henry told his story, and we were enthralled by his journey of survival. As just an example, Henry was shot in the head while trying to escape a concentration camp with his sister. Thankfully the bullet grazed him and his cousin tended to his wound, which kept him out Nazi clutches as they searched for those who attempted escape. Henry's story was compelling and beautifully told.

Even though it was such a long day, a few of us decided to enjoy a few adult beverages after dinner. We had a wonderful time chatting and getting to know each other better! Many of us slept quite well on that first night!

On Monday morning, we celebrated the fourth of July at the USHMM. On our way to the museum, we saw all of the preparations for the 4th around the Mall. Security was extra tight at the museum, so after some confusion, we entered the museum and began our first full day. In the morning we discussed artifacts and their importance in teaching about historical events--particularly the Holocaust. We were instructed to find a few artifacts per floor of the permanent exhibit that we could utilize in our classrooms. This assignment was really helpful for me since I've been to the USHMM at least a dozen times. With this direction, I looked at the objects in a different lens than usual.

As we made our way through the museum, I found a number of useful artifacts. Many of them are ones we read about or already look at in Holocaust and Human Behavior, but thinking about them differently encouraged me to think about structuring units in new ways. When we were done with the permanent exhibit, we stopped briefly for lunch, and returned to go through the State of Deception propaganda exhibit as well as Daniel's Story. In the afternoon, the group met to discuss our exploration of the museum and discuss the artifacts we found. After an interesting and intellectually stimulating conversation, we headed back to L'Enfante Hotel to prepare for dinner. At dinner we were again fortunate enough to have survivors speak to us. This time it was Roman Kent and his wife who were gracious enough to share their stories with us. Both of them had amazing stories, and according to Roman, his wife very rarely speaks about her story so we considered ourselves a privileged group.

After dinner, we ventured out into DC to explore places to watch their firework display. Dougie and I decided to stay near the hotel and walked just down the street to watch. We had a nice view of the Washington monument and saw the fireworks pretty well from our vantage point. It was very cool to be in DC for the nation's birthday!

Next up is our long day as we travel from Washington, DC to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt, Germany. Hopefully we all get their safely with our luggage!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On the Eve of Change

On the night before I begin a three week journey, which I've been assured will forever change me as a person and an educator, a sense of purpose has settled within me.

Just minutes ago, I finished Vladka Meed's book "On Both Sides of the Wall" that explorers her involvement with the Jewish resistance in Warsaw before, during and after the Ghetto Uprising. Vladka's work as a young woman was truly remarkable, and like many survivor narratives, luck played a primary role in her survival of the Holocaust. As Vladka wrapped up her story, she recalled the trip to Poland that she and her husband took in 1978--their first time returning to their homeland since they left in the wake of war. Vladka and her husband traveled around Warsaw and then ventured to Treblinka. In Vladka's reaction to the memorial at the site of the Treblinka death camp (where the Germans took meticulous effort to destroy evidence of the exterminations and gas chambers), Vladka explained, "What remains is this vast and empty field, covered with 1500 pointed stones that rise toward the heavens with a silent but piercingly eloquent accusation." What a description!

Less than three months ago, I stood where Vladka stood. To her the stones represented loved ones, close friends, and her community which was torn apart at the hands of various "enemies." I cannot fathom the emotions she must have felt. When I stood there with 14 teenagers, I went through my own wave of emotions. How could the Germans (in the midst of war) take the time to so explicitly cover their tracks? How must terror must have taken place here? How did people bear with the reality of camps such as Treblinka after the war?

Tomorrow I will begin a journey, one that was originally conceived by Vladka and her husband, Benjamin. By creating the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher Program, Vladka and Benjamin ensured that countless educators would have the opportunity to bear witness, study the events of the Holocaust where they occurred, and bring knowledge of Jewish resistance and determination to generations of young people. Although I cannot yet estimate how the trip will change me, I know with certainty that Vladka's passion and strength will unify all of our discussions, camp visits, and memorial moments of silence. I am immensely grateful for this opportunity, and I can only hope that I rise to the challenge Vladka has put in front of me.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Student Reflection on Majdanek

As I prepare to go on the HAJRTP trip in just a few days, I realized I had one more student reflection to add to the blog.

Here's Jill Santos' piece on Majdanek:

Before I went on this trip, everyone told me that visiting the sites would be difficult. I had imagined in my mind what each camp would look like. From pictures I’d seen in class, I conjured up some imaginary panoramic view of what I would see. However, I never stopped to think that my vision might not be correct.
For the entire bus ride to a camp called Majdanek, I imagined it. I thought about how various teachers told me it looked exactly like it had in 1945. I thought about testimonies I read from survivors and soldiers who had liberated it. I thought about crinkled black and white images I’d seen in textbooks of people barely living in the prison. And as I was thinking, I didn’t see the large stone monument creep up on me. I turned my head, and there it was. It stood tall over a vast field, nearly blocking the entire view from the bus window. However, as tall as it stood, there was still a sense of despair in the structure. Individual carvings in the large rock looked like suffering figures, ready to fall. Instantly, it passed to me the same anxious feeling that it passes on to everyone who looks at it. I suddenly knew that the image I had prepared myself for was, not so much wrong, but much less than what was actually there.
We all got out of the bus and walked silently down steps to go through the pass. There was ground on either side of us that jutted out with rocks, like the walls were closing in. And then finally, steep steps took us up under the monument, and it looked even more overwhelming from underneath. I felt small and vulnerable, in a way I never really had before. And then, as we all walked one by one to the other side of the monument, we saw it: Majdanek.
It was a bit movie-esque, the way we each stared out at the camp with our own looks of despair. Our faces crinkled with nerves, worry, and disgust that the large place had only been put into existence for the persecution of others. We were still above the camp, on the hill that held the giant stone, and looking out, the camp look endless. More importantly, and more striking, though, it was there. It looked untouched, like it could still have been running. The past camps we had visited had all been destroyed, only leaving remnants of foundations as evidence of the crimes committed there. Majdanek stood, completely, like it was ready to be judged for it’s heinous crimes.
Moments later, we were down in the camp. We were the only ones. However, it was not silent. Noise from the city echoed across the distance and into our ears. It sounded like a busy day, like people hustling and working. Above us, birds flew freely and chirped loudly, maybe because they didn’t know where they were. However, that’s when everything really hit me. I was sure, that from the construction of the camp until it’s liberation, the birds chirped. They flew, and dove, and rose, and laid their eggs as they had always known to do. They landed at the camp, and took off when they pleased. They went on with their lives, made families, lived, and died.
I always told myself that I would try to imagine myself in the camps, as an inmate. I didn’t think it would be difficult when I was actually at the camp, but it was. I tried to feel the blistering summer heat and the frozen winter air as I walked through buildings and the gravel paths. I touched the barbed wire and tried to imagine myself not being able to cross through the gates they held. I tried to imagine myself laying on wooden bunks, with only other bodies for heat. It was hard. I cringed at many of the emotions I tricked myself into believing, but nothing was worse than trying to imagine myself hungry, thirsty, and withering away, as birds were able to go free. How would it make me feel, to be robbed at my chance to have a childhood, to be educated, to grow and start a family of my own and to watch my children grow, while the birds flew overhead and went on, nothing stopping them from doing everything they pleased.
And then, we were at the Mausoleum, built to honor those who perished in the camp. I still heard chirping behind me as I ascended the steps, not really sure of what I was going to see. The shade that the giant concrete structure provided made the inner area cold and eerie, and I didn’t have much time to think before I saw what the Mausoleum housed. In front of me, was ash. It sort of took the breath out of me. There was no glass separating it from me. There were no signs explaining, no bars indicating you to stand back. It was just there, and the closeness of it haunted me. For as much as I tried to imagine myself during the visit, I stopped. I could not do it. I could not imagine what it would be like to truly understand.
But I did try to imagine the people. The people, all that ash, it used to be people. They were people who were robbed of their childhoods, their education, and their right to have a family and to watch their children grow. It was no longer some sort of imaginary image- it was there. I remembered all the pictures in museums of living, breathing people with goals, aspirations, friends, family, and thoughts. I could not fathom that this was the fate of millions of people, who were so deserving of so many things they were deprived of.
I then thought to a monument in the destroyed town of Lidice. The monument was based on photographs of children who were stolen or killed when the town was raided. Each child looked exactly has they had in real life, and their faces were indescribable, but sculpted forever with this intense despair. Children like them were victims, and their fates were similar to what I was currently looking at in Majdanek. The thought absolutely sickened me.
Everything I’ve said has been extremely descriptive, and I wrote it true to the emotions I felt at the time. I think it’s important to pass on exactly what I felt, so other people can know what I now know. It is important, especially now. The last survivors are beginning to pass on, along with the last soldiers, the last heroes who hid hunted peoples, and the last relatives and friends of people who perished during the war. I feel extremely lucky to have gone on this trip, because to me, it is incredibly important to remember. As the years pass on and new problems arise in the world, if our generation does not remember, then who will?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Student Speeches Part 2

Up next is Steven Perlack, who I had the pleasure of teaching in one of my Holocaust classes this year.

Good evening, I’m Steven Perlack and I would like to start off by saying that it is an honor to stand here before you tonight.
In my twelve years of education within the public school system, I have learned and, because of this trip, have now seen firsthand that a textbook can only teach you so much. It is not the directive of mankind to sit idly by from a distance and observe while evil takes place. Instead, we as a society must take pains to immerse ourselves in history, to attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to see with our own eyes the full extent of totalitarian Fascism let loose on the world. Only a perfect storm caused by insanity’s occupation in a seat of power could conspire to allow such a calamity and such a black stain on the mark of humanity as the Holocaust to occur. I have had the rare privilege to visit the locations where such evil took place. This trip has given myself and 13 others a glimpse into the past and into the fleeting moments of millions of people’s lives who, in a cascade of seemingly instantaneous changes, were removed from their homes, their families, their communities, and their places of worship to be brought to places where even angels surely fear to tread. After seeing these places, I cannot help but feel as though they are sacred to all of mankind, and that they should be forever remembered, in infamy, as places where almost an entire generation of human potential was ruthlessly and remorselessly erased from the Earth. This loss can never be repaired, it can never be fixed, or remedied, or compensated for. We cannot always control what happens in other lands, which is why we must work, not only as a nation, but as one human race to spread the legacy of the Holocaust throughout the world. When we succeed at this, then, and only then can we truly say “Never Again”.
Thank you

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Student Speeches

With permission from my students, I'll be posting some of their reflections on the Holocaust Overseas Trip. They presented to the Flemington Jewish Community Center in May 2011.

First up is Carrie Franchino!

Good evening! My name is Caroline and I’m a junior at HC. I’m truly at a loss for words… The experiences I had abroad were truly the most incredible and unforgettable memories I have had and will EVER have. It is practically impossible to describe to you all the places I saw, so I would like to focus on one particular moment that changed my life.
In Poland we visited Auschwitz. The most famous landmark in Auschwitz is the railroad tracks. Every two hours thousands of people would be sent by those railroad carts to their deaths. I walked on those tracks. I touched the wooden planks and warm metal rails. I stood on the landing platform and gazed at a railroad car. It was a typical blue-sky and sunny day, yet I was standing where millions of people once stood before they died. When I looked to my left and right I saw endless fields of barbed wire, watch towers, and the remains of chimneys from where the inmates once slept. Looking forwards I saw two enormous piles of rubble from where the gas chambers and crematoriums once stood. I stared at the remainders until my vision became too blurry because I was crying. I looked down and saw beautiful purple wildflowers swaying in the wind. They were everywhere! Probably millions. I began to collect them from all around until I held a beautiful bouquet. Then I walked back over to the railroad tracks and laid the flowers down. Then I took a picture. *This is the picture I took.* There were no tombstones in Auschwitz. The bodies were cremated and the ashes were scattered. To me, the flowers felt like the remainders of the ashes because the sprouted from the ground and the railroad tracks were like the tombstones because they are a reminder of all the people who died there. You could say what I did was poetic of symbolic, but to me it was an act of remembrance. “Never again.” These were the words marked on a stone in Treblinka, another death camp. Laying the flowers on the tracks was a way for me to respect those who perished and to also promise to never let anything like it ever happen again. This is why we all went on this trip. We are witnesses. Now that we have seen places like Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, and Terezin we can testify to the horrors of the Holocaust and then make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
The Holocaust remains a dark period in our world’s history, but it leaves an indelible scar in all our hearts. As George Santayana once said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” We will all work together to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. They say that “seeing is believing” and now there are 17 new eyewitnesses. We will never forget.

Thank you!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wildflowers and Chimneys

(Should have been posted on morning of Wednesday, April 20th)

Although Auschwitz was the last camp on our tour, it was the most anticipated site before the trip. As the largest concentration/extermination camp, Auschwitz (which includes Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz) is the most well known around the world. Our tour of the site began at Auschwitz I, the portion of the camp that existed prior to WWII, which originally served as a military base for Polish troops. We entered a very busy building that serves as the entry way for the museum and grounds. In this building, you could hear several different languages, and according to our guide, Auschwitz is visited by people from nearly 100 different countries each year. To limit the noise throughout Auschwitz I (the museum portion today), they have begun using microphones for the guides and headphones for group members. These created a more personalized, reflective feel as our guide navigated us through the site jammed with other tours.

Our tour of Auschwitz I focused on two key themes: the extermination of the Jewish race and the other prisoners that inhabited Auschwitz I/II (Birkenau). As part of our tour, we saw amazing photos which were taken by SS men and found after Liberation. The photos showed various aspects of the process and procedure followed at Auschwitz. Additionally, the tour focused a great deal on items confiscated at arrival to the camp. These items were stored in places the inmates called “Canada” as the warehouses represented freedom and opportunity. We viewed exhibits filled with various belongings—combs, brushes, pots/pans/bowls, shoes, children’s clothes and toys, and the most disturbing of all: hair. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, hair was not shaved off upon arrival but rather after execution in the gas chambers. This method was preferred since it lessened resistance. The sheer mass and scale of the hair was unbelievable and touched many of us in a way similar to the exhibit of shoes at Majdanek.

After a short drive from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II, we toured the most well known portion of the camp. At Birkenau, thousands of European Jews arrived via railcar each day, they were sorted based on gender, and some may have had the fortune of becoming an inmate of the camp. For the others, they met a terrible fate in the gas chambers. Today, the remnants of the gas chambers reveal their true nature even though Nazis took efforts to destroy them before liberation. At the site, we were able to walk around and explore the massive size of the camp—the size is difficult to grasp without walking the grounds. The site had some unique features, and in particular the ruins of hundreds of chimneys helped reveal the true size of the camp. The chimneys today reside alongside beautiful wildflowers. In some ways this juxtaposition provides hope as it reveals beauty among ruin. The mere fact that beautiful things can exist at one of the most notorious extermination sites must provide hope for a better future. Auschwitz touched many of us differently than the previous camps. For many of us, we walked the grounds of stories we read, testimonies we heard, and movies we viewed, and tales from Auschwitz became that much more powerful.

Our day continued in Krakow as the kids met up with their Polish hosts in the afternoon. Some of the hosts had graduated earlier in the day, but their schooling is not complete as they have to sit for exams after Easter. In the evening, we all attended a concert at a large church in Krakow. Although the concert was rather long, it was beautiful to listen to traditional European instruments and arrangements in such a setting. The acoustics were also amazing!

Today is technically a free day of touring, but all of us will be making our way out of Krakow and exploring the salt mines. Students will have an opportunity to spend more time with their hosts, and we’ll all have a bit more time to shop.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


My backlog of posts will be uploaded as soon as I catch some sleep! For now, here's the pictures.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Modem problems

Modem was being uncooperative this morning. We saw the salt mines today, and I will try to post my blog later. It's all written at least!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The City of Krakow

Our first full day in Krakow allowed us to get a real flavor of the city. We began our day at the school, so for each of us we traveled there a different way. Some of the students walked, were driven, took several trams or used a combination of all three. When your school is located in the city center, the experience begins quite differently from one set in suburbia. There certainly weren’t any yellow school buses chauffeuring our students around.

Lyceum V’s building is nothing at all like HCRHS—it’s situated in a historic building in the heart of the city. There a large imposing staircases and beautiful architecture when you first enter the doors, and quickly, you see how the building’s nook and crannies make it difficult for a stranger to navigate. Although the building differs from Central, the students and the faculty are not so distinct. The students’ dress reflects their individual personalities and style, and the teachers acted much the same way we do in the morning—searching for the copies needed for class and running around making final preparations. Polish students and teachers really aren’t all that different from their American counter-parts. In our friend Agnieszka’s English class, the teachers and a few of the Central students explored the similarities and differences between American and Polish teenagers. We discovered that despite some style differences, teenagers are teenagers—they love their phones, the Internet, shopping, and escaping the clutches of their parents.

After spending a few hours in the morning at the school, we walked around some of the historic portions of the city. We saw the remnants of the old city walls, Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and the historic town square. The city is gorgeous—particularly at night!

Today, we will be heading to Auschwitz. After visiting Terezin, Treblinka, and Majdanek, I believe that this seemingly quintessential camp will still be extremely impactful for each of us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Juxtaposition of Reality

On the day of our longest intra-Europe travel day, we woke in the city of Lublin and journeyed to the extermination camp Majdanek. Today, the camp is situated alongside modernity—clear signs of the 21st century. According to our guide, the buildings closest to the camp were not in existence while the camp was functioning, but nonetheless the ability to view a modern city next to the best preserved Nazi death camp is rather chilling.

Majdanek is hard to miss as you drive out of the city center. You see a large monument on the right and behind that monument lays barbed wire, watch towers, rows of narrow buildings, and a crematorium. If you did not know what you were looking at, perhaps you just arrived on planet earth, Majdanek may appear to be a state park or other preserved landscape. To anyone who has ever read a story about the Holocaust, watched a modern day film, or toured a museum on World War II, it is unmistakable as to the true nature of this place.

The most chilling part of Majdanek would have to be a small building that houses thousands of shoes from those executed at the site. The shoes have been placed in containers which line the walls and take up three very high rows in the middle of the room. As you walk among the rows of shoes, you see the individuals who perished—a woman’s sandal, a man’s work boot, and so on. For our students, this was the most poignant part of our trip so far. The death toll was narrowed into individuals who owned shoes just like anyone else, and often, the shoes revealed how little people knew about the journey ahead.

After spending a few very somber hours in Majdanek, we boarded our bus and began our journey to Krakow. We stopped a few times on the way and finally got to our hosts at about 6 pm. It was lovely to see the kids get excited on the bus before we arrived—they were a mixture of nerves and enthusiasm. Despite some fears about being recognized, they very quickly met up with their host families and went off into various parts of Krakow. The teachers were met by our lovely friends who teach at Lyceum V. We were just as excited as the kids to see our dear friends again!

Today, we look forward to a full day in Krakow with some time at school, around the city, and a reception at the school this evening.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Traversing Poland

Yesterday we began our day in Warsaw with a walk around some of the cities prettiest areas. We toured some of the palaces including the summer palace of Poland’s formerly elected king. Along this journey, we passed by the Chopin monument and spoke about the cultural significance of the composer in Poland. Additionally, we walked through some of the city’s most beautiful parks.

Along our way, we stopped at monuments to various Polish leaders—particularly those that participated in Warsaw’s Uprising during WWII and those that were part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We made sure to spend some time in the museum dedicated to the Uprising during WWII (which includes several exhibits on the ghetto uprising) and the museum did not disappoint. We watched a computer generated 3-D film that shows the destruction of at the end of WWII, we climbed through replica sewer tunnels complete with sound effects, and we examined tons of other features of the museum. Thankfully the text around the museum is in English

After Warsaw Rising, we had a nice lunch downtown. Then we headed back to the area where the Warsaw Ghetto was located and took some time to discuss the leaders of the ghetto uprising. Then it was to board the bus for our 3+ hour drive to Lublin.

This morning a big day awaits us—we will have breakfast and then travel to another extermination camp: Majdanek. This camp is commonly referred to as the best preserved camp and we will walk around the grounds for well over 2 hours. After touring the camp, we will load the bus and journey to Krakow, which will take almost 5 hours. Thankfully, we stop partway and have lunch. We found out yesterday that Polish rest areas do not really exist, but thankfully our guide knows key spots for WC stops.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Welcome to Poland!

During the night Friday into Saturday, we crossed from the Czech Republic into Poland. At a little after 7 am, we arrived at the main railway station in Warsaw. Our guide was waiting for us in the station and led us to our luxury bus which will take us around Poland. Since we all needed a good meal, we went to our hotel in Warsaw for breakfast and some much needed coffee. Afterward, we boarded the bus again—this time heading outside of the city.

After an hour and a half ride, we arrived at the small village of Treblinka, which became synonymous with the notorious extermination camp built there by the Nazis. Due to its approximation to rail lines, Treblinka was seen as an ideal place for the Nazis to put forth their Final Solution with complete annihilation of the Jewish race. Through the efforts of scientists, doctors, and Nazi leadership, Treblinka became the Reich’s most efficient death camp. In total, over 800,000 people perished at the came—many of whom never realized they were at a death camp until it was too late.

Today, Treblinka is only retained in memory. The Nazis destroyed the camp and planted grass to cover the evidence of their atrocities. To memorialize Treblinka, artists, historians and others came together to create an exhibit that recognizes those that were murdered at the site. With large stone rocks and other features, those that died at Treblinka are not forgotten. During our time at the site of the death camp, all 17 of us went off in our own direction and meandered through the memorial. It was an extremely emotional place, and it was extremely evident how much the students were touched by their somber moods and overall reverence for the memorial.

I’m not sure that I’ve heard high school students be completely silent for more than 10 minutes, but today 14 students did not speak for well over 45 minutes. They were in tune with the overwhelming reality of what happened on the ground we walked on, and they all dealt with it in their own way. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more impressed by young people. If this empathy could exist among all adolescents, it would be a wonderful thing!

After Treblinka, we had a nice lunch on the way back to Warsaw. When we arrived in Warsaw, we toured through Old Town—the portion of Warsaw that was restored after World War II when it was nearly completely destroyed. We finished with a buffet dinner at our hotel, and now find ourselves resting for the remainder of the day.

We all need some time to relax after Treblinka—another reason why this trip is so important and life-changing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Overnight Train

So far so good on the overnight train! Most of the students equated the train with the Hogwarts Express which made it that much cooler in their eyes. Unfortunately, Hagrid is not going to meet us when we arrive in Warsaw, but we will be met by our next tour guide.

Our last day in Prague was lovely--we did see the sun peak out! In the morning, we started out at Prague Castle: exploring the cathedral, old castle, and view of downtown Prague. We had lunch right within the walls of the castle and then watched a concert of classical music. After the concert, we walked down from the top of the hill where the castle is situated and made our way to Charles Bridge. This bridge is the most iconic bridge in Prague as it was built in the Middle Ages. As a footbridge, it has a vibrant feel to it with performers and merchants. From our walk to Charles Bridge, we shopped and explored Prague until dinner. We had a lavish meal at the Blue Rose -- right next to our hotel which has a 15th century grotto feel. It was stunning! Directly from dinner, we were taken to the train station and boarded our very own "Warsaw Express" which will help us begin the second leg of our journey.

Next time, Poland!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Czech Sun

Yesterday, we had a day filled with somber reminders of why we’re in Eastern Europe, but we also had the good fortune of having nicer weather than our first day here

After a tasty breakfast at the hotel, we left at 8:30 am to travel to the town of Terezin. Historically, speaking Terezin has some unique features. It was originally built in the late 18th century to protect the Austrian-Hungarian empire from Prussia to the north, but became known as the “model ghetto” during Nazi occupation.

Upon arrival in Terezin, we went to the “small fortress” – the size is quite relative. This portion was designed as a military installation and also served as a political prison in its earliest years. Here we explored prison cells for men and women, washrooms (for show when the International Red Cross came to inspect), tunnels that connect various parts of the fortress, and the areas where prisoner executions took place.

We boarded the bus again for the short ride to the walled down of Terezin or the “large fortress.” Also fortified, this portion originally served to house those that served and supported the fortification. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, the Czech inhabitants were forced to move out, and Jews from the region were concentrated there. The ghetto of Terezin is hard to imagine as the town has been beautified as a memorial site. Additionally 2,000 residents still live in Terezin—many of them the relatives of those that were originally forced out. It was surreal to have lunch in a cafĂ© within the walls of Terezin. One of the students pointed out that Katy Perry was on the radio, there was a flat screen tv in the room, and we were eating lunch in a place were thousands starved. The Nazis packed in over 60,000 Jews into a city designed for 3,000 inhabitants—a statistic that made the death toll more conceivable.

After Terezin, we had an hour’s ride to Lidice (or more correctly the memorial to the former town of Lidice). For those do not know, the story of Lidice is terribly devastating as Hitler used the town as one of his many examples in an effort to maintain complete control through utter terror. Lidice was a small town of Christian Czech citizens who were blamed for playing a role in the assassination attempt (which ultimately was successful due to infection) of Nazi leader Rhinehard Heydrich. The people of Lidice likely played absolutely not role in the shooting of Heydrich, but they were made an example of anyway. Hitler ordered the male citizens of Lidice executed the women and children sent to the concentration camps, and the town destroyed entirely. His orders were fully carried out in a two day span where the male population was taken to the outskirts of town and murdered without explanation. Many of the women were sent to Ravensbruck camp and some of the children were placed in the home of good German children for re-education. The town of Lidice no longer exists—the surviving inhabitants along with people from around the world who were horrified by what had happened helped build a new Lidice just beyond the original town’s boundaries. We toured the museum and memorial to the town. We saw the sun in the Czech Republic for the first time when we began walking the memorial—it provided much needed warmth for this experience.

When we returned to Prague, we shopped and refreshed ourselves before dinner with Dr. Felix Kolmer, a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz who is a native son of Prague. Dr. Kolmer’s presentation was timely as we had fresh images of Terezin in our heads and will be going to Auschwitz in just days.

All in all, it was a very long, somber day, but one that solidified the purpose of our trip and our study of the Holocaust. We are all hoping the sun makes a return appearance today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Longest Day on Record

Yesterday (Tuesday), I woke at 4:30 am in NJ, and as I sit here writing this it is after 9 pm in Prague. It has been an extremely long “day”…but at the same time, it has been a truly wonderful day.

We had a smooth departure from Newark airport (after a bit of delay—likely due to the rain showers), and despite a bit of turbulence, the 6+ hour flight was pretty pleasant. I was able to experience a student’s first flight (since he was 4 years old), so I took on the role of counselor a bit. I also stuck to the back of the line as we went through our “hurry and wait” travels. This led to my “momma duck” nickname as I was constantly urging them from behind.

Upon arrival in Dusseldorf, we were all exhausted, but mustered the energy to get on a much shorter flight to Prague. We landed in Prague at about 8:30 am local time, and our guide Gabriella was there to meet us. Gabriella has done a fine job leading us through Prague today. We encountered rain showers today, but she did her best to keep us dry and moving along.

After dropping off our luggage at Modra Ruze (Blu3e Rose), we headed to the Jewish quarter of the city where we went through the Jewish cemetery, the oldest Jewish synagogue still in operation (in Europe – I believe), and the Spanish synagogue famous for its architecture and design.

Despite being dead on our feet, the group hung together and managed to make it through the walking tour and lunch. After lunch, we checked in to the hotel. We discovered that some of our ladies and gents are living like princes and princesses while others a residing a bit more like the average peon. But in all sincerity, the rooms are all lovely – some just have vaulted ceilings or raised platforms (like my room).

In desperate need to shower and rest, we stayed at the hotel until 5:30 when we went to dinner in the “Old” section of town off of the city’s historic main square. All of our meals include three courses, so we’re glad for all of the walking to balance it out!

Tomorrow, we’re headed outside of the city in the morning as we travel to Terezin and the Lidice.

Despite over-exhaustion and exertion, the trip is going well so far, and everyone seems to be enjoying it!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Night Before

Well grades have been submitted, sub plans have been written, packing is 95% complete, and tonight's the last night before we leave. I've been excited/anxious all day, and now things feel set for tomorrow. Though I'm sure the nerves will stay with me until we're on the plane tomorrow afternoon.

At this point tomorrow, we'll be somewhere over the north Atlantic at this time! :)

Next post, Prague!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A week to go!

With only a week left, the Holocaust Overseas tour is a reality! We had our final parent/student meeting last night, and everyone seems ecstatic for our journey.

We'll be flying out of Newark about this time a week from now and beginning our journey in Prague. After a few days to explore the beautiful city and relevant Holocaust sites, we will take an overnight train to Warsaw. Then we will travel around Poland to various museums and camps, and finally, we will end up in Krakow with our Polish hosts. I cannot wait to meet this year's students from Lyceum V and reconnect with the lovely faculty from there.

In my excitement for the trip, I went on Google to seek out information about the overnight train (the only component I have trepidation about). Let's just say that I hope we're riding first class--otherwise, I may not get much sleep! Here's some tips (via

Tell me more about night trains

  • What are the benefits of taking an overnight train?
    • Simple. It lets you spend a full day sightseeing in one city, then wake up refreshed and ready to start the next day in another. While also saving you the money you would’ve spent on a hotel.
  • What types of overnight accommodations are available if I am traveling with a railpass?
    • It depends on your railpass. First-class passes get sleeper accommodations (containing either 1 or 2 private bed, a washbasin, fresh linens and towels). Second-class passes provide T3 compartments (containing 3 beds, a washbasin, fresh linens and towels) and couchettes (which are shared compartments that have 6 beds without amenities). Some T4 compartments (containing 4 beds plus amenities) are offered in 1st and 2nd class as well. You just need to check your train and fare details for specific availability.
  • What does “gender specific” mean?
    • It means we keep the boys and girls separate at night, unless you and your travel companions book all the beds within a compartment. It specifically applies to the Elipsos, City Night Line, Lusitania (train from Madrid to Lisbon), and Spanish Night trains. And as romantic as those trains are, we just had to do it.
  • What types of compartments or sleeping accommodations are available on overnight trains?
    • They vary according to the train and route. The most common compartments are Singles, Doubles, and Couchettes. Some offer T3, T4 and Deluxe Sleepers.
    • Here are a few details. A Single is a first-class compartment that contains one bed, a private washbasin, linens, towels and its own lock. A Double is the same with 2 beds (normally bunked). A couchette is a very affordable second-class option with 6 bunked beds and a public washroom. The T3 compartments contain 3 beds, a private washbasin, fresh linens and towels, and the T4 contains 4 beds plus those amenities. Lastly, Deluxe Sleepers include a private restroom in your compartment.

Edited to include hotel information:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Packing List

In an effort to help the students figure out what to pack, I've complied a packing checklist. If the experienced travelers out there could provide some feedback, I'd be greatly appreciative!

Packing Checklist (adapted from Rick Steves)

Clothing (average/estimated amounts)
1 pair of walking/comfortable shoes
1 pair of “dressy” shoes
1 rainproof jacket
2 pairs of shorts/capris (shorts aren't allowed in major cathedrals, but capris are) – depends on weather
2 pairs of pants (one dressy, one casual; khaki is recommended – when washed, it dries faster than jeans) – though jeans are acceptable in most places we will visit
1 belt 
4 pairs of socks
5 pairs of underwear
1 extra bra
4-6 shirts (long/short-sleeved, various colors)
1-2 light cardigans/light sweaters or jackets for layering
1-2 skirts (wrinkle-resistant)
2 pair of sleepwear/pajamas

Body soap/puff (washcloth); most European hotels do not supply washcloths
Razor (non-electric)/shaving cream or soap
Feminine hygiene products (if applicable)
Nail clippers/file/tweezers
Spare glasses or contact lenses and supplies
Woolite (for hand washing clothes)
Other products you deem “essential”

Money and Security
Moneybelt: Passport, debit card, credit cards, small amount of cash
Security: Bury
 copies of your passport in the bottom of your luggage

Small daypack. This is great for carrying your sweater, camera, and other items.
Camera. A digital camera and a high-capacity memory card mean no more bulky bags of film.
Journal. An empty book to be filled with the experiences of your trip will be your most treasured souvenir.
Hair dryer. People with long or thick hair appreciate a travel hair dryer in the off-season, when hair takes a long time to dry and it's cold outside.
MP3/video player. Some travelers use digital recorders to capture pipe organs, tours, or journal entries. A small, portable radio adds a new dimension to your experience.
Adapters. Europe's electrical outlets are different from ours.
Spot remover. Bring Shout wipes or tide-to-go.
Gifts. Local hosts appreciate small souvenirs from your hometown (gourmet candy or crafts). Local kids love T-shirts and small toys.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My July is Booked!

Although I've been meaning to update with news about my forthcoming trips for some time, there just has not been a free moment of late. A few weeks ago, I received a potentially life-altering phone call on my way home from work. The secretary from the Jewish Labor Committee called to inform me that I have been accepted as a participant for the 2011 Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers' Program. To say that I am thrilled about this experience does not begin to describe my elation!

The HAJRTP trip is an amazing three week experience that begins and ends at the USHMM in Washington, D.C. In the span of time between meetings at the museum, the group will travel to Israel, Germany, and Poland to visit various museums and memorials to the Holocaust. Additionally, a key component of the program is the opportunity to speak with survivors and educators in each of the countries. With the survivor population narrowing each day, those opportunities will be especially precious. The chance to speak with educators about Holocaust education will also be unique and extremely beneficial to my own approach to Central's Holocaust and Human Behavior course. All in all, I'm certain that my month of July will be packed with experiences that will always influence my teaching and will truly never leave me.

This past weekend also marked a personal epiphany about the upcoming Holocaust Overseas Trip with 14 Central students--it's nearly a month away! Since we leave on April 12, real preparations for the trip must begin. I've already begun gearing up for my world travels with a easy-to-pack jacket as well as a USB, pocket sized audio recorder, but I heartily welcome any additional suggestions for "must have" items for my upcoming excursions. Experienced travelers, I'm looking at you...

I will be sure to provide more updates about the Holocaust Overseas Trip as well as HAJRTP in the weeks to come!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

First Foray into the Wide World of Blogging

Greetings all!

I've begun this blog to help chronicle my European (and possibly Middle Eastern) travels over the next few months. I wanted to create a venue where I could publish my experiences as well as my reflections as I travel overseas.

For those that don't know, I will be traveling (along with 14 students and 2 other adults) to the Czech Republic and Poland in April 2011. This trip is a part of my high school's Polish Exchange Program and involves an intense tour of Central Europe. Our goal in the trip is to provide our students with an in-depth, "in their face" exploration of the Holocaust as we travel to cities and sights relating to the genocide. Additionally, the trip  includes a "Polish Home Stay" component, which allows our students to become immersed in the Polish culture as they stay with a host family for five days. I'm ecstatic about this trip and so are the students!

The other potential trip on my horizon is a Holocaust Summer Program for educators. I won't reveal too much about this trip at the present (since I'm awaiting acceptance into the program), but suffice it to say that I'm certainly hoping to be included. This program begins at the USHMM in Washington, D.C.; includes travel to Israel, Germany, and Poland; and emphasizes the importance of educating about the Holocaust throughout. So, I'll be crossing my fingers for a least a few more weeks as I await word about this amazing opportunity.

That's all for this first foray! Thanks for reading, and check back, as I'm sure I will be posting as soon as I know more about the summer opportunity.