New York Undergraduates Discover Their Jewish Roots
By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Mischief and mayhem are often defining factors associated with college students on midwinter or spring break. But for a group of students committed to exploring their heritage, intersession was spent walking through concentration camps and soaking up the history of the Holocaust.
Representing 20 colleges throughout the country, they came to participate in a walking trip to Poland with MEOR. The six-day trip to Poland, which includes visits to the Warsaw Ghetto, various cemeteries, the cities of Lublin and Krakow, as well as Auschwitz and Birkenau were founded at MEOR Penn in 2008 with a group of 33 students, according to Yael Seruya, assistant director of MEOR Poland. It expanded in 2013 to include all campuses for students involved in their university’s MEOR program.
“Students today are the last generation that will know survivors of the Holocaust,” Yael explained. “If they do not fully understand what happened and why it happened—which can only truly be done by visiting the actual sites in Poland—then the future generations will be totally disconnected from one of the most important lessons in Jewish history.”
“There is no classroom in the world like Poland,” she added. “For anyone looking to think deeper about their life and about the beauty and meaning of Judaism, nothing will allow anyone to focus and find answers to these in the deepest way possible like sitting and experiencing such places of darkness.”
Almost from the time they could speak, Allison and Lauren Perry grew up hearing stories of the horrors and atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Residents of Roslyn Heights, the sisters are the granddaughters of four Holocaust survivors. Allison is currently pursuing a master’s of health science in infectious-disease epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lauren is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Life Sciences and Management program pursuing a BS from Wharton, as well as a degree in biochemistry.
“Our grandparents felt it was crucial to speak about what they went through so that no one should forget and to never let history repeat itself,” Allison told this author. “Lauren heard through some friends at Penn about the MEOR program and we were both very eager to be a part of what we heard was an eye-opening, life-changing trip.”
“This trip really epitomizes what it means to experience the ‘lowest lows’ in life,” she said. “Each day was filled with some of the most horrific sites, stories, and experiences from the Holocaust, some of the lowest points in history, including spurts of moments where we literally felt as if we were victims of the time . . . but just as important as it is to have seen and learned about the horrors of the war is to have learned about what life was like before the war—we saw how Jewish life in Poland was so vibrant and filled with so much culture. We learned and sang Yiddish tunes of the times, saw the incredible prestigious Yeshiva Chochmei Lublin (where our own grandfather studied before the war), saw the gorgeous architecture of some remaining synagogues where we prayed, and gained a newfound appreciation for what was lost during the war: it was more than the six million lives lost. Lost, too, was the culture of the very large Jewish population of Poland, the generations and generations of people who should have come from the six million lives lost; the vibrancy, the pride, the traditions, the tunes of the Jewish people of Poland.”
Jonathan Rutckik attended the Lawrence Public School system. Having completed his sophomore year at UC Berkeley where he is studying economics, Jonathan is a photographer and enjoys playing tennis in his free time.
“I really wanted to go on this trip to learn where my family is from,” Jonathan explained. “My Zaidy was originally from Poland, and was about six or so when the war broke out. While I was growing up, he never really spoke about the Shoah, so I assumed it was better not to ask. After he passed away, and I got a little older, I became curious. When I was presented with the opportunity to take this trip, I did not have to think twice.”
Jonathan feels the trip made him feel “more culturally Jewish.” He described the impact of experiencing firsthand the many horrific sites where precious neshamos perished.
“Seeing camp after camp and grave after grave made it hard to come back to reality after the trip,” he explains. “Throughout the trip, I sort of forgot about the rest of the world and life. Everything seemed gray and somber. After returning from Poland, the sadness faded to a large extent. What did not fade, however, was my sense of pride in who I am and where my family came from . . . I came back more determined than ever to understand the history of the Jewish people, the holidays, and the customs.”
He adds, “While this trip was mostly somber, there were some incredible joyful times. In Lodz, we spent some time learning Torah. Almost every day, at some point, there was singing and dancing. Our Shabbos on the trip was also incredible. It was a chance for everyone to connect before the end of the trip. In addition to all the joyful time, though, I would say Majdanek was a highlight for me. It’s hard to imagine what the Holocaust was like by simply reading a textbook. Majdanek was the first concentration camp we visited and that put everything in perspective for me. Between seeing the barracks, the gas chamber, and the massive pile of unburied human ash, I received the biggest wakeup call of my life.”
Firozah Najmi is a junior at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her individualized concentration focuses on art history, museum studies, and art theory. Firozah is of the first American-born generation in her family; her mother emigrated from Ukraine and her father from Iran. She is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Semyon Menyuk, who was born in Kolki (then considered Poland, now Ukraine).
“My grandfather’s story of survival began when he jumped off the back of a Nazi vehicle headed for the wilderness, where the Nazis likely executed all the Jews, including my great-aunt and great-great-grandparents,” Firozah said. “He and some of the other local young men had received word of the planned execution and they organized a distraction in the hopes of escaping. My grandfather, however, was the only one who managed to escape to the woods. He survived in the harsh Polish wilderness for a year before joining the partisans. Going to Poland was a way for me to reconnect with the land on which unspeakable atrocities plagued the Jewish people—including my own ancestors. Since my grandfather’s death in 2009, I have felt compelled to reinvest myself in Jewish life.”
Firozah was deeply impacted by the experience. “There are no words to express how it feels to set foot on that blood-soaked soil. On the MEOR trip, we visited concentration camps, ghettoes, and burial grounds atop sites of mass executions. To visit these sites is to come face to face with the horrors of the Holocaust; it is the first step of that much-uttered phrase ‘Never forget.’”
At one point during the trip, the students walked into the wilderness. It was there, looking at that barren, frozen landscape, that Firozah felt connected to the struggles of her grandfather, who had spent a year alone there. “That desolate landscape seemed so unforgiving. And yet the alternative for Jews—concentration and labor camps—was exponentially worse.”
For Allison and Lauren Perry, much of the takeaway from the experience is the perspective. Their grandmother, with whom the girls shared a close relationship, was liberated from Auschwitz when she was 22 (which is Allison’s age and only two years older than Lauren). Experiencing the lows of Auschwitz, the sisters visualized their own beloved grandmother there. They could hear her voice vividly recanting her own horrific experiences in the camp, and it gave them a newfound perspective.
“We often take so much for granted and tend to forget how fortunate we are for the things we have—things that our own grandparents were denied, not so long ago,” says Allison. “And finally, this trip strengthened our connection to religion and faith. It reinforced the faith we have in G‑d. On the trip, one of the leaders said, ‘If we have to ask G‑d, ‘Why the bad?’, we also must recognize Him for the good He does and ask, ‘Why the good?’ too. This concept has really allowed us to come home from this trip—back to our busy, hectic, sometimes seemingly stressful lives—with a more spiritual, positive outlook on the lives we have and how lucky we are. We walked out of Auschwitz singing Jewish songs and smiling—smiling because we were able to imagine our own relatives, both those who did and did not survive the Holocaust, lined up along the barbed-wire fence, smiling at us—grateful that we were able to walk out of Auschwitz alive.”
For the students who participated in the MEOR trip to Poland, discovering their Jewish roots was a life-altering experience—a journey back to their future.
“Each of us vowed never to forget what happened to our people,” Firozah declares. “Many of us vowed to take a step to practice Judaism in a way that our ancestors couldn’t. I’ve made plans to study Torah weekly on campus.”
She adds, “Every Jew needs to make the trip to Poland. Every Jew needs to come face to face with the horrors of the Holocaust—as a result, you will live your life with a renewed sense of pride and Jewish awareness in everything that you do. Every Jewish privilege we practice today—such as reading the weekly parashah, going to services, lighting Shabbos candles—should be cherished. Being a practicing Jew today means that the sacrifices of our loved ones who perished did not go unnoticed—they live on through us today.”
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative-media consultant, lecturer, and educator who writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. The author welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.