‘Never Again!’ Teen Holocaust Legacy Fellows return from Poland and Berlin empowered and committed

Aus-Bir tracks

HLF teens walk the tracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie.

 

Shelley A. Sackett

On August 12, Marblehead High School incoming senior Jillian Lederman was not at the beach, enjoying the North Shore summer with her friends. Instead, she stood on the grounds of Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. She saw the dusty shoes piled to the ceiling and a massive mountain of human ash. Majdanek made the stories of abuse, anti-Semitism and genocide suddenly real.

 

“It didn’t seem that any human could commit such atrocities, that the rest of the world could just sit by and let it happen,” she said. “I saw all that remained of thousands of Jews who were brutally and mercilessly murdered and it clicked. The Holocaust happened. It was real and it was terrible.”

 

Majdanek-Schwartz

“I believe that this trip is to open our eyes and see first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive in order to counteract and spread the antithesis of spreading hatred.” -Jonah Schwartz, Framingham, Gann Academy

 

For Lederman and her 15 fellow teen travelers, their journey began in April 2018, when Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman stood in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah and promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action. The key to fulfilling their commitment, they decided, lay in creating future Jewish leaders in the community who would learn about and fully understand the Holocaust.

 

A mere 16 months later, they took a group of teens to Poland and Berlin on the first fully subsidized trip of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (a non-profit they created, funded and co-direct). The 16 HLF teens came from 10 Greater Boston cities and towns. None had previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

 

“Our biggest challenge was knowing that nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for a visit to Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek, or to stand in Buczyna forest where 800 Jewish children were murdered in one mass grave,” Kipnis said.

 

Veksler and Richmond

Victoria Veksler, Marblehead High School, and Danny Richmond, Needham High School, at the Wannsee Conference Center reading the Final Solution where, in just 83 minutes, the extermination of the Jews was drafted.

 

Participants were required to keep a journal during the trip as a means of coping with their mix of emotions and to record what they saw and heard from their tour guide, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “Keeping the journal was extremely helpful. It served as my personal therapist during the trip,” Victoria Veksler of Marblehead said.

 

 

The itinerary started in Berlin, Germany, where the teen fellows toured Wannsee, the site where high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials discussed and coordinated implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. “One of the teens said to me, “I can’t understand how this could happen here. This place feels so normal,” Ruderman said.

Chak

Alan Chak, Middleton, Masconomet Regional High School, outside the crematorium in Majdanek wondering why the world stood by while 6 million Jews were brutally murdered.

 

From Berlin, the group travelled to Warsaw, Poland where they visited the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp. For most, it was their first visit to the site of a concentration camp. “I visited Treblinka and I felt a strong sense of purpose. I understand why we are here. We need to teach the Holocaust so it won’t be forgotten,” Alan Chak, of Middleton, wrote in his journal.

 

On their way to Kraków, the group toured Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie. “The things I saw there will never escape my memory. This is where I realized the true inhumanity of the Nazi officers. Even more impactful, though, was hearing the testimony of the survivors. Listening to stories of children sacrificing the little food they had so they could keep their parents alive another day broke me,” Adam Zamansky, of Marblehead, said.

 

Nonetheless, their tour guide, Sara Pellach, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, filled the teens with hope that Jewish life can be re-built. She described her family for them: four children, 18 grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and another on the way.

 

All was not doom and gloom. While in Kraków, the teens visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, where they learned about his saving the lives of 1,100 Jews despite being a Nazi himself. They also experienced Kraków Old Town, the biggest market square in Europe, and visited the JCC, which coordinates programming open to the entire community and meant to foster Polish-Jewish relations.

 

And everyone looked forward to the daily respite of creamy, delicious Polish ice cream.

 

It was Majdanek death camp, however, that most horrified the teens, according to Kipnis. Unlike Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek is completely intact, from barbed wire to barracks, from gas chambers to crematoria.

 

Majdanek-2019HLF

2019 Holocaust Legacy Fellows outside Majdanek

 

“There were countless people who could see the smoke from the crematorium, and others who saw Jews walking the 4km from the train station to the camp. They said nothing about it, pretending as if nothing were wrong at all. I thought a lot about all those bystanders,” Danny Richmond, of Needham, said.

 

Every night of the 10-day trip, group dialogue and role playing helped the teens transition back to everyday life. “The biggest reward for the teens in our opinion were the engagement and interpersonal relationships that formed. Their nightly discussions could have gone on for hours had we let them,” Kipnis added.

 

The HLF program did not begin or end in Germany and Poland. In preparation, teens attended mandatory educational meetings and met and heard from Holocaust survivors firsthand. Now that they have returned, they have to: write a post-trip reflection of their experience; prepare and deliver a presentation on the memory and lessons of the Holocaust; participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Service; pledge to transmit the lessons and memories of the Holocaust to future generations, and serve on the Holocaust Speakers Bureau.

 

“Holocaust Legacy Fellows was designed to create an empowered community of critical thinkers who will illuminate the world with hope, respect and responsibility. This alone sets our Holocaust education program apart from any other,” Kipnis said.

 

The HLF capstone is a graduation ceremony on September 8th at 4pm at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe columnist, will be the keynote speaker and the teens will read their reflection essays.

 

Kipnis and Ruderman’s goal of inspiring the 16 HLF graduates to take on the mantle of leadership and inform their communities about the Holocaust seems to have hit its mark.

 

“This trip changed my life in so many ways and has given me an important purpose in life. The post trip assignments do not feel like a burden. They are an opportunity for me to fulfill a deep desire to educate others and advocate on behalf of myself, HLF and the Jewish people,” Max Foltz, of Newburyport, said.

 

The trip was also transformative in intangible but indelible ways. “We saw first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive and to counteract and spread the antithesis of hatred,” Jonah Schwartz, of Framingham, said.

 

“For the first time, I truly thought of the Jewish people as my people,” Katie Hubbard, of Arlington, added.

 

Teen Legacy Fellows preserve and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust 

by Shelley A. Sackett

In April 2018, Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman visited Auschwitz with their dear friend David Schaecter, a 90-year-old survivor who spent over two years of his youth in this indescribable death camp. “While standing in front of David’s bunker, he turned to us and said, ‘Hear me, understand me, and let me tell my story,’” Kipnis said. By the end of their trip, she and Ruderman began to understand what their friend was asking.

“The imminent passing of survivors will occur during your and our children’s lifetimes,” Ruderman explained, noting the alarming results of a survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that showed the Holocaust is fading from global memory. “While no one alone can change this disturbing trend, by the conclusion of our visit, Jody and I committed ourselves to do what we could to assure this does not happen.”

The two made a pledge while standing in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah in April 2018. “We promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action,” Kipnis said.

When they returned home, they conceived of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (HLF), whose mission is preserving and perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations by inviting teens throughout Greater Boston to meet survivors, learn about the Holocaust and make the trip to the places that forever changed Kipnis and Ruderman’s lives. Kipnis and Ruderman are its co-directors and funders.

By coincidence, Kipnis’s daughter, Gann Academy student Gillian Pergament, was on the 2018 Y2I trip and told Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin about the Holocaust travel program her mom and Ruderman were interested in starting. “I said I would love to know more and asked her to tell her mom,” Coltin said. She and Kipnis connected within days of her returning from the Y2I trip and, together with Ruderman, their ideas came to fruition.

“Debbie is an expert on teen travel and engagement. With her help, we pulled this together in just three months,” Kipnis said. She and Ruderman also enlisted the assistance of the Lappin Foundation (which has run the Youth to Israel program since 1971) to administer and implement HLF, and hired Coltin as education and program development consultant.

David Schaecter shows his tattooed number from Auschwitz.

Kipnis said HLF is in the process of becoming its own stand-alone non-profit organization.

Eligible teens for the 2018-2019 HLF pilot year needed to be juniors in high school; have participated in an organized Israel experience; be able to attend all pre- and post-trip meetings; agree to complete all homework assignments; and not have previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

As HLF Educator, Coltin, who has three decades experience teaching the Holocaust, created the curriculum, and will be one of the staff on the fully subsidized August 4-13, 2019 Poland and Berlin trip. She plans all meeting lessons, teaches the classes, and schedules survivors to speak to the teen Fellows.

“The curriculum reflects the human face of the Holocaust. The Fellows meet survivors in person, the last generation to do so. They bear witness to the Holocaust by hearing the survivors’ testimonies about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and what the enormous price in particular Jewish people paid for such hatred that went unchecked,” said Coltin.

The 16 inaugural Fellows represent Lynnfield, Middleton, Newburyport, Beverly, Arling­ton, Marblehead, Newton, Needham, Framingham and Swampscott. “I wanted the participants to be from ‘Greater Boston,’ not just one area. These kids have a responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. How else will we get the word out?” Kipnis said.

After attending an orientation and hearing survivor Schaecter speak last October, nominated teens wrote a paragraph describing why they wanted to be a Fellow. “In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is more important than ever that we continue discussing the Holocaust. I want to be part of the movement that ensures that nothing even close to it ever happens again,” wrote Dina Zeldin, a junior at Newton South High School.

“I hope to gain a new level of knowledge about the Holocaust and use that in my community, my country and someday even the world. I want to bring a sense of hope in such a dark trip,” Max Foltz, a junior at Newburyport High School, wrote.

For Coltin, the HLF trip will be her first time traveling to Poland and Berlin. While she admits that going to these sites so deeply connected to the Final Solution is “way out of my comfort zone,” she is thankful for the opportunity to open up and learn more.

“The Holocaust journey should be personal. We will be learning our history, our story. Knowing who we are as Jews puts us in the best possible position to support and promote the mission of Holocaust Legacy Fellows,” she said.

“Jody and Todd had a phenomenal idea and they followed through. Our community is truly blessed,” she added.

For more information, visit https://holocaustlegacyfellows.org/.