Bearing witness

Seventy-eight years after the beginning of the Holocaust, I returned to Poland and Lithuania as the descendant of immigrants forced into exile. A group of University of Wisconsin students traveled alongside Dr. Karl Loewenstein and Dr. Shay Pilnik – professor of history at UW Oshkosh and director of the Holocaust Education Resource Center, respectively – to learn about the Holocaust and gain a better understanding of the life that remains.

Nothing could adequately prepare me for this experience. Not the in-depth Holocaust course taught by Laurie Herman, nor speaking with survivors, nor reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel (z’’l).

Although the atrocities committed by the Nazis and collaborators occurred nearly seventy-five years ago, the waves of the Holocaust still ripple throughout Europe. Before 1939, thriving Jewish communities existed in every city we visited. From Zamosc to Warsaw and Kovno to Krakow, it was difficult to imagine life in prewar Eastern Europe especially in cities where synagogues stand as monuments. Shay led our group to the center of Lublin with a pre-war Jewish community of 42,000 that was decimated. I then understood his comment, “This is the real genocide.”

Never again. I bear witness to the places of genocide at Auschwitz, Majdanek, The IX Fort, Ponary and Belzec. No longer are they names in a book, or photographs on a page, but now are living experiences permanently etched in my memory. On our last day in Warsaw, we heard from the Forum for Dialogue about their mission to educate teenagers throughout Poland about the Jewish communities that existed within their hometown. No survivors remain, but this organization ensures their stories prevail.

“The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” This quote by Ian Kershaw took on an entirely different meaning as I walked down this very road as a free Jewish man at the Auschwitz-Birkenau. Years of Jewish education and Holocaust studies couldn’t prepare me for what it actually felt like to walk the path where the millions were led and would never return. It was difficult to imagine the horror of the victims and the strength of survivors. While wearing a kippah and wrapped in an Israeli flag, I understand the value and importance of religious freedom as well as having the privilege of living the life denied to six million.

As a minority on the trip but the majority of those persecuted, it gave me an interesting perspective to see the Holocaust through my eyes as well as the lens of my non-Jewish counterparts.  For them, it was seeing humanity at its worst. For me, it went a step further because I could have been one of the six million. Walking out of Auschwitz and walking into a synagogue for Shabbat services in Krakow, is a testament to the importance of my heritage, the strengths my people, and in the words of Elie Wiesel, “We must bear witness.”

Jordan Pachefsky, 20, is entering his junior year at University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is majoring in applied economics with a minor in Jewish studies.

* * *

Jordan and Carly in Poland

Carly Cohen and Jordan Pachefsky both write about their trip to Poland in these pages today. Their study-abroad trip for 14 students from three Wisconsin campuses – Milwaukee, Madison and Oshkosh – was subsidized by an anonymous donor through the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The course was designed and led by Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and Karl Loewenstein, associate professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.