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An editor’s glimpse of Israel

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By Desiree Perez

Railroad tracks run by the stark guard tower at the gates of Birkenau death camp. (Desiree Perez)

By Desiree Perez

Usually, when someone goes on the trip of a lifetime, they choose to visit sandy beaches and tropical climates, not war-torn nations, civil unrest and the bitter cold ghosts of history.

My once in a lifetime trip was far from usual.

This winter, I had the opportunity to travel to Poland and Israel for 12 days, as part of a campus editors’ mission hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Ten campus newspaper editors and staff members from around the country were selected to take a tour of Israel’s past and present, in hopes of better understanding the possible future of the turbulent region.

First of all, I should explain that my participation in the campus editors’ mission was paid in full by the League. While they explained that the view presented to us would be as balanced as possible, it was understood that there would be bias as the League is a pro-Israel organization.

With that in mind, further research after the mission was necessary, and is ongoing, in order to complement the experience and ensure a balanced understanding of Poland, Israel, the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the early hours of Dec. 25, my family and I were wrapping up our Christmas Eve celebrations. Just a few hours later, I was packed and on a plane, making my way to the Anti-Defamation League’s national headquarters in New York City.

In New York, I had the opportunity to meet with the nine other campus editors that would become my partners in discussion, my associate travelers and my friends. Not 24 hours later, I was on another airplane – this time Poland was the destination.

When we stepped off the plane, the air was so dry that it felt like we were breathing in dry ice.

On the tarmac, walking from the airplane to the shuttle that would take us to the airport, I barely felt the cold – even though it was close to -15 degrees Celsius – because there was so little moisture in the air.

Outside of the city, Poland in the winter was beautiful. The skies matched the tone of the snow covered ground, so that the only things breaking the blanket of white were the black tree trunks of the forest.

The natural beauty of the countryside made the ugly history of the region all the more surreal. That stain on Poland’s image is, of course, the Holocaust.

During our first few hours in Warsaw, my heart sank at the sight of images in the Jewish Cultural Museum. The museum displays were dedicated to the history of Polish Jews from about 1935 until after World War II. We also had the opportunity to watch the video “912 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto.” The museum clearly depicted the suffering of Polish Jews and their place in history.

Later that same day, we were taken to a Jewish cemetery. Memorials to those who were exterminated in the Holocaust took many forms.

One memorial to the murdered children featured a menorah shaped walkway and an homage to an execution wall. The other, simpler memorial was even more heartbreaking and horrific.

Modest white stones with a single black line marked the perimeter of an area. Within that border, the ground sank in and several trees sprouted from the earth. Later, we were informed that those white stones marked the perimeter of a mass grave where thousands of Polish Jews were dumped after execution. The decomposition of the bodies caused the ground to sink and the trees to grow.

In the following days we visited the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jewish quarter in Krakow. The different sites, including memorials, synagogues and Oskar Schindler’s factory were a whirlwind of history and emotion.

The bleak reality of the Holocaust and its effects on Poland were only amplified when we visited the work camp, Auschwitz, and the death camp, Birkenau.

As much as I had expected to cry, faint or vomit, I was able to keep my emotions collected while at the camps. In fact, I was eerily detached during the walkthrough, and kept an objective reporter’s eye.

I took in the sights and stories with interest and disgust that day. Walking through rooms filled from floor to ceiling with human hair (which was recycled as Nazi uniform lining), prosthetic limbs and shoes of the Holocaust victims was so intense that the full force of it didn’t hit me until later.

The night after touring Aschwitz and Birkenau was our last night in Poland. Our plane left for Israel the next day. I can’t lie, and say I wasn’t ready to leave though.

Even today, it’s hard to think of that first day in Poland without conjuring up those images of death and misery.

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