Deena, Noa and Rachel, college students and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, were three of 70 participants on LivingLinks, Chabad on Campus International’s first heritage trip to Poland. In a trip filled with emotional and poignant moments, the most riveting was when they lit the first candle of Chanukah in Auschwitz lI-Birkenau concentration camp.
Students from dozens of colleges across North America spent six days in Poland, bearing witness to the death camps, mass graves, labor camps and ghettos, the resting place for millions of Jews who were murdered al kiddush Hashem. The students also got a glimpse of the vibrant Jewish life that once thrived in Poland.
Rabbi YY Jacobson, the spiritual mentor for the trip, helped students channel the anger and pain felt by the trips participants towards a commitment to Judaism. As the menorah was being lit where over a million Jews were once killed, Rabbi Jacobson implored them, “Dear students, in the darkest and cruelest of places, we continued to kindle torches of goodness and holiness. Now, in times of freedom and prosperity, will we allow our flames of Yiddishkeit to be extinguished?”
From the feedback of participants, it was clear that Rabbi Jacobson’s message resonated, as Ilana Sperling, a student at the University of Florida put it, “Today we are angry, tomorrow we will be angry again. We will take that anger and use it to form something positive.” Andres Schwarz,also from UF, posted on social media “Now more than ever, I am incredibly proud to be a Jew. Am Yisroel Chai.”
In an emotional post on Facebook, Dan Bleykhman, a student at the University of Virginia wrote “To say it is not personal will be the biggest lie ever. This is very personal, whether you know a victim or not. I always thought my last name was a rarity, when in fact it turns out that there were once many Bleykhman’s or Bleikhman’s. To think that I once wanted to change my last name to Blakeman is shameful. I will forever be proud of my name. I will forever be proud of who I am. And I will forever be proud of being a Jew.”
“This pilot trip to Poland was a special opportunity for our students to journey through our history, connecting our devastating past, with a bright, vibrant present and future,“ said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, Executive Vice President of Chabad on Campus International. “They witnessed the incomprehensible destruction our people suffered and understand that we have persevered despite it all. The students returned home with a renewed commitment to their Jewish identity, inspired to be part of the future of our people.”
“Poland was the home to many early chassidic courts and the students were able to experience Poland’s rich Jewish history,” said Rabbi Yossi Witkes, who directs LivingLinks and IsraeLinks for Chabad on Campus International. “Standing on the sacred ground where millions of our people were systematically and brutally murdered invokes a wide range of emotions. For many students, this was an inspiring catalyst, empowering and uplifting them to embrace their heritage, be proud of their identity and keep the flame of Judaism alive.”