Many visitors to Nazi death camps are flooded with powerful emotions that are difficult to process. Seven students from Boston-area colleges felt this anguish during their recent visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they wrote down their thoughts and feelings.
The students went to the concentration camps as part of Together, Restoring Their Names (TRTN), a Combined Jewish Philanthropies-subsidized fellowship that aims to restore the memory of the Holocaust and its victims through travel, education, and volunteerism. Over five days, this diverse group of students, about half of whom are not Jewish, researched and developed personal projects based on what they learned and saw as part of an initiative called “We Will Write Our History.”
“I want students to find a project that speaks to them while they’re there,” said Elan Kawesch, a Brandeis University junior from Brookline who is the director and co-founder of TRTN. “It could be anything from how children were treated in the Holocaust, to how Jewish prisoners were forced to sort through belongings being stolen by the Nazis.
“Every single time I take a student to a concentration camp for the first time, they each have their own personal experience, a strongly emotional experience. I want to leave them room for flexibility.”
Each day in Poland, fellows toured different parts of the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, learning far more than they would on the standard three-hour tour. They stayed in Oświęcim, the southern Polish town that is the namesake and location of Auschwitz. After the daily tour was complete, students spent the rest of their day researching and preparing their project.
Fellows are given a wide range of choices both in what they research and how they present it. They can write an academic essay or a more personal reflection, each 3,000 words. Though the program is described as a writing seminar, participants are free to present their findings through mediums such as art, photography, or poetry.
Matt Lebovic, the CJP associate director of campus services who co-founded TRNT and is leading many of the tours, also pointed out that students can focus on stories of non-Jewish Holocaust victims, including LGBTQ, Roma, and the disabled who made up five million of the Holocaust’s 11 million casualties.
“Just like I think it’s essential to bring non-Jews on the trip, I think it’s essential to not just focus on Jewish victimhood,” said Lebovic.
Once their projects are complete, fellows will present them to their peers, and then prepare a way to bring what they learned back to their communities. Fellows might present at their campus or at a fall conference, publish an op-ed, or meet with Boston-area Holocaust survivors.
Last year, a Wellesley College fellow met with a Holocaust survivor in Brookline and helped him write and edit his memoir. For Yom HaShoah, participants from Brandeis displayed the names and photos of survivors around campus. The group also participates in Café Europa, a social gathering for Holocaust survivors that meets two or three times a year and draws around 100 survivors and their family members.
TRTN was founded in 2015 to help fill what both Kawesch and Lebovic saw as a disturbing inadequacy of Holocaust education. “There was a severe lack, even in Hillels on campus, of anything more than maybe a Yom HaShoah event once a year,” said Kawesch. “There was really no way for Jewish students to learn about the Holocaust on campus in a non-academic setting.”
Kawesch worked with Lebovic, who coordinates campus Jewish programming and trips on behalf of CJP, to organize a trip to Poland, where students visited various sites related to Poland’s Jewish past and reemerging future, and helped restore an abandoned synagogue and Jewish tombstones ripped up by the Nazis to build roads. Following a successful inaugural trip, TRTN grew into a comprehensive, immersive Holocaust education program dedicated to leadership and volunteerism.
“The really important thing for us is going back to the small details and restoring the names of people who maybe have been forgotten in the pages of history,” said Kawesch. “Just the normal people who were taken out of their day-to-day lives who were brutally murdered by the Nazis. The one thing we do on every trip is take pictures of students holding portraits of victims of Nazi persecution in sites related to their story.”
Learning the untold stories often means traveling beyond sites typically associated with the Holocaust. In 2018, fellows visited the Netherlands, which lost about 102,000 Jews – 75 percent to 80 percent of the population, the highest rate in Western Europe. In 2017-18, participants traveled to Washington, D.C., where they visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
In 2017, the group traveled to Berlin to visit a number of Holocaust memorial sites and museums. Students also learned about the city’s dynamic Jewish present, which included a meeting with some of the city’s 25,000 Israeli residents, who moved there for a less expensive and more creative lifestyle. In 2016, the group went to the United Kingdom to visit the London Jewish Museum, and met with leaders of the Jewish community to learn about its history and discuss efforts to combat anti-Semitism.
“As survivors age, they realize this is their last chance to share their stories, and they want their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren to know what happened to the Jewish people,” said Kawesch. “They realize this is the last chance to give the real story of why ‘never again’ really has to be never again.”
To read one fellow’s impressions, read “Haunted by a visit to Birkenau.”
To learn more about TRTN, visit togetherrestoring.com.