Jillian Lederman was not at the beach on Aug.12, enjoying the North Shore summer with her friends. Instead, the incoming Marblehead High School senior stood on the grounds of the 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 the Holocaust 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.”
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 who would learn about and fully understand the Holocaust.
Just 16 months later, they took a group of teens to Poland and Berlin on the first fully subsidized trip of Holocaust Legacy Fellows, a nonprofit they created, funded, and directed. The 16 teens came from 10 communities in Greater Boston.
“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.
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 Sara Pellach, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “Keeping the journal was extremely helpful. It served as my personal therapist during the trip,” said Victoria Veksler of Marblehead.
The itinerary started in Berlin, where the teen fellows toured Wannsee, the site where high-ranking Nazi 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.
Next, the teens traveled to Poland, where they visited the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Treblinka death 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 the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie.
“The things I saw there will never escape my memory,” said Adam Zamansky of Marblehead. “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.”
It was the 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 crematorium.
“There were countless people who could see the smoke from the crematorium, and others who saw Jews walking the four kilometers from the train station to the camp,” said Danny Richmond, of Needham. “They said nothing about it, pretending as if nothing were wrong at all. I thought a lot about all those bystanders.”
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 was the engagement and interpersonal relationships that formed,” said Kipnis. “Their nightly discussions could have gone on for hours had we let them.”
A graduation ceremony for the Holocaust Legacy Fellows will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 8 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 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,” said Max Foltz of Newburyport. “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, Holocaust Legacy Fellows, and the Jewish people.”
The trip was also transformative in intangible ways. “We saw first-hand what deep-rooted hatred in people can do,” said Jonah Schwartz of Framingham. “This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive and to counteract and spread the antithesis of hatred.”