Today we have been transported from our dormitories to the 19th century and to consider once again the complex question of Judaism and how so many Jewish people are in Poland by the beginning of the Second World War. The understanding of Jewish identity in Western and Eastern Europe is dissimilar and the way Jewish people managed their identity in the two sides of the European continent is also varied. I remember last year when I first sat in on this amazing class; the breadth and depth of knowledge of Dr. Orla-Bukowska is beyond compare. She is a professor, respected world-wide for her knowledge of Jewish history and their unparalleled ability to maintain their identity in spite of being homeless for almost two millennia. It is wonderful to listen to the passion with which she speaks and the willingness she demonstrates in going above and beyond to share what she knows. As I listen to students asking their questions, it is evident that many of them are just as astounded by what is happening in class. In addition, the comments as they are walking the streets of Kraków, sitting at dinner, grabbing a cup of coffee, or gathering together in the two dormitories are just as appreciative. The energy she exudes in class, or when she stayed up until 3:30 this morning to turn around their proposals in a matter of a couple days further demonstrates just how fortunate students are to be in her presence.
The complexity of the Jewish question, for many, returns them to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939, but that is all most Americans, as well as American students, know. Perhaps a few have taken the time to go to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and perhaps a few more have traveled to Europe and visited one of the main concentration camps like Dachau or Buchenwald, or an extermination camp such as Auschwitz, but there is little knowledge of, and even less appreciation for, the plight and mistreatment of the Jews that can be traced to Biblical times. As you might be a person reading this, how many of you, for instance, were aware that the Jewish people were expelled from England as early as 1290 or from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497? How many of you know that in many places throughout the Mediterranean basin Jews were forcefully removed and often blamed for the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 1350s and beyond? How many of you realized that in 1939, 20% of the Jewish population in all of the world lived in Poland? These are some of the major facts students are learning in this class, but the tapestry that Dr. Annamaria, as some will call her, creates is far more beautiful that the coat of many colors.
Tonight (and it is late afternoon on the 5th as I write this), we will be traveling by bus to Prague, where we will spend the next couple of days. The bus trip there (and back) is long, but Prague is a beautiful city, and one that was spared much of the carnage and destruction of WWII. The history of the Jews in Prague is also significant and most of Saturday will be spent in the Jewish Quarter. Even that term has a significant and complex history. There is nothing about Jewish history that is simple; and there is nothing about the Jewish people, at least for me, I do not find amazing. After returning from Prague, student will also visit the Jewish Quarter here in Kraków, which is where Schindler’s Factory was located. Relatively close by, students will visit Auschwitz during their final weekend here in Poland. There are no words to describe either the museum, which is now housed in Schindler’s Factory nor Auschwitz, where more that 1.3 million people were exterminated in a span of four years, and most of them within the first 24 hours of arriving in this place of death. That is more difficult for me to fathom is that we did not learn from Auschwitz, genocide and ethnic cleansing and hate have not disappeared from this world. In fact, it seems the renewed sense of nationalism that has reappeared throughout the world does not bode well for trust and mutual respect. That too is a complex question.
It is ironic for me that the first time I came to Europe, I was a student just as the 40 who are here now. It was also during January and Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated as 40th president, it was also a tumultuous time in American politics, the hostages would be released from Iran as he was sworn in as an affront to Jimmy Carter. The world was in an economic downturn. Inflation was almost 11% and interest rates were almost 16%, a far cry from where we are now. Gas had gone above a dollar a gallon a year or two before, but had somewhat stabilized. Our dependence on foreign oil was strangling our economy and it is somewhat interesting that someone who came from Hollywood became president. It was the last time such an outsider somehow got to the White House. It was also a bit surprising for me to realize we are only 5 presidents beyond that time and it is 36 years later. Today in class we spoke about the period that Poland was flourishing and independent. It was a period between the wars. As I have spoken with students here on the trip, it is interesting how often the election of the fall still comes up in their conversations. I have often noted, even before the election, that I was saddened by the fact that the tenor of the election was so embarrassing for their first foray into presidential voting.
It reminds me once again of my initial title; the world is always complex. It is good to try to simplify at times; it is good to step back, but critical and thoughtful reflection will always face complexity honestly. That is a foundational part of this trip. From managing money to managing time, from attempting to understand, be it class or that other language, perhaps one of the most important lessons of the trip for all of us is being willing to open our minds and our hearts to the other. As we begin a New Year, 40 students from Bloomsburg are being inundated with options to learn. It is a complex process, but a gratifying one. It is a once-in-a-lifetime, and you’ll-never-forget experience. Even as the oldest person on the trip, I am still learning, and it is not always simple.
Thanks for reading and soon off to Prague.