This spring, 20 HWS students, faculty and community members, along with a similar group from Nazareth College, embarked on a journey to trace the pathway of the Holocaust in Germany and Poland. Called The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, the trip challenged students to learn to recognize and respond to injustice in today’s world.
“The trip went extraordinarily well,” says HWS Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski, a leader of the trip who has been instrumental in the collaborative effort with Nazareth. “The students and community members were very engaged and quite inspirational.”
“It’s an incredibly powerful experience,” says Julianne Miller, director of the Abbe Center for Jewish Life and Hillel adviser at HWS. “We had both the chance to honor those who suffered and perished in the Holocaust but also to think about how what we have learned and experienced should shape how we interact with our world today.”
Students met with German and Polish students for dinner conversations on current events that were “lively and informed,” says Dobkowski, “probably influenced by recent events in the U.S. and Europe, particularly the migrant and refugee crises and the rise of populist governments on both continents.”
The trip included a day spent in volunteer work, cleaning the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and restoring graves, “trying to give back just a little to the Jewish community and to the process of memory,” says Dobkowski. “It was a very moving experience.”
Visits to concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Chelmno offered profound insights for the students. Erika Ireland ’19, a double French and sociology major, held hands with her fellow travelers as they walked from Auschwitz to Birkenau. “This was one of the most powerful moments for me because it symbolized our strength, courage and togetherness as we entered into a traumatic place and bore witness to its tragedy,” she says.
For Joshua Hylkema ’21, a history and music double major, a pivotal moment came at the Radegast train station in Lodz, Poland, where thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps. “When I first walked into the memorial, my focus was on individual names [of Jews who had left there],” he says. “Then I took a step back and in this moment I felt the weight of more than 200,000 lives.”
One of the trip’s leaders was Holocaust survivor Georgine Nash, a “hidden child” who together with her mother, were hidden by non-Jews who risked their lives to protect them. “What a gift it was to travel with her,” says Dobkowski. “[Georgine Nash] provided the students with so many moments of insight.”
More than just a chance to experience history, the trip offered students a framework, through trip discussions and a Reader’s College course taken earlier, with which to identify and address injustice when they see it. Dobkowski says that he asks the students two questions regarding what they have learned: “how the Holocaust can be confronted so that it can be integrated into our consciousness and, relatedly, how do we keep the Holocaust from being relegated to history, to memories that can be forgotten or simply ignored?”
“I am very interested in how we sustain ourselves as we identify and combat injustice over a lifetime,” says HWS Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, P’15, who participated in the trip for the third time. “For me, this is the magic of The March: we travel into terrible darkness, and we come home exhausted but richer, perhaps with more resources to sustain us in the future.”
The March is just one of several HWS programs generously supported by the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation. Phillip Ruthen ’90 and more than 50 HWS alums, parents and friends have also contributed to creating opportunities for students in Holocaust studies. Since 2003, HWS students have embarked through this immersive course of study on a biennial basis.