Standing at the infamous train tracks at Birkenau, a World War II death camp in Poland, seniors Danny DeBare and Cole Bloomfield try to distinguish the boundaries of the ruins of barracks, gas chambers and crematoriums that were used in the Holocaust, but they can’t.
“It was just so expansive and never ending,” DeBare said. “I can’t even wrap my head around how many people were living and working in this area and all of [the buildings] were burnt to the ground because they were all made of wood.”
DeBare and Bloomfield, along with 23 other Bay Area high school seniors, recently spent two weeks in Poland and Israel on a trip called ShalHevet, which is run by the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center and BBYO, a Jewish teen organization. The trip was led by a local rabbi, another staff member and a Holocaust survivor, Anne Marie, who lives in San Francisco.
They spent the first week in Poland, hitting the ground running right after they landed by going to a memorial in the woods. Bloomfield said that for him, it struck a dark note and was one of the harder camps to see because about 800 children were killed at the site.
“That was even more significant do to the fact that Anne Marie was that age when the Holocaust occurred,” Bloomfield said. “If her parents didn’t make a huge effort to send her away, if they didn’t escape, that could easily be her and she wouldn’t be with us.”
Another poignant moment for Bloomfield was touring Auschwitz-Birkenau, two camps a kilometer away from each other, because his grandmother and great aunt spent three months there and it is where a majority of his family was killed. Bloomfield said that prior to going on the trip, his mother had told him the barrack number that his grandmother and great aunt had lived in.
“Through looking at a map, and sneaking under a line that you aren’t supposed to go to, I was able to actually find the place where their barracks were,,” Bloomfield said. “It was a very awe-inspiring moment because it very much personalized the entire trip for me.”
An additional personal touch was that when visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bloomfield draped himself in the blue and white Israeli flag, a gift from his mother, Judy Bloomfield.
“I gave him that flag,” Judy said. “When I was there a year ago, it was really uplifting for me to see teenagers there, some of them draped in an Israeli flag and I just think my mom would have loved that. My mom never wanted to go back to Auschwitz afterwards and I was kind of in disbelief that I did. She would have loved [the flag].”
Besides visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bloomfield and DeBare also visited the Nazi camps Majdanek and Treblinka. Although the camps highlighted the horrific deaths that occurred during the Holocaust, Bloomfield and DeBare both said that the trip focused on life.
“The rebuilding of Jewish life was slow [after the war], but what we got was that the entire Polish country is aware of their history and they do a good job of helping kind of embracing the Jews into life,” DeBare said.
“They see a place where culturally it is a huge part of European Jewry, where they lived for hundreds of years, not just ten years,” Cole’s father, Leon Bloomfield said. “All of us should be reminded about how cruel and evil people can be even if it doesn’t seem possible. It’s also about hope because there is a new community growing in Poland, and not to forget, they spend the last week in Israel, which is a whole different world.”
The ShalHevet group spent the second week in Israel, continuing to follow the theme of vibrant Jewish life.
“Going to Israel after Poland wasn’t just some random decision, ‘Oh Israel is a Jewish state we are just going to go there and have fun,’ but the point was after the Holocaust ended, many Holocaust survivors went to or tried to go to Israel, which at the time was controlled by the British,” Bloomfield said.
Both Bloomfield and DeBare have visited Israel previously, but on this trip they experienced a different side of Israel. This included hearing stories from a woman from the Bedouin people, a group of nomadic Muslims who are not citizens of Israel, and playing with refugee children from South Sudan and Egypt, who similarly to the Bedouin people, have no rights in Israel.
“I think ShalHevet did a phenomenal job of showing us the less touristy side of Israel,” DeBare said. “We had only six to seven days so we couldn’t go to all the touristy sites, but instead we engaged in the contentious topics and they did a great job of exposing us to other viewpoints.”
DeBare and Bloomfield physically experienced the tension in the region when they, to their surprise, visited the Gaza Border, which separates Israel from area controlled by Hamas.
“It was not necessarily super scary, but the woman who was taking us around had such resilience and such bravery to the point that she was making jokes like ‘Oh we are moving targets because there are snipers in the windows on the other side of the border’ and ‘Oh we are in a big bus, oftentimes big buses are targets for big missiles,’” Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield said that the tour guide’s attitude seemed nonchalant from his point of view, but to her, the dangers are just reality.
“Walking around the city, there are bomb shelters everywhere,” Bloomfield said. “We were at a school playground and there were five bomb shelters within 50 yards of you at all times. It is just a very different way of life.”
Similar to how in Poland, they interacted with local teens, the Bay Area group spent a night camping with the Israeli scouts, composed of youth taking a gap year between high school and the army, DeBare said
“That was an overall theme of the trip: meeting the teens and the real people who live in these places today. It was an awesome experience,” Bloomfield said. “While we are all teenagers, they are also very different, both the Polish teens from the Israeli teens.”
In addition to the relationships and experiences created internationally, the ShalHevet group formed strong connections amongst themselves. DeBare said that about 80 percent of the group knew each other going into the tour, but that by engaging through conversations, the group as a whole formed a deep relationship.
“After the Bedouin minority woman spoke to us we could just have taken it at face value and move on, but instead on the bus ride to the next place we dug deeper into her story, analyzed it more and talked about how that fell into context with the greater Israeli political model,” DeBare said. “Those really engaging conversations took this trip, in my opinion, to the next level. It made it really a fully immersive, exciting learning experience.”
Judy and Leon both cited the learning aspect of the trip, as both of them said that the trip should not be mistaken for a vacation.
“It’s not like we said ‘Cole, you’re a senior take a couple weeks go to a beach and relax,’” Leon said. “It’s a completely different experience than that by a few degrees.”
The two week experience is being treated as an independent study by the PHS administration. Independent study may just be the formal name, but Judy said that the title embodies the overall impact that the trip will have on DeBare and Bloomfield.
“For each of those kids in that trip there are things that they are all experiencing and taking away and there’s something very unique that each kid will bring back from this,” Judy said. “This is truly an independent study.”
Even though DeBare and Bloomfield are now back at school surrounded by their Piedmont peers and engaging in daily activities, Danny’s mother, Esther Rogers, said that the individual learning and growth will outlive the trip.
“I am interested in what kind of long-term life impact this will have on them,” Rogers said. “I don’t know if they will know this now, but how is this going to resonate with them in 15 or 20 years, and what is the connection this trip is going to have for their future understanding of the world and understanding of Judaism and being Jewish.”
Already, DeBare and Bloomfield and their decision to go on ShalHevet have already begun to influence their peers. Senior Elijah Levy, who has been friends with DeBare and Bloomfield since Kindergarten, is interested in going to Israel, especially since Jewish people get a birthright trip to the Jewish-state.
“I think it’s really cool and sounds like a good trip,” Levy said.
Similarly to Levy’s desire to go to Israel, DeBare said that he thinks every person, especially every Jew, should go to Poland and learn and see firsthand about the Holocaust.
“There are six million jews, 11 million people who died in the Holocaust and I can’t even wrap my head around what 10,000 people look like,” DeBare said. “I’m just starting to conceptualize it by going to Poland and going to these places that these atrocities took place. I feel super privileged to have the ability and responsibility now to not only tell what I saw, but to encourage people to do the same.”