Bearing The Unbearable

Jerusalem – Therese Collins never imagined she would major in Jewish studies in college. “I came to Jewish studies by accident,” said Collins, 20, a student at the City University of New York, explaining how a black Catholic woman from the Caribbean island of Antigua came to be standing outside the walls of the Old City, next to the Jaffa Gate. Her long silver earrings shimmering in the warm Jerusalem sun, Collins recalled that “when Chem 101 was booked, my adviser suggested I study the psychology of religion, a Jewish studies course. I loved the class and heard from other students that the Holocaust class was very interesting. Halfway through the year I declared a major in Jewish studies.”

The journey that brought Collins to study the Holocaust and other Jewish subjects brought her to Poland last week, where she and nine other Jewish studies majors from CUNY -only one of them Jewish – participated in the March of the Living. From there they flew to Israel. The trip, which was subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League and CUNY, brought the students face-to-face with the evils of the Holocaust. In Poland, the students walked through the gates of Auschwitz and gazed into the crematoria. They wept at the sight of shoes and eyeglasses piled high at the Madjanek concentration camp, knowing these ordinary possessions belonged to ordinary people exterminated by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish.

The CUNY students shared these experiences with a group of Polish students majoring in Jewish studies. Like them, the Poles were overwhelmingly non-Jews. The ADL, which this year also invited a group of Catholic educators to the March of the Living, felt compelled to invite the CUNY students after learning of their eclectic backgrounds. The vast majority of CUNY’s Jewish studies majors are non-Jews; many are minorities, either from the United States or abroad. “You have a kaleidoscope of every color, every religion, who are studying Jewish religion and the history of the Shoah,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in an interview shortly after flying into Israel from Poland. “What better way to bring a better understanding of the greatest tragedy of Jewish life?”

Foxman said he was very impressed with the CUNY students, whom he met for the first time in Poland. “I sat together with them in Warsaw at 1 in the morning, along with one of the individuals who had helped ADL fund the trip,” he recalled. “The students shared what the visit had meant to them. There were a lot of tears.” This was especially true for Katarina Sefrankova, an immigrant from Slovakia, who learned in her late teens that her father is Jewish and most of his family had perished in a concentration camp.

“Until the last second, I was not sure that it was a good idea for me to come to Poland,” Sefrankova admitted during a shopping break along Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. “At Madjanek I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t catch my breath. There was human hair and shoes piled high. One girl in our group collapsed and that’s how I felt. It was too much for me. I’m not sorry I went, but I’ll never go back there.” What made the trip to Poland bearable, Sefrankova said, was the support she received from other students, faculty, ADL staffers and Holocaust survivors. “Everyone was holding everyone else,” Sefrankova recalled, her face drawn. “When someone became a little weak, the others instinctively held out a hand or touched a shoulder.” As difficult as the trip to Poland was, “it made me feel more Jewish,” she affirmed. Memuna Kamara, 21, a senior who like several of the other Jewish studies students is also majoring in international relations, called the visit to Poland and Israel “the culmination” of her studies.

“I’ve studied Jewish law and ethics and the Talmud. I’ve looked at questions through the prism of halacha,” said Kamara, a black Muslim from Sierra Leone, using the Hebrew term for “Jewish law.” I’m taking the Bible as a literature and a kabbalah class.” While her studies have made her more adept at reading Jewish texts, Kamara said, nothing quite prepared her for what she saw in Poland. “After going to the extermination sites, it’s hard to understand how such a thing as the Holocaust could have happened not so many years ago,” Kamara said. “As a child in Sierra Leone who experienced a fraction of what it is to live in a war zone, I think the Holocaust is not an issue that should be spoken of only by Jews. It needs to be seen globally, by all people.”

“You can say Jews are paranoid, but they have a reason to be,” Collins said, describing her visit to Madjanek. “Above one of the bunks were pictures of babies, old people, who were killed just because they were Jews.” Collins said it was impossible as a black woman not to see parallels between the way blacks suffered at the hands of slave traders and the way Jews suffered under Nazi rule. “With slavery, people were brutalized, deported and many died,” she said. “The same thing happened 100 years later in the form of the Holocaust. How could the Holocaust happen? Why wasn’t the world crying out?” Collins called Jews “another minority that has been disenfranchised and victimized.” Now, she said, “I want to take a black studies course to learn more about my people’s struggles and connect the two together.” Foxman suspects that at least some of the students on the trip will go on to teach Jewish studies at far-flung universities. “Chances are some will be teaching in black universities or other minority environments, where they will be able to forge a greater rapport with students than a Jewish professor teaching Jewish studies would be able to forge,” he said. “What they experienced in Poland and Israel will only make them more credible.”