The Nazis and their bloodthirsty collaborators murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust. That is something that we — not only Jews, but the entire civilized world — never should forget.
As we remember the Shoah, though, we tend to think of it as a walled-off historical catastrophe. We might study the historical trends, sociological truths, and economic fissures that led to it, but we tend to forget that life preceded those nightmare deaths.
Real people lived in prewar Europe; they had lives every bit as real, as vivid, as joyous and as cluttered and as disastrous and as mundane as we do. If we truly are to honor their memories, we must remember their lives as well as their deaths.
That’s the approach that the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, to give the New York-based organization its formal name, takes in the series of summer trips it has led to eastern Europe since 2015. The trips, which have gone every year except for the covid-stricken summers of 2020 and 2021 and resumed this summer, are intense both academically and emotionally, and are aimed at travelers willing and able to open both their minds and their hearts to them.
Judith Weisfuse and Michael Wax of Short Hills are both doctors — she’s a newly retired internist, he’s an oncologist, and they’ve been married for 43 years — have gone on four of those trips. As they talk about them, in both intellectual and emotional terms, they complete each other’s sentences and expand each other’s thoughts.
The trips are 10 days each, and precovid they included about 22 people; the most recent one had 12 travelers ranging in age from 35 to 85, although most tend to be in their 60s and older — old enough to have retired, cut back on work, or at least have the freedom that comes with long tenure, but young enough to take on the rigors of travel.
Their trip companions were formidably well educated, the doctors said; some were academics who specialize in Jewish life or literature or thought, and “one was the daughter of a famous Yiddish poet,” Dr. Weisfuse said. Most, although not all, were the descendants of people affected by the Holocaust, some as victims, others as refugees.
On their first trip, the doctors said, there were a few people whose parents had been saved by the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who was stationed in Lithuania when he wrote transit visas as fast as his hand should sign his name, savaging his career but saving thousands of Jews. “They found their parents’ names on a list there,” Dr. Wax said. “It was pretty emotional.” Another person on the trip grew up in Shanghai, he added.
That was Irene Kronhill Pletka, a teacher, philanthropist, and YIVO supporter whose Kronhill Pletka Foundation helps fund the resurrection of Jewish life in eastern Europe. “She brought her natural creativity to include outings in nature and balance the intensity with a bit of fun,” Dr. Weisfuse said.
Dr. Wax’s connections were fairly direct; his father left Poland right before the war; his first wife and children were murdered. On the other hand, Dr. Weisfuse’s grandparents left Europe around the turn of the last century.
There is a pretrip reading list, and once the travelers got to Europe there were frequent lectures as well as walking tours. Every second of every day was packed, Dr. Weisfuse and Dr. Wax said.
The first trip was “foundational,” Dr. Weisfuse explained. “It was an introductory course in Jewish history in Poland and Lithuania, a survey course about the 1,000 years that we lived there, to set the understanding of the history of the Ashkenazi world.
“We learned about the structure of the shtetl; how it was constructed,” she continued. “We learned that it was a community created by Polish nobles who wanted to profit from the land they owned, so they created these company towns. The peasants took care of the agriculture, and the Jews lived in the town. A lot of the time they had autonomy, and pretty quickly they created an infrastructure that included social service agencies, a shul, a mikvah, a burial society, a beit din, and a school,” among other necessary communal services.
The lecturers include well-known academics; the historian Dr. Sam Kassow accompanied the trip and taught often during those 10 days. The Australian writer Arnold Zable also taught, and so did Dr. Eddie Portnoy, the writer who is YIVO’s exhibitions curator.
But to stress the academics is to ignore the emotion, and there was much of that as well.
“I think that the thing about these trips, what makes them unique, is not only the material, which is so interesting and engaging, and which is presented in such an engaging way, but it’s also the contributions of the participants,” Dr. Weisfuse said. “You draw so close to these people. You learn their stories. I have never done anything like this before. It was so moving.”
“And we spent about half the year doing the reading,” Dr. Wax added.
Each trip was different, they said. The first one, the foundational one, took them to many cities and towns in Poland and Lithuania. “We learned that each one had its own strengths and personality,” Dr. Wax said. “Each one was an entity to itself.” And they read. “There was a lot of incorporation of fiction and poetry, as well as memoirs and histories,” he continued; they read, among other works, the monumental “Brothers Ashkenazi” by I.J. Singer (that’s Isaac Bashevis Singer’s brother) where it was set, in Lodz.
“We learned about Warsaw and Lodz and Lublin; we learned about the great yeshivot in Vilna. We learned about chasidim and the Enlightenment, which were two competing forces.
“Isaac Babel wrote a series of stories about a Jewish gangster,” Dr. Wax continued.. “We went to the actual courtyard where the story took place, and we read it there. It was overwhelming.”
Another trip focused on literature, specifically from Galicia; they visited the home cities of great Yiddish writers. The next was called “Saints and Sinners,” which took them from Kyiv to Odessa, again focusing on writers and also on chasidim.
“Michael and I looked for many years for the right trip,” Dr. Weisfuse said. “A lot of trips are just visiting Holocaust sites. We wanted to do that, but we also wanted a trip that was looking not only at death but at the vitality of the Ashkenazi culture which existed for 1,000 years.”
They also were able to explore the towns that their families had left, and to learn new information about their ancestors.
Being surrounded by the intensity of the Ashkenazi culture — of its life, its cataclysm, and now, perhaps surprisingly but undeniably, of its stirrings back to life in some parts of eastern Europe, and of the intellectual and emotional passion of people on their trips, and of the stories of their own families — the doctors found that strong new emotions were evoked.
“We have lived together for so long, we worked together, we raised children together, so it is hard to imagine that we could have a bonding experience now,” Dr. Weisfuse said. But that’s what happened.
“This was the most moving thing that we ever did in our lives together,” she continued. “It gave us grounding, in terms of where we fit in this big, enormous, complicated history of Ashkenazi Jewry.” Because everything they learned was put into context — part of being in eastern Europe was to be embedded in that context — the personal and the political necessarily intwined.
Whenever the two doctors started to talk about the effect of the trips on their lives, they went back to what they learned; when they tried to talk about what they’d learned, they went back to the effect of the trips on their own lives.
“It’s all these details,” Dr. Wax said. “Not only do you learn about the important parts of the history, you also learn about culture. On the second trip, we went to a resort in the Carpathians, and Sam” — that’s Dr. Kassow — “showed us some travel newspapers, Yiddish newspapers, from the 1920s, encouraging Jews to go boating and hiking and skiing. And then he read us a Yiddish newspaper article about a waterfall, and there we were, right at that waterfall.”
“YIVO is an extraordinary organization,” Dr. Weisfuse said. “There is so much scholarly work that goes on there. Historians use their materials. We are not in the category of historians, and I am so thankful that YIVO was so thoughtful to have the foresight to create these trips for people like us. We are not scholars, but we are interested in understanding where we come from.”
Plans call for YIVO to run a study tour to Lithuania and Poland in June 2023, and a first-of-its-kind Jewish literary tour of northern Italy that October. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.