After seeing death camps, teens are readjusting to life

Earlier this month, 18 Bay Area high school juniors and seniors traveled to Poland for the "March of the Living," an international program dedicated to teaching teens about the Holocaust. Along with 6,000 others from around the world, the Bay Area high schoolers retraced the steps of the infamous "March of Death" from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

From Poland, the teens moved on to Israel, where they celebrated the country's Independence Day before returning home two weeks ago.

"It's been so difficult to get back into reality. We have to get back to our lives," said Mariana Roytman, 17, a student at the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.

Roytman was one of 10 students who gathered last Wednesday for an informal "debriefing" at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco; BJE helped organize the local contingent of the biannual trip.

The students hugged each other and exchanged photos while snacking on cookies and grapes. Mostly, though, they were there to talk about the difficulties of resuming normal lives after exploring Auschwitz and Treblinka, after befriending Holocaust survivors and after walking through the factory where industrialist Oskar Schindler once employed — and saved — hundreds of Jews.

"Everything that I put in the back of my brain, locked away in some little closet, from the camps and from Israel, is rushing back to me," said Ross Siegel, 17.

"I was sitting in class thinking, I could care less about conjugating some Spanish verb. I've had one of the most amazing experiences. And people aren't interested," Siegel added.

According to Mickey Naggar Bourne, director of Israel programs for BJE, students who return from this trip often feel that "no one understands what they've been through. Listeners lose interest [in hearing about the trip] after 10 minutes." Bourne called the debriefing "a safe place for people to express their anger."

Amy Jones, 17, was particularly upset about her European history class at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

"We had a guest speaker who was joking about Hitler. Everybody laughed. I just went outside and cried. It was the first time I cried. It made me really sad and bothered. That was the one day we touched on the Holocaust in that class," said Jones.

Like the other returnees, Jones will eventually address community groups about her experiences on the trip. For now, though, she says no one wants to hear her ruminations.

Joy Zimmerman, a student at Marin Academy, told the group she found it useful "to remember life was still going on for [her classmates] while we were gone. We can't expect everyone to be focused on the Holocaust."

Others said they felt isolated not only from their friends at school but also from their parents.

After returning from Israel, several teens told their families they wanted to become more observant, including keeping kosher at home. Parental response has ranged from interest and surprise to resentment and confusion, said the students.

While the meeting allowed teens to vent frustrations about coming home, it was also a time to reflect on the trip itself.

As part of the pre-trip curriculum, the students attended educational meetings and read background information on the Holocaust. With the help of counselor Nina Kaufman and Rabbi Marvin Goodman of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, who also went on the trip, the group compiled a list of goals before leaving the Bay Area.

At the debriefing session, Kaufman asked the students if they felt they had met those goals. They said they had — with one exception.

Several students admitted they were unable to dismiss their "`blaming-the-whole-country' feelings" toward Poland.

"Every time I saw someone elderly, I had to hold myself back from screaming and yelling," said Rebecca Hess, 18, a student at Lick-Wilmerding. "I just stared at them. I thought, `You can't look me in the eyes as a Jewish teenager and see that I'm still here.'

"It was a burden to accuse everyone I saw, but I couldn't help it. I couldn't wait to get to Israel," Hess added.

The trip from Poland to Israel presented a sharp contrast, the teens said. In Poland, for example, they spent long bus trips joking about sex — a topic that seemed as far from the death camps as any — while in Israel, conversations turned mostly to politics.

That's just one of the strategies the teens said they used to deal with the intensity of the entire trip.

Since coming home, the teens have found another tool to grapple with their experiences: e-mail. Online, the teens have kept in contact, discussing changes in their values, the new way they cherish their time, their increased interest in Judaism.

Still somewhat shell-shocked, the teens say they will never be the same as they were just one month ago. And they wouldn't want to be.

"The trip is not the march of the dead, it's the March of the Living," said Roytman. "Every time I left a camp, I felt I was also a survivor."