Bay Area teens bear witness, form community in Poland, Israel

For Tyler Campbell of San Francisco, it was uttering the prayers he’s said all his life in a synagogue in Warsaw.

For Gilad Gray of Los Altos Hills, it was arriving at Auschwitz and seeing how “unfortunately perfect” it was, in terms of its architecture, to facilitate mass murder.

For Alyssa Simpson of San Francisco, it was driving from the airport to Krakow on the bus with “Schindler’s List” playing overhead. “I looked outside and it was a mirror image of what we saw. It was the same thing. It was very surreal.”

Campbell, Gray and Simpson are three high school students who recalled the highlights from a recent trip that took 23 of them to Poland and Israel. They were joined by 84-year-old Auschwitz survivor Dora Sorell of Berkeley, Peninsula Havurah High Principal Claire Mikowski, Holocaust Center of Northern California President Steve Sloan, and one additional leader, Jessica Forkash. Both Mikowski and Sloan are children of survivors.

The trip, called Shalhevet, which means “flame” in Hebrew, is in its second year. It is the BJE’s answer to the international March of the Living, and was designed to be different in several ways, mainly in that it is much smaller, and is designed to foster a tight-knit group that can continue to meet once they return home.

“The trip was truly beautiful in terms of human interaction,” said Mikowski. “They are not just part of becoming a witness but becoming a community.”

At Auschwitz, Sorell shared some memories of being a prisoner there. Ever since she was liberated, she has worn her hair long, a result of being forced to shave it off.

Some have criticized the March of the Living for only taking the students to concentration camps while in Poland. Shalhevet tries to give the students some positive interactions there as well.

“We don’t just look at the past and come away hating the Poles, we look at what’s going on there today,” said Mikowski.

Also, in Israel, she said, the students are exposed to more than the usual.

“We look at the situation today and at the conflict today, not just the heroes that built the state and history,” she said. “In some of our minds, it’s almost mythological, but Israel is a real country and has real growing pains.”

After having to wear heavy hats and boots in Poland, and seeing nothing but gloomy skies, arriving in Israel was “a very nice change,” said Gray. “It was warmer and sunnier, and we hadn’t seen the sun in a week.”

Upon arrival, he said, the group had free time on the kibbutz where they were staying, so they bought food from the market, took it to a dock and ate overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

“Poland was this tense experience, and really emotional, and then we came to Israel and had time to decompress and relax.”

Now that they are back, the teens are expected to do some kind of project in response to the trip. Many of them will give presentations to their schools. Some will do photography, writing or art.

Whatever it is, the students seem greatly changed by having this experience.

Campbell said that despite how emotional the trip was, it made him realize something positive.

“The whole time I was trying to figure out what the trip was about and what life is about,” he said. And he realized the following: “Life is about living, and doing what makes you happy. Getting out of Poland made me excited to live my life and take my next steps, even though millions of people weren’t able to.”

Simpson too said it gave her a new perspective, especially since the trip coincided with the time of year when she and her peers are hearing from college admissions offices.

“Everyone’s in a tizzy and crying over not getting into Brown or whatever,” she said. “And I’m a wreck because I just got back from Poland.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."