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Study Tour to Poland Is Life-Changing Pilgrimage


West Windsor, N.J. – “How was your vacation?” is a question people are commonly asked when they return from a trip. But for the 14 travelers on Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC’s) Study Tour to Poland from May 14 to 22, the real question should be “How did it change your life?”

All agreed that their lives have been changed immeasurably.

While the travelers ranged in age, ethnicity, backgrounds and understanding of the Holocaust, they maintain that their shared experience has created a bond that they will never forget.

The students and their professors, Drs. Craig Coenen (History) and Jack Tabor (English), met for a wrap-up session in the Mercer County Holocaust-Genocide Resource Center (MCHGRC) on June 7 to share their reflections. 

Many of the students noted the difficulty they were having describing the trip to family and friends since their return. But gathered together at the Holocaust Center, they shared. Student Mae Calacal said the bond she formed with others in the group was very special.  “We went through this together. We opened up and expressed our feelings.”

“Our bonding was a testament to the seriousness of the trip,” Dr. Coenen said. Also traveling with the group was Laura Knight,  MCCC Professor of English; Alyson Krawchuk, American Honors advisor; and Shelly Eisenberg, a member of the MCHGRC Advisory Commission, whose parents are Holocaust survivors. A Polish tour guide accompanied them throughout.

The courses associated with the trip were “The Holocaust and Other Genocides” (HIS 215), taught by Professor Coenen and  “Literatures of War and Conflict: The Holocaust” (ENG239), taught by Professor Tabor. (The trip was also open to community members and other students.)

With a daily itinerary that went from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., there was little time to spare. The group spent its first three days in Warsaw, where students walked the city, were introduced to Polish culture and food, and inhaled Warsaw's history. Among the places they visited were the Warsaw Ghetto, the Umschlagplatz (the railway station in Warsaw where thousands of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Nazi extermination camps), the Jewish Cemetery, and Nozyk synagogue.

Then the group traveled by train to Krakow for two days, where they visited the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and its synagogues, the Jewish Ghetto, Oskar Schindler's famous factory, and the Plaszow forced labor camp.

The final two days were reserved for the town of Oswiecim and the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps located nearby. According to the professors, the schedule was specifically designed to provide students with a gradual immersion and a chance to get to know each other before arriving at the camps.

And the camps were clearly imprinted on every student's mind. Calacal said she found it hard to imagine what happened at Auschwitz even as she was standing there. “It wasn’t until I showed the photos to my family members that it really hit me,” she said.

Erica Sost called the trip “breath-taking,” noting the group’s second day at Auschwitz (in the Birkenau camp) was the “quietest of my life. I had to sit and digest what I saw there.”

Two sisters, Mallory and Bridget Phelan, traveled together. Bridget noted that she had wanted to go on the trip since grade school, when she read The Diary of Anne Frank and had a favorite teacher who was Jewish.

“I was raised Catholic in a very accepting church.  I just couldn’t understand that kind of hatred and still don’t understand it,” she recalled.

Bridget, who went on MCCC’s Study Tour to Cuba last year, observed that every trip changes you, but this trip to Poland  to study the Holocaust was a whole new level. “I was lucky to travel with such a loving group. It has inspired me to be better,” she said.

Mallory Phelan recalled that her sister’s excitement about the trip motivated her to sign up. While noting that she thought she had prepared adequately by reading accounts in class, she concluded that nothing really prepares you for Auschwitz. “You can’t learn it in a classroom. This was the most emotional experience of my life.  You just had to be there,” she said.

Viviana Marrero decided to sign up at the last minute. “I’m so glad I went. We take so much for granted. What if it had been my family? Why am I complaining?” she asked.

Numerous students observed that the trip reinforced the role of religion in their lives. Growing up Jewish, Rachel Levitt said she had known about the Holocaust and it caused her to question her faith. “I didn’t understand how people could still believe when something so terrible happened. I can’t express the magnitude of what I experienced, but it has made me so much closer to my faith.”

Levitt stressed the importance of preserving humanity.  “We held hands at Auschwitz. We recited the [Jewish] Mourner’s Kaddish. It was like an act of defiance.”

In the doorway of one of the last remaining buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, from left, Viviana Marrero, Rachel Levitt, Mikaela Gasparro-Kim, Prof. Laura Knight, Prof. Jack Tabor, Sherry Zarzuela, Mallory Phelan, Erica Sost, Shelly Eisenberg, Bridget Phelan, Mae Calacal, Liz Franz, Alyson Krawchuk, and Prof. Craig Coenen.
With a tour guide inside the gateway of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Outside Wawel Castle in Krakow, a national histroic site housing art and artifacts.
In the offices of the group's travel organizer in Warsaw, Furnel International Travel. Students met with Irena and Andre, pictured seated, middle, who told their story of witnessing as children the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Warsaw Uprising.
In Warsaw at the Polin Museum, a museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Sharing their impressions and memories at the Mercer County Holocaust Center on June 7.

For Sherry Zarzuela, who is Dominican, the trip was a revelation. “I didn’t know a lot about the Holocaust. It all came down on me in Auschwitz, especially when I saw the children’s clothes.  We were all crying together," she recalled.

Describing her own experience with prejudice, she said it can start small, “when you begin labeling people and don’t get to know them. I know what racism is and now I don’t care how loud my voice is.”

Liz Franz noted how impressed she was by everyone who went on the trip. Earning her MCCC degree this spring, she said she had spent little time on campus as an MCCC student. But this trip broadened her circle in unexpected ways.

“At Auschwitz we were holding each other up,” Franz said.

Echoing the sentiments of several others, Franz said the trip reinforced her desire to make the world a better place. “This trip was a big turning point. I have seen meaning in things I have done and haven’t done. I learned about myself, my culture, and how I relate to the people who were victimized there.”

Professor Tabor noted that he and Dr. Coenen meticulously prepared for and organized the Poland study tour for close to a year. “We had high hopes for this trip. We grass-rooted it and we thank all the people behind the scenes at the college who helped,” he said.

Dr. Tabor also thanked the students. “You were wonderful. Because life is short and fleeting, we need to find moments that are real. It was wonderful to see those moments when you came together. It means the world to Craig and me to know the trip affected you in such a profound way. It was a pilgrimage for us all.”

Study Abroad at Mercer

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Glenn Kraft