It's Thursday evening and a group of North American college students studying abroad throughout Europe and Israel sit family-style at Karma, a trendy vegetarian joint in central Krakow. After a few moments of introductions, students begin mimicking each other: "I didn't expect Krakow to be so beautiful!"
This is a common scene during the first evening of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad (PSA). The long-weekend program begins Thursday evening and ends Monday morning when students return to their respective cities. Days are spent touring Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and its neighboring city Oświęcim, while examining Polish-Jewish history and pre-war Jewish life, scholarly approaches to the Holocaust, and contemporary Jewish life in Poland.
Roughly a quarter of Krakow's population are students, so young people, many of whom speak English, are easy to come by. Colorful cafés and bars as well as modern hotels and restaurants dot the streets full of beautiful pre-war facades. Concert posters are plastered on street corners; a beautiful park filled with benches surrounds the Old Town. This is not the city most PSA participants expect, with prior knowledge generally derived from black and white films and Holocaust education. Some students enter the program with a religious connection through Judaism, relating to Poland through the lens of Holocaust victims; many other students are non-Jewish with or without Polish ancestry who simply feel drawn to learning more about the period of history. The program has the ability to challenge students' viewpoints while engaging with a diverse group of peers. A distinct component of the discussions throughout the program is examining different approaches toward the history.
On Friday evening, students have the opportunity to join the local Jewish community's Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow. After learning about the Jewish history and Holocaust, this experience illustrates an element of contemporary Jewish life in Poland. Many students express that until this experience, the history they were taught overshadowed any positive elements of Polish-Jewish relations. Many students partake in the program to learn about the Holocaust and leave impressed by the beauty of Krakow, the progressiveness of Poland, and with a new-found appreciation of the existence of Poland's cultural gems, the dynamism of Polish-Jewish history, and contemporary Jewish life. Most recently, the May PSA group had the opportunity to attend the annual Life Festival in Oświęcim, which attracts roughly 20,000 people. For many participants, seeing the city full of music, life, and people adds a human face to the complicated history.
Photo of the spring group of PSA participants.