Holocaust trip includes stop in Greece
With pandemic restrictions lifted, many synagogues and Jewish organizations have been scheduling trips for their members. Some were connected to the March of the Living, which this year celebrated the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel, 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 35th anniversary of the March itself.
A visit to Poland and Israel was specifically timed to participate in the April 25 and 26 Yom Ha’Atzmaut Israel Independence Day celebrations.
On July 9, a group of 21 ranging in age from 14 to early 80s from Marlboro Jewish Center (MJC) in Marlboro, were to leave for a 10-day excursion to Poland and (wait for it) Greece.
Greece, you might ask?
“We will go to Poland so we can bear witness to the horror of the Holocaust and pledge to remember and honor the millions who were murdered as well as those who stood up for others,” said MJC spiritual leader Rabbi Michael Pont.
“Greece will be a response. There we’ll see the impact World War II had on the country and its people, meet with leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church, honor the only religious leader worldwide to protest against the Holocaust, and engage in interfaith dialogue in an ecumenical setting. That all will culminate in a joint declaration condemning antisemitism and all hate-based bias.”
According to both MJC Fundraising Vice President Ari Teplitz and Rabbi Pont, the credit for this innovative and educational excursion is temple member Dr. Stacy Gallin.
Gallin is the married mother of two young sons who earned her Doctorate in Medical Humanities from Drew University. She is founder and director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, a 501(c)3 focused on transcending the generational, religious, geographical and professional boundaries in Holocaust education. She is also Senior Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and member of the Governing Council and co-chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the International Chair of Bioethics (WMA Cooperation Centre).
Gallin is passionate about Holocaust education. Much of that passion is fueled by a connection begun in 2017 with Eva Mozes Kor z”l who, with her twin, Miriam z”l, entered Auschwitz at the age of 10 and who were among some 1,500 sets of twins subjected to horrific experiments, including the injections of germs, overseen by Dr. Josef Mengele.
After participating in one of the annual trips the elderly survivor led to Auschwitz, Gallin said, “I promised Eva Mozes Kor I would continue to tell her story to the world. I take that promise very seriously.
“We’re at a turning point. The survivors are passing, which makes it imperative that we transmit their histories to the next generation. We must do this now if we are to stem this horrid rise in antisemitism and hate-based crimes.”
Acting on her promise, Gallin set out to bring the lessons of the Holocaust to influencers—people who, as she said, “young people look up to. And who better than college athletes? They have a tremendous impact.”
So in 2018, she organized a trip to Auschwitz for members of the Davidson College men’s basketball team. Davidson is the powerhouse that has produced a number of National Basketball Association stars, including Golden State Warriors Point Guard Steph Curry.
Stacy said, “One of my MIMEH colleagues went to Davidson, and suggested we reach out to them since the North Carolina team is so well known. We met with Coach Bob McKillop, who immediately said yes to the idea. Then he called a meeting of the team and they all agreed.”
What was most amazing, she said, was to watch the individual teammates interact with Eva Moses Kor.
“None of them were Jewish, and they’d had very little Holocaust education. But she connected with them. She inspired them to go on to do important things with their lives.”
Kor died in 2019 at the age of 85. But listening to Gallin, it is clear that the survivor’s impact has not diminished.
About the MJC trip, Gallin said, “This is an immersive opportunity. At Auschwitz, we’ll have access to areas most don’t see, including where the women’s operations took place. We’ll see the worst that humanity has to offer, learn lessons from the past, and then connect it to all with what is happening now.
“Hate groups are all about creating hierarchies of human life. That is exactly what the Nazis did. They said some classes or categories of people were more important than others, although that is really part of a broader story, starting with discrimination against disabled students in the early 1900s. Today, these hate groups are waving a red flag that we need to pay attention to. That’s why we have to educate young people about the connection between these hierarchies and where they can ultimately lead.”
Along with the warnings, she said, “It is important to show people another reality: that we are still here. Jewish life is thriving in Poland. Krakow is a vibrant city with a resurgent Jewish community. We will see that, and then we will go to Greece because it is imperative that we work with people and groups with which we share commonalities. We must build relationships and alliances with them. Those connections are essential to making sure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.”
“This has already been an education for me,” said Ari Teplitz, who has been coordinating much of the trip’s travel arrangements. “For example, I did not know that Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city with the country’s largest prewar Jewish community, was once called madre de (mother of) Israel. It was a thriving center of Jewish life.”
He also did not know that of the 43,000 Jews in Thessaloniki, over 40,000 were murdered during the Holocaust, and that most died in Auschwitz.
This, he said, “despite the fact that Archbishop Damaskinos of Blessed Memory, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church throughout Greece during World War II, was the only worldwide leader to formally protest against the Holocaust during World War II. He wrote letters against deportation policies; helped facilitate the creation of false identity papers; and encouraged clergy in Greece to hide, aid and save Greek Jews.”
That is why, he said, “It was important for us to go to Greece, where the Greek Orthodox Church is committed to ridding the world of antisemitism and has a strong connection to the local Jewish community.”
Rabbi Pont was excited about the trip, which he saw as “an opportunity to promote Jewish values through Holocaust education. Thanks to Stacy’s connections, we met with His Eminence, Ignatius of Demetrias, the Bishop of Volos, Greece, and hosted for lunch by His Eminence. We also discussed the consequences of the Holocaust as well as the history of the local Greek Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Jewish people.
“Of course, we had a chance to visit the local synagogue. Also on the schedule was a visit to the Theological Academy, where the group talked about common educational and interreligious activities.”
Rabbi Pont says, “Although I have been to Auschwitz before, I know this visit is different from others, mostly because of the people I traveled with. And I enjoyed meeting with leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church. That for me was unique.”
Gallin hopes the trip has a ripple effect, much as the trip with the Davidson team did, “raising awareness about the Holocaust, encouraging more immersive experiences in other Jewish communities around the world, seeking more opportunities for connections with others,” so that the horrors of the Holocaust and the heroism of people who stood against it are never forgotten.
JOANN ABRAHAM began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.