Traveling to Poland was the first time I had ever left the United States. It was rather overwhelming to think that my family was 5000 miles away. It was also interesting to realize just how disconcerting it is that YOU are the stranger, the foreigner, that you cannot speak a word of the local language, that if you get separated from your group, you are in serious trouble. I didn’t know how to ask for water, or a bathroom. I had no idea how to say hello. It was humbling, for sure. At the same time, it allowed me to view the world from a completely different perspective.
We stayed at a beautiful retreat center, Ostroda Camp, about a four-hour drive from Warsaw. The first full day there, we did some light repair on the cabins, painting and sprucing up after the harsh Polish winter. In particular, we replaced screens on the windows – designed to keep the mosquitoes (and they are HUGE) out, and the children in. (Kidding, not kidding)
Then the big day came! The Holocaust Survivors were due to arrive just before dinner. We got word that this day was Shauvot so we should dress up. My group of four from Savannah had no idea what a Shauvot was or how one should dress. Obviously, we were not prepared for this occasion at all. We stared Googling the holiday and its related traditions. We also cleaned and decorated the cabins and made a welcome gift for all of our guests. It was such an exciting afternoon.
Dressed in a borrowed skirt and the only decent shoes I had with me, I paced nervously, my ears straining to hear word of their arrival. I felt like I was preparing for my first date. Would they like me? Did my outfit look okay? How on earth were we going to communicate? What was I even doing here???? Suddenly a shout went up and we all flooded into the parking area. My heart pounded as the charter bus pulled in. As I ran toward the bus, I made a decision. No one here knew that I was shy except me. I was diving in. I was going for it.
I joined the others and went right up to the door of the bus. Though it was unplanned, we formed a receiving line to greet each person as he/she got off the bus. It was beautiful chaos. People began laughing and hugging and speaking to each other in any of four different languages. Instantaneously, strangers became friends. It was quite chilly as the sun began to set. I found myself wrapped up in this cute little Jewish grandma’s jacket. Three minutes in, and I had my first Jewish friend. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. Little did I know, this was only the beginning.
(BTW – Although I have many fantastic pictures of experiences shared with the Holocaust Survivors, we have been asked, as an act of respect for their privacy, not to show their faces on social media.)