Zest for Life

One of the things I dearly love about the European Jews that I have met is their zest for life. They have lived through one of the most horrible eras of world history and somehow manage to continually bounce back.

In Poland, when we were given our room assignment at the retreat center, my digs were on the third floor. My suitcase was the size of a young manatee, barely squeaking in under TSA’s 50-pound limit. Yikes! Fortunately, there were a couple gentlemen around who helped this damsel in distress, and I was more than happy to let them do so. As the Holocaust Survivors arrived with more reasonably-sized bags in hand, they didn’t hesitate but headed straight up the stairs. Some had to pause momentarily, but most did not.

In this retreat center, the dining room was at ground level, on the second floor, and the showers were on the first floor. If, during the day, you needed to “go”, you would be hitting the stairs, heading either a flight up or a flight down, as there were no rest rooms on the main floor. There were also no elevators or wheelchair ramps. We all just hoofed it.

Never once did I hear the Holocaust Survivors complain about all the walking we did while on excursions. Certainly, as these folks are anywhere from 75-95 in age, some would tire quicker than others and therefore find a bench in the shade for a few minutes. While resting, they were quite likely to burst into song. They sang folk songs from their youth, and when I say they sang, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they belted them out. I could tell if the song was happy or wistful or a vigorous call to action by observing the cadence of their voices and the expressions on their faces. Then, just as swiftly as a butterfly flits away to another flower, the verse or chorus would end, and a new conversation would begin, or perhaps they would stand to walk further on. The moment was over as quickly as it had begun. More than once I was moved to tears by these impromptu concerts. Their tunes drew me in, and for that instant, I felt their pain, their joy, their determination. It was real and raw, and I felt honored to be given a brief glimpse into their hearts.


One of the most fun things we did during our time together was a Camp Olympics. The Holocaust Survivors were divided into two teams to compete in a variety of athletic events, like kicking soccer goals, shooting basketballs, and the all-time favorite, using a giant slingshot to hurl water balloons at their trip leader. These people are some kind of competitive! They cheered their team on with enthusiasm, as former athletes and former spectators gave it their all. You didn’t have to speak the language to tell that there was a constant flow of good-natured trash talk with the other team. Just like with 12-year-olds from around the globe, there were heated discussions about whether or not the kick was “in-bounds” or if someone participated out of turn. Not one person entered the contest with the slightest intention of losing. At the end of the activity, however, the staunchest of rivals walked away arm-in-arm, laughing and recounting moments of failure and glory. Perhaps with an elbow to the ribs and a semi-jesting, “Just wait till next time!”

Without question, my favorite trait of the Holocaust Survivors I have met can best be visualized by the HaagenDazs Gelato commercial,  entitled ‘Arguments’. You know, the one where the Italian couple bickers, then reconciles over a tasty dessert. In much the same way, my European-Israeli friends will give each other what-for, holding nothing back. They conclude with an emphatic hand gesture that seems to signify, “And THAT’s the way it is!”, then they walk away. When next they meet, they are fast friends again, as if the previous conversation never took place. In a similar situation, most Americans I know would hold a grudge for years. Decades-long family feuds have developed over far less. For them, however, when it’s over, it’s over.

My personal introduction to this behavior was about fifteen minutes after meeting the Holocaust Survivors for the very first time. There was an incident with towels, to which I responded quickly but ineffectively. One lady, who I called Sassy Pants until I learned her name, was completely unimpressed with my inability to resolve this issue. I was severely reprimanded in Russian. The words were unintelligible to me, but her message was crystal clear. I was crushed. I walked away stunned. Here I was, minutes into living out a lifelong dream, and I had already alienated the very people I had come so far to meet. I honestly wanted to cry. The next morning at breakfast, however, she met me with hugs and kisses and a silver bracelet, which she insisted I put on immediately. The bracelet was too large, so she said (via translator), “You eat more. It will fit.” And just like that, we were friends.

I have come to love these Holocaust Survivors so much. They captured my heart right away and have refused to let go. While I am still reluctant to name them by one event in their history, they are indeed Survivors in every sense of the word. Their passion is contagious. They are affectionate and brutally honest. They are loud and loving. They are strong-willed and optimistic. They are considerate and tenacious and inspiring. They welcomed this awkard country girl with open arms, and gave me the best gift of all – their friendship.


Lemon zest photo from http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/45079/best-lemon-zest

“Assume The Crash Position”

Where I come from, there are couple of running jokes. One is that there are more cows than people living on my road. The other is that when people come to visit, they have to check their passports at the border of civilization. While these are indeed exaggerations, they are not too far from the truth. It was a big deal a few years back when our road got paved with real asphalt and rocks. This was a step up from the layers of ash from the local paper mill that some bureaucrat thought would be a fantastic idea. (Just for the record, it was not.) Autumn mornings you are quite likely to see men in camouflage converge in wooded areas and grassy fields, hoping for a white-tail buck to fill the freezer and perhaps a set of horns to adorn the living room. (This is a part of Southern culture. Don’t judge.) Because we live in a rural community, most people work in the big city about an hour away, and the twice-daily bumper-to-bumper commute can be quite gruesome. Out here in the county, however, it’s only about a ten-minute drive to the nearest small town, which is a lovely old faded beauty currently being revitalized through some sort of Revitalize Cute Old Towns Grant. A traffic jam out here is most likely to happen when you get stuck behind a tractor driving down the road at 11 MPH, chugging from one hay field to the next, or perhaps a school bus-turned-convertible hauling large quantities of said hay. There are also what we refer to as “crop inspectors”, old men in old trucks who have nowhere to go and all day to get there.

Now I had heard of the autobahn before. It is spoken of in hushed tones of great awe by prepubescent students bouncing along on a school bus most likely older than they are. Years after being enlightened about this wonder, even my wildest fantasies of zipping along at such speeds were no match for my initial encounter with real, live European drivers.

My first year flying into Poland, I remember being incredibly impressed with the Chopin Airport in Warsaw. It was bright and welcoming. Though the pace was fast, the building is organized and well-marked, so locating our bags was a breeze. We met our guides who took us on a tour of the city for a few hours while we waited for the other half of our delegation from the US to arrive. After introductions all around, we piled into a 15-passenger van/minibus hybrid and away we went. And, man, did we ever GO!

As we shot into traffic, the first two minutes were better than a ride at Six Flags. The allure wore off quickly, however. Leaving Warsaw was simply an experience I was in no way prepared for. There were no discernable speed limit signs in the city, or perhaps they were uniformly ignored. People changed lanes at will, and a gap of about four inches was enough for them to squeeze their vehicle into – regardless of size. My Polish consists of about five phrases, but even my inexperienced ear could easily determine that our driver had an extensive vocabulary of Slavic profanity, which he exercised liberally, accompanied by a couple of hand gestures that are recognized on six continents.

We flew – or should I say, careened – down the highway, and our group of European first-timers foolishly thought that we would be able to enjoy the sights of both the city and the countryside on a leisurely three-hour drive. Rookie mistake. We moved as such a break-neck speed that what might have been interesting highlights were little more than a blur.

The inside of the minibus was lacking in certain accruements that I have become accustomed to. Since Polish summers are incredibly mild by South Georgia standards, there was no AC. (Did you even know that they still make cars without air conditioning??!!) This happened to have been a rather warm day and the only two opening windows in the vehicle were for the driver and shotgun passenger. As the vehicle barreled along in a herky-jerky motion, we all tried to time our sway so that no one fell from his seat. My seatmate, who later became a dear friend, was at the time a stranger to me. After about the third or fourth time I bounced off her left shoulder, I quit apologizing. Add to this, all of us had been awake for approximately 30 hours. Between the exhaustion, the heat and the bouncing around, I was fighting car sickness. I closed my eyes, hoping against hope that I could fall asleep and the ride would mercifully seem to end sooner. Nothing doing. I curled up every way imaginable in my portion of the seat and even considered lying in the floor. As soon as I would drift off, there would be another snatch of the steering wheel, and my head would snap awkwardly. By the time we arrived at our final destination, I was, as my grandmother used to say, “plumb tuckered out.” Kissing the ground would have been a tad melodramatic. But I did consider it.

My other experiences with European drivers have all been interesting, but not nearly so traumatic. It seems that red lights and stop signs are merely helpful suggestions and that use brakes is entirely optional. Whether the drivers were simply in a hurry, or were trying to shock their inexperienced passengers, they certainly did wonders for my prayer life! That being said, in my three summers of visiting Poland, I don’t recall ever having seen an automobile accident. Perhaps those European really are onto something after all.

That Moment When Your Dream Comes True

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.)

Getting There is Half the Fun!

My illustrious travel career boasted of destinations like Wolf Laurel, NC and Moncks Corner, SC. Once in high school I had even traveled as far as Lincoln, NE, but most of my childhood comings and goings were in the Southeast, within a day’s drive from home, and experienced from the backseat of a giant black Ford. They were great trips, all memorable in one way or another, even if not particularly glamorous.

Given my OCD nature, planning for my maiden European voyage sent my natural bent towards list-making into hyperdrive! And there were questions, lots of lots of questions. As my team met each week to get to know each other and to plan the details of the trip, each session began with 1) prayer, and 2) my unending barrage of questions.

Apparently I was quite anxious about many, many things: What kind of clothes do I need to pack? Is Poland a politically safe nation? Do I need special immunizations? Can we drink the water? How do I call home? What kind of electricity do they use? Is there a place where I can run? Where should I keep my passport? What kind of money will we use? What is the difference between an adapter and a converter? How heavy can my suitcase be? And on, and on, and on! My team leader later admitted that he wasn’t entirely certain I would be able to make the trip. In fact, the day we left, he asked me repeatedly, “Are you all right? Are you sure that you’re OK?” In retrospect, I can understand his concern.

Then came the packing. Have mercy, the packing! I started a week in advance. Good thing, too. I carefully made stacks of all the clothes, toiletries, and of course, books that seemed essential. After placing like items in two-gallon ziplocks and smushing out all the air, I loaded up the suitcase, went through a ridiculously awkward procedure to determine the weight, and…..oh no! Fifteen pounds too heavy! Thus the culling process began. Items were removed. Bags were resealed. Awkward weighing process was repeated. Now it was only twelve pounds over! And so it went. For days. Finally, on the night before our departure, the bag tipped the scales at a comfortable 47 pounds. Which I could only pray was accurate.

My first international flight was a wonderful experience. The seats were comfortable and larger than I expected. While my mission teammates were several rows over, my travel companions for the eight-hour flight were both thoughtful and friendly. There were movies and games on the individual video system for each seat. We were treated to warm cloths to wash up before dinner. Now, I’ve heard numerous horror stories about airline food. We were given a small, tasty beef stew and rice meal with adorable plates and utensils that I was tempted to keep as a souvenir. Then dessert. And warm cookies two hours later. And a light breakfast croissant shortly before we landed. It was like a kindergarten teacher’s idea of perfection – Give them a blanket and a chocolate chip cookie, and everyone will take a nap!

We arrived in Amsterdam just as the sun peeked over the horizon. My first European sunrise! It was simply lovely. We had a layover of several hours, so there was an opportunity to explore the airport. Let me just say, I am impressed that children in the Netherlands ever learn to read and write. It seems to me that Dutch uses a maximum number of letters for incredibly simple words. I was thankful for the English subtitles or I would still be standing there, trying to figure out some of the signage. Two other sights worthy of note include a giant mound of chocolate. Had there not been a connecting flight to catch, I could still be standing there as well, nose pressed to the glass, eyes begging for even the tiniest sample. Additionally, since this was Amsterdam, there was a shop (or ten) where wooden shoes of all styles, colors, and even of rowboat-sized dimensions were available. Just for the record, those are never going to fit in your carry-on. I tried!

(Just Kidding…but not about the chocolate).

POLAND??? Who Goes to Poland?

Like millions of twelve-year-old girls, I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in sixth grade. I was mesmerized. From that day, I dreamed of meeting Holocaust Survivors and hearing their stories first-hand. I used to daydream about sitting in a quiet cafe, sipping dark, steamy coffee, and listening to their thick European accents as they spoke in distant, far-away voices of things tragic yet incredibly important. Even before it became a cultural “thing”, I developed a Bucket List, no matter that there was no logical expectation that I should ever accomplish any of my outlandish goals.

Over the years, I traded away certain goals for others, and some were forgotten entirely. But not the Holocaust Survivor dream. It would still pop up on occasion, unobtrusive, but ever present. One day, somewhere around 2010, I was reevaluating the items on my list. Armed with a real job and a more firm grasp on reality, I was taking a look at what could be accomplished and what needed to be dropped entirely – a very decade-y sort of thing to do. I considered the Holocaust Survivor idea. What was the use of holding onto that one? By this time, the number of Holocaust Survivors around the world was greatly reduced. Those who were still alive would have been children at the time of the war. What were the chances of my running across one in Savannah, GA? With great sadness, I mentally struck that off my list.

I moved on with my life.

A couple of years later, my friend Morgan had a post on Facebook about needing another woman to sign up so she could go on a mission trip to Poland. I walked in our house after work that afternoon and asked my husband what he thought about me going with her. Jeff said he knew I had always wanted to do missions overseas. Six minutes later, I was signed up for a trip. Other than “In Europe”, I wasn’t entirely sure where Poland was, and I had no idea what the focus of the trip was. All I knew was that I was going.

The next day Morgan called to tell me that we would be ministering at a summer camp in Poland for Holocaust Survivors who were coming in from Israel. I think she had to repeat herself three or four times before my brain registered what she was saying. Holocaust Survivors! I was going to meet not one, not two, but about 30 of these iconic individuals! And it wouldn’t be just an hour-long conversation over coffee. We would be with them 24/7 for two weeks! I’m not sure my feet hit the ground after that.

Six weeks later we boarded the plane. This was it! I was excited! I was terrified. I was heading to Poland!