Thanks so much for tuning into the latest post about my journey. I’ve spent the past 8 days in Berlin, beginning my studies at the Leo Baeck Institute for Jewish Studies at Humboldt Universität. This week has brought both highlights and challenges, but it’s also given me plenty of time to reflect over the eight days spent before I came to Berlin – the first leg of my journey – which was spent in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland.
My eight days in Poland truly changed my life. I’ve reflected on those days with both warmth and reminiscence as it was such a positive week for me. I’ve relived moments in my head that I know I will remember forever as some of the most inspiring moments in my life.
Before coming on this trip, I had never travelled alone before. This sensation of planning out my own journey was completely new to me and I did not know if I would like it. As I wrote about in my last post, I thought I would be lonely during my time spent in Poland. I didn’t think I would make friends or get close to the people I met. Luckily, I was completely wrong.
My experience in Poland was first made positive truly by the kindness of strangers. I met a lot of random people on this trip, travelers like myself who were on their own journeys, whether it be for work, school, or vacation. Over this trip, I’ve come to realize that every person I meet has a story, and if I take the time to listen to it, it can impact the story of my own. After conversing with new people, they no longer are strangers, but now they are friends and I made quite a few during my week in Poland.
For instance, after a lonely first night in Warsaw, I went to the hotel breakfast the next morning expecting to talk to nobody. As I finished my meal, I looked over at an old man sitting a few feet away from me, drinking coffee and reading the New York Times. American? I thought to myself. The man caught me looking at him and smiled. “You read the Times also?” I said.
There was a certain sense of immediate solidarity I felt with this old man, both of us sitting along in a breakfast café in Warsaw. We were both American and that was enough to unite us. “Come sit over here!” he said, waving me to come over. I picked up my half finished tea and carried my large back pack over.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“New Jersey,” I said. “A small town called Randolph.”
“New Jersey!” he said. “I think I’ve heard of it! I’m from Montana.” He stuck out his hand to me, and I grabbed it. “I’m George,” he said. “It’s mighty nice to meet you, Miss…”
“Arielle,” I said. “My names Arielle.”
George and I chatted for a while, exchanging travel stories. I explained how this was my first day in Warsaw, but that I had been to Poland twice before. He was so impressed that I was travelling alone and when I told him about the research I was doing he leaned back in his chair and cooed, “What a smart and fine young lady we got here! You know you’re doing something real good, kid. Believe me, I know. I travelled Europe for many years of my life, doing jobs in 30 different countries, and when I hear a story like yours I know it’s important. You’re on a journey, and that’s great.”
I told him how I hoped this journey would be good. I wasn’t sure how much research I’d be able to do or how many people I’d be able to meet. I was lacking confidence, and I think it showed. George smiled told me to keep positive; he said that I had luck on my side. “You’re on an adventure.” he said to me. “Keep on it. You’ll see, it’ll be good.”
George and I talked for about forty five minutes, he told me about his wife and his family. George had come to Poland with his wife and his nephew. They were not at breakfast because they were on a walking tour of Jewish Warsaw. “I’m Catholic and my wife is Jewish,” he explained. “We never had any kids of our own, but whenever a niece or nephew of ours turns fourteen, we take them on a trip to both Warsaw and Rome, to explore their religious ancestry. We also let them pick one more place to visit, so my nephew picked England and we just came from London to Warsaw.”
I was taken aback by George’s reason for coming to Warsaw. I thought it was such a beautiful idea, to take his nephew on a religious pilgrimage, exploring both his Jewish and Catholic roots. It sounded like an incredible trip and it was so kind of George and his wife to do this for every niece and nephew.
George and I talked some more. He talked to me about his love for the Jewish people, about how even though he was Catholic; when he was young, he only enjoyed dating Jewish girls. I laughed as he told me some stories from his younger days. He felt that through his wife, he had a Jewish identity as well – he felt that the story of the Catholics and the Jews were so intertwined – it was impossible not to feel love for both religions. I completely agreed. I find Catholicism fascinating and would love to travel to Rome one day myself. I’ve always felt that all religions were in some way connected, and that I couldn’t be a good Jew if I didn’t explore and embrace other religions as well.
After a while, I said goodbye to George as I had planned to spend the morning exploring the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “It’s excellent!” he said. He said how it was one of the best museums he’d ever seen. I gave him one last glance and waved goodbye and he wished me luck on my journey. I never learned George’s last name, and I never asked for his email, so I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again, but I wished he could have known how much his kind words meant to me that morning. He had no idea how lonely I was coming into breakfast, or how much I had dreaded travelling on my own. He had no idea how that one conversation could mean so much. Or perhaps, come to think of it – maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he invited me over – he was an experienced traveler too. He might’ve known that travel is always better with a bit of social interaction. I’ve always been told that when travelling it’s not the places you go, but it’s the people you meet that make the experience I really believe that that is true. I wanted to give George a huge hug and thank him for his kindness – his words gave me confidence and meant much more than I could say.
The person who by far proved to me that sometimes complete strangers can become the kindest of friends was a young man named Kamil, who is a graduate student at the University of Warsaw, who offered to take me around Warsaw for a day and show me the city through his eyes.
I had never met Kamil Ch before coming on the trip. I did not even know who he was. But on the first day of my trip, I received an email from him saying that his Professor, who is friends with my Professor, recommended that he meet me. Before I left for my trip, my research mentor Professor Sundquist contacted his friend, Professor Ewa Luczak and asked if she had any students who would be willing to meet me. Kamil kindly offered himself and soon enough I received an email from then a stranger, asking if I would want to meet up the following day.
I gladly agreed to meet Kamil, and on the third day of my trip, after my meeting with the staff at the Jewish Historical Institute, I met Kamil outside the building and we walked around Warsaw. Spending time with Kamil was very fun and proved to be a highlight of the trip for me. He showed me the campus of the University of Warsaw. We explored its library and he laughed as I tried to practice my Polish with strangers (my pronunciation of please and thank you could still use some work). We took a walking tour of Warsaw’s former Jewish quarter and Kamil showed me the way to the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw where I had an interview lined up. I had no plans for the evening, so Kamil offered to take me to Warsaw’s Old Town and eat dinner there. In the Old Town we saw a beautiful light show and the dinner afterwards was delicious. To me, the evening was cultural exchange at its best. Afterwards, I told Kamil he was an honorary American since he knew just as much about American pop culture as I did. He has watched every episode of Jon Stewart and has seen more US TV than me! I also learned a lot about Polish culture from Kamil. It was so interesting to hear about Poland from someone who is from there. It turns out that I had visited Kamil's hometown, Bialystock, two years ago and we certainly had a lot to talk about! Currently, Kamil studies at the University of Warsaw where he's writing his dissertation on African-American literature. We talked about our shared interest in Ralph Ellison (I had just taken an entire course about him and Invisible Man is now one of my favorite books!).
I was also really proud of the research I had done in Warsaw. I had three incredible interviews – the first with the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. The second interview was with Agata Rakowiecka, the director of the new Jewish Community Center in Warsaw. My final interview was with Marta Saracyn, the programming coordinator at the JCC Warsaw. All of the interviews were great and I learned a lot. Each interviewee told me a bit about their life story. I learned about their relationship with Judaism and their thoughts on what its like to live in Europe today and be Jewish. As each interview happened, I was reminded more and more about why I came on this trip. The worries that I had once felt the month leading up to this trip had been overturned. I was so happy I came and felt that the interviews I conducted can and will be very educational for those who hear the story. I’m still figuring out how exactly I will communicate what I learned from the interviews to the wider public. There are so many stories and ideas to share. However, I believe that what I have learned is important, and most probably I will share what I have learned in the form of a book – whether it be a memoir or some other form – I want to write down what I have heard.
Thanks so much again for reading. Every day of this journey, I write down my thoughts and remember how lucky I am to be able to go on a trip like this. I feel like my life keeps changing and no matter what destination it leads to, the journey has been incredibly fun. Sending you all much love from Berlin.
Until next time,