ODU Study Abroad Students to Share Experiences from Paris/Auschwitz Course
By Jon Cawley
Old Dominion will conclude a series of Jewish Education Week events Wednesday with a program presented by students who recently returned from a spring break study abroad trip to Europe, where they studied the experiences of French and Polish Jews during the Holocaust.
The Paris/Auschwitz course was designed by history professor Annette Finley-Croswhite, who, with assistant professor of history Brett Bebber, led a group of 18 ODU students on the 10-day trip to France and Poland. The course included visits to synagogues, Holocaust museums, the deportation camp known as Drancy, the Auschwitz/Birkenau and Płaszów concentration camps and a meeting with Holocaust survivors.
Students who participated in the Paris/Auschwitz study abroad trip will share their experiences during a program from 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 9 in the Hampton/Newport News Room of Webb Center. The event is free and open to the public. It is being presented in conjunction with ODU's inaugural Jewish Education Week, which is a collaborative effort among the ODU communication and theatre arts, history and philosophy and religious studies departments; the Institute for the Humanities; Hillel, the Jewish student organization; the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding; and the Office of Intercultural Relations.
Finley-Croswhite wants the Holocaust study abroad course to change students' lives.
"It's an immense undertaking and fraught with intellectual and emotional angst - and the single most important thing I do as teacher," she said.
The annual course begins in France, where students visit synagogues, Holocaust museums and the deportation camp known as Drancy, from which most of the 76,000 Jews in France deported to the east passed through. They also meet with Holocaust survivors.
Raphäel Esrail, a 91-year-old survivor, told the group: "I will die soon, but I want you to shout to the whole world what I'm telling you today: that some men and women did terrible things to other men and women only because they were Jewish."
Lessons like that were compounded in Poland, where students came face-to-face with anti-Semitic graffiti. They also visited the site of the former Płaszów concentration camp, made famous in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." A major part of the trip involved spending eight hours at Auschwitz/Birkenau, the largest extermination camp built by the Nazis, where 1.3 million Jews were killed.
"It is my hope," Finley-Croswhite said, "that after seeing Drancy, Auschwitz/Birkenau and Płaszów, students will leave my class with an indelible memory of the ramifications of remaining silent and a greater commitment to the perpetuation of equality, justice and democratic values."
Graduate student Stephanie Hawthorne spoke of the profound effect the trip had on her emotionally.
"I am brokenhearted and emotionally distressed in studying this history, but it is the appreciation of life - those who were lost and those who survived - that is most moving to me," she said.
Finley-Croswhite and Bebber also want students to appreciate the enduring history of the Jewish experience, not solely elements defined by the Holocaust. Students visit synagogues, eat ethnic foods, listen to traditional klezmer music and hear Jewish voices, often as part of their very first interfaith experiences.
"I defeated Hitler," Holocaust survivor Esther Senot told them in Paris. "With my three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, I look to the future even while educating others about the past."
In October 2013, Finley-Croswhite applied to the Tidewater Jewish Foundation (TJF) for a grant to fund one scholarship for a Jewish student to participate in the Holocaust-themed study abroad course. Matching funds were requested from various divisions within the university - the history department, the College of Arts and Letters, the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding and the Office of Study Abroad. The grant was fully funded by TJF and ODU, creating a one-time scholarship covering the entire cost of the trip and tuition for the course. A small stipend was included for expenses. In January the scholarship was awarded to Emma Needham.
Needham is a senior interdisciplinary studies major, secretary-treasurer of Hillel and a staff writer for the Mace & Crown. She has always been interested in the Holocaust and knows that members of her mother's family died in Poland during the Holocaust.
"My religion defines who I am as a person, and I believe this amazing opportunity has provided me with a chance to find a whole new part of myself, a religious and spiritual pride, that I never before knew existed," Needham said of the study abroad experience. "It gave me a chance to view several different perspectives on Judaism and the events during the Holocaust that I had never before even considered, and that I can now share with the community. It truly was a life-changing experience that I will forever hold dear. I'm so appreciative to the Tidewater Jewish Foundation and Old Dominion University for making this experience possible for me."