My grandmother always told me growing up that souls evolve, that personalities move from generation to generation. It’s a concept called Gilgul, like reincarnation, that’s more prevalent in some parts of Judaism than others. My grandparents are Yiddish, and Gilgul is prominent in Yiddish folklore. I was always told that I was my Grandma Bebe, who passed away shortly before I was born. We both had a flair for the dramatics, apparently.
So as I walked through much of Poland, I couldn’t help but think, have I been here before?
Has some version of me, or my family, walked the streets of Krakow? The Danielowicz? The Katz? The Gingolds? Where in Auschwitz did my ancestors stand? We know so much about my family history, and yet we also know so little.
It sounds odd, but the entire trip was like a memory that I’ve never had, a dream that I can’t quite place. The chicken noodle soup on the first night tasted so much like my mom’s that I was instantly transported back to my tonsillectomy over spring break. The Klezmer music sounded like every wedding and Bar Mitzvah I’ve ever attended. When they played the Hava Nagila, I wanted to get up and dance. Last weekend, I danced the Hava Nagila at my aunt’s wedding and thought back so fondly on our trip.
This trip was such a life changing experience. Not only did I learn so much about history, about the Renaissance and the Holocaust, but I learned a lot about myself. I made incredible friends. Even during the hardest times of the trip, walking around places like Treblinka and Auschwitz and sobbing, I always thought back to how beautiful these places were, and how nature will always reclaim the horrors of humanity.
Perhaps the best example of how incredible this trip was was who I met at Auschwitz. In a place that sees thousands of visitors daily, thousands of miles from home, I ran into my second cousins on my mom’s side.
They live in North Carolina. I live in Georgia. We met for the first time in a courtyard between barracks in the worst place on earth.
They took me out to dinner that night, and it was my first time on my own abroad, navigating public transit and finding practical strangers in a busy square. We sat at a restaurant and talked for hours and hours about how the food reminded us of our Great Grandmother’s, and about our genealogy. We talked about our love of history, and how we were learning so much about our own. We talked about Poland, and how we wished our grandparents and parents were here with us.
It was a surreal evening and a surreal trip. I’ll never forget it.
Also, I ate so much apple cake. That was pretty awesome too.
Zoe Katz ’19