Nothing Was Easy About This Trip, Except for One Realization

Photo: Lev Gringauz – TC Jewfolk

This blog was written on JCRC’s Power of Place educators institute in Europe – an experiential professional development for teachers where learning unfolds as they tour historical sites across Europe in order to transform their understanding of the Holocaust, WWII, antisemitism, and Jewish life today. Power of Place is planned and co-led by Humanus Network on behalf of JCRC and generously supported by the Minnesota Vikings, the Tankenoff Families Foundation, and Allianz of America Corporation.

by Laura Zelle, Power of Place trip leader and outgoing JCRC Director of Holocaust Education | July 9, 2024

It’s hard to know where to begin. Power of Place is not an easy trip. We knowingly take people to the most horrendous sights of mass killings they will ever see and hope it sparks a commitment to teaching about Holocaust history.  Logistics are planned for months, fundraising takes place all year, and once we take off, we must be emotionally present for people as they become witnesses to a genocide, and then we commit to helping them make sense and organize resources for their classrooms.  Now, in our second year of this program, I truly believe this formula works, and works well.

The Power of a Place educator mission was from June 17 – June 29, 2024 with 18 educators from Minnesota, South Dakota, Ohio, Nebraska, Virginia, and Texas. The power of where we visited could be felt in many ways. Our group embarked on many typical stops: city walking tours, the Warsaw ghetto, old towns, abandoned houses, museums, archives and more.

As our group walked in the places of mass violence, mass sickness, and witnessed the outcome from the vice of antisemitism , we immediately felt something ethereal all around us. People remarked about spirits and unsettling feelings in the thickness of the air, in the squishiness of the ground, in the vastness of the memorials and in the weight of history. We walked through towns and cities that had no more Jews, said Kaddish at mass graves in forest ravines, and said Kaddish for a lone Jew who jumped from a train in the Polish countryside. It was hard to be where we went, hard to comprehend why this happened to the Jews, and hard to understand the complicity in so many countries. We walked through crematoriums, torture chambers, barracks, roll call plaza, concentration camps, deportation platforms, Jewish neighborhoods, cemeteries and graves where Jews hid for their lives. The power of the itinerary was witnessing similar acts in Poland, Germany and Czech Republic. The reality of a worldwide genocide to eliminate the Jews.

Our experiences together were intertwined. We found one another on our walks, on our bus rides, and at our dinners. Discussion would ensue about what we were experiencing. We’d ask each other questions, cry in each other’s arms, and give each other space and support to try to make sense of the brokenness and hatred we were witnessing.

And… all along the way, we leaned into Jewish values to cope. We lit candles, recited prayers, and explained traditions. We celebrated with song at the Brandenburg Gate and told stories of spiritual resistance, preservation, and faith in Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. We tried as best we could to take care of one another, to retrieve each one of us back to life and back to the education necessary for the future. One participant, Mike Musil, summed up this sentiment in his blog and I’d like to share it here:

Our Roads Will Meet One Day

by Dr. Mike Musil of La Vista, NE | June 26, 2024

Thinking about Power of Place 2024, I’m reminded of the introduction by playwright David Mamet for the play Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose. He writes:

Our greatest American Philosopher, to my mind, was Eric Hoffer.

He was an immigrant kid. He never spent a day in school. He roamed the country during the Depression as a hobo and migrant worker. He wrote that some fellow from the Works Progress Administration rode into his hobo camp sometime in the thick of the Depression and said: “Who wants to work?” The volunteers were put on a flatbed truck and hauled some miles up into the mountains in California.

The WA boss gave one man a compass and a map and said: “Build a road. Your road is to start here, and in three months I will meet you over there. Here are the specs. Take the tools off the truck and get to work.”

Hoffer wrote that that is just what they did. There was enough talent and know-how on the truck, he wrote, to’ve built not only that road, but to have built America. For that, he said, was quite exactly how America was built — a group of reasonably intelligent workers took a simple plan, formed an ad-hoc group, and used their common sense and group spirit to execute it well.

I feel like that’s the role for those who have participated in the Power of Place 2024 trip: to build a road and meet “over there.”

One often hears statements like “We’ll help others make sense of the Holocaust,” but, quite simply, that cannot be done. We can, however, spread accurate information and testimonies, and discuss how the Holocaust has and continues to alter lives in ways most will never know.

We’ve walked the memorial in Treblinka, the camp of Sachsenhausen, among the Stolpersteine, through neglected and abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and entered a former synagogue-turned-feed-store, yet we still can’t begin to pretend to understand. We’ve wept, placed stones, prayed, and lit candles. We’ve gasped, stared in disbelief, shaken our heads…wondered. But we supported and took care of each other with hugs, listening, encouragement, friendship — dare I say love?

As a generation of survivors quickly fades, participants of POP ’24, along with the progeny of survivors, comprise the next generation that calls for peace.

There will be those who doubt us when we tell them what we’ve seen and those who are uncomfortable with it. But there will be those who are receptive, will listen and want to talk more about a phenomenon that will never make sense.

What I know for sure is that we need to assume we are reasonably intelligent people, with others who are also reasonably intelligent, and our road will meet “over there.” We must build that road together, even if it doesn’t emerge perfectly — because we know it’s unlikely it will. However, over time, with any luck at all, the road will become so traveled, no one will know it never perfectly navigated to its destination. And perhaps we will all find peace there.

As we return to our communities and schools, we know with certainty that the Power of Place changed lives and changed the way people understand the Jewish people and antisemitism. Nothing was easy about this trip except perhaps, the realization of building the road to peace.

With much gratitude,

Laura Zelle



As the consensus public affairs voice of the Jewish community, JCRC builds relationships to fight antisemitism and bigotry; educates about Judaism, Israel, antisemitism, and the Holocaust; advocates for Jewish values and priorities; and safeguards our community.