by Tziona Breitbart
High: Why are certain moments in history overlooked? Why is some suffering memorialized while others are forgotten? I had the opportunity to learn about and see a part of history that many others and I barely know exists. My program planned an optional trip to Jachymov, a medieval town in northwest Bohemia near Karlovy Vary in the Ore Mountains of the Czech Republic, close Germany’s border. The trip was centered on learning about the former labour camps for political prisoners of the Czechoslovak communist regime Rovnost, Eliáš, Nikolaj used to mine uranium in the 1950s. To learn about this tragic part of history, we were led by a former political prisoner whom is a living witness of the past and the organization “Political Prisoners”. While listening to his story and hearing about his pain, I could not help but think how this suffering in history remains unknown. He showed us the “Red Tower of Death” – where the political prisoners were forced to work with uranium all day without any safety precautions – which ultimately killed most due to the hazardous conditions. The strength he showed to return to where he suffered so greatly and share his story with strangers remains engrained in my mind and heart. During the trip, we also followed the “knowledge trail” which took us along the path of many of the different camps hidden away in the woods of Jachymov. If I did not have a tour guide showing me where the camps once stood, I would have easily just seen the town as another beautiful place. With little markings and nothing left, these camps were utterly destroyed in order to hide what truly happened, the memory of the suffering of the many political prisoners remains hidden. While following the trail, we walked along the path the prisoners had to take in order to get to the coalmines. The path was quite steep and difficult to handle on a day that was warm and the ground was not slippery. As I struggled with parts of the walk, I could only imagine how the prisoners that were attached to one another must have suffered through during winter and rainy days. While Jachymov remains a beautiful town, the pain that was endured there, screams out hope for someone to listen and recognize the terrible suffering that once occurred there.
Low with a High: Being away from family during holidays will always be hard, but being in a different country with a small Jewish community adds an extra level of sadness. As Pesach approached, I was quickly saddened that I would not be sitting down with my family at home for the Seders. I loved being able to celebrate Pesach with my family, but this semester I had the opportunity to spend it with a new family. I had the greatest Pesach that I could not have gotten otherwise. I hosted my first Seder with my roommate Melissa for all of our friends and one of the directors on the program. Celebrating Pesach with the new friends I have made while in Prague was incredible. Explaining the Pesach traditions, singing songs, preparing kosher Passover food, and welcoming my friends who have never celebrated before, warmed my heart tremendously. Seeing how excited everyone was to sit down and be part of such an important holiday in my life is a memory that will remain with me forever.
Glitter: During this past semester, I have had many opportunities and experiences that I never thought possible while studying abroad in the Czech Republic. I have not only met family members for the first time, but I also visited where my Grandpa grew up in Vienna and Auschwitz where some of my family perished. Continuing on this journey of connecting with my family’s past, I can happily say that I have finally met all of my family living in Israel. Having the chance to meet all of my family in Israel is a memory that will remain with me forever. While visiting Jerusalem I saw family I never thought I would see and even got to meet the newest addition to our family, baby Elan. Spending time with my family in Israel, while it was short, was incredible. As I had the opportunity to discover my family on my dad’s side, I now had the chance to do the same with my mom’s side while in Israel – a place so dear to me. Studying in Prague has allowed me to learn about my family in ways that I never thought possible, and I will never forget how it has changed and made me appreciate where I come from. Being in Israel, where I feel so at home, and seeing family that is so important to me reminded me how fortunate I truly am to have somewhere I love so much and to be welcomed home by those I love.
Tziona Breitbart is a junior at Smith College. She is studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic during the 2015 spring semester. She looks forward to exploring the culture and learning about the enriched history of the area. While abroad she will be interning with the Aspen Institute Prague. At Smith she is a history major, concentrating in Russian history, and a community engagement and social change concentrator.