All About the Journey
Jim and Bess have had a connection to South Jersey since 1975. It’s the place they lived their whole marriage. Where they each had leadership opportunities within the Jewish Federation, Temple Emanual, The Voice, and even Lions Gate. In the last two years, the loving couple moved to Margate, but still consider Cherry Hill as their home.
“We’ve always been contributors to the South Jersey Federation—always, forever,” Jim says. “That’s where we lived our whole marriage. And even though we moved away, we still have this deep compassion for this Jewish Community. We still feel connected, and still belong to Temple Emanuel.”
The couple has been on other missions to Israel before, but never on a Holocaust mission to Poland, Germany, and Prague. And never March of the Living.
“This is a type of trip that we’d been looking to take at some point our whole lives,” Jim explains. “So when we saw advertisement, we jumped on it—signed up immediately. But as it approached, and I started thinking about it, and got our itinerary of what we were going to see and experience on a Holocaust mission… Oh man, I just thought ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”
Despite the heaviness of the journey, one thing seemed to brighten the trip.
“I explained it to people as a roller coaster experience,” Bess says. “It had darkness, but being with a certain group of people brought light. And we managed to enjoy the people we were with, even in between the darkness and the heaviness.”
“Being part of this group experience was what I wanted,” Jim says. “We knew some of the people on the trip a little bit. And a number, not at all. But we were all sharing this common experience, and seemed to connect right away. You see the horrors of the concentration camp. But I wanted the experience with a Jewish group—of sharing it with exactly the group we went with.”
They began their journey in Poland, touring the concentration camps—Majdanek, Birkenau, and Auschwitz. “You see the wooden beds, the bath house, the showers. The doctor’s house, where he separated the women and children from men and boys. And the women and children went right to the showers. It was horrible.”
“We did our first group Kaddish at Majdanek,” Jim recalls. “It was very nice to have each other. To be with—not just a group, at this point. We had already bonded with most of the people”
Following the concentration camps, was the March of the Living, where they marched out of Auschwitz, into Birkenau. The group met up with people from all over the world. “The March began, and here are 13,000 Jews marching out of Auschwitz under that sign—work will make you free. And we’re leaving. We’re thumbing our noses to you. Here we are. It was really quite moving.”
But everything changed once they got to Berlin, Germany.
“There were so many memorials,” they both say. “We saw the plaques on the ground—the stumbling stones—with the names of the people. When we saw what the Berlin government was doing to help memorialize the atrocities, it opened my eyes… they are doing what they can to help people remember what went on.”
“We even had this beautiful experience for Shabbat in Berlin,” Jim recalls. “And it was in the back of my head—I said, ‘Hey, Hitler—look where we are now. We’re celebrating our Judaism at a Shabbat service in Berlin.’ That was a turning point, emotionally.”
“For me, it was a gradual turning point,” Bess explains. “But we saw the place of the Wannsee Conference. It’s this beautiful, magnificent villa built in the early 1900’s. Where it’s situated is in the most gorgeous area, resting on a lake. I was not aware that this was the place where 15 of the elite leaders got together to create the final ‘solution.’ It was a very powerful moment for me because this is where they came up with this…disgusting, horrific plan. And the irony is, it’s gorgeous.”
The group then moved on to Prague, which both Bess and Jim described almost as a relief.
“A beautiful city,” Jim says. “And it was sort of a relief. Because we had the memory of the camps. We had the memory of the atrocities. So it made the connection with our group even more intense. And we were able to really just enjoy each other, and also experience Jewish Prague.”
With Poland, Germany, and Prague behind them, Jim and Bess had plenty to be grateful for.
“To a certain extent—going on this trip gave me some closure and peace about all the questions I had,” Jim says. “I was always so uncomfortable discussing anything about the holocaust. But here, we had to confront it. It answered so many questions. And maybe created some other questions, too.”
“I’m just so grateful we were able to participate in this journey,” Bess says. “I never imagined the intensity that I would feel about being Jewish. And my heritage. And all the people before us, that left.”
Are you looking to take part in a Jewish Federation Mission? We’re partnering with the Heart of New Jersey JFED for our next mission. Explore the four corners of ISRAEL with us this Fall! We’ll be climbing Masada, visiting the Machane Yehudah Market in Jerusalem, floating in the Dead Sea, and more!
You can learn more (AND REGISTER NOW!) at: https://www.jewishsouthjersey.org/israelmission