Auschwitz Virtual Tours with Jerzy Wójcik of the Holocaust Memorial Partnership - Conversation with the Rabbi

Episode 3

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Published on:

8th Apr 2021

Auschwitz Virtual Tours with Jerzy Wójcik of the Holocaust Memorial Partnership

Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Jerzy Wójcik of the Holocaust Memorial Partnership about the Auschwitz Virtual Tour & Seminar he created to share with online visitors from around the world.

Jerzy Wójcik was born in the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz), Poland. He works as a guide and educator at Auschwitz-Birkenau and runs the Holocaust Memorial Partnership. Jerzy is a graduate of International Relations at the Faculty of Political and International Studies, and of postgraduate studies on the Middle and Far East at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. In 2010, he was awarded a PhD in political science at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

For a number of years, Jerzy has worked with several organizations and institutions in Poland, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the Center for Holocaust Studies in Krakow, the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, and the European Association of Israel Studies. In 2020 he created the Auschwitz Virtual Tour, an independent project supported by the IZROPA Foundation.

Additional Resources:

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcript
Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi, featuring open, honest dialogue and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome back for another Conversation with the Rabbi, hosted by Rabbi Michael Beyo. We're joined by a guest all the way from Poland. Jerzy Wójcik is the creator of Auschwitz Virtual Tour. Welcome to the show Jerzy.

Jerzy Wójcik:

Thank you for having me. Thank you.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you Jerzy for joining us all the way from Poland.

Adrian McIntyre:

This is a subject that is of course highly significant, has some complexity and some depth that I would hope we'll get into. But why don't you start with an introduction? What is a virtual tour and how does it relate to Holocaust education and other important issues?

Jerzy Wójcik:

Well, I built this program from scratch a couple of months ago. I was actually thinking about it even five years ago. Professionally I'm the guide and educator at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. But even a couple of years ago, I decided that it's going to be something incredible to create an Auschwitz seminar as preparation before the visit in Auschwitz. And of course, I mean over the years the whole idea grew and finally actually being of this year when the COVID situation came to us I can say, I decided to put all of those pieces together. And actually the first virtual tour I had, it was August 20th. I simply recreated everything what I do as a guide in Auschwitz, I recreated online. So I'm using all of the possible digital software that I can use. I use my recordings from Auschwitz. I use the Auschwitz Panorama, that is actually a very specific educational tool developed by the museum at Auschwitz. I use historical footage. I use it all together. I mix it, I put it into a Prezi presentation. It was extremely interesting and reaching when it comes to educational tools that we can have, I put it together. And I'm using this as educational materials. So the Auschwitz Virtual Tour in my understanding is something instead of the physical visit in Auschwitz. And it's extremely impressive. To be honest with you actually, I'm having the public sessions right now. Sometimes for 50, 60 people and people when they see and I'm telling them all the time, it's going to be long, it's going to be uncomfortable. It's going to last two hours and people at the beginning, actually they feared sitting two hours in front of the monitor. But when they get into this, nobody is going away from the computer until we finish. So it's something that people would like to see, when they see Auschwitz every corner of the camp. When I'm telling the story, it turned out to be very successful after 25 sessions, I must have made actually it was a very good idea by the way.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Beyo, how did you first come in contact with Jerzy Wójcik? And how has your collaboration evolved since then?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I became aware of Jerzy's work maybe about a month and a half ago, around a month and a half ago. Jerzy had sent an email to various institutions inquiring whether they would have an interest in his virtual tours. So we started the conversation, and we liked what each other had to say and what each other had to bring to the table. And we established a partnership, a very good and solid partnership that we are actually now working together to create and finalize the ultimate product that we will then commercialize all throughout America. And these virtual tours, so we will use the expertise of Jerzy on the educational side and the presentation side and everything. He will use our expertise at the Center for Holocaust Education of the East Valley JCC with our contacts, in order to market it throughout the States.

Adrian McIntyre:

Now I should say in this conversation, I'm an anthropologist, I'm not Jewish, I'm not religious. And I'm fascinated by the topic of history, memory, storytelling, trauma, so many things that intersect in the work Jerzy that you are doing. I'd like to have both of you reflect and engage with each other on some of these core themes here. Why is the Auschwitz Virtual Tour not only a tour de force of digital curatorship, but also an important project for our time?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I was raised by my grandmother, she was a Holocaust survivor. I don't remember my grandfather from my mother's side because he died when I was too young to remember. But he was also the only survivor of his entire family, over 60 people of his family perished in the Holocaust. And my grandmother was lucky because she survived the Holocaust and just because she survived, she was luckier than many others. The Holocaust has always been part of my upbringing. I was raised in a home where the memory of the Holocaust, it was always there in some way form or another. In the community where I was, I remember going to synagogue and seeing people with numbers on their arms. And as a child, I knew exactly what it was. I remember members of our synagogue that had lost their entire family, wife and children. They saw their wife and children being killed to use a nice terminology rather than brutally killed. And then after the war, they were able to rebuild a life. They were able to marry again and have children and have successful lives. So the Holocaust has always been part of in a certain sense of my identity. Growing up in Europe, we are still a Europe, entire Europe for not only Jews but the European culture in general. We have not yet come to full terms with the Holocaust. So for me learning about the Holocaust and fighting Antisemitism, they go hand in hand. About three years ago, I was invited by the Polish government to go to Poland and visit to some of the Jewish sites in Auschwitz and Birkenau. And the first thing that I need to say, is that I fell in love with Warsaw, it's a wonderful city. And Kraków, it's a wonderful, wonderful city. And the people that I met, really nice people. And going to Auschwitz itself for me was a huge let down. Because it's so clean and pristine. And when you walk between the barracks, you see this wonderful trimmed trees, and lawned grass and places where you can throw the trash and your cigarette butts. I don't think that that was the Auschwitz where my people suffered. They rebuilt it as a museum, as a pristine museum. What affected me much more when I was in Poland was where I cried like a baby was the site of Mila 18, the stronghold of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish resistance. That was much more impactful, or even going to the... There is a memorial where they used to bring Jews to this place in Warsaw and from there on the trains. And so this memorial has a wall full of names, just names. And at a certain point I saw my wife's name. And then I saw them my child's name. And then I saw my other child's name. And then I saw my father's name. And then I saw my mother's name and then I saw my sister's name, and then I saw my brother's name and that made it extremely, extremely close to home too much. When I had the opportunity a while back to watch and participate in the educational virtual tour that Jerzy has prepared, it allows the viewer to really learn. To really go inside the history of the Holocaust and the history of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and understanding as much as we can 75 years later in a way that is not pristine but in a way that is very educational. In a way that as Jerzy said at the beginning, it touches you and it's hard, but it's an effective educational tool.

Jerzy Wójcik:

So if I can add to what rabbi said, that's partly true. Actually when you get to Auschwitz, when you get to Birkenau you see... Especially when you get in the summertime to these places, you see Auschwitz-Birkenau first of all, sometimes full of people. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to visit. I mean, it used to be over 2,000,000 people a year visiting Auschwitz so it's roughly 10,000 people a day. Sometimes it gets really overcrowded. On the other hand, when you're getting in the summertime, there are trees, there are grass as you said it's very green, sometimes peaceful place. For many people, it's not that easy actually to visualize and really actually what these places represent. So when I started the tour, actually rabbi you remember, actually I'm starting the tour from the historical footage. I'm showing the viewers exactly around three, four minutes, not long. Just the view from the liberation of Auschwitz. 1945, the Russians liberated the camp. They found people in the barracks, they found pits with the bodies, and then you can somehow relate what you can see at this moment in 1945 to the peaceful green area of Birkenau today. If you put these together, it's easier actually even for the teenagers, for people from our times, for the young generation, they can easily visualize that a moment ago I saw this place in 1945. The place of atrocity, the place where I remember the bodies. At the same time and moment later, you can see this place today. This combination of the historical footage and the current pictures, it's really helping people to visualize that this is exactly the place. It's the same actually with the historical pictures taken by the Nazis in 1944 of the selection. That at one moment, you're just standing virtually of course, in Birkenau as it is right now. And moment later, you're switching the pictures and you're seeing this place in 1944, pictures taken by the Nazis, and you can see exactly the selection moment. So from this perspective is very effective. I fully agree when it comes to the information, I think I tell more things than I was telling during the normal guidance in Auschwitz. What we cannot recreate when it comes to the virtual visit is a physical touch. You cannot touch remnants of those buildings. You cannot touch. You cannot walk in the area of the gas chambers. You cannot be there physically. And for many people actually it's also extremely important. It's a pilgrimage to the places of atrocities and for many people is also important. This is something we cannot deliver obviously, I'm mean, this is something beyond our capabilities. I mean, it's a virtual tour. And this is what I like. And I always recommend people, if you have a chance to go physically, please do that. If I can just add two or three sentences about why, because you, Adrian, actually you ask why it is important today actually to relieve this education about Auschwitz in a virtual tour. We can see what is happening right now in the world, actually this is what rabbi said actually the growing Antisemitism today. It's a great danger. And Auschwitz it doesn't represent only the message that it happened to the Jews. Something terrible happened to... It represents much more broader spectrum of problems. It can happen really today to anyone. It's a universal message of Auschwitz, that if we neglect the political process, if we left our future in the hands of the certain populist politicians, this is how it started in Germany. In the '20s and '30s. It was a slow political process that led Germans exactly to this place to Auschwitz. So from this perspective, I always encountered it's not easy to do that, but I always encourage people to link what happened in Auschwitz, what events led actually to this place. And to observe what is happening right now in the world. And obviously in Europe, in many other countries as well, we are turning right when it comes to the political developments in many countries, the same in my country is the same situation in Poland.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Jerzy, thank you very, very much for the work that you do. Please if you don't mind, what brought you to want to dedicate your life to Holocaust education?

Jerzy Wójcik:

I was born in this place. So I'm from the town of Oświęcim. This is exactly Auschwitz town. It's a complicated name to pronounce Oświęcim, Germans actually changed it, Germans translated every Polish name into German language. So Oświęcim became Auschwitz, Brzezinka village became Birkenau and so on and so forth. So I was born in this place 40 years ago. And of course I mean, if somebody is interested in a history, like I was at the beginning of my life, this place gave me I would say an opportunity to get involved. And I was involved in a Polish-German and Polish-Jewish relations from there, from the teenage. When I was teenager, I was going to the International Youth Meeting Center meeting with the German teens, with the then Jewish teens. So I really started quite early in the high school, actually meeting with those different groups of people. And one thing led to another. When I was 19 years old by the way actually I was for the first time invited to Israel by the Polish-Jewish scholar, Alex Danzig, he was living in close to the Gaza Strip in the kibbutz Nir Oz, I still remember actually that. Because last year we visited actually this place 20 years later. And so when you're 19 years old, just after the high school from the medium-sized town Oświęcim, and suddenly actually you are just sent to or sent, you're sending yourself by the way actually to Israel close to the Gaza Strip to Israel, to the Jewish state. It makes a huge impact on you. And that actually was happening with me, actually it made a huge impact on me. And it stayed with me actually for the rest of my life right now. So I'm involved not only in the education about Auschwitz, but also in Israeli authors. I finished my PhD by the way under something different, Israeli-Palestinian peace process, something that doesn't exist of course. But it's actually the field of my PhD. So I'm also in this regards, I'm very much dedicated to the Israel as a subject.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's wonderful when I was in Israel I studied also, I did MA in political science. And so I'm sure we will have additional topics to talk about not only about on the Holocaust. You mentioned something about Polish-Jewish relationships, which is a term that I'm always perplexed by. Also when I went to Poland and we were touring the Poland with a lot of important officials from the government. They were making a very clear case that Poland and the Polish people were victims of the Nazi. And I don't want to get into that topic, but what I would like to ask is why is it framed as Polish-Jewish relations rather than Catholic-Jewish? Do Polish people view Jews as a separate? Because on the one end it seemed to me that they were saying to me, "Oh Jews have lived here for a thousand years. They were our brothers and sisters and our neighbors." And just like the Polish people were victims of the Nazis also the Jews were victim of the Nazis, but if Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years, why do you call them Jews? Call them Polish. So you have Polish of the Catholic religion, you have Polish of Protestant religion, you have Polish of Jewish religion.

Jerzy Wójcik:

It's extremely complicated to be honest with you, you're absolutely right. I mean, there's a distinction that you mentioned is very problematic. Because theoretically you're absolutely right. There are actually both citizens of Poland, of the Jewish and Christian background. This is how they should be perceived and this is how they should be called. But as a matter of fact, communities were not... Well, they were living side by side and they were not only mixing. I don't think actually that we can perceive them as citizens of the same country as one group of people. Let me put it this way. I mean, great majority of the Jews who are living in Poland before the war, they were not like the German Jews. They were not middle class secular assimilated. Most of them actually were really religious ultra-Orthodox Jews. I mean, Hasidic movement, very strong in Poland. They were living in certain isolation, for their own security because of their religious purpose. I mean, for many different reasons, they were not integrating with the society. So from this perspective, they were observed by the rest of the Polish Catholics let's say, as a separate group of people. Not necessarily as a part of the society. Of course in the meantime, because we have over 3 million Jews in Poland, many of them were already assimilated. When you think about Kraków for example actually most of the secular Jews, they lived in the Main Market Square with all the Jewish profs or Jewish doctors, they were living actually side by side next to the Polish people in the Main Market Square. But still the core, there were still religious Jews and they were separate, historically, they were separated from the Polish people. That's actually this kind of a... But you're right. I mean, linguistically it should be named differently, but this is well, the reality that we had shortly before the war.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Listen, I completely agree with you that is very complicated. I remember when I first arrived in Warsaw, the first thing that I did, I looked on the map, where is the Warsaw JCC? Being the CEO of a JCC, I looked for my counterpart. So I went to the Warsaw JCC, it's a wonderful, beautiful structure, really in the center of Warsaw, beautiful place. And I was talking to the director there...

Jerzy Wójcik:

Agata Rakowiecka.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

... And she explained to me, and that was the first time that my eyes open. Because she told me I am alive because my family were saved by Polish people, Polish Catholic people. And I was like, "Whoa." And I mean, it's the first time that I realized the complexity of Poland when it comes to World War II. There's the first time that it's very easy when you are a young man or woman, and you idealized what you would have done under certain conditions. So I remember when I was a child thinking oh for sure, if I would have been in those conditions, I would have fought back and I would have done X and Y and Z. And then, I learned that if a Polish family was harboring a Jewish family, they would be a subject to be killed by the Nazi. And so then my question becomes, okay, would I today endanger my kid's life to save another kid's life? And I am not so courageous anymore to say 100% to what I would do.

Jerzy Wójcik:

To be honest with you, I usually I'm explaining this also during the tour. I usually say that I probably wouldn't. I mean, from the logical point of view, having the family I have, my daughter is 28 months right now. I would like to tell you, I'm courageous enough to save Jews, my Jewish neighbors. Most likely, I'll probably actually be focusing on my family.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I completely understand, and I would probably do the same. So it's very difficult after you realize the complexity of the situation to say, "Oh, no, I would have..." And maybe somebody saved the Jewish family in 1941, but then they couldn't do it anymore in 1943. And they couldn't do that anymore in 1945. So it's so complex, so difficult and so complex.

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, and there's a flip side to all of this as well which is, if you go back in time hypothetically I'm sure you interviewed ordinary folks on the street who would insist that they would never do anything to hurt the Jewish people. They would never do anything to participate in the horrors that they'd heard rumors of as they unfolded. Just as today, back to Jerzy's point about the turn to the right and so many of our societies. Today you could interview people and they would say, "Oh, no, I'm not in danger of becoming the aggressor. I'm just want to live my life." The dehumanization that took place affected everyone. Some were the aggressors, some were the victims, but nobody would have predicted that was... And that's the real threat in some sense now, is not only that some people become the targets of violence and hatred, Antisemitic or otherwise, but also that others of us become complicit in that without having intended to. Because that's the story that unfolded in Europe. And that's part of the urgency I would assume of this message. What are your thoughts on that Jerzy?

Jerzy Wójcik:

Oh, I completely agree. I mean, it's the same actually when you think about developments of the Nazi system. I mean, it was not obvious from the start that actually all of the Jews are going to be murdered. In other words, it was not something what Hitler put, of course well he did to some extent, but actually for the regular Germans they were in their very poor economical situation. There were many different factors that influenced their choice, not necessarily this overwhelming hatred and Antisemitism. Many other different factors that really push people into thinking that Adolf Hitler may be an alternative when it comes to the political choice. It's the same today. I mean, when we think about a politicians from the certain groups from the right side, we don't necessarily see the danger of as you said of the violence, of the hatred, of the hostility. This is something different because actually the... And when actually these people actually get to power then, they're curbing the democracy actually changing the rule of law, changing the whole political situation in the country. This is actually what is happening in Poland right now. And suddenly actually those people who are voting for let's say something different, they get to their irreversible point in the history. They cannot take it back. They gave the power to the certain people, and it's something what we cannot go away from. And you're stuck in this political situation that you have populists in power who are as you said, actually spreading hostility, Antisemitism, intolerance, et cetera, et cetera.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Jerzy, allow me to ask you a question. It's another topic that has bothered me for a long time. After the war there was this huge public cry, never again. As if by shouting it, we will ensure that it will never happen again. But unfortunately, and especially in our generation, we have seen it again. We have seen I remember being a teenager, well, during the... Or a young boy during the Yugoslavia-Kosovo in a war and everything. There were concentration camps there. And we've seen what happened between the Tutsi and the Hutu. And we've seen what happens in Syria, the world has allowed terrific things to happen again. And it doesn't matter in my humble opinion, whether somebody gets killed with a machine gun or with a machete. It doesn't matter again in my humble opinion, whether millions of people get killed or hundreds of people get killed because on the personal level, tragedy is a tragedy and the murder is murder. Where have we failed as a global society? And do you think that Holocaust education should be done differently as we talk about this, and as we try to move forward.

Jerzy Wójcik:

I'm going to add something even more terrible about the situation that we had in the last 20 or 30 years. There have been actually many discussions about World War II two and about access to the information many people were saying... Of course, I mean, the Allied Forces did not know, they knew about the Holocaust. I mean, there were just lack of information. We did not have an access to this and so on and so forth. As you mentioned Yugoslavia, we today we have an access to every cruelty, to every atrocity, to every genocide in the world. We can practically dive with the camera in Syria, in Lebanon, in many different places. And we can really see with our own eyes, what is happening there. But to be honest with you since ... I remember those situations in 2003 and 2004, I mean, there were the first, the second Iraqi War. When there were the first actually suicide bombings and explosions that people were just exploding themselves, actually committing the suicide number of people got killed. In the first couple of attacks when you were seeing those things in the news, it was shocking. People were like, "50 people got killed in the suicide attacks." But after a couple of weeks, we were so...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Desensitized.

Jerzy Wójcik:

In a way, yes. Adjusted to this view that we can see every day, scenes from the Middle East, that people are just getting killed on a daily basis, that we desensitized. That's true. We are not affected today actually by the images of war in this, in Africa and many different places. And by the way, we have an access to everything we can see that. But somehow we lost the understanding what we are seeing in the television. And when you're talking actually about a Holocaust, what is the future of the Holocaust education? I wouldn't say that we failed when it comes to the Holocaust education. To be honest with you, I think the Holocaust in the last 30, 40 years, this is actually the best educated single historical event in the history. When you think about it in this way, I mean there are so many programs, so many museums, so many different aspects of the Holocaust projects. And it was not the case in the 1960s or '70s. The Holocaust education really started in Israel in 1960. Basically, actually from the Eichmann trial. Washington Museum of The Holocaust was built in 1993, in the '90s. So you know what I mean? It took a lot of time to build this educational structure and it's working I think very effectively. I believe we should simply change the angle, how we teach about the Holocaust, not for the perspective of the Jews, of the Jewish victims. Because to be honest Jewish victims, were commemorated very well, very properly and with all sensitivity in the last 20 or 30 years. But we should focus on showing people that actually it could have happened to anyone. It's just a question of the political structure and the target, who's targeted, but the structure and the populism remains the same. So this is how we should somehow modify our... More like a universal message of Auschwitz and a universal message of that from the Holocaust.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah. I agree with you Jerzy very much, even though it's difficult for me emotionally to detach the Holocaust from the specific Jewish experience of my people and my family, but as an educator I completely agree with you. I also think that the Arizona Department of Education passed a law that was approved by the Arizona legislator, that public schools in Arizona have to teach twice in the course of high school, Holocaust education. And at the same time, there are studies out there that show how the average teenager doesn't know what Auschwitz is. They don't know what Antisemitism means even, what I think especially now that we're seeing the last survivors, the last real witnesses perishing and not going to be with us in the next 10, 15, 20 years. And what I am concerned that in 50 years, in a hundred years, in 200 years or 500 years, if we don't do something drastic about Holocaust education, then the Holocaust will be seen as a paragraph in the history books, just like the inquisition, just like the pogroms against the Jews. And therefore, I truly believe even though it's emotionally difficult for me to say, that we cannot tell the story of Auschwitz or World War II from a Jewish perspective only if we want to have a real impact. Because when we tell the story of the inquisition from a Jewish perspective, it's half a paragraph in a history book.

Jerzy Wójcik:

That's true. And rabbi don't get me wrong. I'm not saying actually that we should for example, somehow wipe actually the Jewish victims. It's not what I mean.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, no absolutely not.

Jerzy Wójcik:

But we should broaden actually our message. That's what I meant.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I completely agree.

Jerzy Wójcik:

I'm a more optimistic than you are when it comes to the future of the Holocaust education, because it's something what I've been meeting all the time right now, the concept of the survivor of the survivor. In other words, there are witnesses who are observing so many different stories of the survivors. There are grandchildren of the survivors, the message and the history is passed from one generation to another. I can see a growing number of even guys, educators like I am who are dedicated, basically, to spreading the message of Auschwitz and from my experience and I've met really a lot of survivors. And I know many people from the Jewish families who had the Jewish grandfathers and fathers who survived and they are also dedicated to this Holocaust education. It's not going to disappear. I'm sure it's not going to be just a point or paragraph in the historical book. It will be preserved when it comes to the connection between as survivors and the new educators.

Adrian McIntyre:

You raise a really interesting point and it contains also the seed of a paradox Jerzy which is, on the one hand, the Holocaust is one of the most thoroughly and exhaustively documented events of the 20th century. And certainly from the perspective of education, museum studies, people who work professionally in the field of representation, so much effort has been done to attempt to tell the story with the complexity, the multiple narratives, the implications, et cetera. So it really can be seen as a shining example of how to do public history with a commitment to transforming the way people understand themselves in the present. And at the same time, there are the studies that show the vast ignorance of the Holocaust. And of course the very active work of Holocaust deniers. So how do you bridge the gap? You have on the one hand, one of the best examples of doing public history, and on the other hand, you have a stunning ignorance in some circles with some percentage of the population of the world, as well as of the United States in particular who are completely ignorant of it, how do we bring those together?

Jerzy Wójcik:

It's a very complex question, to be honest with you. Now that you're referring to this Claims Conference survey that was conducted a couple of weeks ago showing actually those results. But if you really examine actually the questions that were asked during the survey, they ask about the number of Jews that were killed, 6,000,000. By the way I did experimentation of when I had actually kids in the Auschwitz, when I was guiding them. I asked them, do you know how many people died during the World War II? None of them gave me even a close. I mean, like it was a far away, like the answers were absolutely incorrect. Does that means they have no knowledge about World War II? It doesn't. I'm not denying actually there's a problem with the Holocaust education, but not necessarily all of these statistics, surveys are giving actually the right answer. Because at the same time when the Claims Conference released actually the survey, at the same time it was another survey that was conducted by I'm not sure Yad Vashem, a collaboration of many different institutions. Showing that actually in general, Holocaust education is increasing and petty among people, tolerance, et cetera, and many other subjects, they cannot be simply said black or white yes or no. But they generally actually show them the positive aspects of the Holocaust education, when it comes to the understanding of another human being about a tolerance, openness of the young people towards other minorities. So I'm very much against the statistics because I don't think that actually they are showing actually the true picture.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Beyo, East Valley JCC has for many years a variety of programs in Holocaust education. How is the Auschwitz Virtual Tour going to enhance and change and add to the programming that's currently in place? What's the vision?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

One of our departments within the East Valley JCC is the Center for Holocaust Education. As you said, we've been committed for many years to do Holocaust education. We are probably the organization in Arizona that does the most Holocaust education in partnership with national and international museums and centers. When it comes to these virtual tours, the way that I see it is that it will allow for thousands of people that will never have the opportunity to go physically in person to Auschwitz, to be able to learn about it. And this is a huge accomplishment. It's something that I think it came as a result of COVID. But with our partnership with Jerzy, it will continue post COVID both in Arizona and in all over United States. Where again thousands of people, thousands of public school students, teachers, professors, colleges students, general public will be able to experience a highly academic, wonderful, curated educational tour because they will never go to Auschwitz. So this is the best thing that we can do in order to bring the teaching of the past but as Jerzy has said also of the future, meaning Auschwitz again, we should not view it in my opinion as a... It's not a Jewish only issue, problem, it's a human problem. And so moving forward, I truly believe that this will be an amazing, amazing opportunity for us to teach the younger generation on humanity.

Adrian McIntyre:

Jerzy, there are many opportunities clearly moving forward. I'm sure there are also some challenges or what are you seeing having begun this, not that long ago as you're well underway. Moving forward, what are some of the hurdles and obstacles as well as some of the things that you're looking forward to and excited about?

Jerzy Wójcik:

What the problem is actually that in every school, the situation when it comes to the knowledge of the young people are different. Meaning in every one school you can... In the Jewish schools that I worked with I mean, people are generally very prepared. So I'm just actually getting to the material of the Auschwitz presentation. And I don't have to make any introduction, everything is clearly understood actually by them. And there are schools... I had actually a public session in India for 250 students in one session. It was a huge challenge. Because I had to make the introduction how to really... Where is Poland? I mean, where is Europe? But very simple, basic things I have to explain before. So that's a challenging job that in every school, the situation is slightly different and you have to adjust, you have to work with the teachers. You have to prepare, you have to make the preparation where also thinking about making a short, a recording over the introduction before we start actually the session. So there are many different, like we had to adjust the program to the student's needs. But I'm equally optimistic as rabbi is. We can deliver this, we can actually show this to anyone. The rabbi was just saying about the US, I'm talking about the whole world. I'm having sessions for Australia, I had sessions actually for Hong Kong, India, those schools who they never come well to Europe, not even Poland. So yeah, we can really convey this message of Auschwitz and the Holocaust anywhere we want, it's a very promising concept.

Adrian McIntyre:

Have you taken inspiration from others, trying to do this virtual curatorship, history telling, teaching, and so on? Are there other examples of projects that have inspired you or are you really forging forward alone here?

Jerzy Wójcik:

Well, of course from the beginning of the COVID situation, I'm looking around. I'm having a look at conferences. By the way, I can see on a daily basis how the virtual reality and the digital reality around us is changing. How the conferences are being much more professional than it used to be couple of months ago. To be honest, I haven't seen the presentation that I've created. I didn't have any pattern. It was something what I imagined should be shown to people. I thought it's going to be shorter, and it's at least two hours. That's also one of the challenges that I have that when it comes to the adults, when it comes to the public sessions, people are really interested and they sit actually for two hours and then we have Q&A for another hour. With the students it's slightly, the situation is slightly different. And there's schools, lessons I mean, there are some limitations. That's the problem.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi final question for you here as we begin to wrap this up, it seems to me that because people approach the subject from so many different points of view, some of whom as you very eloquently expressed are deeply personal. Others of whom, come from this is like one moment I'm learning rivers and mountain ranges, and the next minute I'm learning about this event in Europe and very disconnected from a personal experience. What kind of support? What kind of conversation? What kind of post tour processing do you see needs to happen for people to get some meaningful impact in the way they think about their everyday life?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's a wonderful question. It's a tough question. I think that one way to tear down the walls of hate and ignorance that we all experience in one way or another, because we are all ignorant about something or somebody is to do work together, to eat together, to have coffee together, to experience the humanity that is within the other person. And then you realize that they are not so much different than you. What the Nazi did, they took away the humanity from those who they wanted to exterminate. Because if you leave the humanity in the other person, you cannot do what they did. And so one of the things that we do here at East Valley JCC for example, we do a lot of interfaith dialogues or intercommunity dialogues. And I see it as a there other side of the coin, or one side there is education about what happened in the past, hate, bigotry, Antisemitism et cetera, against Jews, against other groups, African-Americans et cetera, et cetera. But if it stops there, then it's just as you said, it's a piece of information and it's nothing. But you need to flip the coin and work together, have lunch together, coffee together, work together share a vacation together, do things together, go to each other services. Even if it is uncomfortable, or maybe especially when it is uncomfortable. Just to give an example here in Arizona as you know, we have a very large Latter-day Saint community. I became very good friends with many members of this church. And in a certain point in time, they invited me to participate to go to one of their churches, to participate in an event they were having. And it was very difficult for me, because I've never been to a church service. After a long introspection with myself, I decided if I want to show that I am really their friend. And if I really care about interfaith dialogue and having communities learn about each other, then yes, maybe I'm going to be a little bit uncomfortable going to a church service, and I can handle that. But I will show them that I honor and respect them. So I think that Holocaust education needs to be put side by side with getting to know the other.

Adrian McIntyre:

Jerzy, what can people do after participating in the Auschwitz Virtual Tour to really integrate their learning and shift their thinking and behavior? What do you recommend?

Jerzy Wójcik:

Well, I think actually when they see this, when they finally actually get to understanding what happened in Auschwitz, I guess, and this is what I experienced with some people. I mean, they have to digest, they need to think it through. But if they really realize that actually they go back to the families, they hug the family and they really appreciate how they live. What sort of life they have at this very moment. This awareness that 75 years ago, that was not that long ago, Jews were persecuted by the Nazis. Knowing that it was not that long ago, give you this some understanding that you are, and we are all extremely lucky people to live in a 21st century and there's some awareness and understanding that your family around you adds a great importance, and we should appreciate it a lot. I mean, I think that's understanding is the most important.

Adrian McIntyre:

Jerzy Wójcik runs the Holocaust Memorial Partnership, he's the creator of the Auschwitz Virtual Tour. Thanks so much for joining us Jerzy for this conversation.

Jerzy Wójcik:

Thank you.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Michael Beyo is CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. These conversations with the rabbi are an important contribution to dialogue and to community. Rabbi, thanks so much for leading this program.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Adrian, thank you very much and Jerzy, thank you very much. Thank you for the partnership in bringing the Holocaust education to the community.

Jerzy Wójcik:

Thank you.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi in your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at conversationwiththerabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.

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About the Podcast

Conversation with the Rabbi
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, talks with an eclectic mix of faith-based and secular leaders from around the world.
In an era of political division and polarized debate, we are losing our ability to hear each other. The volume of our disagreements is at an all-time high, while our ability to communicate with kindness and empathy is at an all-time low. This podcast seeks to change that by engaging people from different backgrounds and beliefs in good old-fashioned conversation.

Listen in as Rabbi Michael Beyo and anthropologist Dr. Adrian McIntyre spend time listening, sharing, and discovering common ground in an effort to understand and appreciate the wondrous diversity of our human family. From interfaith dialogues to discussions with business and nonprofit leaders, this podcast shines a spotlight on the different ways we can learn to live, work, and worship together in a contentious and conflicted world.

We invite you to use these conversations as a lens to open up new understandings of self and the other, to develop empathy for diverse viewpoints, and to explore what is possible when we listen to others with respect.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Rabbi Michael Beyo

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Rabbi Michael Beyo is CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, Arizona. He was born in Milan, Italy and has lived in Italy, England, France, Israel, and the United States. An Orthodox Jewish scholar with a successful career providing religious guidance to all the Jewish denominations, he was ordained as a rabbi in Israel, where he earned three Rabbinical Ordinations of the highest honor. In 2015 Rabbi Beyo moved to Arizona from Atlanta, where he had served as the Chief Development Officer for Hillel of Georgia, overseeing 12 colleges and universities. Prior to that he served as the Executive Director and Rabbi of Boston University Hillel, as well as the Jewish Chaplain for Boston University. Rabbi Beyo brings over 25 years of professional, entrepreneurial and non-profit experience in education, cultural, humanitarian, social and religious sectors. He successfully ran several start-ups in Israel before dedicating his career to the nonprofit world.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.