AJC intern Emily Herlyn giving a tour of the AJC to a PSA cohort.

Hometown: Freiburg, Germany

What attracted you to the AJC? 
In Germany it is very common to take a gap year after high school. There are many organizations that offer one-year volunteer programs in and out of the country. The one I chose to work for is called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). ARSP works with people and countries that suffered under the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The AJC caught my interest because of its focus on a very different aspect of history than Oświęcim is most commonly known for. It does not primarily concentrate on the atrocities committed against the Jews during the Second World War, but rather focuses on their life and religion. As religion is one of my main interests, I also saw working at the AJC as a valuable opportunity to learn more about Jewish life and Judaism.

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience?
My favorite part about my work as a volunteer is learning and teaching. I really enjoy giving tours aboutthe vibrant Jewish life of Oświęcim before the Holocaust, and teaching non-Jewish groups about Judaism, the synagogue and its artifacts. I’ve met really interesting people, had many fascinating conversations and learned so much during my year here! Not to neglect, of course, the great coffee we now have at the new Café Bergson.

How has volunteering here affected you? 
Volunteering at the AJC has affected me in many different ways. This is my first year living away from home andin a different country.This has taught me how to stand on my own two feet, to make my own decisions and given me an opportunity to develop as an individual. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it has allowed me to make a significant realization. One thing became very clear to me: As a German, the topic of the Holocaust has been a big part of my education, and the question of guilt is discussed frequently. This question has accompanied me throughout my year as a volunteer and during this time I have concluded that it should not be a question of guilt, but a question of responsibility. As my generation is too young to be blamed for the crimes our forefathers committed over 70 years ago, I don’t think we should feel guilty, nor is there any benefit to be had from this. What I do think though, is that we have a responsibility to learn and teach about that part of our country’s history, despite how unpleasant and painful it may be. We should never forget what cruelties mankind is capable of and should do everything we can to prevent history from repeating itself. Lastly, on a more personal note, I have found that I really enjoy giving tours and working with people of different age groups. This has made me happy and confident in my choice of studying to become a teacher of English and Religious studies.

What is one thing you’d like others to know about the AJC or think people don’t know? 
Today there is not one Jewish inhabitant left in the town of Oświęcim. The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, which is part of the AJC, is the only remaining active synagogue in the area. This gives Jewish visitors the possibility to come together for prayers. The synagogue also has another important purpose. Many groups – mainly German school groups – come here with very little knowledge about Jewish life and Judaism in general. They visit the concentration and death camps, where they learn about the death of a people, without knowing anything about their life. For many of them, coming to the AJC provides them with their first opportunity to see a synagogue from the inside and hear anything about Judaism. In my opinion, this is a very important part of the AJC because learning about people’s lives, more so than deaths, provides the necessary context. Understanding, or at least trying to do so, is the first and most important step towards peace.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2014 newsletter articles are found here.