The blue stain on the wall nearly crushed Tal Meltzer.
A nice Jewish boy from Tarbut V’Torah Day School, the son of Israeli parents and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Meltzer had an academic understanding of the atrocities that befell the Jews several generations before he was born. But no amount of study or discussion could prepare him for that blue stain, a permanent chemical reaction between the gas used in the gas chambers of Majdanek and human flesh.
When Meltzer entered the gas chamber with his classmates as part of Tarbut V’Torah’s 2007 Poland-Israel trip, the entirety of his education, his identity and his dedication to Israel and the Jewish people whipped into focus.
“Before I could even comprehend what was going on or relate it to the stories I had heard, I found myself covered in tears, my body nearly collapsing,” said Meltzer, now 21. “That’s the moment things turned real, and I began to comprehend what really happened.”
It is precisely those kinds of moments that first inspired Irving “Papa” Gelman to launch TVT’s annual Poland-Israel trip 10 years ago. The founder of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, Gelman has long been dedicated to educating Jewish children, but he knows that learning the difference between a kamatz and a patach is not what engenders Jewish identity.
Instead of relying solely on books and films to explain the enormity of the Holocaust, Gelman decided students needed to see it for themselves. Similarly, he knew that to foster a real love of Israel, students needed to breathe its air and touch its land.
So, in the last decade TVT has taken a total of 315 students on a journey of the modern Jewish experience that starts in Poland and ends, victoriously and meaningfully, in Israel. The next class of juniors will depart in June.
“They come back, and they are proud to be Jews,” said Gelman, 89. “Before they were reading a story. But when they see it in true life, they become more attached to it.”
Years after their journeys, alumni describe the program as life-changing.
“Before I went there, I did not feel it was going to impact me the way it did,” said Jared Ginsburg, now 21 and a senior at USC. “The thing that impacted me the most was the sound of the door closing inside what was an actual gas chamber. It will change your life in a way that will make you really appreciate who the Jewish people are and the trajectory of what the state of Israel has been able to become.”
The trip does more than teach students about history and Zionism. It codifies identity, said Shalom Shalev, security director and trip facilitator for TVT.
“When you are a minority, the challenges are great to preserve something very dear and beautiful like one’s heritage or unique identity,” he said. “In looking back at all the years of Tarbut V’Torah’s trip, the evidence is very clear of how much good is coming out of this investment in the younger generation to further the Jewish cause.”
The impact is lifelong and long-reaching. For Charles DeLoach, now a sophomore at Chapman University, the experience solidified his resolve to promote Zionism and Jewish life. He and a few friends founded a Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, for which he was elected founding president. The fraternity hosts Shabbat dinners, supports Jewish philanthropies and is involved in AIPAC.
For Lyla Weiss, Gelman’s granddaughter and a TVT alumna who went on the trip in 2006, the program instilled in her a sense of unity with her people and her peers.
“The trip gave me a stronger sense of Jewish identity because I had grown up with all of the kids that were attending the trip there with me,” said Weiss, now 24 and living in New York. We had all sat through years of Judaic and Hebrew classes, learning the ins and outs of our heritage. To be able to see it up close and in person after hearing so much about it was a completely different experience.”
There is no doubt these 16- and 17-year-olds come back changed. But at what cost?
Upper school principal Dr. Laura Roth had touted the program for years, but when she chaperoned a trip the year before her son, Max, was expected to depart, she started to question it – not as an educator, but as a parent.
“I just didn’t want my son to feel pain,” Roth said. “I don’t think I had any big thoughts like he shouldn’t know that evil exists like this. I just thought it would be too painful for such a young, innocent person. He seemed too perfect to be ruined.”
After Max returned, however, Roth saw the change in her son and his classmates – the maturity, the kindness, the growth – and began agitating for students to make the trip even earlier. Gelman said the school is in talks to do just that.
As emotionally trying as the trip was, TVT alums agree they had not been too young for it
“It is the best age for a Jew to experience it. It’s old enough to understand and young enough to shape character,” Ginsburg said. “When we came back, we interacted with each other differently. We looked out for the emotions of the people around us. We were not direct victims, but in a tangible way we felt connected because our ancestors were there 50 years earlier in those same walls.
“For us to be able to share in that experience together and at such a young age, that was a transformative experience,” he said. “It directly impacts my life to this day.”
In all the years that TVT has offered the trip, no family has ever failed to send a child due to a concern about the intensity of the program, school officials said. Money, also, has not been a deterrent.
Although the program costs $5,000, the school and the Jewish Federation & Family Services Passport to Jewish Life fund have helped subsidize the cost for students based on financial need.
After a decade, the trip is now seen as a rite of passage among the families at TVT, Roth said. While in past years, three or four students have opted out, last year only one student elected not to go.
While some alums have returned to Poland, most describe that leg of the trip as a “once in a lifetime” journey for a reason. Meltzer, for instance, has been back to Israel many, many times, but has no plans to return to Poland.
“Honestly, I would maybe go back with my kids, when I’m older, but otherwise, I can’t go through it again,” he said.
Meltzer still remembers the pain and rage he felt after seeing that blue stain.
“I hated everyone at that moment. I hated the Germans and the Nazis for what they did. I hated Poland and Europe for allowing the facilitation of genocide. I hated America for not stopping it. I hated myself for living such a simple and easy life when I knew that my grandfather had done more at age 13 than I had ever done and will ever do,” he said.
But Meltzer didn’t allow that hate to swallow him up. And he didn’t allow that stain to be the lasting image of the trip.
After talking with teachers and peers, he managed to gain command of his rage, stand on train tracks that had once delivered millions of Jews to their death and wipe his tears with an Israeli flag. He then wrapped that flag around him, while a classmate held up a camera.
And he smiled. From a blue stain to a blue star.
When he and his peers arrived in Israel, Meltzer gave his survivor grandfather a print of the photo bearing the inscription, “Nitzachnu Otam, Saba” (We won, Grandpa). The connection he had, not only to his own family, but to Israel and the Jewish people, had never been more clear.
“My whole life, I always felt some kind of gap in my family, especially with my grandfather. When I handed him that picture, it was as if the circle closed,” Meltzer said. “He really does not like to talk about his experience, which I totally understand. But at that moment, he hugged me and brought me close.”
March of the Living
The blue stain on the wall nearly crushed Tal Meltzer.