By Elana Willinsky, Communications Associate Many students take advantage of their time off during spring break to catch up with old friends, visit somewhere warm, or sleep. Paola Otero, a Trinity College sophomore who traveled on Israel Uncovered this past winter with The David Project and who is involved in Multicultural Affairs, P.R.I.D.E, Black Student Union, and La Voz Latina on campus, is not most students. She was thinking about and researching aspects of black representation, figuring out a way to use her time off to delve more deeply in the history of the black experience in the United States.
Paola began talking with friends about the subject. She considered, “How can we get to the really important things that have shaped the black identity? It has to be the plantations because you can’t really get over that piece of history.” Paola and six other interested students began planning a visit to former plantations in Virginia as an Alternative Spring Break. During their discussion, other groups’ histories of atrocity and injustice were brought up and Paola realized there was a lot of interest in the Holocaust. Other students felt that they didn’t really know much about it. They decided to incorporate into the trip a stop in D.C. at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and for Paola, “It felt really important because something we have been working on is learning how to acknowledge other struggles.”
I had the opportunity to talk with Paola a little bit more in-depth about her and her classmates’ experiences, and how the entire experience informed her connection to Israel:
Elana: Can you talk more about how the different elements of the trip developed?
Paola: We decided to go on the trip because I was concerned with how black people are being represented, in general. I was talking with a student about how, at least in the education we got, we learned about the Holocaust before we learned about slavery. Slavery was never really mentioned for us. We learned about it through family discussions, things like that. It was never really part of the curriculum and…I started thinking about why we aren’t being represented and how we can make that happen. So we decided to go down and visit some plantations, and along the way, because some of the students were interested in the Holocaust, we thought why don’t we stop and visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Just going to the D.C. museum doesn’t mean we know everything about the Holocaust…we went there and got a feel for how it was. It was really dark. So we went, experienced it, and then we headed to Virginia and started going to plantations.
We had a completely different experience than we did at the museum. Many of the tours didn’t even mention slavery. And that was extremely problematic for us, because we know that there were slaves there and they aren’t being acknowledged in any way. Literally not mentioned. We were having a discussion one night, talking about how there are people today around the world who believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen. How is it that in America, where [slavery] took place, with direct involvement of Americans, because of Americans, how are you not going to acknowledge that part of history? That, to me, is kind of mind-blowing. So that was really sad.
We realized quickly that we weren’t going to get it out of [the tour guides]. Eventually we had this one tour guide, when everyone left, who said she could show us what used to be one of the old slave quarters. So we went there and the place is not up-kept, it’s dirty and falling apart…and I didn’t want them to change anything, I just want them to maintain the house. For us it was really frustrating. I knew that was how it was going to be because prior to going on the trip I did some research and what I noticed was that slavery wasn’t even being mentioned on the websites.
Elana: So the plantations are now being marketed as beautiful southern destinations, instead of being marketed as a fully historical site.
Paola: Exactly, it’s being marketed as, “Come get married here, look how beautiful it is here!” So you’re on a tour and people are talking about getting married by a tree that people easily could have been murdered and hung at. How could you just not acknowledge that?
Elana: Did the way that you structured the trip--going to the Holocaust Museum first--inform or shape the conversations and discussions that took place afterwards?
Paola: I was really proud of the students because they never said why does the Holocaust museum have this, but we are not even being mentioned [at the plantations]. But as humans you start thinking, “Wow, so they did all of this [for the Holocaust] but they aren’t going to acknowledge this other struggle.” People believe that slavery doesn’t have effects today. You would have to be out of your mind to believe that slavery has no effect today…People have just have become desensitized. Definitely going to the Holocaust Museum first was our launching point. I thought it was good because we started talking about other genocides and atrocities in history, like the Rwandan genocide. We came up with a theme: The U.S. could have done a lot, but just did not intervene. They didn’t intervene in World War II and they didn’t intervene in Rwanda until it was convenient.
Elana: Do you feel that learning about the Holocaust informed or broadened your view of Israel?
Paola: Definitely. One thing we did come to a consensus about was that a lot of people that started and built Israel were Holocaust survivors. They went through something like the Holocaust and then went and started in a new place.
You can’t argue that Israel is one of the fastest growing places in the world. It’s amazing, the technology, the infrastructure. When [on Israel Uncovered] we went to Tel Aviv and we were shocked that it was really nothing not too long ago. And now look at it! So that is one thing we came to a consensus about, no matter what people say, you can’t argue with the resilience of Israel. And we related that to the black experience. Black people maybe aren’t doing as well as they should be in America, but you have to think we have come a long way. And again, it’s the resilience of people who really don’t have a choice, but they are making the best they can. That’s definitely something we took away from the trip.
Elana: Do you feel you had an opportunity to talk about your Israel experience with the people who haven’t been to Israel or may not know as much about Israel? After the museum did they have questions that you were able to shed light on?
Paola: I think when people think of Israel, because they have such a religious context to it, they just think of sand. And much of it is, but they were asking mainly about landscape and stuff. Like, “Do they actually have buildings and stuff?” I was like, “Yeah they have buildings, they have better buildings than they have here! More technologically advanced.”
They asked what the conflict is like. I think that was a big part of the discussion because if you don’t know anything about Israel, that’s all you know because that is what’s being portrayed on the media. Unless you are doing critical work, like taking classes or something, the media is the only place you’ll see it. I tried to explain it to them the best I could, but I am still working to understand it.
Elana: It’s incredibly complex.
Paola: Its complicated, there is so much history. But we talked about Israel a lot. We started talking about a lot of different places in the world that have gone through things like the Holocaust--acknowledgment. If you don’t acknowledge your own history it’s really difficult to craft your sense of identity, because half your identity isn’t there. And then you start thinking, my people just didn’t do it right. If you looked at everything, you would see why.
Elana: When you were planning the trip, facilitating discussion, and talking about personal narrative, how did your work with The David Project play a part?
Paola: I am so glad you mentioned that because it played a part everyday. One thing about Israel Uncovered is that everyone has a different opinion and so you’re constantly listening to somebody that may or may not have the same thought process as you, may or may not have the same ideas. And that is kind of what we taught ourselves in talking about slavery. Some people are like well, maybe we should just forget it, we need to move on, and other people are like no, we have to acknowledge it. So we had really complicated, in-depth conversations about what our thoughts were on the whole trip. And not everyone agreed. I personally love that. I don’t want everybody to agree because it’s kind of boring after a while. So definitely that reminded me of when we went to Israel because everyone had different opinions about everything.
Elana: There are similar debates in the Jewish community about how to remember the Holocaust, about its relevance to issues today. I think you can go to Israel, go to the Holocaust museum, or go to the plantations and not have the same opinion. You can simply share the experience as part of a community and use it as a way to facilitate discussion and critical thinking.
Paola: Absolutely. There was a lot of soul-searching on the trip. Thinking about how humanity has treated each other and thinking about solidarity and things like that. And how did we get there, what makes somebody think they can do that and then what makes other people stand by? In Israel we talked a lot about that, every time we talked about the Holocaust, we were talking about how there were those that didn’t do anything. Or didn’t stop it or try to.
Elana: I think you hit on the most important part, solidarity. How important it is for people to learn from other cultures’ genocides and atrocities and pasts.
Paola: Exactly. I think that’s the best thing we learned. We tried to personalize it to an extent. It makes us aware of what’s going on. Everyone really enjoyed the museum, we spent three hours there. So it was a good trip, we want to do a part two to Mississippi and Louisiana.
Elana: So you have done some follow-up since you came back?
Paola: We are going to go out to eat and have some discussion, see where everyone’s heads are at. We felt like this was our birthright in a way, as weird as that may sound. We are thinking about bringing one or two Jewish students with us next time. I went [to Israel] and saw some things over there, now it’s like why don’t you come and see something that’s going on over here, closer to my side of history.