BALTIMORE, Md. - And so it began that 20 youths of Polish (8) and Jewish (12) heritage from greater Baltimore, Md., ranging in ages from 15 to 17, all embarked on a very unique journey of a lifetime to Poland and Israel. They were participating in the cultural exchange program Dialog in Understanding Through Youth (DUTY), under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, with the goal of promoting and strengthening intercultural understanding on the personal and international levels. Reconciling religious differences, and recognizing similarities, is also stressed.
The nuts and bolts of this specific undertaking were fully assembled after 2 years of determined, hard work by the Polish Heritage Association of Maryland, led by Victoria Leshinskie, assisted by other local Polish-American organizations, with the partnership of the Baltimore Jewish Council. U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) also played a crucial role by securing the funding for the endeavor.
The group prepared in advance for their odyssey with a four-days orientation in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. that included mini-seminars, lectures, films, much cultural and personal dialog, educational visits to Holy Rosary, a Polish Catholic church, and historic Lloyd St. Jewish Synagogue. They were also received by the Embassies of Poland and Israel, the State Department and Sen. Mikulski. During this time the teens met and began to form their bonds and friendships that would carry and support them over their June 28 - July 14, 2006 journey that would span and join 3 different worlds.
Upon arriving first in Poland, the American DUTY group was met and joined by 8 Polish teens from Lodz, and 8 Israeli teens from Ashkelon - both locations being official sister-cities to Baltimore. They then visited many interesting sites and communities in Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow, including a solemn pilgrimage to the infamous Nazi-German Auschwitz concentration camp, which profoundly moved all of them, with the very emotional experience bonding them even closer to each other for mutual support and needed solace.
Then it was on to Israel where they visited the cities and people of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Especially enjoyable was visiting the abundant historical and biblical sites of Jerusalem central to both the Christian and Jewish religions, which included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a remarkable synagogue. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Memorial was also a prominent and memorable experience for everyone. They also learned about Islam and discussed Arab-Jewish relations as they toured Arab neighborhoods and visited holy mosques.
But there was also a precarious security situation and rude awaking to the realities of life in the Land of Milk and Honey for the Duty group: Their scheduled visit to Ashkelon was changed due to the Katyusa rockets that were fired on the city by Arab militants belonging to the Hezbollah movement. And very shortly after the American contingent departed for home, Israel commenced full scale retaliatory warfare against Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
And so it ended for this particular group of international youths with many bridges being built, personal friendships made and cemented, and most importantly with tolerance and understanding flourishing. For all of the participants it was a DUTY well performed with the added reward of unforgettable memories and positive life-changing experiences. It would be a real blessing on mankind if all the peoples of the world would emulate on a large scale the peaceful, altruistic accomplishments of these diverse, mature children who came together to make a seemingly small - but very real - difference in the grand scheme of things.
I recommend a book written by Roman Vishniac, Elie Wiesel entitled: Jews in Poland: A Vanished World