Just last week Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed into law the bill I had introduced in the Colorado House of Representatives, with another member of the Jewish caucus, that requires Holocaust and genocide education as a requirement for graduation from Colorado public schools.
House Bill 1336 directs the Colorado Board of Education to adopt learning standards for Holocaust education by July 1, 2021, and for school districts to implement their genocide curriculum by the 2023-2024 school year.
I introduced the bill in the house with State Rep. Emily Sirota, who is also Jewish. In the Senate, Senators Stephen Fenberg (Democrat) and Dennis Hisey (Republican) sponsored the bill.
Many people worked hard to secure the bill’s passage. But as I watched the governor sign the bill, I most wanted to thank the donors who sent me on a trip to Poland in 1990. I only wish I could find out who those donors are, because that trip shaped the trajectory of my life.
One memory about that trip stands out–and it happened before the trip started.
In 1990, I belonged to the KIO, Kentucky Indiana Ohio region of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). We were in a nondescript hotel ballroom in the middle of Indianapolis for our annual region convention. I was surrounded by 100’s of Jewish teenagers, my BBYO brothers and sisters. The convention was coming to a close. The next day we would have to bid each other farewell and start the countdown until the next convention when we would be together again. While everyone else seemed to be huddled in groups hugging and crying, I was frozen. Time stood still except for the video that was being projected on the poor quality hotel screen.
I had just heard the regional director say that there were going to be two full scholarships per region for two of my peers to travel to Poland on what would be the second March of the Living. Scholarships. I knew that without that scholarship I would never be able to attend such an expensive journey. I could think of nothing else.
Poland was a place of history and memory and stories. It was the fabled land of my ancestors. It is where the annihilation of my people almost succeeded. Almost. Yet, here I was, a 17-year-old Jewish teenager of Polish descent. I had to get that scholarship.
I poured everything I had in me into my scholarship application. I had never wanted anything so badly. I called the Indianapolis office of BBYO daily to ask if decisions had been made and if I had been awarded the scholarship. I remember these calls, but I don’t remember when they finally called and said yes. I must have passed out.
The March of the Living is a trip that began in 1988 to take Jewish teenagers to see with their own eyes the Nazi concentration camps where so many of our ancestors perished, followed by a visit to Israel to heal and celebrate the survival of our people.
It was in Poland that I found ‘that place’ for me. That place where my mind is at ease and my feet connected with the earth. For me, that place was the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. I will never be able to explain the rootedness I felt there. It was like feeling the souls of my ancestors coursing through my veins. It was the otherworldly feeling that I also felt when I walked through Auschwitz, that feeling that I had been there before.
During our time together in Poland, many of my peers cried outwardly at the sight of the camps, at the pits in Treblinka, at the massive memorial filled with the ashes of our people at Majdanek. At the cages full of so many shoes. Yet the entire time I was in Poland I could not cry. I was holding my breath.
Then, as we came in for a landing in Tel Aviv, the shoreline lit up, I saw the nation of my people, the place of my birth, and only then could I let my breath out– and I began to cry, and sob, and sing with my peers Hallelujah.
Donors often put money into experiences like these with the hopes that their investment will pay dividends in the success and growth of the Jewish community. I am certain that at the time I received the scholarship I wrote some sort of thank you note to the donors. But for the life of me, I can not recall who funded that scholarship that changed my life.
Please help me dear readers. I would love to connect with the donors who funded those scholarships so many years ago. I wish to ask if the bill we worked to pass for Colorado Holocaust education fulfilled their hopes for that gift. I know that my work is not done, but it’s time to say thank you once more.
Dafna Michaelson Jenet (nee Kalish) is Colorado State Representative of House District 30.