Westminster Alumni Sponsor ‘Life-Changing’ Trip to Poland
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Westminster Alumni Sponsor ‘Life-Changing’ Trip to Poland

Students learn history to shape and lead the future.

After 35 years with the Atlanta newspapers, Marcia currently serves as Retail VP for the Buckhead Business Association, where she delivers news and trends (laced with a little gossip).

The full tour group utilized Prague as one of the base cities // Photos by Adam Koplan
The full tour group utilized Prague as one of the base cities // Photos by Adam Koplan

As the cloud of antisemitism swirls about world events, community leaders set in motion powerful actions to educate young hearts and minds.

With the adage, “Better to light one candle than curse the darkness,” members of the Jewish community connected to The Westminster Schools worked with school officials to develop an immersive course focused on the history of antisemitism and the neuroscience of prejudice. The course is part of Westminster’s JanTerm—an intensive, three-week course of study in which Upper School students focus on a single topic in great depth through a cross-disciplinary approach that incorporates experiences both in the classroom as well as off-campus.

The group toured Terezin, a concentration camp 30 miles north of Prague, and are shown here standing outside a hidden room that Jewish prisoners converted into a place for worship only recently discovered.

The Voices of Resilience course was developed three years ago by Westminster faculty members Dr. Kasia Darlak and Dr. Nathan Vigil with inspiration and a seed gift provided by Jack and Lynne Halpern. Other Jewish alumni and friends of the school—Lon and Debbie Neese, Eva and Robert Ratoyni, Joyce and Jay Schwartz, Steve and Linda Selig, Doug and Lila Hertz, and The Chatham Valley Foundation—offered additional financial support for the program, enabling the school to send students and faculty escorts to Poland and Czech Republic.

This year’s class, comprised of 18 mostly non-Jewish students, were escorted by faculty members and course creators, Darlak and Vigil, as well as school counselor, Jeremiah Neal, and director of performing arts, Adam Koplan (recently featured in the Atlanta Jewish Times (June 30).

Ava Wong, Alisha Philip, Frankie Sayers, and Carter Frieden at challah baking and pierogi class in Krakow.

Koplan noted the popularity of the course as they had 60-plus applications for the 18 spots. He stated, “Having these brilliant, curious Westminster students, 85 percent of whom were not Jewish, learn about Ashkenazi history and culture, alongside the tragedy of the Holocaust, made the trip especially powerful. Some of our Jewish guides and hosts kept remarking that they wished more interfaith and non-Jewish groups would make the trek and I think they were especially impressed with us.”

The trip to Poland began with a visit to the Polin Museum of History of the Polish Jews, providing an overview of Jewish life in Europe, then visits to the Majdenek and Auschwitz camps. Students were struck with the freezing winter temperatures and the lack of clothing the victims experienced, along with the other brutal horrors of extermination camps.

Henry Banner and Olivia Montag are two of the Jewish students on the tour. Of the 18, 15 were not Jewish, with most students identifying at Christian.

Next the group volunteered at the JCC of Krakow where they packed food for Ukrainians and witnessed another survivor’s firsthand story which inspired the students to “not just see the negative, but also find the positive.” A trip highlight for most students was a Shabbat dinner in Prague hosted by Chabad in which students stated that seeing some of the beautiful and spiritual aspects of Judaism helped them contextualize the modern fight against antisemitism. One junior noted the privilege of being able to get on a bus and drive away from the camps “but no longer as a bystander.”

Holocaust survivor Robert Ratonyi said, “I didn’t graduate from Westminster, but my son, David, did (1982). I got involved with Voices of Resilience through my relationship with The Breman Museum where the students meet prior to the trip.”

In 2022, Ratonyi was asked by The Breman to address students, trip sponsors, parents, and teachers prior to the trip overseas.

Robert Ratonyi and a student pose after the former shared his dramatic survivor experience at The Breman prior to departure, including how he was saved by Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts.

He elaborated, “After the trip, I spoke with students and absorbed their feedback. It’s an emotional experience to listen to these smart, articulate students describing it as ‘life changing.’ I was asked to dedicate a copy of my book, ‘From Darkness Into Light,’ to each student….this is a fantastic program to teach students about the Holocaust; the best I have ever seen.”

Trip co-sponsor Jay Schwartz said, “My brothers and I attended Westminster, and our mother went to Washington Seminary (a precursor). My own children went there as well. Regarding the trip, we all believe it’s important for the school’s development of understanding, diversity, and acceptance. Yes, attitudes have changed. In my time there, one had to be Christian to teach. This trip fosters understanding and needs to continue to evolve, so we never forget.”

Jack and Lynne Halpern hosted the students at their home on the Sunday after the trip. Jack Halpern stated, “Each of them talked about what was the most meaningful part of the experience for them. The trip’s teachers, Kasia Darlak and Nathan Vigil, are gifted educators and their commitment to this project is what made it so impactful and successful. The trip was truly a life-changing experience for those involved.”

As part of the course’s conclusion, the Voices of Resilience class shared how the experience impacted them and led the Upper School student body in discussions about battling antisemitism.

Ratonyi laid out the challenge, “Maybe some of the other private schools can step up and sponsor similar trips.”

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