Avital Elkayam ’16 (Jewish Studies and Psychology) grew up in a Jewish household with European family roots. In January, she started listening to audio recordings of her great-great uncle, who talked about her maternal great grandfather’s family life in Poland. Always fascinated by her family’s past in Eastern Europe, Elkayam participated in a trip to Poland, organized by California State University, Northridge — which turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
CSUN faculty Jody Myers, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor in Religious Studies, has been organizing annual trips to Europe, specifically Poland, for CSUN students since 2011. With the help of history professor Donal O’Sullivan, the history department and the Jewish studies program, this year’s trip included destinations in Poland and Austria. Students of all majors and backgrounds were eligible to participate.
“The purpose is to provide expanded education to students,” Myers said. “They’re able to explore a foreign culture, landscape and people, and combine classroom learning with real-life learning — and it’s so much fun!”
Shortly after arriving in Poland, Myers introduced Elkayam to a Polish colleague, who translated old documents from the student’s family’s past from Polish to English.
“She translated many things for me, giving me more details about my family and what might have happened to them,” Elkayam said. “I went to an address of my great-grandfather’s uncle in Warsaw, where my family members lived up until World War II and possibly during the war as well.”
Elkayam’s great-grandfather was one of 13 siblings, and one of only five who survived World War II by migrating to the United States. Elkayam has been investigating the history of her ancestors for years and finally found herself in Chodel, Poland, where her family had lived.
“Professor Myers was amazing — when we looked at the map and saw how close Chodel was to our route, she decided that we could detour about an hour out of our way to go and spend some time there,” Elkayam said. “The church was the only building left from the era, but in the recording, my great-great uncle talks about how close they lived to the church and how their mother would sell fresh baked bread to the churchgoers after Mass. Standing in front of it was such a weird feeling, I can’t describe it. Knowing that they looked at that church every day. It was just crazy.”
The CSUN group visited multiple historic places, such as cemeteries containing the bodies of World War II victims, as well as concentration camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau.
“I felt numb the whole day, walking around the barracks while the tour guide explained what had happened in each place,” Elkayam said. “It was unreal to think about the pain and suffering.”
The majority of the participating students received various scholarships – funded by CSUN’s Instructionally Related Activities as well as private donors – helping them to pay for the trip. In order to apply for a scholarship, applicants had to share how passionate they were about going on the trip. Students expressed how helpful the scholarships were for their travels.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go to Europe at all — let alone for a month — had it not been for the kind hearts of the generous individuals who provided me with a scholarship for the trip,” said Shant Goorjian, a senior in business law.
“[The scholarship] really helped to enjoy the experience, rather than living dollar to dollar,” added Adam Feldman, a dual major in criminal justice and business law. “It was a refreshing and eye-opening trip and a great learning opportunity.”
The students wrote a blog about their adventures in Europe. For more information and stories, visit their blog on http://csun2016polandaustria.blogspot.com/.