To coin a phrase used by Jamie Rodney in his last blog, what I am about to write also feels a bit like copying your (in this case, more clever) friend’s homework. His article, as well as Asha’s, inspired a train of thought for me.
Jamie was discussing how, when he thinks about his family, it is not Israel that his mind is drawn to; it is Eastern Europe. For me, this is very similar. My Booba and Zeida’s family came from Lodz, in Poland, and the two of them made their way across Russia, and eventually to England to escape the Holocaust. They have an incredible story, but they were the lucky ones. Devastatingly, almost all of the rest of their family perished, leaving no trace of their existence other than in the memories of my grandparents. I have grown up hearing their story, and the untold story of the rest of their family. So when I think about the roots of my family and my history, my mind does not drift to Israel, it drifts to Poland. It drifts to experiences that I will never come close to understanding, yet nevertheless spend much of my time thinking about.
Whilst pondering this, I was also inspired by Asha’s article about the juxtaposition for her of being in England studying for exams, when only 2245 miles across the sea, her cousins are fighting for their country in Israel. This is also very similar to my experiences. My cousins in Ra’anana, whilst currently too young, will eventually have to fight for both their country and their lives against innumerable threats. Some of my closest and oldest friends are currently on the borders of Gaza, defending a country I feel privileged to call my own. And yet, whilst over in England I will defend Israel until I am red in the face, I have never had to see the pain and fear and bloodshed of war up close. It is something I will hopefully never experience; despite knowing some of the people I love the most are forced to endure it day in, day out.
The concept of not truly understanding is something I, if you cannot yet tell, think about on quite a regular basis. It bothers me that whilst I am sitting in the library, studying the impacts of war or techniques for teaching, I am not truly understanding. I cannot truly comprehend these things because they are not just facts, they are experiences. It recently occurred to me that I learnt far more from going to Poland for five days than I ever did learning about it at school, or even doing a specific module at University about the Holocaust. Some things are incomprehensible. The presence of evil I felt walking through the forest into Majdanek, is incomprehensible. The feeling of pride and companionship singing the Hatikvah next to a gas chamber, with hundreds of Israeli soldiers and other students, is incomprehensible. The emotion of telling the story of my Booba and Zeida whilst standing in front of the grave of my great great grandpa, the only member of my Booba and Zeida’s whole family to be buried… that is incomprehensible. These are things we cannot learn in a classroom. They are things no teacher, however passionate and charismatic, can teach us.
I will never understand how it feels to have to run away from your family because you fear for your life. I will never know how it feels to grieve over a fellow soldier who died in combat. But what I do know is that no matter what happens academically during the next few weeks, we need to remember what is important. Because it isn’t the facts on that page of notes you’ve been staring at for two hours. It isn’t the exams or the essays or the work. It is the experiences. Don’t get so swept up by the stress that you forget to look around and remember what is important. It isn’t the university of Birmingham, or Nottingham, or Oxford that will teach me the most important lessons I know. It is the University of Life.
Orli West is in her second year at Birmingham University where she is studying Education.