Early in 1990 when I was a sophomore in college, I received an invitation from my aunt Ruth, my mother's sister, to accompany her and her family on a trip to Eastern Europe that summer. She and my uncle thought the moment in history (just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall) was not to be missed, and they wanted an extra set of hands to help out with their two young sons, 9 and almost 6. I was only too happy to accept their invitation!
I applied for a passport and the necessary visas and got plane tickets to meet them in Vienna at the end of June. The plan was to rent a car and make a two-week loop through parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Other than wanting to see Eastern Europe during this pivotal point in history, the highlights of the trip were to be two-fold: first, a stop in Bruno, Czechoslovakia to see where Gregor Mendel conducted his famous experiments on pea plants and helped to establish modern genetics (my uncle is a geneticist); and second, a journey through Galicia, the region in now-Poland where two of my great-grandparents were born. We would also spend a few days in the Tatras mountains, which are on the border between now-Slovakia and Poland, before returning to Vienna.
I thought I was signing up for a fun, interesting little trip. I had no idea what a strong influence it would have on me, on my Jewish identity, and on my world view. I returned changed and eager to explore more about what I had seen and experienced, but I did not find much information available to me. There were no courses about Eastern Europe (other than the Soviet Union) at my college, and I didn't know where else to seek information or who to talk to about the big questions I was trying to formulate.
Twenty-three years later, not only have the places we visited changed drastically, but much of the information I sought then is now probably at my fingertips. I am excited to spend some time re-acquainting myself with the questions that this trip stirred in me.
3 Kislev 5774