Three Weeks of Tragedy and Hope on First Spanish-Language Trip

For the Jewish teens from South America who recently returned from an emotionally charged tour of Eastern Europe and Israel, the trip provided daily experiences of tragedy and hope that left them more committed to Judaism.

By Haydee M. Rodriguez,

For the Jewish teens from South America who recently returned from an emotionally charged tour of Eastern Europe and Israel, the trip provided daily experiences of tragedy and hope that left them more committed to Judaism, more proud to be Jewish and thankful for the opportunities to freely practice Judaism.

“I was struck at so much loss of life,” Ezequiel Eitan Wolman, 16, told “I came back proud to be a Jew. They tried to exterminate us, but they couldn’t. What they say is so true of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust; they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know that we were seeds.”

Wolman (“Eze” for short) lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his parents, Gabriel and Valeria Wolman. He attends the Chabad Wolfsohn Beit Mordejai High School, and the family attends Beit Jabad de Villa del Parque. He is an active member of the local branch of CTeen, the Chabad Teen Network, which arranged the first Spanish-language trip to Europe for South American teens.

The visits to Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Tykocin and the Łopuchowo Forest were emotionally impactful for all the teenagers, he said, but particularly so for teens like him who had family in Europe before the Holocaust. Wolman’s paternal grandparents were from Poland and Ukraine; his maternal grandparents were from Poland and Syria.

Wolman said that he is now aware that his freedom to live and practice as a Jew is something that the people who perished in the camps did not have. He cried, he said, while walking around Auschwitz. “I could not believe the enormity of what happened there. You can read about it and see it in videos, but seeing it with your own eyes gives you an entirely different perspective. The camp is enormous, and I could not believe that there were so many children killed in those ovens.”

And although he had been to Israel before, he fell in love with the country again, noting that this trip gave him a different perspective—visiting the Old City and spending time in the north, with so much beauty around him. “I was enchanted by Israel,” said Wolman.

The trip for 22 teens took place from July 9 through July 30 and was led by an all-Spanish-speaking staff, including Rabbi Tzvi Lipinski of Beit Jabad Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires, and counselors Chaim Acosta and Ber Chaim Arcusin, also of Buenos Aires. The trip was made possible with matching funds from Mosaic United and the Meromim Foundation, and was the result of recognizing the need for a program entirely in Spanish, according to Rabbi Chai Kohan, director of Spanish-language programs for Merkos 302.

“In previous years, we’ve had numerous Latin American teens join CTeen Summer trips where they connected with Jewish teens from around the world,” said Kohan. “Being able to experience their heritage in their own language with fellow teens and staff who come from similar backgrounds connected the teens to their Jewish identity in a tremendously powerful way. We hope it fosters lasting friendships and empowers them to live as proud Jews contributing to their communities back home.”

“The strong, proud and joyous Jewish identity that’s fostered on these trips is something unique to each setting and environment,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of CTeen International and vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “To see it come back with the teenagers who participate is nothing short of exhilarating.”

Learning to Value Life More Fully

Seventeen-year-old Gaston Kozak of Argentina said he learned to value life and to live more fully. “I feel different—first, the group with whom we traveled was spectacular. And now that I am home, there are so many things I want to do—things that before the trip I hesitated doing. I want to live fully because I realized that there were so many people who didn’t have a chance.”

He reflected on the visits to the death camps, stating that although he and the other teens did not know each other, “the teens from Panama, Peru and Venezuela embraced me as though I were a brother, and that was one of the most emotional days for me.”

Kozak is finishing his last year of high school in Buenos Aires. He told Chabad that he has been interested in learning about the Holocaust and World War II for a long time, explaining that his paternal grandfather was a Polish Jew who left Poland before the war.

The days in Poland were heavy with emotion, the teen added, noting that “one person is a universe, and hundreds of persons are hundreds of universes.”

And yet, he remarked, that terrible sense of loss transformed into hope upon arriving in Israel: “We saw the past, and we saw the future.”

Carina Cabrosi, Kozak’s mother, stated that she was “extremely happy” with the trip; it was well-organized, the teens were well-cared for, and, she added, “he grew immeasurably with this trip.”

A Greater Sense of Jewish Self

For Andres Levitas, 18, who was born in Uruguay but moved to Panama at the age of 2 with his parents and who lost family in the Holocaust, the trip helped reinforce his Jewish identity in the face of the loss and separation experienced by his family.

His paternal grandfather escaped Lithuania right before the Holocaust, seeking refuge in Uruguay. His maternal grandmother was born in the Warsaw Ghetto. The family who did survive the Holocaust moved to another country and changed their names, afraid of what could happen if they didn’t.

“I loved not just learning and seeing history with my own eyes,” Levitas shared, “but also seeing a religious perspective that I would not have seen otherwise. Visiting the site of the Warsaw Ghetto was very strange for me because my grandmother was born there. She was on my mind as we walked and saw the small apartments, and I imagined so many people forced to share the same space, living in incredibly difficult, oppressive conditions.”

Levitas shared that while he had heard of Tykocin and the Łopuchowo Forest, he was not prepared for the onslaught of emotions that overcame him and his peers while standing at the site of the massacre of 1,400 Jews. “I didn’t know any of the other teenagers,” remarked Levitas, “but standing in the forest, I sobbed as I imagined all those people wrenched from their homes and brought here to be shot. I remember I held another teen I had just met four hours before. It was a shocking, emotional experience.”

He emphasized that it is critically important for every Jewish individual to see these sights firsthand, particularly given the rise of antisemitism. “It is easy to forget,” he added, “and G-d willing, this will never happen again. We have to be sure that history is not repeated. It is also critically important to remember the dead.”

Levitas is currently studying in Israel and attends IDC Herzliya–Reichmann University, studying business administration and entrepreneurship.

“I have a stronger sense of who I am,” he shared. “I am proud to be who I am as a Jew, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have seen the aftermath of so much devastation with my own eyes. I am inspired to go on.”

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