Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 4, 2023

Wilson fellow studies Jewish life and culture abroad

By SABRINA WANG | April 9, 2015

Junior Arielle Kaden, a Woodrow Wilson fellow and a Writing Seminars major with a minor in Jewish Studies, will be travelling to several educational centers and universities this summer to learn about modern Jewish life in Europe.

As a Woodrow Wilson fellow, Kaden has already travelled to other countries for her project, which aims to document aspects of modern Jewish life in Europe. She hopes to consolidate her findings and writings into a published memoir by the end of her fellowship.

“I came into college knowing that I had an interest in the Holocaust,” Kaden said.

She cited her Jewish family as the main factor that inspired her to learn more about Judaism and the Holocaust. She began studying Yiddish, a historical language spoken primarily by Ashkenazi Jews, as a freshman at Hopkins.

However, reading Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night in eighth grade was the main experience that drove her to study the Holocaust.

Night was the first book I ever read on the Holocaust, and it really introduced me to the topic,” Kaden said. “Elie Wiesel just became a figure I really respected, and I wanted to know more about his story.”

After reading Night, Kaden wrote a 10-page short story from the perspective of someone who lived through the Holocaust for a school assignment.

“That experience, putting myself in the shoes of someone who lived through [the Holocaust], was a very monumental thing in my life, and it really introduced me to creative writing,” she said. “I wanted to visit various concentration camps and write a novel in the eyes of a Holocaust victim.”

During the summer after her freshman year at Hopkins, she traveled to Belarus, Poland and Lithuania to learn about Jewish life before the Holocaust. Her trip was funded by the Jewish Studies department, and she applied for the Woodrow Wilson research grant later that summer.

“Being in Eastern Europe for two months really introduced me to the fact that Jewish history in Europe is so much more than the Holocaust,” Kaden said. “We think of Jewish history there, and so many people just zoom in on this eight-year period.”

The trip also caused Kaden to rethink her preconceptions about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

“My taking Yiddish and reading the literature of those who lived before the war happened and going to Eastern Europe myself and meeting Holocaust survivors and going to museums and visiting places where Jews actually once lived, showed me that people, including my ancestors, lived a much richer life than I thought,” Kaden said.

Kaden went back to Eastern Europe and visited Poland for 10 days during the summer after her sophomore year. While there, she noted the discrepancy between what she thought life would be like — that is, devoid of Jewish culture — and what she actually observed.

“Going to Poland for a second time last summer opened my eyes to how Jewish life has been reborn again,” Kaden said.

She explained that Jewish community centers in cities such as Warsaw and Krakow (in Poland) were vibrant and filled with synagogues and Jewish film festivals.

“Before coming into this research, I never really understood anything about Jewish life post-Holocaust in Europe,” she said. “I’d just assumed that when the Holocaust happened, all the Jews left. But it turned out there were a few people who wanted to stay.”

After World War II, Jewish communities were threatened by the spread of Communism, and many parents kept their children in the dark about their ethnicity as a means of protection. After speaking to young people of her generation who were just discovering their ethnic origins, Kaden once again changed the focus of her research.

“Now I’m primarily focusing on what it’s like for Jewish people to live in Europe today. How, with changing political cultures and changing dialogues, does a Jewish person maintain their sense of identity?” she said.

She hopes to delve into the lives of the younger members of Jewish communities.

“I look at young people my age and say, ‘Those are the people who are going to lead the next community.’ I want to visit Jewish day schools and learn what the kids are learning,” Kaden said. “I’m really interested in Holocaust education — how this tragedy [is] being taught in a way that we [do] not just learn from history but learn to embrace life today.”

This summer, Kaden, under several grants including the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Award (DURA), the John Koren Award for Holocaust Research and Education and the Max Kade Center Summer Travel Grant, will travel to Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Amsterdam and Paris to further her perspective studies.

She said she mainly developed her interest in traveling to Paris last summer when there was a sudden increase in anti-Semitism within the city.

“Each year, the amount of Jews that are moving out [of Paris] is rising dramatically,” Kaden said.

She has chronicled her travels in a blog called “Saving the Shtetlach.” Shtetlach is Yiddish for “little town” and refers to the small towns containing large Jewish populations that existed in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Currently, Kaden’s blog has about 4,000 to 5,000 readers, and many of them contact her to gain insight into Eastern European Jewry. She plans on converting the blog into a memoir.

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