Editor’s note: Today marks the debut of “On the Job,” a series profiling locals and the work they do, which will run every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.
Dara Bramson faces the daunting task of helping promote understanding among people from around the world in a place once synonymous with inhumanity.
She relishes the challenge confronting her as a member of the staff of the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim.
“I feel strongly about the mission of it. It’s something that’s very meaningful,” she said.
Bramson, 28, a 2003 graduate of Aspen High School, coordinates the center’s Program for Students Abroad. She organizes programs that help students learn about the rich Jewish history of Oswiecim for centuries prior to World War II, the Holocaust and contemporary issues in Poland.
“It’s very important to us that there isn’t a sole focus on the Holocaust,” Bramson said.
She earned her undergraduate degree in journalism after graduating from Aspen High School, then earned her master’s degree from Columbia University in anthropology. She studied the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish history in Poland starting in 2008, in 2010 as an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow and in 2011-12 as a Fulbright Scholar. Over that time, she fell in love with Poland. That’s what makes educating people about the country and its Jewish heritage so rewarding, she said. The tragedy of the Holocaust and the central role of Auschwitz led many people to hold Poland in a “negative light,” according to Bramson.
“They think they’re walking into the 1940s, and they’re not,” she said.
The Jewish Center helps dispel the inaccurate information and perceptions. The center is affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Bramson was hired by the museum. As a student who conducted research in Poland, she was a natural fit to work in the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
She lives in Krakow, in the city’s historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, which had a significant Jewish population since the 14th century until the Holocaust. She said she loves living in the city because the population is so young, vibrant and open-minded. The architecture is magnificent because many of the buildings survived World War II intact. Nazi officials enjoyed the city so much that they prevented it from being bombed.
She’s had trouble learning to speak Polish because so many of her friends speak excellent English. Ironically, perhaps, she is the only connection to the Jewish culture for many of her Polish friends. She said she’s happy to provide them with the perspective of a person of Jewish descent.
Bramson said that while there is anti-Semitism everywhere in the world and occasional signs of it in Krakow, she’s never personally been a target of hate crimes. “I’m sure I’ve met more anti-Semites in the States than in Poland,” she said.
Bramson grew up in Miami and traveled to the Aspen area frequently to visit her father, Bennett Bramson. She moved to the Roaring Fork Valley during her senior year in high school and returns to visit her family.
As part of her duties at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, Bramson arranges food and lodging for visiting students, who participate in the Program for Students Abroad. She also lines up the Polish guides that lead the tours, and she leads discussions with the students.
The program is open to any interested students, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish. “We’re not asking students to convert or asking them to pray,” said Bramson, who noted she isn’t religious herself. She’s proud that the program attracts participants of diverse backgrounds.
Bramson said some people have asked her how she can work near a former concentration camp with such a dubious history. She said one of the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s missions is to work to try to prevent an event such as the Holocaust from happening again. Besides, she said, if every site of atrocities in the world were off limits, there would be a lot of barren ground, including much of Europe.
For Bramson, studying and now working in Poland has generated many personal feelings about the Holocaust. She feels strongly that people shouldn’t be pigeonholed or stereotyped based on any of their traits or heritage.
“I’m a human before I’m a Jew,” she said. “I’m a human before I’m an American. Coexistence is much more important to me.”
More information on the Programs For Students Abroad is available at http://ajcf.org/education-center/programs/psa/.