When I heard about the opportunity to spend spring break in Germany and Poland, learning about the Holocaust first-hand, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. To be completely honest, I would have never imagined myself going to Germany and Poland, always telling myself and family members that those two places are the last places I would want to go to in Europe; and here I am, first place traveling to in Europe, Germany and Poland. I was anxious, excited, nervous, hesitant, confused; a wave of emotions came over me before boarding the plane. I had no idea what to expect. This was the place where my family was killed, this was the place where the Nazi regime resided, and this is the place where the idea of a mass slaughter of Jews was carried out. When I would tell family members or friends that I was going to Germany and Poland, I got the same reaction, “why would you go back?” or “I can never go back, I don’t know how you could go back”. All these reactions are completely normal and understandable; 6 million Jews were killed here, and I am going to the same place where these 6 million were murdered. I think the name of this course is very appropriate – confronting Nazi past. For me, I was confronting my own Nazi past; I was confronting my own family history.
The first place we visited was Berlin, Germany. Which, in the context of the Holocaust, makes complete sense since it is the place where the Nazi party began, and where the idea of such strong anti-Semitism came, to the point of mass extermination.
The place that I found most interesting in Berlin was the Jewish Museum, specifically the architecture and a special exhibit that was being featured when we went there. The architecture caused much controversy in Germany, given the size and the somewhat confusing design. To quote the mayor of Kreuzberg, he believed that “the design was expected that would relate to the proportions of the exisiting building, fit in inconspicuously into the green ribbon, and leave space for the mundane needs of the local people for green spaces and playgrounds” (page 13, Daneil Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin: The Uncanny Arts of Memorial Architecture). The museum caused controversy due to its size, and complexity. It seems out of place and somewhat out of place.
However, it was not the outside of the museum that attracted me the most, it was the inside, specifically an exhibit that was being featured that highlighted life for Jewish individuals after the war. I found this exhibit very fascinating in the fact that Jews consciously decided to stay living in Germany, given everything that just happened to them. Personally, I would automatically come to believe that everyone left. Additionally, after something as horrific as the Holocaust, I would immediately leave Germany, and never look back. But that was not the case, as proven by this exhibition. This exhibit included light installations, as shown above, featuring quotes from many individuals, ages, social classes, etc. The quotes displayed a wide range of individuals from different dynamics, exemplifying all types of individuals, not just a specific group or age. I believe that this exhibit did a great job gathering quotes from all types of Jewish individuals living in Germany post 1945. As I was looking around, this one in particular, “It was As Simple As That” stuck out to me. I was taken back by this statement, since, once again, I would believe that life would be rather difficult for Jews post-WW2. From what I read, Jews faced much discrimination and hate following the war, when they tried to return home and their home was occupied. This quote shed light that life for Jews was simple, and they were able to live and re-build what they have lost.
The next place we traveled too was Warsaw, Poland. The train ride from Germany to Poland was very symbolic as well, given that that was the same ride Jews experienced when being deported from their homes to either concentration camps, labor camps, or extermination camps. Out of all the places we traveled, Warsaw was personally my least favorite, given that it felt that the reminder of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto was everywhere.
While in Warsaw, we visited a Jewish Cemetery, one that was very, very large, and filled with tombs and memorials that honored heroes and children in the Warsaw Ghetto. I found picking a picture for Warsaw especially difficult. When thinking about my time in Warsaw, I think about the ghetto, and the very disturbing video we watched about life in the Warsaw ghetto. I have never seen a more graphic, horrific video that showed what life was like during the ghetto. I remember being very shaken up, my knees weak, my throat closing, and tears coming down my eyes. We witnessed the brutal conditions, how individuals were starving, and death was everywhere. Because of how everyone was used to the sight of death, you saw others stepping over dead bodies like they were a piece of trash. Jews in the ghetto constantly faced death, even from the beginning. Although they were not being sent to concentration camps or death camps, the Nazis were trying to break them from the very beginning. By putting Jews in ghettos, the Nazis were separating them from society, wanting them to feel isolated, excluded, different, less than human. We saw how the SS found humor in treating Jews, especially rabbis and very religious Jews. It was absolutely disgusting. After watching this film, my mind wandered to Rachel Roth’s story, and how she lived in this ghetto, and the words she used to describe her experience.
Rachel Roth goes into great detail to allow readers to capture the essence of her story, of what she experienced. Words like “never-to-be-forgotten”, “bloodshot eyes”, “another day without hope”, “this is not time for pity and sorrow (as Rachel tries to grab a baby from a dead mother). You do not know whether you are going to make it yourself. Just keep running”, “no miracles are likely to happen”, “I stand half naked in front of the German”. As her story continues, the words she uses become more and more dark and gruesome. Her life illustrates the timeline of Nazi persecution against the Jews of Germany and Poland, from being secluded from society, slowly being viewed as less than human, forced into crammed ghettos, to being transported to concentration camps. Life for Jews progressively got worse at such a rapid pace.
Aside of all the death, I found it very interesting that within the ghetto, there was social classes present. The higher class that went on with life as normal as possible, with the ability to go to the theater, eat, drink, and listen to music. Life for them, continued. They did not let death ruin what life they had. So, as I was walking through the cemetery, this sign on the ground immediately stood out to be. “Never Say It Is The End Of The Road”, always keep the hope, always keep the faith. Jews had such a strong sense of hope, hope for a better future, hope that this will end soon, that they were able to survive. It was the ability for them to keep telling themselves that this is not the end of the road that kept them going and able to survive. It is this strength that I feel proud to be Jewish, and feel that it is my obligation to never allow something like this to happen again. Most importantly, it gives me a sense of hope that no matter what is currently happening to the Jewish people, feeling anti-Semitism or hate, they should continue to remain hopeful and continue to tell themselves that this is not the end of the road.
Auschwitz. The next place we traveled too. This day was by far the longest, most difficult day I could have ever imagined. I was in no way prepared for the emotions and what I was going to experience. But, as much as I did not enjoy being in Auschwitz, it is something I realized after that every Jewish individual should experience.
My initial thoughts about going to Auschwitz left me feeling scared, nervous, and anxious. Other than the generic emotions that arise when thinking about going to a concentration camp, and with all the mental preparation I thought I was giving myself, I was not at all ready for the day. I have always seen the pictures of Auschwitz, so I knew in a way of what I was about to experience. I have read and studied the Holocaust for as long as I remember, so I was aware of what Auschwitz stood for. I was (somewhat) prepared for being mentally broken, but never did I imagine that I would feel physically broken while I was walking around Auschwitz. I could honestly say that this was the single worst day of my entire life. Walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenow broke me physically. I could physically feel my heart being broken; I could physically feel the pain that my people went through while living here. The Nazis tried to break the Jewish spirit, psychologically, physiology, mentally, physically, in all aspects of life. And this is why I picked a picture of Rabbis. While I was walking around Auschwitz-Birkenow, my mind was completely frozen. However, all of a sudden, I heard Hebrew prayers, and I immediately stopped. It completely took me by surprise hearing Rabbis praying and singing. And at the moment, I gravitated towards them, without even second thinking. It was so comforting hearing them. And at that moment, I smiled. Because Hitler, his idea, did not win. He did not win. We are still here.
Ultimately, I have never been faced with the thought of death more in my entire life, and that’s what broke me. It was not only the thought of death, but it was the execution of death, where my people were dying, dying in the masses, that I was walking through. With being confronted with so much death, I tried my hardest to not let it consume me too much, but it was a mental battle that was tough to win. The hardest part of this day was definitely walking through the gas chamber, considering that’s where majority of my family perished. When I first entered, I immediately turned around and told myself I could not do it. However, as I was re-collecting myself and trying to calm myself down, I realized that just 70 years ago, my family did not have the option to turn around, they were forced in that gas chamber. And I felt extremely selfish that I was choosing to not do it, when my family did not have a choice. So, I went through the gas chamber, and as I did, my body tightened up and froze. Too much death that hit way to close to home. Because of being faced with so much death, I found myself taking pictures related to life after the Holocaust, specifically Israel.
The final destination on this trip was in Krakow, Poland, a place where I learned SO much about my own family history, and it brought to my attention of learning about the Holocaust for a non-Jewish Polish individual. I realized that the Polish were victims in their own country as well, being forced to live under the Nazi regime. Of course, there were some that very much respected and agreed with the Nazism, but the few that did not agree, were trapped to go with the system, or else they risked facing death as well. My favorite part of being in Krakow was being at Oskar Schindler’s Factory. I found this museum to be extremely fascinating, in the sense that it really put into perspective for me how non-Jewish Polish individuals were so greatly impacted by the Nazi regime as well. For me, learning the Holocaust is very important because of my own family history. I have family who perished, I have family that survived; I have plenty of stories that come from the Holocaust. So I have always been very “one-sided” when learning about the Holocaust. However, when we were in Oscar Schindler’s Factory museum, I realized that it was my first time learning about the Holocaust in the Polish perspective. This was a completely eye-opening and very interesting tour for me. Polish individuals were trapped within their country as well. The Nazi regime victimized Polish individuals, humiliated them, and would ultimately kill them if they were caught helping Jewish individuals.
Although this specific picture does not capture the Polish perspective and life for them during the Holocaust, I thought I should share a few thoughts about what I found so interesting about this museum. The above quote is from a Jewish boy, when he realized that the ghetto was trapping them inside a specific area. This quote caught my attention because it shows that Jewish individuals really had no idea what was coming for them during this time. They were completely isolated from society, made to feel less than human, forced to wear huge Jewish stars on them, faced with so much hate, yet complied with the law and was blind to the anti-Semitism. All this hate and forced to leave their homes to live in a ghetto, just because you are Jewish. I cannot even imagine the emotions I would feel if I suddenly realized what was happening to me and my people. It would break me right then and there. Our tour guide for this museum stopped specifically at this quote, for us to fully grasp what it was like for Jews living in the ghetto during this time.
My experience in Germany and Poland was definitely very eye-opening. I came out of this trip with a greater appreciation and love for the Jewish people, and most importantly, Israel. I knew going into this trip that this was not only going to be a Holocaust educational experience, but also a Jewish educational experience. This trip gave me the opportunity to learn first-hand about the Holocaust, walk the same steps as my people did during the Holocaust, see the last sights that 6 million Jewish individuals saw. I found the most impactful part of the trip was being in Auschwitz. While in Auschwitz, as I was walking, completely zoned out and broken inside, with thoughts running through my head like “this could have been me. So, how would you have survived?” I found myself thinking of ways to survive Auschwitz. Being so lost in my thoughts, the sound of rabbis praying and singing immediately caught my attention. At that point, I have never felt more proud to be Jewish. Hitler did not succeed, the Nazi ideology did not succeed, and the Jewish spirit and people remained and will always remain. This was the most impactful experience of my entire life. How Jews were able to re-build what Nazis broke inside them, all the horrible, terrible things that Jews suffered through. Yet, they still continued to live, to strive, to re-build. It’s TO LIFE. It’s the strength and hope that they held onto that made them capable of re-building. I walked out of Auschwitz with a greater appreciation and love for Israel, and that no matter what Jews did/will face, the Jewish people and Israel will live on forever. Am Yisrael Chai.
Additionally, my time in Germany and Poland further made me realize the importance of remembering and never forgetting. As Holocaust survivors are starting to die, it is our responsibility as the younger generation to keep their memory alive, and their stories heard. It is more crucial than ever to be the voice of the voiceless. If our generation begins to not teach the Holocaust, or not remember, something like this could easily happen again. As a Jewish individual, I feel a special, moral obligation to remember, share stories, and continue talking about the Holocaust, so I can always honor and remember my family and their story. I hope to continue inspire others to travel to Germany and Poland to face their own Nazi past, so they have the extra knowledge to fully understand the Holocaust, and the importance of remembrance.
And finally, this trip was so meaningful because of the people I got to experience it with. The great advantage of looking at the Holocaust in this way is that it eliminates the notion that this history belongs more to one person than another. This democratic take on the Holocaust makes the experience meaningful, even transformative, for everyone. I not only learned more about the Holocaust by going on this trip, but by the other perspectives and opinions of others on this trip. And that’s what made this trip so meaningful to me.