Before the EYH trip this semester, I had never been to Germany or Poland. I had never been to Europe. I had never even had a passport. I could not fathom how visiting a totally new place with so much more history than the US would change my perception of the world. I gained so much knowledge not just regarding the victims and perpetrators of Holocaust atrocities, but also of different people and cultural practices. Now that I have Holocaust education from my experience in the locations themselves, I cannot imagine any history course that does not include a real visit to the places described in course material. Visiting Berlin gave us the opportunity to visit the Topography of Terror museum, which was extremely interesting and where I learned so much about the perpetrators of Jewish extermination; learning what I did in the museum would be impossible without this trip. Reading about a topic can teach you facts, and you can read about how the war affected people’s lives then and today, but visiting the place and feeling the atmosphere yourself is unparalleled by books. Meeting a waiter in Warsaw who was twenty years old, the same age as my classmates and I, and talking about the Holocaust with him shed light on how some Polish people feel about Germany and the war today. Without visiting Warsaw, we would not have had the opportunity to converse with a Polish citizen our age about this topic, and thus not learn why he feels the way he does about Germany. Overall, visiting Berlin, Warsaw, Auschwitz, and Krakow truly enriched my education in a way that my education has never been enriched before, and I am truly thankful for such an amazing opportunity.
I absolutely loved visiting and spending time in Berlin. It was such a vibrant city with both modern aspects and buildings as well as old, historical monuments, and it was interesting to see that kind of contrast.
My Berlin picture is a panorama I took in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Walking through this memorial was very similar to walking through the exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, a similarity that I also found interesting. What really stood out to me about Berlin is the way that the city acknowledges the crimes against humanity that Germany has committed by creating memorials for the victims, such as the homosexual and gypsy communities. They know that they were perpetrators of great violence, that there were indeed victims, and own that part of their history in ways that the US does not. The US currently does not have memorials to the Native Americans whom European immigrants murdered, or to the people killed in the bombing of Hiroshima, or other various groups of people whom the US victimized. Germany may not be a perfectly safe place for visibly Jewish people today, but acknowledging the history there and doing what they can to repair their relationships with these groups of people. The US does not admit to the crimes we’ve committed, and it was refreshing to be in a city that did.
As I walked through the Brandenburg Gate, I imagined Hitler passing through exactly where I just had when he was appointed chancellor in January 30th, 1933 (Large 258). I thought of him admiring the Reichstag Building just as I was. It was amazing to me how I, as a student tourist, could be exactly where Hitler stood eighty years before me.
Overall, what really made Warsaw different from Berlin for me was that this city was more emotional than Berlin, and also scary in a different way. Berlin was factual and strategic, scary because eighty years ago, there was enough hate in that city to plan as well as execute the genocide of the Jews of Europe; Warsaw was resilient and emotional, scary because of the horror and death that it had seen, because the genocide happened there.
I was very glad that we had the opportunity to visit the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. What really stood out to me was the open space that represented those who died in the Holocaust whose bodies had been destroyed or unidentifiable. All the graves here were crowded together, crooked, and on top of one another, and yet this empty space that could have been used to space out some of the headstones had been preserved as a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Seeing that empty space among such crowded headstones created a strong juxtaposition, and a theme of empty space used to commemorate those who lost their lives to the Nazi regime (as seen also in the tower at the Jewish Museum of Berlin).
Governor General Hans Frank issued a decree in October of 1940 to build a ghetto in Warsaw, and mandated that all Jews in Warsaw must now live within this area (Roth 45). As we walked through Warsaw, I imagined living there as a non-Jew during ghettoization. How did those living outside the ghetto allow ghettoization to happen in their city? How would my life be different if I, a Polish quarter-Jew living in America in the 21st century, be different if I lived in 1940 Warsaw? Visiting Warsaw also made me thankful that I have never lived in a war-torn country, and feel sympathy for those who have.
My picture from Krakow is a quote on a plaque that I found in the Schindler Museum: “If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests in Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper”. Hans Frank said this quote in early 1940. By that time, Germany had only occupied Poland for about six months.
The quote seems to have an almost melancholy air about, like Frank is not thrilled that so many Poles were being shot. We know that the Nazis did not consider the Jews to be Poles, which means that on top of all the Jews who were being murdered, nearly just as many Poles lost their lives as well. It is also interesting how despite the short time the occupation had lasted thus far, that so many non-Jewish Poles had been shot. I did not know before this trip that nearly as many (if not more) Poles died as Jews. It now makes sense, because the Poles are not German, that the Nazis would target and victimize them. What then is also intriguing is that if this quote seems non-celebratory, why did the Nazis continue to shoot Poles? For me, this quote is extremely thought-provoking, and almost raises more questions than it answers.
As we briefly discussed in class, Birkenau looked exactly how I imagined it would, and obviously, Auschwitz was very commercialized and museum-esque, something that I did not expect. I had previously thought that Auschwitz was the larger camp and that Birkenau was a smaller, totally separate camp. Being in both the camps was completely shocking and mortifying for me.
What really was powerful to me in Auschwitz was the display of prayer shawls that various prisoners had brought with them to the camp. For me, the hope that these people obviously harbored was inspiring, and their ignorance was devastating. Even in the rough times in various ghettos, these people still held their prayer shawls in such high esteem that it was worth it to them to bring the prayers shawls with them, despite the small amount of possessions they were allowed to bring to “resettlement in the east”, a euphemism that the Nazis used to mean deportation to mass killing centers (Engel 69). Clearly, they truly believed that their lives would continue in a lifestyle that would require them to have their prayer shawls; they did not expect immediate death or to have all their belongings confiscated. The religious dedication of these people is clear. Whether they were long-term prisoners or killed immediately upon arrival, I feel, is irrelevant here; either way, they don’t get to keep these prayer shawls.