“It is the future which can restore the past and keep it from being forgotten”
Why I chose to study Holocaust?
My curiosity and interest spurred from my love of reading. Since childhood, I have loved having my head in a book. I believe, “Words are the voice of the heart,” be it the author’s or the characters’. As an elementary student, I picked up “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” it is a post WWII story of young Japanese girl named Sadako who bore the scars of war through her leukemia caused by the Atomic Bomb. Through her story I began to see Sadako as a real girl, like myself, and I developed a familiarity to her. She inspired me because despite her affliction, she refused to hate instead, she and her paper cranes showed the world the importance of peace, love, and life through her will to live and acceptance of everyone.It was hard for me to grasp the concept of war, hatred, and its effects on people but Sadako shattered my belief that the conflicts of the world do not relate to me. She was a regular girl, why did she need have to have these experiences? The book spurred my curiosity and I began to ask “why?” and “how can we stop events like this from happening?” As I grew older and learned of the Holocaust these questions kept coming up. I wanted to know the answers and to help put them into place As I read, their words have a way of creating scenes, the more memorable, the more vivid the images and pronounced are their messages. For this reason, some books and their messages remained etched in my morals, thoughts, and affected my decisions – such as taking course and going on this trip.
Why did you decide to go on this trip?
A quote from Sadako’s book has always remained in my thoughts “I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” I feel it was her way of passing along the challenge to its readers to help shape the world of the future by seeking knowledge through their experiences. From this trip, I wanted to gain an understanding of the atrocities of the holocaust and the reasoning that transpired that I couldn’t get from a reading. I wanted to learn the stories of people and become an aware global citizen who is conscious of the conditions of our fellow citizens, government, country, and our international neighbors. In the grimmest sense, I believe the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust have the potential to become a possible future if we commit a repetition of past mistakes that brought the abusive regime to power. These mistakes include accepting prejudices, abuses of power, complacency, and silence, the greatest abuse that victimizes all. I also wished to pay my respects to the brave victims and heroes. It was a pleasure to learn alongside my classmates and the experience I had on the EYH trip was unforgettable. It is one I will never forget. I hope this reflection leaves you with something, like this trip and Sadako did for me.
The reflection is split into three sections (city history, photo selection, and my reflection) so you read along having the knowledge I had at each moment. (e.g. from textbook to firsthand experience)
Reflection One: BERLIN (3/6/15 – 3/9/15)
The city of Weimar Berlin was labeled a city of cultural corruption and political disorientation by the Nazi party. A cosmopolitan city it was filled with irreverence, diversity, and intelligence (Hitler’s Berlin 269). It presented a home for scholars, political, film makers, musicians, journalists, and gay communities. Sadly,when the Nazi party came into power they would claim the city as main stage for the Third Reich by centralizing their power in the city. The result was more than a remodeling of Berlin’s landscape rather it robbed the city’s spirit. The Nazi rise to power began the exiling and “inner emigration” of communities that gave Weimar Berlin its color and vibrance. Nazi’s would begin their reign of terror targeting subversives such as gays, Jews, politicals, and enemies of the regime through pseudolegal practices. This began the silencing the old Berlin and its remodeling into the brand new capital of “Germania” (7). Later, the city would be divided once more into East and West Berlin until the capital’s reunification during the fall of the Berlin wall on November 19, 1989.
My decision to chose the photo of the the Brandenburg Gate was made on the basis of its representation “freedom and revolution.” Commissioned by Fredrick Wilhelm II of Prussia as a sign of peace the gate today has become a landmark in the city of Berlin’s history having withstood countless transitions. For instance, while it began as a peace symbol, the gate would later become a party symbol for Nazis. Next, it would be a place of revolution where political leaders like Ronald Reagan and JFK would champion liberation stating “Mr. Grobachev, tear down this wall” and “ Ich bin ein Berliner.” Last, the walls fall in 1989 returned the wall to its original glory as a symbol of peace. Today, it is a public area where many cultural events and protests are held keeping true to the roots and original Weimar Berlin.
During our trip to Berlin, I found the city to be largely connected to its past as the effects of the War remain engrained in the people and culture. For instance, there is a great reverence to the victims of the Holocaust seen through the gold plates implanted in sidewalks in remembrance of the Jewish people. Additionally, countless street art promotes the freedoms and even political desires. I saw one one sign saying “ Free room for Snowden” the American whistleblower. I saw there was great desire to protect the rights were stolen during the Nazi regime such as free speech. Another example is the picture above which displays one of countless protests being held at the Brandenburg gate. People of all walks of life gathered to champion their beliefs peacefully. As stated prior, I also saw a return to Weimar culture as the city returned to its liberal ways housing an accepted gay community (Wagner Berlin) and a creative scene for filmmakers like, Alex. However, I also found the history to be double-edged as I learned of the underlying turmoils from the scholars that the Holocaust has greatly shaped german identity by creating a standard. Where outliers like Turks and Muslims are sometimes excluded this unrest is seen in the photo.
Reflection Two: Warsaw (3/9/15 – 3/9/15)
Prior to the invasion of Poland, Warsaw was known as the “invincible city.” The epicenter of culture and diversity, it had the largest center of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population consisted of 375,000 Jews constituting about 30% of the city’s total population (Gutman Xii). Existing as a visible fraction of Warsaw’s composition, the Jewish community was inseparable from the city’s identity. As a result, pre-war Warsaw flourished beside Jewish culture during a time of transition and intense creativity. Some examples of this integration included the thriving Jewish theater and film industry, prosperous Jewish newspapers, positive Polish and Jewish relations, and large Jewish religious communities. Sadly, the German invasion in 1939 marked the end of this city’s era by robbing it and its people of their “diversity, intensity, and distinctness” (Gutman Xiii). Warsaw and its inhabitants soon fell to the persecution of the Nazi regime and Warsaw’s post-war shift resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the vibrant and thriving Jewish community through violence. Our trip to Warsaw, made me aware of how the population of Jewish Poles dwindled from 375,000 to 25,000.
My decision to choose the photo of the cemetery was made on the basis of its relation to “memory” as it acknowledges Jewish life prior and during the war. Established in 1806, the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery remains one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. A monument to a destroyed civilization, the cemetery contains over 200,000 marked graves, graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, and other memorials. Ravaged by time and antisemitism, its tombstones lie in tatters and overgrown shrubbery engulfs the graves. Initially, it can appear the cemetery is only a symbol of death but at a closer observation the cemetery represents much more. The cemetery stands as a reminder that three and a half million Jews once resided in Poland and is a homage to Jewish life before the war. For instance, in reviewing the tombstones visitors discover varied generations of people buried together, great leaders, artists, poets, rabbis, and other key figures. This variation reveals a diversified Jewish community in which a prosperous and free life was possible. Additionally, the distinct tombstone designs that use symbols such as broken trees, reveal customs, religion, and traditions. The cemetery gave me perspective into Jewish life and a look into Poland’s transition from pre-war to post-war. In order to better understand this transition, I will introduce the city of Warsaw in both periods of time and include modern day perspective.
The cemetery tells a story like no other place, it is a paradox; it represents death but also life. Additionally, it is a reflection of the past but also a charter for the future. Visitors mend the broken past of the Jewish community by acknowledging both the atrocities of the Holocaust and the humanity of the Jewish people. As a visitor, the green specks of grass, sprouting trees, and the stones placed atop the graves reminded me that life goes on and the memory of the Jewish community lives on not only in the survivors and their children but also in those visitors willing to listen. I will never forget the monuments to Janusz Korczak who dedicated his life to helping the children, the little smugglers that risked their lives daily, and the valiant fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto who fought for liberty. They are people who embody the quote “Never say it’s the end of the road.” They are a symbol of our responsibility and power to create a better world with our own hands. Additionally, I will not forget the identity of the Jewish people who were more than victims. The writers, doctors, lawyers, poets, artists, all people who represent the “dream of a better life with truth and justice a life that is nor but will some day be…”As a visitor and now witness, I am now aware of my own responsibility to preserve the memory and to help create a just future for all.
Our trip to Warsaw, made me aware of how the population of Jewish Poles dwindled from 375,000 to 25,000. A stark difference to pre-war life, Jewish culture in our modern day was not present unless actively pursued. This was illustrated by the little visible remains of Jewish life and history beyond the Ghetto wall and the Cemetery. They remain the archives of the past and guides for the future.
Reflection Three: AUSCHWITZ (3/12/15)
For many, having lost their freedom and humanity meant their only form of identity to be a prisoner of Auschwitz where, “Arbeit macht Frie. ”A symbol of mans inhumanity to man, Auschwitz has become a symbol of the Holocaust. Split into three sections, Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz the complex was the largest and most notorious (Engel 9). In addition to labour, it would become a death camp on September 26, 1942 (Dwork and Pelt 325). As part of the Nazi “final solution”(execution) IG Farben operated the death camps and would murder masses through the use of noxious gasses.An estimated 1.1 million would die in Auschwitz.
The plaque above is a part of the International monument at Auschwitz, the plaque reads, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children mainly jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.” I chose this photo because it shows how the atrocities of the Holocaust were not singular to any region. Written in Ladino, a form of JudeoSpanish I found an even deeper connection to it being to able to recognize the Spanish language my first language. I became excited but then it forced me to imagine the faces of millions, people, strangers with different homes and languages. A wave of somberness came over me as I imagined their fear and struggle losing many of these connections.
Prior to arriving in Auschwitz, I remember wondering how I would handle what I was going to see. It seemed impossible to prepare or even predict what to expect unlike a textbook you could not just turn to the next page. Arriving to the camp, I was amazed at the congestion and liveliness of the communites attempting to enter the camp. Some paced, others chatted, I found myself completely enveloped in the differences. Tall, short, loud, happy, anxious, english, french, Polish, German, Spanish, I felt a connection to these people. It was a feeling of comfort and respect as I watched these people take the time to remember the lives of victims. Albeit dark, I did wonder if this is what it was like to be lost in the masses of people. Inside the camp, time appeared at a standstill as little seemed to interrupt the placidity of the camp beyond the sound of our tour. Unwelcoming brick buildings and barbed wires marked our entrapment in the camp and their interior presented their grim history.
At the start we were presented with relics of the atrocities. Ownerless shoes, glasses, brushes, and welcomed a pained journey into the lives of the prisoners. I struggled to grasp my own feelings on the exhibits unhappiness but perhaps more disbelief. The further we went through the tour the more the exhibits became realities. I was pained most at our arrival into the cellar prisons. Corralled into narrow hallways tourist were put into the position of the victims. Dimly lit, I remember seeing nothing upfront but an endless line of backs, to the sides cracked bricks it was ominous. I remember feeling as if the light outside these walls had disappeared, it was constricting and frightening . Bolted doors, bar rails, concrete rooms, it was barren, it was an abomination, inhumane. I fought tears as I tried to imagine anyone being left their, I remember saying “this is not life.” Ironically, the place where I could not fight back tears was at the point when were presented with videos of the victims lives before the atrocities. Darkness enveloped the room before flashes of children, schools, work, men, women, children, mothers,fathers, daughters, and sons enveloped the room. I saw happiness, laughter, smiling, Life. They were everyday people, I didn’t understand how this could disappear. I felt a wave of emotions come over me, happiness, anger, sadness, compassion, humor and a confusion.
The trip to Auschwitz, is something I will never forget. I will remember the voices and memories of the people and never take for granted the freedoms we are entailed. I learned there is beauty in life and death and Auschwitz is exactly that. The trees have grown, animals roam, grass has grown among the ruins and the new generations continue to come and remember the story. Auschwitz was pretty ethereal, as we began to end our journey the clouds parted and gave way to the sun.
Reflection Four: Krakow (3/12/15 – 3/14/15)
Krakow suffered greatly during World War II. Occupied by Germany in 1939, Krakow became an administrative capital for the Generalgovernment. The city was controlled by Hans Frank whose reign would cause the loss of a great deal of people. Under his control, he would implement labor regulations and anti-semetic polices that would objectify the citizens and damage the culture of the city. Initially, the city was home to 50,000 Jews. However, after regulatory policies, Frank would implement psuedolegal arrests, expel 55,000 jews into the surrounding countryside, establish a ghetto, and create Jewish labor camps/factories. Among these evils, the worst was seen in the Krakow Ghetto, a breading ground for disease, starvation, and death. Despite their anguish, the Jewish victims of the ghetto would rally the morale necessary to create a resistance group.
The street art in the photo above displays a figureless character using a bullhorn in the shape of a bell to express their thoughts to a sea of homogenous figures. Among them only one has the words “Never Follow” written on it. I chose this picture because it represents the memory and dissidence that lives on among the inhabitants of Krakow. It displays a scene that is synonymous with bystander effect that took place during the terror of the Nazi regime. The bullhorn and golden bell of liberty create a corrupted idea of freedom that controls the people by robbing them of their individuality, essentially their free will. The one figure that does not obey the injustices carries the hope for creating freer future. This is one moral that I learned from out trip to Krakow.
Throughout our trip I noted that despite the city’s buildings remaining largely intact there were hardly any remnants of the lost communities or atrocities beyond small pieces of the Krakow Ghetto Wall and Schindler’s factory. However, I did notice a desire from the community to rebuild the communities that which was lost. Examples of this were seen through the members and actions of the Jewish Community Center. They inspire new connections both domestic and foreign by to foster learning and help the needs of the developing Jewish community. They created a wave of Jewish institutions and events such as the Jewish Culture Festival, the Galicia Jewish Museum, and the Museum of the Polish Jews. It was a pleasure to hear the experiences of children my age and their thoughts about the community, culture, and in general growing up.
From our trip, I learned the horrors of inhumanity but also the power of humanity.
At the start, I came seeking answers. At the end of my trip, I ended up with even more questions. The more we learned, the less concrete things became, the good, bad, and the ugly, became a jumbled mess. I’m not certain we can ever understand the “Why?” but I did learn how to prevent it from happening again. I believe that this lesson is by far my most important keepsake. In the words of Elie Wiesel, the answer lies with those who are willing to listen to experiences of the Holocaust because, “Whoever hears an eyewitness, becomes an eyewitness to the Holocaust.” The experiences and conversations I had with survivors and civilians are more than stories they are histories. Their experiences have turned the stories I have learned on the pages of my textbooks into people. They were not just victims but family members, professionals, and loved ones. Their bravery and kindness taught me so much about what it means to appreciate life and my liberties. Their desire to share their story with others has taught me that I have a responsibility as a witness.
To honor these heroes, I need to share their histories with my generation to ensure their message is heard and stays alive. A means of paying it forward, we must “Never Forget” and we must pass the history along. In the hopes of creating a better, tomorrow we must inspire the youths to desire to learn, be curious, ask questions, contest complacency. These heroes told us their lives so it does not just become a story. They are histories and history can repeat itself, so the tools are in our hands to prevent. As I pursue a career as an editor or lawyer, I will do my utmost to apply the concepts I have learned the same way I have applied Sadako’s.
Research Topic: Anti-Semitism in Germany Today
Following our trip we were asked to write a research paper on a topic that peaked our interest. What caught my eye were the photos of protestors against religious militancy and high security around the Berlin. It began to make me wonder the state of racial and religious tensions. It made me wonder how the people are feeling in Germany and how severe the anti-Semitism is. Furthering my interest, were the conversations we had with the speakers we met in Berlin, film director Alex and professor Victoria. Alex mentioned the ideological divide among the German people because of the war’s eastern and western divide that created strikingly different ideologies both liberal and conservative. Similarly, Professor Victoria Kendzia spoke on her feeling of exclusion and minority “othering.” They both mentioned how the war greatly influenced German national identity, which made me wonder if it had correlation to the rising anti-semitism in Germany. Thus, I decided to choose to write my paper to explain this rise and the reconstruction of the minority “othering” experienced during WWII by studying the modern victims of marginalization in Germany, Jews and Muslims. In this paper, I argue the recurrence of anti-Semitism is influenced by the Holocaust’s cultural impact on German identity, through its influence on responsibility, victimization, and foreign sentiment. I will gather a better understanding of the current injustices toward between both minorities and its effects on co-existence. I hope this paper will shed light on the injustices taking place on both sides in the hopes of highlight a need for mutual change.
Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Legge, Jerome S. Jews, Turks and Other Strangers: The Roots of Prejudice in Modern Germany. Madison: WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
Roth, Rachel Chencinski. Here There Is No Why. Ed. Ram Roth and Sheldon Gladstein. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002.
Speer, A. “Inside the Third Reich.” Excerpt from Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1970): 16-18.