For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in the Holocaust. In fact, I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t trying to learn more about it. Of course, like many young children, I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. At the time, I don’t think anything I had read before that resonated with me quite like the words of Anne Frank, a girl who was not much older than I was when I read her diary for the first time. I still remember what it was like to read these words: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” After everything she had endured, I wondered how Anne could maintain such a positive outlook on life. Reading her diary filled me a desire to read more. I wanted to know everything I could about the Holocaust and the people who were forever impacted by it, particularly the survivors and the victims. I pored over historical accounts, survivor memoirs, eyewitness testimonies; I watched movies and documentaries. After a while, I started to believe I knew everything there was to know about the Holocaust. I learned this semester, through countless humbling experiences, that I’ve barely scratched the surface.
When I found out last semester that Wagner was offering an EYH class on the Holocaust which would be traveling to Germany and Poland, I knew I wanted to sign up without a second thought. Not only would I get to travel to two new countries I’d never seen before (I’ve been consumed by wanderlust since studying abroad in Rome last spring), but I’d get to do so all while learning about a subject that has been so important to me for years. I knew even before we left on the trip that this EYH was going to be a life-changing experience for me. Who could see Auschwitz with their own eyes and not be changed? But the expectations I had were blown completely out of the water when we actually arrived in Berlin, our first stop on the trip. In the week that followed, I learned so much more than I ever thought I would have and was moved beyond words on countless occasions. I also had the amazing privilege and opportunity to learn from my classmates and to grow closer to them as we all experienced this incredible journey together.
While I still sometimes find it difficult to coherently put into words everything I feel about what I saw and experienced on my trip to Germany and Poland, this reflection is an attempt to share with anyone who reads it the powerful impact this EYH had on me. Throughout the course of our trip, we journeyed from Berlin to Warsaw, then from Warsaw to Krakow. It was while we were in Krakow that we made the emotional and crucial trip to Auschwitz. Throughout the rest of my post, I will be sharing my reflections on one site from each of the four places we visited: Berlin, Warsaw, Auschwitz, and Krakow. It is my hope that whoever reads these reflections may be able to take something out of them and may even be inspired to take advantage of future EYH trips or to travel the world.
The Berlin site I chose to reflect on is the remains of the Gestapo Headquarters, which today serves as the Topography of Terror Museum of Berlin. I was first struck by the symbolism of the picture I took before we entered the Museum. Without even realizing it, I had captured together in one photograph two of the biggest representations of oppression Germany has ever known. At the bottom of the picture is what remains of the foundation of the SS Main Office. Above it stands the Berlin Wall. In the twentieth century, these two institutions served as symbols of fear of tyranny. It is no wonder that the Topography of Terror Museum stands just a few feet away. Both the Gestapo Headquarters and the Berlin Wall are sites that are inherently unique to the city of Berlin. I’ll be focusing on the former in this reflection.
When Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in 1933, they took over the city of Berlin and completely changed its culture and landscape. Though most of them apparently quite disliked the city and preferred Munich, they saw Berlin as a particularly advantageous capital of the superpower they envisioned Germany would become. As David Clay Large notes in his book Berlin, Hitler hoped to “remedy” the problem of the so-called “moral decay” that had been in place since the Weimar era by “tearing out the heart of Old Berlin and building a brand new capital in its place.” And, as Large argues, for a time he succeeded. All that remains of the Nazis’ supposed invincible power today, however, are crumbling foundations. In the Topography of Terror Museum, located quite strategically above the remains of the SS Headquarters, the exhibitions are dedicated to the history of the site and the Nazi officials who perpetrated such heinous crimes against humanity.
I think the reason I was so deeply struck by this site was because of the wonderful tour guide my group had inside the Museum. He was so incredibly knowledgeable and, while I can’t speak for everyone, I would argue that he made my entire group really think and even surprised us with some of the information he shared. I thought his approach of trying to make us understand the psychology behind the Nazis was fascinating. He truly caught us all off guard when he told us that, strange as it may seem to say, Heinrich Himmler was actually a good boss who cared about his workers, which was how he got so many men to follow him. I saw images I had never seen before and while listening to real stories recounted by our guide, I realized just how easy it truly is for people to get caught up in mob mentalities and be swept away by hatred and bigotry. I think that’s what’s so terrifying about the Topography of Terror—realizing that many of the Nazi officers and the citizens who supported them were just ordinary people before Hitler came to power. Yet, through the power of persuasion and deception, they would become perpetrators in one of the most horrifying genocides history has ever known.
Additionally, this particular site impacted me in another way, a way I didn’t realize until well after we had returned from the trip. Everything we talked about at the Topography of Terror really stuck with me and because of it, I decided to write my research paper for this class on Heinrich Himmler and the SS. My thesis is that Himmler was one of the most ruthless, calculating members of the Nazi Party and that he, and by extension the SS, were primarily responsible for the horrendous crimes against humanity that were perpetrated during the war.
The Warsaw site I chose to reflect on is a memorial housed inside the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw, dedicated to Janusz Korczak and his orphans, who were all rounded up during an Aktion from the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp. I had heard the story of Korczak before, but seeing this monument really hit home for me and moved me deeply. Mr. Korczak was a Polish Jew who, before the war, had been a teacher, children’s author, and pediatrician. Within the confining walls of the ghetto, he took charge of the orphanage and cared for the children who had no one else to look out for them. When the Nazis arrived in August of 1942, seeking to round up approximately two hundred children from the orphanage, they offered Korczak sanctuary if he abandoned the orphans. Korczak refused, however, knowing how scared his children would be if they had to go alone. He held their hands and accompanied them out of the ghetto, to deportation at the Umschlagplatz, and finally to death at Treblinka.
I’m sure Janusz Korczak’s story touches everyone who hears it, as must his monument in the Jewish Cemetery. The base of the memorial is covered in small stones and candles, signs of the many visitors who have been moved by its presence. I myself placed a stone at the feet of Korczak and the children, praying and hoping that they are now at peace. Seeing the depiction of “Mr. Doctor,” as many called Korczak, holding one child in his arms and guiding the others in a fatherly fashion made me think of what it must have been like to witness their deportation from the ghetto. I can’t think of a more crushing blow than seeing nearly two hundred innocent children being led to their deaths. Perhaps this round up of Korczak and the orphans contributed to the planning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which would take place less than a year later.
The story of Janusz Korczak is unique to Warsaw in that he spent his entire life in that city. He was born and raised there, did his life’s work there, and was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto when the Nazis invaded his city. Warsaw will always remember him, as will others who hear of his bravery and dedication. But as I learned during our trip, Korczak is not the only man who acted so courageously. While at Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, I had the privilege of hearing testimony from a Krakow survivor, who told us of his grandfather. Like Korczak, he was the head of the orphanage in the Krakow Ghetto and also accompanied his children to deportation and death in one of the extermination camps. I learned then that though Janusz Korczak is the man everyone remembers, there were many unsung heroes who acted as he did. He is special in the city of Warsaw, but I believe there were men and women like him in cities throughout Poland, and perhaps even throughout Europe.
As we traveled throughout Warsaw, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the memoir we had read in class before our departure, Here There is No Why by survivor Rachel Roth. We had the tremendous privilege to meet Rachel before we left and to hear her tell her story in person. Rachel spent her entire childhood in Warsaw, a very happy childhood with her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, and all her extended family. But that idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. As we walked the streets of Warsaw, I wondered if I was walking on sidewalks where Rachel and her family and friends had once stood. When we talked about the Warsaw Ghetto, saw remains of the ghetto wall, and watched horrifying film footage of life inside the ghetto, I imagined what it was like for Rachel, witnessing such atrocities on a daily basis. I wonder if she had seen Janusz Korczak and the orphans being led off to their deaths. One particular passage in Rachel’s memoir stands out me, a testament to the horrors that were endured:
“As winter takes hold, hunger grows more widespread. The lack of food and the unhygienic conditions create fertile ground for typhoid, which spreads like wildfire among the poorer Jews in the ghetto. The only Jewish hospital, on Leszno Street, is full, and it is not admitting patients. Wrapped in rags, wracked with hunger, frozen with cold, Jewish children beg in the streets.”
Visiting Auschwitz was an extremely emotional experience for me, one I am not sure I will ever be able to truly express, even through my writing. The night before we were to visit, I sat in my hotel room and tried to prepare myself for what we were going to see. But as our guide, Cassia told us: no matter what you’re expecting, it’s going to be different. So though I tried to emotionally prepare myself, I knew at the same time that hearing and reading about Auschwitz was going to be completely different than seeing it with my own eyes. When we began our tour of the base camp, I was a little surprised because it really didn’t look anything like I had pictured it. When we later arrived at Birkenau, I realized that camp, with its huge stretches of land and its wooden barracks, was what I had always thought of when I thought of Auschwitz and other camps created by the Nazis.
Another thing that struck me during the beginning of our tour of Auschwitz was that I wasn’t crying. I had most certainly expected to and when I saw my classmates crying, I wondered if there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t. I later came to find that we were all struck by different moments of the tour and the magnitude of what we were witnessing hit us at different times. I was certainly shocked and horrified by the things I was seeing. I think, in a way, I was so shocked that I really couldn’t cry at first. It was as if my mind wasn’t allowing itself to completely process everything all at once because if it did, I don’t think I would have been able to ever stop crying. It was when we entered the gas chamber at the base camp that everything finally sunk in and I broke down. Walking inside that chamber, where over a million people were murdered, you could feel the lingering sense of death and cruelty. When I looked up, I saw that I was standing right underneath one of the vents where the Zyklon B pellets would have been dropped down. When I stepped back outside I needed a moment to myself, away from everyone else, to just cry. I cried for all the lives that were lost to such senseless, brutal cruelty. Though I thought I had understood what the gas chambers were like before visiting Auschwitz, I learned once I was there that I might have had book knowledge about them, but I most certainly did not understand what they were truly like.
As I said before, visiting Auschwitz was an extremely powerful experience for me, one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I don’t know if this reflection did my feelings justice, but then again, I don’t know if anything I write or say ever will. Regardless, I know that seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau with my own eyes has left a lasting impact on me. I will always remember the things I saw there and the things I learned and I will be sure to share them with people so that no one ever forgets what happened there.
The site that I chose for my fourth and final reflection is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Krakow. The people we met there were extremely friendly, welcoming, and generous with their time, and the history of the building itself is very interesting. What struck me right away, before we even entered the JCC, was the sign outside which reads “Building a Jewish Future in Krakow.” I found that to be particularly poignant after everything we’d already learned and seen on the trip. Before the trip, I never really thought very much about the size of the Jewish population in Europe today. I knew after the Holocaust many Jews emigrated to the United States and Israel, but in my ignorance I suppose I just assumed that their numbers in Europe were similar to what they had been pre-World War II. The EYH opened my eyes to how much Jewish communities are still rebuilding their culture and identity in Germany and Poland. Poland, especially, has the lowest percentage of Jewish people in Europe, when it once had the highest. In Krakow, however, you can still see the signs of a proud Jewish community and the JCC stands as a beacon of hope for Jewish renewal. I found it particularly intriguing that the building was funded by Prince Charles.
It was truly the people we met inside the JCC that made it such a great experience for me. I admit that I was a little nervous before attending the Shabbat dinner. Since I’m not Jewish, I was afraid of doing something wrong or offending someone. Once we got inside, however, and saw how friendly and kind everybody was, that trepidation went away. I feel very privileged to have gotten the opportunity to celebrate with them, and I’m glad I broadened my horizons by taking part in a Shabbat dinner. While talking to the young people who were around our age, it struck me how happy they were that we wanted to learn more about them and their culture. I was actually quite surprised to hear that some of them didn’t learn until recently that they were Jewish. At the JCC, I discovered that there are still many people in Poland, and probably throughout Europe, who are just now finding out about their Jewish roots. What’s even more interesting to see is that many of them are turning back to that culture and embracing it. I’m glad there’s a place like the JCC in Krakow, giving people the tools they need to learn more about Judaism and providing a safe place where they can gather and celebrate.
I can’t pretend to understand why something as heinous and horrifying as the Holocaust happened. The more I learn about it, in fact, the less I understand. I might know the politics and I might know how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis manipulated their way into power, but I will never understand man’s inhumanity to man. One thing I really took away from this trip is the understanding that it is okay not to understand. Even today, seventy years after the end of World War II, people are still struggling with the question, “Why?” What is most important is that I continue to educate myself and never stop learning, never stop asking questions. In addition, I believe I have a responsibility now to share with others everything I saw, heard, and experienced. If we want to make sure that we never forget and never allow such an atrocity to happen again, then we have to be informed. As Rachel Roth wrote in the Prologue of her memoir, and as many other Holocaust survivors have stated, they are telling their stories so that the world will never forget what happened to them and their loved ones. They are also doing it to keep the memories of their lost loved ones alive. When we hear their stories, we owe it to them to pass them on to our own families and friends. For as Elie Wiesel said, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”