Learning about the Holocaust is so important, and this semester, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a class about the subject that not only allowed my classmates and I to advance our knowledge through class reading and survivor speeches, but also took us to the most influential places of the time: Germany and Poland. Before the trip, we heard many Holocaust survivors talk about their own individual experiences, which was extremely moving. For example, for one of the female survivors, Rachel Roth, we read her memoir and then attended her talk. Having these two levels of learning made her personal experience that much more memorable for me, and I’m sure for the rest of my class as well. Between the start of the semester and the beginning of March, we heard many more talks from other survivors as well as read more texts on the Holocaust, and then, during Spring Break, we took our trip to Germany and Poland.
Our first leg of the trip was spent in Berlin, Germany, which is a beautiful city. To my surprise, and satisfaction, we spent most of our time in Berlin learning more about the perpetrators and how they were able to compartmentalize work and personal life, as well as the German people and their own ideas and reasonings for electing and following the Nazi Party. In our class reading, we learned that to many people, Hitler was a promise that “instead of hopeless unemployment, Germany could move towards economic recovery” (Speer, 16-18). Another reason many people elected the Nazi Party was because they believed Hitler could protect them from “the perils of Communism which seemed inexorably on the way” (Speer, 16-18). In my opinion, one of the best places we visited in Berlin for reinforcing this information was in the Topography of Terror Museum, which explained so much about the perpetrators and how the Nazis came to power. That museum made me realize how the Holocaust was not as black and white as I had previously thought, but rather it was mostly gray area. However, even though Berlin was the city that taught us mostly about the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Topography of Terror was the best place for that information, I chose to reflect more on the Holocaust Tower in the Jewish Museum of Berlin. The Holocaust Tower was the first time I felt the emotion I expected to feel while I was on the trip, and it also reminded me why I was there in the first place.
We traveled by train from Berlin to Warsaw, Poland. Except for the glimpse I had from the Holocaust Tower in the Jewish Museum of Berlin, Warsaw was the first place where I felt a lot of emotion. Through our reading I have learned that before the Holocaust, Jewish culture in Poland, particularly in Warsaw, was becoming a cultural hub. In one of our readings, author Israel Gutman even compared people flooding to Poland for culture before the Holocaust to people flooding to New York City today. Poland was full of Jewish writers, actors, and artists, and at the time, the country was one of the most prominent places for Jewish culture in the world, second only to New York. (Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) During our tour of the city, we stopped for a long time at the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw where our tour guide, Alicija, gave us even more information on the city before and after the Holocaust. What struck me the most was how much the Jewish population of Warsaw has changed. Alicija said that before the Holocaust, there were over three million Jews living in Warsaw, and today, there are only about four hundred residents. This number stood out to me so much because it forced me to realize, while I was standing in the cemetery, how many people–just in that city–were uprooted from their homes, their jobs, and their lives. This even included those Jewish people who were so prominent in society, like the writers, actors, and artists who Gutman explains in his book. All of these people, to the Nazis, were nothing more than parasites. What stuck out to me even more than that, though, was the small number of people who live there today. There were so many people who refused to come back to their original home, even after they were liberated. Alicija also told us a lot about how many Jews in Warsaw were active in the resistance against the Nazi Party. I have always been in awe of the bravery one must have needed to sacrifice their own life to resist the Nazi party. I have always wondered what their mentality must have been like that made them strong enough to be able to do that. One grave we looked at in particular in the Jewish Cemetery (the grave of Marek Edelman), explained to me just that.
The next city we stayed in was Krakow, Poland, but before we spent much time there, we went to Auschwitz. From this semester as well as the education I have received about the Holocaust prior to this class, I have always thought of Auschwitz as the most infamous camp that the Nazis had. While I was in Auschwitz myself, I could not help but think of Rachel Roth’s memoir and how she explained her experience there. While I was standing on the platform near the train tracks where so many people’s fate had been decided for them, all I could think of was Roth’s own experience after she was deemed healthy enough to not be executed right away. In her memoir, she illustrates how she saw another prisoner who was sitting behind a table recording all of her information (first and last name, date of birth, and birth place) and she said, “another girl makes some punctures on my left arm and injects a few drops of ink into the bleeding spots…she tattoos my prison number, 48915, and a small triangle, half a Star of David, below the number, to show that I am a Jew” (Roth, 252).
Our last few days of the trip were spend in Krakow, Poland, which I would argue is the most beautiful city in the world. We stayed at a hotel which was located in an area of cobblestone streets and old buildings, and at times while looking at all of the beautiful scenery it was hard to imagine that a city so beautiful could hold such significance in something as awful as the Holocaust. The place I chose to reflect on in Krakow was the Wawel Castle, a beautiful castle that held great significance to such a terrible event in history. To me, the Wawel Castle did well to resemble the city as a whole: a beautiful place which holds an ugly history.
Berlin: Holocaust Tower
What stood out most to me in Berlin was the Holocaust Tower, which was a room in the Jewish Museum of Berlin. This room was very powerful for a number of reasons. The first reason was as I was walking in the hallway just nearing the room I could feel the temperature drop. This was so powerful because I could tell it was coming, and I could tell it wasn’t welcoming. Then, when I opened the door to the room, I felt the rush of cold air and as I closed the door behind me, I was just surrounded by four incredibly tall walls which created an uncomfortable shape of the room. The shape the walls made me feel like I was always standing in a corner, no matter where in the room I was. Also, even though it was very sunny that day, you can tell in the picture above that from inside the room, the sky appears to be completely dark, which gave a sense of hopelessness to the atmosphere. From within the Holocaust Tower, I could hear cars and noise from outside the walls as well, only I could not see any of it. In the picture you can also see how tall the walls are which made me feel very small, and the ladder that leads to the top of the walls is not within reaching distance, so no one can get to it, which also shows hopelessness. All in all, the room is very eerie, but it does well to resemble the Holocaust and how many of the Jews must have felt. At first when I was actually there, it reminded me of how they must have felt in the camps: the feeling of being trapped. Now that I have finished the trip and have been to the camps and to many other areas having to do with the Holocaust, though, it reminds me more of the Warsaw ghetto, and how they must have felt being trapped by a tall wall that they couldn’t escape from. It reminded me of how it must have felt hearing the noises of normal life bustling outside the wall but not being able to experience any of it themselves.
Warsaw: Marek Edelman’s Grave
In the Jewish cemeteru we went to in Warsaw, one grave stood out to me more than the others. It was Marek Edelman’s grave, and the reason it stood out to me was because of the quote it had on it: “The most important is life, and when there is life, the most important is freedom. And then we give our life for freedom…(English translation)” This quote stood out to me so much because I think it really summed up everything we have been learning about in the course so far, especially having to do with Warsaw, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1943, many people were willing to sacrifice their lives for their freedom, as well as the freedom of others in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and then again with the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Marek Edelman was a cardiologist who was also a Jewish-Polish political and social activist. He was a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and before his 2009 death, he was the last surviving leader. In 1943 he became the head leader of the Uprising after the death of former uprising leader, Mordechaj Anielewicz. After this resistance movement, Marek Edelman also contributed to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, which, as we learned in our reading as well as from our tour guide, Alicija, about 16,000 members of this movement were killed and another 6,000-7,000 were badly injured. The quote on Marek Edelman’s grave does well to emphasize how even though people knew what they were risking, they were willing to do anything to fight for their freedom, because “when there is life, the most important thing is freedom.” They knew that life without freedom wasn’t worth living, and this was the key to their bravery that I have been in awe of for so long.
It was so insane to go to Auschwitz for many reasons. Obviously, the first reason was that it was so shocking. Before standing in Auschwitz myself, I knew that it was going to be bad. I knew about the Holocaust and I knew how bad it was for the victims, but I never really let it affect me that much because it seemed so far away. Being taught about the Holocaust in America was effective and I learned a lot, but it was not and never will be as powerful as going there myself because while the teachers in America may be excellent and the material may be very educational, it is all second-hand. We as a country never had to experience this tragic event, so we are teaching and learning something that is, and will always be, foreign to us. Being there myself made it a lot less foreign, and a lot more real. It made me open up and fully realize that the victims of this tragedy were ordinary, everyday people who were put into this awful place just because one radical group deemed it so, and while I knew that prior to this trip, I never was able to comprehend it like I can now.
Going to Auschwitz was also so numbing because that is the place everyone knows about when they think of Nazi death camps. That is the place you start learning about when you first learn about the Holocaust, and that is also the place that our last book focuses on, which makes it that much more real to read it. While reading the last book and learning all the particular facts about building and maintaining Auschwitz, I cannot help but envision what I saw there for myself, whereas if I were to have read the book before the trip, I would envision it as pictures I have seen through other readings. This has made me realize that experiencing something through pictures and experiencing it through real life drastically changes your views on it as well as how you will continue to learn about it. For example, one thing from our class that made Auschwitz more powerful to me was the talks we had with Rachel Roth prior to the trip, as well as the memoir of her’s that we read. Being able to put a familiar face to this tragedy made it seem so much more real. I still have a hard time imagining the Rachel Roth I know as being a victim in that horrible event, but yet when I was there, I couldn’t help but imagine her standing where I was standing, only I was a tourist and she was a victim. I’m not sure if guilt is the right word for the feeling I had about being a tourist at Auschwitz, but it is the only word that comes to mind when trying to explain the feeling that has followed me back home. After we walked out of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, one student said something that put to words what I had been feeling the whole day, she said, “No one walks out of a gas chamber.” Guilt: I am no better than the victims of the Holocaust (and I am no doubt worse than some), so why have I been granted this fortune while others were not? While my experience at Auschwitz has benefitted my education more than I can put into words, it has done much more than that. It has changed me as a person. It has made me realize how fortunate I am in my own life and how other people have died to have the same rights in which, I’ll admit, I tend to take for granted.
Krakow: Wawel Castle
In our last city, Krakow, Poland, one landmark that stood out to me in particular was the Wawel Castle. It originally stood out to me because of its beauty and architecture, and then really became interesting when I learned the history behind it. From acting as the seat of the Polish monarchy when Krakow used to be the capital of Poland, to becoming the residence of many important officials across the country in all eras, the Wawel Castle has always been a major place of power in Poland. The Wawel Castle was where Hans Frank resided after the Polish invasion during World War II.
The Wawel Castle was in the same city as Germany’s General Government during World War II, which was why it was a popular location for Nazi officials to reside. I thought it was interesting to see with my own eyes the place where Hans Frank resided during the Nazi era because after reading Rachel Roth’s memoir as well as the book Resistance, I have learned so much about Hans Frank and how much responsibility he had for the persecution of the Jews in all of Poland. It was so fascinating to see first-hand where he was at the time all of those life-changing decisions were being made.
Since I hope to one day be a doctor myself, I am horrified but yet fascinated at how the German doctors that joined the SS were able to perform such vicious acts on the prisoners of Nazi camps. When doctors are supposed to be healers, how could they become murderers? We learned about the psychology behind Nazi officials in Berlin but the ideologies behind the SS doctors were not discussed very much on the trip nor in the class, which is why I chose to write my research paper for this class about the doctors of the Holocaust and why they chose to do what they did. Berlin intrigued me to expand my knowledge on these certain perpetrators because the city made me realize that most of the monsters and murderers were average, everyday people. It was not always noticeable if someone was a Nazi or not when they were not on the job. I want to follow up learning about this and how doctors, in particular, were able to compartmentalize work and personal life.
Taking this trip to Germany and Poland and seeing all of these sights along the way made my Holocaust education so much more meaningful and memorable. Learning by text about a subject such as the Holocaust is entirely different from actually being able to go somewhere and get first hand accounts. It was imperative to be as engrossed as we were in the knowledge we learned in class before we left, because I feel like if we hadn’t had so many great texts and speakers, the trip wouldn’t have been as meaningful. All of the readings made me appreciate the sights and tours that much more because I knew the history behind each place. Until this trip, the Holocaust has always seemed so far away in my mind, almost as if I knew it happened–because I had learned about it so many times throughout my schooling–but it didn’t seem real; it felt more like a story. Now that I have been to the most prominent places having to do with the Holocaust, however, it no longer seems just like a story, but like real history. This is no longer stored in my mind as some piece of horrifying fiction but rather as a devastating time in history that I hope is never repeated in any fashion, and I feel like it is now my duty to encourage others to be educated in a manner that makes it more real for them, too. There was a quote I saw on the class syllabus at the beginning of the semester that read, “Whoever hears an eyewitness, becomes an eyewitness to the Holocaust.” After this class, the experience I had in these countries, the discussions I have shared with and the talks I have heard from Holocaust survivors, I now consider myself fit for this eyewitness category. As time goes on, there will not be any more survivors to tell their stories, and it is up to the younger generations to keep their memory, traditions, and, most importantly, this education and knowledge, alive.
Alicija, Warsaw tour guide
Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Roth, Rachel Chencinski. Here There Is No Why. Ed. Ram Roth and Sheldon Gladstein. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002.
Speer, A. “Inside the Third Reich.” Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1970): 16-18.