My class trip to Germany and Poland has resulted in lifelong memories and knowledge that I could have never received by reading a textbook. Reading about something is completely different than experiencing it. For example, reading about Auschwitz taught me a lot, but going to Auschwitz made everything I learned come to life. Everything became real. Going to the Topography of Terror in Berlin taught me so much about the perpetrators while I stood in a building that used to be the Gestapo headquarters, in the city that the perpetrators once controlled. We had the opportunity to talk to people who currently live in Germany and Poland, and they shared with us how they feel about the each other now. I also learned a great deal about the Jewish culture in Germany and Poland, and how it has changed over the years. One of the most fascinating conversations we had was with the students at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow. One boy there told us how he had not known he was Jewish until recently, and now he is getting involved in the Jewish culture of Krakow. These experiences and conversations made me rethink things I would have never thought of, like how the Holocaust is taught in the United States of America. I realized how much the war and its aftermath impacted both countries while walking around and finding cultural things that they shared with their neighboring countries (such as nesting dolls in Poland). The little things like shared cultural affects taught me how the frequently changing borders impacted these countries in a permanent way. I am so grateful that I was able to have this experience, and I hope that this EYH continues to run so other students can learn from experience this as well.
Berlin Reflection: Memory Void
This art installation by Daniel Libeskind in the Jewish Museum of Berlin was very moving and summarizes the Holocaust in an artistic way. Metal crying/frowning faces that look in pain line the floor. The sizes of the faces vary which indicates that people of all ages were victims. The entrance of the installation is wise and bright, but it becomes increasingly dark and narrow as it continues. This represents how the persecution of the Jews in WWII occurred. When Hitler first got power, the future seemed bright to many Germans. This new leader gave them hope. Slowly, the fright future fades as Jews begin to be treated inhumanely. The darkness can also symbolize the Jew’s leaving their happy lives behind as as SS officers force them into dark cattle cars, trains, and barracks that became their futures. In some extermination camps, the skies were gray due to the crematorium smoke. Gray, the color of the metal, represents death, and is the color of ashes. The structure is filled with symbolism, but the interactive component provides a deeper experience.
As you walk across the installation, you must step on the faces that look like they are crying out to you. This act becomes increasingly difficult because of the noise that the metal makes when it hits together. It sounds like the faces are crying out. It also sounds like shackles hitting the floor, which is symbolic because the victims are imprisoned and enslaved to Hitler now. When you have reached the end, there is no way out. This represents that the Nazi’s had no choice but to surrender, and could not escape from the crimes they had committed. When you turn around to exit the installation, you see the sea of faces. You are forced to see what you just walked across, and must walk back through the installation to exit. This represents the fact that the people responsible had to face their crimes and see the damage they had done (although I later learned that they were often not persecuted for their crimes). Walking on the faces is also symbolic because you are stepping on people. The Nazis put down other and “walked over” them until the end of the war. The indistinct faces indicates that everyone had at least one thing in common (religion, or just viewed as an enemy of the Nazi regime), and all struggled together in the death camps and persecution. Walking across the memory void made my stomach drop and sadness rush over me. It was a unique and emotional experience.
Having this piece in symbolic, too, because Berlin is where Himmler and other SS agents held the Wannsee Conference. This conference determined the final solution was extermination, and concentration camps began to be built/used. Berlin was also the headquarters of the Gestapo, who arrested many of the initial camp prisoners. In Hitler’s Berlin, we learned that Berlin was, in many ways, the heart of the planning of the Holocaust.
Drawings from the Warsaw Ghetto Artist/Life in the Ghetto
Before coming to Warsaw, I thought the people in the ghetto would resemble homeless people in America. I pictured them to be thin, a little dirty due to a lack of resources, and to be in worn clothes. Roth says, “it is impossible to subsist on the food rations allocated by the German authorities,” in Here There is No Why, but it was not until I saw these drawings that I truly understood what Roth was trying to say. The drawings by Gela Seksztajn on display at the Jewish Historical institute illustrate life in the ghetto. The people of the ghetto were extremely malnourished and underweight. They were dirty because of the inescapable filth they were forced to live in due to overpopulation and bad sanitary systems, and wore rags. The Jews in the ghetto did not resemble homeless people, but instead resembled concentration camp prisoners. The differences between the camps and the ghetto appear to be that people in the ghetto had slightly more freedom in what they did and had somewhat of a choice in what they wore. Gela Seksztajn recorded what the people and life in the Warsaw ghetto were like through very powerful and disturbing artwork. She brought the ghetto to life, and shows the horrible conditions in which the Jews were forced to life. In fact, quality of life was so low, and there was so much suffering that Gela Seksztajn was eventually driven to commit suicide. Her decision to take her own life when she had a family really impacted me and showed to me just how bad her life must have been.
Warsaw was home to many ghettos and is known for its resistance movements within the ghettos. Roth talks about both life in the ghetto and the uprisings in her book, Here There is No Why. She recalls walking by dead bodies on the streets, and at first this really upsets her and she would want to help the dying people. Eventually she begins to just walk by the bodies in the streets because she had to have spiritual resistance. Roth needed to stay strong in order to survive. Below is a picture of a remaining section of the Warsaw ghetto wall.
This reflection is the most difficult to write because, in my opinion, there are no words that can truly describe the feelings that I experienced while visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau, or the horrible crimes that were committed there. First, I was shocked. The main camp of Auschwitz was nothing like what I expected. I have always heard that Auschwitz was the worse camp that you could get sent to, but when I went to Auschwitz/Birkenau, I learned that it was actually Birkenau that was the worst location. In Birkenau, the barracks are made of wood or bricks. The buildings are cold and gray, and beds line the sides of the walls. In the book Auschwitz, it describes the bunks has being about the size of a twin bed, but they were expected to hold approximately 6 people each. The tour guide told us that you would want to the top bunk in order to maintain your health because dysentery was such a common problem, and feces would drip down onto you if you were on a lower bunk. Shocking comments like this made me think about things I had never thought about before, and seeing the place where this all happened made the words even more powerful. The words “Sei Ruhig!” (silence) were painted on the barrack walls. The barracks were close to silent as we walked through them which made these words impact me, and also symbolized the lack of life in these barracks.
Another powerful moment was seeing a train car used to transport Jews to the camp. Imagining over 100 people crammed into the little train car was difficult. The train car was on the tracks right next to the selection area. The passengers would exit the cart and stand in two lines. Someone, usually a doctor, would stand at the end of the line and say “left,” or “right.” One word decided each person’s fate. In Here There is No Why Roth recalls these selections, and she says, a “quick flick of a stick” could cause them to be killed. This selection area was often the last time many camp prisoners saw their families. The cart and the selection area reminded me of when Roth’s grandfather is practically dead after the long train ride which killed many others. Roth’s grandfather barely makes it out alive, but it is the last time the remainder of her family was together. I thought about Roth frequently as I walked through the camp, and I tried to imagine what the camp was like when she was there. It was a crazy feeling to know that someone I had met was standing in the same places that I was, and had survived the horrible stories that were being told to us. Sometimes I would wonder in which locations did Roth exactly stay? I wondered if it was in the main camp, or in Birkenau. Reading Roth’s book really made the experience impact me more.
As I finish this reflection, I realize that I still have many questions. How was the town impacted by the camp? How often did people encounter prisoners? How much did the people of the town know? Did they try to tell anyone about the camps? Trying to understand how Auschwitz/Birkenau could have happened is a hard concept to grasp. Although I have a much better understanding as to why these events did occur, I still have difficulty putting into words the experience of going to Auschwitz/Birkenau, and seeing the sights of so many tragedies into words.
It is immediately apparent that Krakow is different than Warsaw, Poland. In Krakow, the architecture was older because it was not as destroyed as Warsaw was from World War II. Krakow was, however, impacted from the war. The Generalgouvernement, lead by Hans Frank, was based in Krakow. The photo above is of Wawel castle; the castle in which all the Polish monarchs lived. Hans Frank was the only person to reside in Wawel who was not a monarchy, and he was the last to live in the castle. Frank’s ability and decision to live in this historic castle shows how little care he had for Polish history. As far as Frank was concerned, this was now his land, and therefore his castle. Frank’s living in the castle is highly symbolic of the power which the Nazi’s had. It is a symbol of strength and superiority. In addition, the castle is surrounded by a brick wall which isolated Frank from the Poles and the Jews. Hans Frank’s extravagant lifestyle in Wawel can be juxtaposed with the impoverished lifestyle in which the Jews of the Krakow ghetto were forced to live. It can be inferred that Frank approved of the horrible conditions the Jews of Krakow were forced to live in because Frank believed that Jews were not worth feeding, “except for the 300,000 who were useful workers.” (Gutman, Resistance). Frank oversaw the ghettos, and demanded that a brick wall be built around the ghettos. The walls looked like tombstones, and is symbolic of the death that awaited the Jews in the ghettos. When I think of all the atrocities that occurred in the ghettos and how horrible life was there, it is shocking to think that an important Nazi party member lived so close by. All of these horrible things were happening practically in his backyard. It is not far away that people are being round up and shipped to Auschwitz, which is also nearby.
Since Frank left, the castle has been made into a museum. I wish that we had time to go into the castle. I wonder if there are remains of Frank’s residency. I wonder how Frank changed this important piece of Polish history, and what life was like for his family living in there? How did the Krakow citizens, like Arthur Spielman (a survivor who spoke at Wagner College), feel about Frank living in this historic castle?
I returned to the United States with a lot of knew knowledge and questions. Seeing the sites firsthand has made me wonder how could anyone have ever let this happened, or supported this? There was a quote by Martin Niemöller on a wall of one of the museums we visited that said
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Regardless of the economic conditions and want for a new passionate leader, how could people sit back and watch as many of their neighbors were being treated inhumanely? As time went on the treatment worsened, so why did no one stop it from the beginning? I was struck by the gas chamber in Auschwitz. So many innocent people were sent here to die. How could anyone ever come up with something like this? How did the Nazis get the idea to create gas chambers? For our class, we are to write a research paper about something related to the Holocaust, and in my paper I try to answer that question. Why/how did the Nazis use gas chambers, and why did they use Zyklon B, which was an insecticide, as a way to kill large groups of innocent people?
Cans of Zyklon B used in Auschwitz
Going on this trip has reminded me even more of why we need to keep talking about the Holocaust to make sure this never happens again, and I believe the best way to prevent it from reoccurring is through educating ourselves and each other. I want to keep asking questions, and to continue seeking answers to my questions.
Plus Jamais, Never Again, Nie Wieder