Friday, July 30, 2010
I am not sure if anyone will continue to read my blog, but I feel compelled to continue as I digest the last few weeks. Saying that this was a life changing experience may seem trite and contrived, but just reading the posts on Facebook from the participants clearly shows that each one of us has connected and bonded while individually having our lives altered. I envy the younger teachers who have so many more years ahead of them to use this new knowledge to educate students. However, my decision to go in this direction- no matter my age- I promise has become a focal point and a personal responsibility. I will be preparing an outline for a course that I have hopes will be offered in September 2011. Why teach Holocaust/Genocide studies through literature? "If history is just chronology, what is there to understand? If it involves vital moral and ethical issues, it involves the way we understand ourselves and the world around us." The literature- diaries, memoirs,poetry,non fiction writing are a powerful way for students to make sense of a time that has past. Hearing the individual voices,and reconstructing a lost time before, during, and after a genocide is inherently important. Literature can help students to look at themselves and the world through the voices of individuals.
I have begun to re read many of the books I read prior to the trip. It is remarkable how I look at it differently. "Ordinary Men" by Christopher Browning is a case in point. Just reading the preface and seeing one of the people that helped with the book was Yehuda Bauer, who gave our group a wonderful lecture. Just reading the first few lines" In Mid March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly reversed."..."Reserve Police Battalion 101 demonstrates, mass murder and routine had become one. Normality itself had become exceedingly abnormal.
This book retells how ordinary men committed extraordinary atrocities- they had choices. Students, teachers, people in general all have choices; sometimes they are choiceless choices- but often they are not.
I have learned so much and yet so little. There are no simple answers to complicated questions, however if a teacher can get a student to ask questions,and to seek reflection within themselves- then we as educators have succeeded.
I suggest you read this book, and maybe email me or facebook me to let me know your thoughts.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
It is 9:30 pm and we just completed our last dinner together as a group. We shared our most memorable experiences and our directors actually admitted that we have been their favorite group in over 20 years.
I had started my last entry when we got kicked off of the internet and now I am not sure what I had previously written. Last night is a blur with the exception of meeting up with Ross, Diana and Tom at a local pub to see them. Three of my friends convinced me to forgo the rest and catch a cab. Im glad I did. Ross told me that I was a hit with his frat brothers when I had a picture of myself drinking my first beer while wearing a Delt T Shirt!.
Today it was extremely hot once again as we walked over to USHMM for an all day workshop. Steve gave us an overwhelming amount of on line web sites that will be extremely useful. After lunch, which was a hot dog at a street corner vendor, we were once again honored and humbled with the testimony of a Holocaust survivor : Henry Greenbaum. Henry was only 11 when the war broke out and his journey into hell began at 15 until he was 19 years of age. He survived a labor camp, concentration camp (Birkeneau), Buna, a death march and a bullet to the back of his head- that along with starvation, lice, and the loss of most of his family. He spoke eloquently, with little trace of a Polish accent. He also spoke with passion and heart as he gave us the responsibility of carrying on his story. Although we were all so tired, we wre riveted to our seats hanging on each word.
It was fitting that this journey ended where it had begun. However, when I walked through the museum this morning, I truly looked at it with different eyes. I looked at the photos, and videos realizing I had been there, I walked down those cobblestone streets of Warsaw, I saw the remnants of the ghetto wall that appears in a particular photo. I sat inside a cattle car and touched the walls. There is a convention of boy scouts in DC and many were in the museum along with us- before the public. I walked around listening to these boys ask questions as they walked around, and I was able to fill in some blanks as well as ask them how they felt about what they saw. I realized I had learned so much these past few weeks and was able to point out important artifacts to these young men. I found myself pointing to the photos in the shetetl and reminding them to look at the faces, see the families, the celebrations and remember these people were alive, flourished, wanted the same things that we all want- yet they were unable to do so . I recalled a quote I heard about how if one believes absurdities they can commit atrocities. Believing that the Roma, Jehovah Witnesses, Homosexuals, and most of all Jews, were less than human is truly absurd.
Three weeks, 27 people, a mission, a journey, a profound responsibility, I can only try.
Friday, July 23, 2010
5 a.m. Warsaw Marriot Hotel. I have been up for a while,anticipating a 10 hour plus plane ride to DC. I was thinking about the day yesterday and all the days that preceded it. What I felt throughout this trip to Europe- with the exception of Israel- was the absence. It was visiting authentic sites that were leveled, and nothing remains but memorials, albeit ponderous and poignant, nonetheless- there is an emptiness that transcends through these places of pain, suffering and death. The trees have grown taller, the grass has filled in, yet there is an absence. There once was a thriving community of a people who lived, had families, occupations, celebrated holidays, weddings, births and mourned the natural passing of family members. The absence of these people is suffocating and overwhelming: There are no Jews here- they are absent.
What is disconcerting is that anti Semitic graffiti is not unusual to see. I was disturbed by the fact that teachers in Poland have told us that they spend 1 hour on the subject- the subject- the 3 to 5 million people who are absent from their own country, are a one hour lesson. One of our participants-the only African American- has felt his own absence being somewhat of a novelty in this country where I have personally not seen any other Black people other than at this airport.
There also is hope. Hope in the 25 teachers- of all religions and ethnicities, who have made a commitment not to let the faces and memories fade; hope in the wonderful
non Jewish tour guides who are passionate about Jewish History, Roma History, and all the victims of the Holocaust. There is hope in the younger generation who will benefit from all these people who will continue the legacy of Vladka Mead.
Today is our last full day in Poland and we sadly left Lodz and headed towards Warsaw. We've returned to Warsaw so we can fly back to the United States tomorrow morning. We go from Warsaw to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to DC. If there aren't any delays we should arrive back in the U.S. just before 4 pm. The hotel we're staying at this evening, a Courtyard Marriott is within walking distance of the Warsaw airport. The walk is literally a 200 foot walk from the lobby to the Lufthansa check in desk. I've never seen anything like this before. We don't have to worry about wrestling bags onto a bus, we simply walk out the hotel's front door. This is the most "Americanized" of the international hotels we've visited. The rooms have both U.S. and European outlets and there's no shortage of English TV channels. I don't mean to sound like a spoiled American day tripper, but these small luxuries are nice to have. We spent most of today in a bus. Looking back on it, the day consisted of an endless cycle involving sleep, reading, viewing the countryside, eating M&Ms, more sleep, eating chips and apples, and various conversations. The reason for the long bus ride was a visit to the site of Treblinka concentration camp. Treblinka is 4 hours away from Lodz, but the journey was a bit longer due to traffic delays.
Treblinka was the last emotional stop for our group. Treblinka was one of 6 Nazi killing camps and one of 3 Aktion Reinhardt camps solely devoted to murdering as many Jews as possible. Treblinka was responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 Jews. What is an even more disturbing fact is that all of these deaths occurred in a concentrated span of 16 months, roughly from July 1942-November 1943. Treblinka is really located in the middle of nowhere. You must travel great distances to visit as it is located in the middle of the forest. We traveled on various dirt roads to get to there. Auschwitz is located within a city and fairly close to Krakow. Belzec was built within viewing distance of the nearest town. During the time that Treblinka was fully operating, no outsiders came even remotely close to the camp. One photo exists of smoke coming from the pits of burning bodies and even that was taken from a considerable distance. The only camp which murdered more Jews was Auschwitz.
Today when you visit Treblinka nothing remains from the original camp. I always feel that there is something about the absence that is haunting as opposed to places where the presence of remains is tangible. Upon abandoning the camp, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Treblinka be completely destroyed. The Nazis were very effective in carrying out Himmler's orders. All traces of the original camp were removed and destroyed. The Nazis bulldozed the entire camp. We know about the location of Treblinka due to a few valuable sources. An inmate who was taken to Treblinka was able to hide underneath one of the cattle cars and survived the journey back to Warsaw. He was able to sketch the camp's locations and dynamics onto a piece of paper that eventually made its way to the Jewish Underground. Inhabitants from a neighboring village noticed all of the activity and trains in the area and reported what they observed. Finally, a few people did survive Treblinka, but not many. Steve lit a memorial candle for Vladka's family( see photo)
Treblinka is located amidst a very lush, beautiful forest that did not exist 67 years ago. As I walked up to the camp's entrance the forest reminded me of walking through local forest land. Scenically, Treblinka reminds me of Bergen Belsen in terms of how both camps are situated among a very beautiful forest. The most important thing to remember with this comparison is that Bergen Belsen doesn't even compare to Treblinka concerning the number of people murdered at the camp. A stoned path sits where the original railroad tracks once were. Next to the stone path is a series of stone slabs leading further into the camp. These slabs, which are part of the Soviet memorial at Treblinka symbolize the railroad tracks which one guided people into the camp. There wasn't much to Treblinka when it existed besides railroad tracks, a gas chamber an open pit to burn bodies and a few living quarters. Selections didn't take place at Treblinka because the camp's sole purpose was to murder as many Jews as possible. The most disturbing statistic I heard during my time at Treblinka was that 120 guards were responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 people. This isn't a statistical error. Human beings certainly have the potential to commit the gravest of atrocities.
As I walked through Treblinka I noticed the various rock fields. This was similar to Belzec's memorial, but different and unique because Treblinka's rock fields were spread out more and the stones were different in size. The first series of rocks I viewed were much larger than the rest and identified all of the countries where Jews came. The field of more but smaller stones has a village's name on each rock. Out of all the rocks, only one person's name exists: Janusz Korczak, an author and educator. Korczak ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto and cared for 200 children. Korczak knew that the ghetto would be liquidated and he knew that upon deportation his children would be immediately gassed. Korczak had many opportunities to flee and save himself, but he refused to abandon his children. Korczak boarded the train to Treblinka with his children and bravely marched with them to the gas chamber. Korczak knew there wasn't any hope for his survival, but it was more important that he remain with his children. I don't know many people who possess this level of bravery. Upon leaving the camp grounds, I placed a rock on the stone with his name to pay my respects and leave evidence of my visit.
A house-size rock memorial stands where the gas chambers once stood. Directly next to the gas chamber is a rock field of mostly black rocks. In this particular area is where the pit of burning bodies once existed. It was difficult to remain in this area for too long. The base of this pit contained many memorial candles and other traces of previous visits. Some people in our group who toured Treblinka today broke down for the first time all trip. I didn't show it on the outside, but internally I struggled with visiting a place that was responsible for such horrific atrocities. I will continue to think about and analyze the places I've visited long after I return home. Visiting these camps is a difficult, horrific experience, but one that people definitely need to take. The remnants of the concentration camps are direct evidence that such barbaric acts really occurred and they happened during the fairly recent past. As an educator, it's my responsibility to visit these places so I can pass along what I've witnessed to teachers and students.
. The ride was like going back in time. Most of the houses were either cement or wood - crooked little buildings with fenced in yards. Cows were chained to trees in the front yard - chickens roamed the yard and horses were seen within barns. We even saw a few storks on chimneys
After dinner, we gathered for an end of the tour get-together where we roasted our directors and each other. I wrote a series of "The most likely to..." which which poked fun at everyone's little quirks. There were several very funny moments. We repeated the words to the Partisan Song which is usually sung at Holocaust Remembrance. We honored Vladka Mead - the originator of the program, and finally, we sang "Que Sera Sera" - Vladka's favorite song - What will be, will be --
This is our last international night. Some of the people in the group are re-packing their clothes. Other people have congregated in the hotel bar to share a few more laughs across the pond. I will leave you with a funny experience to end this dispatch. Last night we ate at a restaurant which serves traditional Polish food. The first dish served to us was a fish gelatin mostly consisting of carp. You read this last sentence correctly. At first I didn't know what to make of this dish placed in front of me, but after a series of incredulous looks I could not venture into this jelly like texture. There were too many contrasting elements that my mind couldn't overcome. Carp meat, skin, almonds and fruit combined with the wiggly texture just didn't tempt my taste buds so I humbly set the fish jell-o aside. Thankfully, the main course of duck and the lime gelatto doused in vodka more than made up for the rocky beginning.
Tomorrow I'll write from the USA!!
Thursday, July 22, 2010
It's 95 degrees on this Thursday afternoon in Lodz. We have the majority of the day to ourselves to rest and relax. I actually treated myself to a Polish relaxation massage this afternoon that was truly rejuvenating!A different experience from a massage in the States, but nonetheless wonderful.
Not much survives of the original Lodz ghetto today. There are a few buildings, that you can tell by looking at them they were built before World War II and still stand today. By April 30th, 1940 160,000 Jews were sectioned off in the Lodz ghetto. Within the first few months 15,000 Jews were deported to Chelmno to make room for more people coming into the ghetto. Among these numbers, 15,000 Jews who were skilled laborers were brought into Lodz. Eventually, Lodz became a gigantic labor camp for the goods it manufactured for the German army. The leader of the Judenrat, or Jewish leadership group of the ghetto, Mordechai Cham Rumkowski instilled in the inhabitants that if you are going to live in the Lodz ghetto you must work hard to earn food. Rumkowski was the same man who made the speech for parents to hand over their children in an effort to set aside more food for people he felt were better workers, and essentially more valuable. Rumkowski, who had an inflated opinion of himself even had coins and currency made containing his image. Opinions about him today greatly differ. Some people believe they owe their life to Rumkowski. Others can't find enough vehement adjectives to describe their disdain for the man.
The first place we visited this morning was St. Mary's Church in Lodz. We visited this church because the Nazis used St. Mary's as a gathering place for looted goods, namely blankets. I'm not saying that the Catholic Church in Poland collaborated with the Nazis. They didn't. When the Nazis arrived in Lodz St. Mary's wasn't a functional church. The Nazis evicted the limited number of religious personnel at St. Mary's and used it to store items confiscated from the Jews. The reason that blankets were so commonly confiscated was to send them back to Germany. The Nazis also knew that if the Jews were without their blankets, especially during the Polish winters they would be condemning the Jews to their deaths.
After we departed the Church we visited to Jewish cemetery in Lodz. The Jewish cemetery in Lodz is very beautiful, and it's the largest cemetery in size that we've visited on this trip, (excluding Auschwitz and Majdanek). To give you an idea about the size of the cemetery 180,000 bodies are buried in this cemetery. Roughly 45,000 of these people died in the Lodz ghetto or mass graves. When you immediately walk into the cemetery gates there are grave stones on the interior parts of the wall. These stones commemorate the Holocaust victims. One mausoleum belongs to Israel Poznanski, a major industrialist responsible for building 3 palaces and a factory next to our hotel. This mausoleum where Pozanski and his wife are buried is enormous. Ultimately, it's a pompous tribute to a man who had a very arrogant opinion of himself. This mausoleum was noteworthy to see for its sheer size, but it's an anomaly. Before World War II, roughly 2/3 of Jews in Poland received some sort of welfare or community assistance. An overwhelming majority of the Jewish population was very poor. Steve, one of our group leaders shared with us how his grandmother used to send money to her relatives in Poland before the war to assist them. She would hide the money in toilet paper, so custom officials wouldn't be tempted to steal the money for themselves. As we walked deeper into the cemetery we noticed an incredibly large field filled with endless rows of name plates. In this part of the cemetery 43,527 bodies are buried, all of whom died in the Lodz ghetto. The sheer number of all the plates overwhelmed me. One of the last places we visited in this Jewish cemetery was a set of large ditches, which today are covered on all sides by rapidly growing vegetation. These ditches were supposed to be mass graves. The victims dug the graves, but fortunately, the area was liberated before the Nazis could fill them.
The Rodegast train station we visited after the cemetery was especially memorable. This train station was the arrival point for 45,000 Jews sent to live in the Lodz ghetto. A few years later, 145,000 Jews were deported from Rodegast to various death camps. On the side of the station a train and a cattle car is on some authentic tracks. The car was used to transport Jews to the camps, but which one is unknown. It was very disturbing to stand in the cattle car,where so much death took place.It was very hot, and with only a few of us standing inside it was hard to breath. Unimaginable. In the actual train station officials still keep records of the names of people sent to the various concentration camps. It was hard for me to get my head around this place as I walked around the train station and the platforms.
During the visits to these places we had some great historical discussions. Today's discussions focused on the Soviets during World War II. To give you an idea about the scope of destruction the Soviets experienced, 20 million Soviets died during World War II. 292,000 American soldiers died during World War II. This figure gives you an accurate idea about how brutal the war was on the Eastern front. Among many things, Stalin was a shrewd, tyrannical leader. He didn't want to liberate this area because he knew it was primarily Anti-Communist. Stalin didn't want to waste the manpower and resources to liberate an area whose ideals conflicted with his own.
The first photo is the trench dug by Jews that fortunately was never used, followed by a photo of the inside of the synagogue associated with the cemetery,and two pictures of the cattle cars
This trip is slowly winding down. We have one more day in Poland before flying home to the U.S. We are having a banquet tomorrow night on our last night and plan a little comic relief for the occasion.With the help of Mitch and Linda I have developed a list of superlatives for each person on the trip, that touch on each one's special personalty trait.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I wanted to add a bit more information from yesterday including some photos of the local 'color' of this small town.
First, one of the concepts that permeates throughout this trip is that the Jews were always looked upon as the "others," and of European identity. People thought as themselves as Germans, Poles, Swedes, etc yet they looked at Jews who lived in those same places as "Jews" only which makes them the "others. One photo posted is of a little girl and life before the pogrom that took her life
We visited many memorials and I know they often blur and melt into each other,so I have collected a few names as I went along not to forget again each one had a life and a name:
On a head stone - Gisel Kerbel 15 mths old killed in Pogrom in Kielce1946
Ciril Brajdic and Anna Reuchel- Roma ( Gypsies) murdered in Auschwitz
Klara Goldstein, Leon Singer- names written in their own handwriting on suitcases which they never received
there are more many more....
I took a photo of Sid, our participant who has been diligently creating videos, and interviewing each of us at one time or another- I thought his quiet pensive moment captured the day.
We are in Lodz Poland, in another Andel's hotel, much like the one we stayed in in Krackow. However we are in a place that was once all factories and the factories have been renovated into living quarters, a huge mall around the corner, and this hotel. The ambiance is very different as walls of the factory have been blended into the decor of the hotel. Around the corner is the castle of a famous Polish Jewish family who were the richest people in Poland during the early 19th-20 century. The factories were mostly textiles.
Today we visited the location of the ghetto in Kielce and a the place where 42 men, women and children were murdered by the Nazi's after the war was already over. A cemetery where the remains were buried remains locked because of vandalism, was opened for us today, Only 2 weeks ago a memorial was opened to memorialize the children. The 'sunken' Menorah is a memorial in the town to represent the fallen Jews of this town, and is located where the ghetto once stood.
The evening was spent with the group reflecting on the last few days. Those that chose to speak spoke of their feelings about Auschwitz and the other death camps we visited. I, for one, spoke of the bond created by the women with Elaine, and Elaine elaborated in the stories of her mother and grand parents. Tomorrow we will visit only a few sites and have the afternoon free, We will have one more place to visit on Friday then we will be heading back to Washington DC.
This trip has truly changed my life, and how I look at everyday items as simple as, a hair brush, a comb, a toothbrush etc. Anti Antisemitism is unfortunately alive and well in the world. Just today I saw a 'doll' of a Hasidic man holding a coin, the implication is obvious and the doll is common here as a good luck charm that the Jew with the money will bring money into your home. In addition- although there are no swastikas on walls, or as graffiti, depiction of a hangman's gallows with Jewish stars hanging from them are used when writing negative things about sports opponents.
Have we come very far???
enjoy the photos of this hotel we have a see through glass bathroom which I will post tomorrow
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
We are ready to leave once again and head for Lodz- pronounced "Woodz" Last night I met Linda's Polish relatives. They were so warm and charming!
Just a few pictures to see of a wonderful evening. They brought both Linda and me flowers, which I used as my anniversary gift! Today is my 25th Wedding anniversary!
I have written many facts, but have not always written how I am feeling. Each day I feel as if we go deeper and deeper into the belly of this beast. Each step gets harder to walk, its gets harder to inhale as we walk along the cobblestones of a camp. The question ‘How could this have happened?” or just a simple “Why” is always present in my mind- but there will never be an answer.
What remains a constant is the systematic, bureaucratic way in which this was so well planned. People like to believe there is hope, people want to believe that in our hearts there is a shred of goodness. These people ( I avoid saying monsters because after all so many could not have been monsters they were ordinary people) used every part of every man woman and child. They knew human nature and used it: keeping people unaware, making up the facade of a nice warm shower after the long arduous journey by hanging hooks for clothes, telling them to remember their hook number to retrieve their belongings , the orchestra played music, the showers looked real - all in the effort to keep people calm: it worked.
Then taking everything that makes one human from clothes to eye glasses, combs, forks, prosthetic limbs, baby clothes, and shoes shoes, more shoes. Then taking away dignity- being stripped and being naked in front of everyone, What was left? The victims still held on to each other, some prayed, some were silent.
As we walked down the dirt and broken cobblestone roads at Birkeneau I heard the clomp of the feet of many 50 people walking at one time. The sound was somewhat in uniform “ Slosh, swish, slosh swish” It was raining and difficult to walk with good walking shoes on. Now I thought about wooden clogs, that were in itself a torture then some were too small or too big, This was also well thought out torture. The shoes hurt. They would cause sores which would cause the person to become weak and unable to work. You know the result.
So in essence everything was a means to an end- death. The sheer magnitude of Birkineau was impossible to grasp. The conditions of the barracks are indescribable, I looked over at Elaine watching her gently walk around the bunks knowing her mother was one of the women who endured there. What saved her was the compassion of other women, who after her sister dies, embraced her and watched over her- that sustained her and she defied the Nazi Ideology by living.
Meeting with the Polish teachers was together upsetting and enlightening. The two I spent time with both were passionate about teaching the Holocaust but spend little time on it. Krzysztof was about my age, an admitted liberal who writes for a local paper, published some poetry, and remembers what life was like under Communist rule. He recalled how he was beaten by police during a demonstration. He teaches history and takes students to Auschwitz once a year . When asked what their reaction was he motioned that they cry. The other teacher was a young student who has not actually taught as yet. He told us he has 1 hour in which to teach the Holocaust. He also told us that his grandparents live in a place where 3,000 Jews had lived. That is the point “had lived” all were taken- none returned.
There are many stories that were told and each again is a person. If I repeat this over and over it is because we must always see the multitude as individuals.
Today we will visit Oscar Schindler’s factory. Picture of me by the factory is posted here. I recalled how I did research on Rosalie Weiser Klein for my class at Kean. She was sent here to Krakow and then to the Plaszow camp-not far from here. You can get information on her on the internet . Her story is harrowing.
Today we visited The Jewish Quarter and saw the oldest synagogues still in use for Orthodox and one for Reformed Jews. There actually is a small Chasidic Jewish community that came from the States that live here now.
What intrigued me most today was visiting Oscar Schindler’s factory. It was where the film was done and where the actual events unfolded. You can see the street where the young woman walked down to get Schindler to help her parents, and we saw where the workers walked from the ghetto to the factory. The windows have copies of the list displayed and on the outside, actual photos of the “Schindler Jews” are also on display.
The scenes where the ghetto was emptied and where the belongings were thrown from the balcony were actually done at a location that Speilberg felt was more ‘artistic.’ You can recognize them from the photo.
There is a museum inside the building. We also saw what was left of the Krackow ghetto wall, which was built by slave labor Jews. The Nazi's in their effort to humiliate, had the walls built in the shape of head stones so that the Jews inside felt like they were inside a cemetery.
We then had the afternoon off so we shopped for amber, which is famous in Krackow. We ate Lodi ( ice cream). and are waiting to have dinner with Linda’s Polish relatives.
This morning, one participant, Mitch announced to the bus that it was my 25th wedding anniversary and Elaine led the group in a rendition of “Simentov and Mazel tov.”
Monday, July 19, 2010
Auschwitz Birkeneau- pictures are the latrine, bunks. entrance to Birkeneau, entrance to Auschwitz
It’s a rainy night in Krakow. This has by far been the most exhausting day of the entire trip. I don’t mean this in a bad way, it was just a long day. We spent the day at Auschwitz. I never doubted the accounts I read, but I always felt I had to visit Auschwitz in order to better understand the place. We arrived at the camp around 9:15 this morning and we didn’t leave Birkenau until after 5pm this evening. The hardest thing to comprehend and what I think will be the most difficult concept to present in my lessons is how large Auschwitz I and II are in terms of its sheer size. We were on the grounds for about 8 hours, and we saw but a small fraction of the entire place. We spent the morning in Auschwitz 1 and the afternoon in Birkenau.
Auschwitz 1 was the first place we visited in the morning. The solemn tone was set for me as we passed underneath the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the camp’s entrance. This saying, which translates to “work makes you free” is one of many examples of the Nazis manipulating language to have an otherwise morbid and disturbing content. Auschwitz 1 is much smaller compared to Birkenau. We spent most of the morning walking throughout the camp’s buildings. The buildings which were open now house museum exhibits. Many people in our group found the buildings’ contents difficult to comprehend. One of the displays houses 2 tons of human hair. The display filled up the majority of the room. 2 tons of human hair was harvested from 40,000 victims. The hair was cut after the people were gassed. Even though this practice was a blatant defilement of Jewish burial customs, the Nazis preferred this order of operations so that people wouldn’t be alarmed and panic before being gassed.The hair is NOT preserved, as that would go against Jewish law, as a result the hair has turned a grayish color and there is a distinct smell permeating in the room. Many people upon first arriving in Auschwitz thought they were being led to the showers and to resettle in their new homes. It wasn’t until right before they were gassed that the victims realized what was happening to them. One display housed a large pile of eyeglasses collected. Another display housed luggage the newly arrived occupants surrendered to the camp officials. The victims’ contact information was still legible on the side of each individual piece of luggage. In the basement of the block used as a prison was a series of rooms devoted to different methods of torture. One room was completely dark without any ventilation that caused its inhabitants to suffocate. Another room was referred to as the standing room where inmates were forced to stand for long periods of time- four people that had to often stand on one leg because there was no room. Another room was used to house and starve inmates. The entire area was very claustrophobic. This, combined with the contents of the basement made it hard for me to breathe.
We arrived at Birkenau around 2 pm. Birkenau is the second, significantly larger section of the entire camp. To give you a better idea about Birkenau, it’s one square mile in area. Birkenau is 11 times bigger than Auschwitz 1. The majority of Jews were sent to Birkenau. 70,000 Jews died at Auschwitz 1. An estimated 900,000 Jews died at Birkenau. If you’ve ever seen the movie Schindler’s List or the picture with the large tower and the railroad tracks leading into camp then you’ve seen images of Birkenau. The first place we stopped was in this guard tower. From this viewpoint Birkenau’s area seems to infinitely continue. The railroad tracks went down the middle of Birkenau and split it into two major sections: the female section and the male section. Many barracks still survive today, but not all the barracks are still standing. One of the first places we visited in the camp was the building devoted to the latrine. This was perhaps one of the most disturbing places we visited, and I wasn’t initially expecting this reaction. To give you an idea what the latrines looked like, 3 columns of multiple holes in the ground served as the toilets. Prisoners had 5 minutes in the bathroom to get ready in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening to use the bathroom before being locked in their sleeping quarters for the evening. To break this down even more, when thousands of inmates had to use the bathroom during a small window of time each inmate had about 15 seconds on the latrine before guards would beat them and force them to move so someone else could use the toilet. In this scene privacy wasn’t granted to any individual and a lack of decency pervaded the entire camp. I mention this area because the dehumanization of inmates was forced upon them as soon as they entered the camp and one of the first things they experienced each morning. Scholars call this the “excremental assault,” the idea that the subhuman treatment started with such basic, everyday activities like using the bathroom. Ironically, the work duty that gave inmates one of the best opportunities for survival was the sheizkommand, or the job of emptying the latrines. Inmates who worked on this duty were mostly inside, they could use the bathroom whenever they wished, they were left alone due to the unsanitary nature of the job and they had access to leave the camp to empty the latrines.
As we walked deeper into the camp we walked alongside the train tracks where the selections took place. I couldn’t help but keep quiet and try to make sense of my thoughts as we passed such a gruesome part of the camp. At this part of the camp doctors and SS personnel would be waiting for the trains to determine who was fit enough for work and who was too weak for work. The people deemed too weak were sent along a long path leading to the gas chambers. At Birkenau roughly 75 percent of all the arrived inmates were immediately sent to the gas chambers. When I traditionally think of a doctor I think of someone who took the Hippocratic oath to save and care for people. In Auschwitz, the doctor’s role was to determine who lived and who died. The location of Dr Mengele's experiments was pointed out. This is but another example of how the inverted world at Auschwitz functioned. All of the gas chambers and crematoriums at Birkenau were destroyed. In their place today are the ruins from this destruction. These ruins were intentionally left this way because they’re burial sites; ashes and remains of inmates are located at these sites, and it would defy Jewish burial customs to rebuild on a cemetery site.
One of the things that made this visit so memorable was our guide from Auschwitz, Agnes. She was a remarkable, very intelligent guide. She was in her twenties, and when I asked her ( as I have done for all our guides) what drew her to this occupation she told me that she is not Jewish and her grandfather was sent to a labor camp here at Auschwitz, although her family did not suffer too much during the war, she decided to major in Jewish Studies because Jews played a major part in the history of Poland. Her grandmother asked her why not work at Auschwitz- and she decided it was her calling to do so., she was so passionate in her words and opinions. If it weren’t for Agnes many of us wouldn’t have had such a worthwhile and meaningful experience. Agnes said a few things today that I felt were very poignant. Auschwitz is one of the world’s largest graveyards. Ashes of victims can literally be found throughout the camp, in the grass, in the ponds, underneath the ruins of killing centers and so forth. Today the camp looks lush and tranquil with all of the vegetation growing on the camp grounds and around the camp. 67 years ago the paths throughout the camp were barren from all of the inmate traffic.Any grass or flowers would have been eaten by the inmates.
. The most difficult thing for me to comprehend, but one of the most important things to remember is that Auschwitz and everything affiliated with it was man-made. Supernatural powers didn’t come to Earth and create Auschwitz. This place was the result of systematic and bureaucratic human actions. It’s very disturbing to think just how evil and sadistic people can knowingly be to each other on such a grand scale. By grand I mean the size of Birkenau and the scope of the operation. This was something that was instilled and developed over many years. Many people knew what was happening to the Jews, from the engineer who operated the trains that took the people to the camps, to the companies who paid for and received the bundles of human hair, to the officials working at the Allianz Insurance company who insured Auschwitz to the people a few train stops away from the Grunewald stop.
Elaine's mother and aunt were in Block 9. Her aunt did not survive there work at the rock quarry. Her mother did. Dora's number was 396300.
I have given a lot of information here, but again we must remember that each number was a person.
Agnes asked: What is the best punishment for the perpetrators? We discussed how Dr Mengele was able to live a normal life in South America before he drowned in the ocean. The best punishment for these people I believe is US! To never forget, to have a multitude of people who recognize what happened. For Jews to walk freely, and have many generations to have been created since this blot on humanity- that is punishment they did not win.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Belzec was built on a slope in a valley. The neighboring homes had a clear view of the trains that came and went depositing thousands daily that were murdered within hours of being here- many others endured torture beyond the mind's comprehension. No attempt was made to hide what was happening here.There were few barracks because there was no need since this camp along with Sobibor and Treblinka were constructed for one purpose only- killing Jews. There was no selection because everyone's fate was the same
Out of 1,500,000 people only two yes 2 survived. One gave testimony and was soon murdered, the other escaped by luck and survived to write his memoirs about the camp. His story is graphic and hard to read Rudoulf Reder, but if you want more information you can read his book, translated from Polish. There were over 30 mass graves when this was finally over, and amongst them were Elaine Culbertson's grandmother, her two younger sisters, a newborn child (later named Sara), and countless others who all had names, faces and lives. Please remember them
We left Zamosc and went to Belzec. The women in the group walked as a group down a long walk way that got progressively taller and narrower, at the end the names of the dead are etched in the wall- only first names that represent the over 1,500,000 Jews murdered in the camp specifically designed for killing. There is nothing there that remained, the Nazi' got rid of all the evidence, The memorial is a vast landscape of crumbled rocks representing the vast emptiness left behind. Rosa, being the youngest, read Kaddish with Elaine for her grandmother- who had given birth to a child before being taken to Belzec and murdered, we all hugged, cried, and I read a poem that I had written only moments ago prior to our arrival in this camp:
The Pregnant silence hovers over
Women who have given life
Those who will give life
Those who have felt the quickened
movements of life within us.
The Pregnant silence hovers
Collectively we are silent.
Individually we scream out
We are the harbingers of life
We are the givers,
Yet we are suffocated in the
Pregnant silence that hovers
in this place.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
It is another warm morning, 6 AM here, the sun has been up for several hours, I hear birds chirping and the bells of a church ringing- it is quiet.
Today will probably be even more difficult than before- as impossible as that may sound- we will be driving to Belzec the killing center that the Jews from this town and the surrounding towns met their fate. We have been discussing how people survived and many feel it was simple geography- ' the right place at the the right time.' Luck had a lot to do with it as well. Someone's decision to stay, go, hide- it all came down to luck.Escape?? there was a moral dilemma here- if you did your entire family would be killed or those around you in the camp would all be shot, so does one decide to try to escape knowing others will die because of you? In many cases such as in this town of Zamosc, Jews were caught between a rock and a hard place not knowing where to go or what to do. As I keep learning over and over again- there are no simple answers to complicated questions.
Elaine lost her grandparents at Belzec so today will be especially difficult for her. We, as a group will support her every moment we are there. This group of 25 strangers have become a family.We have one African American with us that made a promised visit to the Berlin stadium to see where Jesse Owens defied the Nazi ideology,he brings his own dimension to this journey. There are only four, of Jewish background,and others from several different religious backgrounds.One gentleman, Sid, choose Judaism- and it was a poignant moment watching him pray but the ashes of the dead, yesterday at Majdenek. Many of the group helped our Louisiana teacher skype with her students last night. One teacher came from a trip in Costa Rica directly to this. We check in on each other, laugh with each other, cry with each other.
On a lighter note- they love LOX in Poland! Every meal lox is served in one form or another. Being near the Baltic Sea Salmon and Herring are plentiful- so I am happy but many people who would never eat lox or herring are losing weight while I.....
There was only one thing so far I really did not like, it was a dessert that the top of the cake tasted like flowers. I was not a fan. Each hotel has been unique. It is the luck of the draw if you get a better room. Linda and I feel our room in Jerusalem was the best, although the shower in this room is so forceful, I love it. It is only a shower stall with a sliding enclosure door, but it is really strong.
No air conditioning since we left Israel. I hear the next hotel in Krakow is wonderful so I will write about it when I am there tonight.
I am so humbled to be around so many educated people, all who have added a dimension of their own to the trip. I have learned so much my head is spinning. The knowledge in the heads of this collective group is truly amazing.
I wanted to add that we are now in Zamosc. We traveled here through towns that were mentioned in the book "Ordinary Men." The towns which Battalion 101 such as Jozefow where these men killed so many in the towns we passed through today. The town now is a quaint little hamlet with Renaissance architecture, a lovely square where food is plenty and fresh flower stalls., but this little town has a dark history. Settled in 1588 by Sephardic Jews who left and then Ashkenazi Jews soon took their place. Before WWII 12,000 Jews thrived here and made up about 80% of the population. In 1939 it was caputred by the Soviets by a few days and then by the Germans. The Jews welcomed the Soviets as liberators. When the Soviets left about 5000 Jews went along with them.
Germans returned and rounded up the Jews for slave labor and their property was looted.
In December of 1939 the Gestapo ordered the formation of the Judenrat. In early 1941 Jews were ordered to move into the poorest impoverished section of town. In April 1942 deportation began.Hidden Jews and elderly were shot on the spot. Others were taken to the gathering place put on 30 wagons and sent to Belzec- they left behind scores of bodies of those shot.
There is one synagogue that survived because the Germans made use of it. Today it has been renovated- and interestingly it has been done so with funds from Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.