The Last One

I knew this journey was going to be a powerful one. The title of “The Holocaust Journey” assumes that the content is serious, but I think the greatest impact was personal. Travelling allows oneself to not only learn about the world, but learn about the individual. These last three weeks taught me more about history, humanity, respecting others, tolerance, and acceptance more than my last twenty-one years. Not only that, I did it with twenty-nine new friends and two awesome professors.

I have six million reasons to count my blessings and endless more questions about how such an event like the Holocaust could ever happen. How could people follow these heartless leaders? How can we honor those who lead efforts against this injustice? How can we lead the future so that we never experience this injustice and irrational judgments? I believe that it is our duty to remember these unresolved questions and lessons and continue to learn and grow from them.

This particular journey may have ended, but I do not consider it to be completed, but simply a beginning.

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel 

Advertisements

The One About the Closed Courtroom

January 23: Our final city destination was Nuremberg, Germany- one of the most important cities in the era of World War II. 1945 is remembered as an important year in our world history. World War II ended, the concentration camps were liberated, and the first trials convict crimes against humanity were held. These proceedings were held in Courtroom 600 of the Hall of Justice, one of the last-standing German court houses left in the rubble of WWII. Today, the Hall of Justice is still used as an acting court house and a museum has been constructed on the top floor.

Perhaps museum is the wrong word. To be honest, the room was more of a visual library. The information about the trials and how they were constructed is endless and so interesting. It was so extensive; someone could stay and learn about these trials for days. Everything action, from choosing the prosecution, hiring translators, building the media gallery, selecting witness testimonies, and actually trying the criminals, was documented thoroughly and explicitly. A total of twenty-four men were indicted. Two never stood trial because one committed suicide and the other fled before he could be captured. Of the twenty-two that were tried, three were acquitted, twelve were sentenced to death and seven were sent to prison. Defendants were tried convicted on a mixture of four counts: Conspiracy to Wage War, Crimes Against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity.

The Hall of Justice was fascinating, but our class was a little peeved when we found out that we couldn’t go into Courtroom 600. Lucky for us, the courtroom was closed and the overhead windows that they allow visitors to use when court is in session were “under construction.” Although, I did get a nice picture of the door that leads to the door of the courtroom. That’s something, right? Nevertheless, it was cool to be in the presence of such an iconic building.

After our Hall of Justice tour, we went to the Nazi Rally Grounds, also in Nuremberg. The Nazis would hold festivals and marches in many times at these rally grounds, and many of the images we have of the Nazi Party gathered together come from this plot of land. The space was massive and included things like the Great Road, a Stadium, a Coliseum-like structure, and large zeppelin fields to rally. There is now a Document center on the grounds that goes through the history of the Nazi power, how they rose to power, and how they were eventually dismantled. Walking around the park was like walking around an abandoned Olympic complex. However, the most interesting experience was standing in the spot where Hitler gave his speeches to the masses. That was freaky, but the view of the entire complex was incredible. It’s amazing to me how many resources went into these structures, even into the concentration camps, and how people were so moved by this party. The Nazi Party wanted to prove their power based on their appearance and sway, and boy did they do that.

The One with Throwing People Out of Windows

January 19: Have I mentioned that Prague is the most beautiful city in the world. Today, we reinforced this completely unbiased and absolute true statement with a walking tour of Old Town, New town, the Prague Castle, and even the St. Charles Bridge.

Although the Czech Republic is a democracy, the sitting President still lives in the corridors of the castle. The castle is located on top of a huge hill and taking into account that we were there when snow was on the ground (which apparently doesn’t happen very often), our slippery cobblestone journey was long-winded, but totally worth it! We were able to see the changing of the guards at the front gates and took a tour of the St. Vitus Church next to the castle. St. Vitus was incredible, and in my opinion, more beautiful than St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

Our tour didn’t end there. We got to go inside of the palace and view how the other half lived. Great big rooms with inspired architecture, and even the “defenestration room” (aka where they threw people from windows) comprised our abbreviated understanding of the royal life. I must say though, it was cool to walk in the same footsteps as those I learned about in my history classes. I’ve had many moments like this on the trip, and it has just brought my education full-circle.

This feeling continued on our free day in Prague. A few friends and I went to St. Nicholas. Why is this church so important? There was a guy that played the organ there one time when he was a guest of the Dušeks. His name was W. A. Mozart, no big deal or anything. I didn’t nearly have a heart attack when I was 30 feet away from that organ, not at all. Yes, that visiting that church was the highlight of the day…and that’s saying something because we went to Starbucks right after that. Coffee and musical icons, what could be better than that?

I could write a book about our three day visit to Prague, but I won’t bore you all with the details. I really hope I can go back there again!

The One with the Bed and Breakfast

January 18: We’re in Prague! Our bus might have been detained for an hour and a half yesterday, but we made it. I have been looking forward to coming to the city for a long, long time and I cannot express how excited I am to be here!

Today was super busy for us. We were scheduled to see the Jewish Quarter of Prague on a Saturday (the Sabbath), and it turns out we wouldn’t be able to see anything. So, two of the three tours we were scheduled to have in Prague are now scheduled for today. We will be visiting Terezin and then the Jewish Quarter.

Terezin, or Teresienstadt, is a concentration camp like no other. Historically, the town of Terezin was used as a military town and is dated pre-WWI. For you history buffs out there, the space may sound familiar because this camp also included the military fortress constructed by Josef II (then called Teresienstadt, named for his mother). Once the Nazis took control of Prague, the area was used as a prisoner camp and the military town was transformed into a Jewish Ghetto.

Terezin is considered a unique concentration camp for many reasons. First, it was a transit camp, meaning that those who were sent to live there were not meant to stay there for long. In essence, it was a stop between their daily lives and the gas chambers. The complex was home to some 140,000 Jews before the camp was liberated. Terezin is also important in the history of the camps because the Nazis used it as international propaganda. Films and public announcements were made from Terezin to demonstrate that the Jews were living life well, when in reality it was all a hoax. The scenes were staged and the acting was only portrayed in the fear of death. Nothing about Terezin was well and good. The Red Cross even came for a scheduled tour of the camp, just to see if the Jews were being treated well. The” inspection” was passed and nothing was done to help the inhabitants. It is also important to note that Terezin was home to many talented artists, actors, musicians, and writers. There is a whole museum in the complex dedicated to their works, and it is a shame that the world lost them before their true art prevailed.

The camp itself was very eerie, especially since it didn’t look like a camp at all. It almost reminded me of Williamsburg, except the architectural style was slightly different. There were squares and colorful buildings completing the make-up of the complex; not at all resembling what we perceive concentration camps to be. Today, there are people living and working in this town. There’s even a functioning Bed and Breakfast for guests who are there to study the tragedies of the camp. Wouldn’t you know the place where their guests lay is only yards from where the Nazis laid the corpses? That in itself was a hard concept to grasp.

After a quick bite to eat, we toured the Jewish Quarter of Prague. It was similar to many other Jewish Quarters we saw in Europe, and we all continued to get a better sense of the Jewish tradition. Some of my favorite sites on the tour included the Spanish Synagogue (it was so ornate and beautiful) and the Pinkas Synagogue that displayed the names of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews that perished in the Holocaust—80,000 names in total. 

The One About Liam Neeson

January 15: We took a much needed break from Holocaust Death Camps and toured a place that is highlighted in one of Spielberg’s works: Schindler’s Factory. Many people relate Holocaust heroism to the work of Schindler, so I was excited to see the museum’s offerings. Surprisingly, the museum had little to do with Schindler, but more to do with Krakow’s involvement in the war and the Nazi presence within the city. Like the Jewish Museum we saw in Berlin, this facility was deliberately artistic in its layout and required the visitor to draw their own deeper meanings. There were some Schindler-centered exhibits from time to time, but most of it was about the war. I really enjoyed walking into Oskar Schindler’s office and reading “Schindler’s List” incased in a display of the pots that the factory made, but I must say Liam Neeson probably made a more altruistic Oskar Schindler than he was in real life. Still, it was awesome to actually be in the factory.

After we toured the museum, our class continued on to the Kasmierz District, or Krakow’s Jewish District. It is one of the world’s more famous Jewish District. In fact, it sees just about a comparable amount of visitors per year as Auschwitz. This is because the historical value of the synagogues, cemeteries, and living history that is present in the district. I really enjoyed learning more about the Jewish tradition and culture while visiting this district. I even ate at a traditional Jewish restaurant for lunch—delicious! All of these site visits were great and all, but my favorite part of the day was when my class engaged in an impromptu snow ball fight. For many of them, it was their first one ever (those deprived Southerners), and it was great to laugh a group laugh after such an emotional taxing few days. The locals were probably annoyed with us, but it was totally worth the stares. 

Auschwitz

January 14: 

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under the silent sky.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.
Never.”

I first read these words as an eighth grader after watching an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Back in (2006), Oprah offered an essay contest for the high school students of America to read Elie Wiesel’s Night and respond to its content. Two winners from each state were selected to sit in the audience when Oprah interviewed Wiesel.  As a stubborn teenager, I thought the age requirement did not apply to me and I decided to partake in the contest. I credit this opportunity as the spark of my interest in the study of the Holocaust.

I was nervous about visiting the camp today. Unspeakable things happened on the grounds I was about to walk on, and more nerving, I didn’t know how I would react to seeing the different sites and icons of the camp. I tried to prepare myself as much as possible, with reading articles about people’s takeaways of the camp, displays that we would encounter, and rereading personal accounts like Night.

A little bit of background might also help understand the significance of this camp, though I am sure most of you know the impact. Auschwitz was divided into 3 different camps: Auschwitz I (a labor camp for mostly prisoners), Auschwitz II (Birkenau- the death camp), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). Today, Auschwitz III is completely destroyed, so we only saw Auschwitz I and II on our tour. About 1.1 million people were sent to the camps between 1940- 1945. Over 960,000 people were killed before the camps’ liberations.

To be honest, my first impression of Auschwitz I, our first stop on our tour, was not what I expected them to be. Sachsenhausen, Majdanek, and Treblinka were all vast areas with few buildings covering the area. This camp was more town-like to me. Most of the original barracks and administration buildings were intact, so we all got a sense of what it might have been like to walk the grounds during its usage. The barracks today are used as the camp’s museum and house many collections of victim’s items. We saw displays of shoes, pots and pans, brushes, clothes, glasses, prosthetic limbs, prayer shawls, and suitcases. The display that was personally emotional for me was the hair. The Nazis were determined to use every resource they could to “further war efforts” and to make more profit. Each Holocaust victim was shaved so their hair could be sold to companies to make clothes, socks, and even mattresses. Sickening. The hair display was as large as my basement at home, and that wasn’t even all of it. As I tried to make sense of all of this dehumanization, I spotted a small lock of beautiful blonde braids. I could sense immediately that it most likely came from a little girl and I lost it. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like.

After we saw the displays, we went to Block 11- The Death Block. This is where the SS and German soldiers kept the “bad prisoners” in torture chambers and holding cells. They had cells specifically designed for suffocation, starvation, standing, and solitary confinement. Right next to Block 11 is also home to the execution wall (“The Black Wall” or “The Wall of Death”) a symbolic site for the camp. Over 5,000 people were executed by a gunshot to the back of the head in that courtyard.

Although Auschwitz I was not a death camp, it still had a gas chamber and crematorium. This gas chamber was the only one that survived after the war ended, giving us a better sense of how they were designed in Auschwitz. Standing in that chamber, haunted by history past, was one of the darkest experiences of my life.

After a five minute bus ride, we entered the infamous gates of Birkenau, the death camp. This camp was overwhelming in size and emotion. This particular camp stretches over 250 acres, much vaster in reality than perceived on paper. We walked up the side of the railroad tracks, stopped at the place where the SS guards made their prisoner selections (left meaning work and right meaning death). A single rail car was also parked alongside the selection platform, giving us a better sense of how people were treated like cattle when shipped to this hellish place.

We followed the path up to the ruins of the crematorium which symbolically lies parallel to the end of rail line. The one part of our tour that truly angered me occurred at the ruins. There was a small group of people gathered next to the site, obnoxiously laughing hysterically. I don’t know if it was just their personal ways of coping with the emotions, or if they were completely oblivious to where they were standing, but this observation sparked quite a bit of personal anger. It made me think about why people need to continue to learn about the events of the Holocaust, and more importantly, how we need to properly observe them. Expressive hilarity is not appropriate.

We concluded the tour with visits to the different sleeping barracks, sanitation facilities, and finally a view from the guard’s watch tower. I learned so much on this visit; however it is safe to say that I don’t want to ever go back.

“Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know that a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is a response in responsibility. When we speak of this era in evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is a key word.”

The One with the Sledding Children

January 13: Following the day visit to Treblinka, we were all excited to relax and release our minds of the Holocaust during our 8ish hour bus ride to Krakow.

Psych. We were surprised by our professors that we had a group tour appointment at Majdanek, located about 3 hours east of Warsaw. Though we were tired and a little uneasy about going to two death camps in a row (well, three if we include tomorrow’s visit to Auschwitz), but this was an opportunity too hard to pass up. Majdanek is truly a valuable death camp, at least when it comes to today’s understanding of the Holocaust.

Why is this death camp so special? After all, if you are like me, I had never even heard of it. It is a small camp (i.e. approximately 80,000-90,000 Jews were deported there), and there are no notable figures that were imprisoned there. Its rarity emerges from its liberation. Since it was one of the first camps to be liberated, the SS did not have enough time to destroy the evidence. Almost all of the buildings, including the administrative, barracks, crematorium, gas chambers, and disinfection stations, are completely intact. Majdanek is as authentic as you can get when it comes to concentration camp preservation.

Walking around the camp was a weird experience. The weather was bone-chilling cold and ironically, the sun was out that day. I told my professors that I found it funny that the first day we saw the sun on our trip was one of the darkest content days. The coldness of the camp also resonated from the things we saw. Our guide lead us to the registration rooms, showed us where people were shaved and showered, walked us through where people’s possessions were disinfected, and finally to the gas chambers. I will never forget seeing the blue-stained walls of those rooms (from the Zyklon B poison) and the original steel doors that sealed-of the victims’ lives.

Our tour continued to take us to the different areas of the camp. The barracks are set up as museum displays and examples for people to better understand how Majdanek was run. We saw original bunks, the camp model, and cages upon cages upon cages of victim’s shoes. That was hard to see. We then proceeded to the crematorium at the very end of the camp, another difficult site. We learned here that many of the victim’s remains were used to produce fertilizer (yes, fertilizer) for the camp. Since liberation, a large section of dirt has been preserved and memorialized under a dome structure.

Majdanek is also noted for one of the darkest days of the Holocaust: “The Harvest Festival”. This event happened on November 3, 1943 and resulted in the murder of 18,000 prisoners within that 24 hour period. There were many uprisings happening around that time at various camps, and the SS guards were worried that the prisoners of Majdanek would conspire in the same activities. In an effort to eliminate this risk, the Harvest Festival was instated. It is the largest single-day, single-location massacre in Holocaust history. 

Now, you might think that the title of this post is a little odd. Why would I entitle something about a death camp alluding to something so innocent and lighthearted? Well, this is based off of a strange observation me and my class had while we were touring the camp. We found that there were multiple families strolling around the grounds, like they were walking in the park. Couples, dogs, and even children riding in sleds were enjoying the nice weather, almost ignoring the fact they were in a concentration camp. The irony of this baffles me and really makes me think- are we really doing enough to fully recognize these places of darkness?

This camp was a great stepping stone to what we will see in Auschwitz. The professors have scheduled our visits well, allowing us to work up to what I consider the climax of our journey to be: Auschwitz.