Auschwitz II Birkenau

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Construction of Auschwitz Birkenau began in October 1941. Similar the the way that the name for Auschwitz derived from the nearby town of Oświęcim, the name Birkenau was named for its proximity to the village of Brzezinka. Himmler order the expansion of the Auschwitz complex with the establishment of Birkenau in light of the impending influx of Soviet POWs. Auschwitz-Birkenau would grow to have the largest prisoner population of the three camps. In addition to serving as a location to concentrate prisoners, Birkenau was a killing center. After the successful testing in Auschwitz I in September 1941, Zyklon B was adopted for use throughout the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis established provisional gas chambers by converting two farm houses close to Birkenau. These two provisional gas chambers were operational from January 1942 until fall of 1944. At this point, these facilities were deemed insufficient for the mass scale of extermination planned. Between March and June 1943, four larger crematoria buildings were constructed on sire. Jews from all over Europe were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many of them were murdered in the gas chambers. Non–Jewish Poles, Roma/Sinti, Soviet POWs, and civilians from many European nations were also deported to Birkenau.

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On Tuesday morning, we met Pawel Sawicki for a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is one thing to read about Auschwitz-Birkenau; it is another thing to be there. Everywhere I looked, each building, represented the murder of more than a million people. This is an odd sensation to grapple with. Standing before the infamous gate, at the railroad tracks, by the ruins of the crematorium, I tried to take in everything. It was a beautiful, sunny day morning. It was very quiet. We arrived early enough to beat much of the crowd. After dealing with the throngs of people at Auschwitz I the afternoon before, experiencing Birkenau with few other visitors was much different. With so few people, it was easier to take in the massive scale of the camp. Much of Auschwitz-Birkenau remains in ruins as the Nazi SS attempted to destroy the evidence of their crimes The foundations of buildings seem to go on and on. I think the fact the structures are in ruins helps visitors take in the sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau, because one’s line of sight is not hindered by the buildings.

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Inside of the women’s barracks.

Pawel began by taking us to one of the few barracks in the women’s camp. For exhibition purposes, the stone and wood bunks have been left in tact. Between 4-7 people would have slept in each bunk with hundreds of prisoners per barrack. Given the close quarters, it is easy to imagine the chaos of life in the barracks as well as the lack of privacy and the spread of diseases. One gains similar insights when visiting the latrines where dozens of toilets sit side by side in an open room. As we walked through the section of Auschwitz-Birkenau with buildings still in tact, and while we were were in Auschwitz I the previous day, I was reminded of the factory complex we had visited in Łódź a few days earlier. It added a new perspective to the term “death factory.” It is an important reminder that the Holocaust was the result of intentional choices and that humans deliberately created an environment to be most conducive to murder. This thought remained with me throughout our time here.

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Barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

 

In a site like Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is a constant push-and-pull between the purposes of conservation and education. Although it is important that people be able to visit the site in order to become more aware of what happened here, this leads to constant wear and tear on the site itself. Unfortunately some visitors expedite this process. For example, there are traces of vandalism all around the barracks where visitors have carved their names and initials into the wooden posts. Even with the expected deterioration after 70 years, the conservationists face a perpetual battle to maintain the integrity of the remaining buildings. Pawel explained that whenever they have to repair/rebuild the structures or various items, they intentionally use different materials. They do this so that it is easy for visitors to know what is original and what is not, rather than blending the two. This struggle between these two initiatives is unending. I am interested to see what the future holds for the museum in these respects.

As we continued our tour, Pawel took us to the Sonderkommando Wall where the remains of the their barrack stands. The Sonderkommando were special prisoner units who were forced to remove corpses from the gas chambers and take them to the crematoria. By far, this was one of the most difficult roles in the entire camp structure. We were making our way towards the back of the camp where the gas chamber and crematoria buildings were located.

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Gravestones marking the disposal site of human remains.

Along the way, we stopped in an area surrounded by young trees. Pawel told us that this location was where people waited for their turn to be taken to the gas chamber after arrival. This steps of this incremental process was made famous by the “Auschwitz Album” As we stood here, I could clearly see the specific photographs from this area in my head. Pawel also explained that the ashes of the bodies burned in the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau were scattered in small ponds in the camp. In order to acknowledge those who remains are interred in these locations, the curators have installed memorial headstones at each spot.

 

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Images of arrivals at Auschwitz from the Auschwitz Album.
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Images of arrivals at Auschwitz from the Auschwitz Album.

 

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The wooded area where arrivals waited.

When we reached the remains of Crematorium IV, we stopped for what seemed to be a long time. Each of the crematoria were destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the advancing Soviet army. Because of the regulations regarding disrupting grave sites in the Jewish tradition and with general concerns of preservation and conservation, these structures remain in ruins. Standing here is hard to describe. It was hard not to be overwhelmed. Staring at a pile of stones forming a massive rectangular foundation, meanwhile knowing that it represents the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. And that it only one of the four crematoria on site. At this point more than any other, I was grateful that our group was alone in this area of the camp. It allowed me the silence that was truly needed to reflect here.

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Ruins of Crematorium IV.

After leaving the site of Crematorium IV, Pawel led us to the Central Sauna where those who were not immediately sent to the gas chambers were sent to be disinfected. This was where the incoming prisoners’ clothing items were exchanged for uniforms, their hair was shaved, tattoos were applied, and they showered before entering the camp. There was also a photograph exhibition that I found to be particularly powerful. The installation featured family photographs belonging to Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. These pictures were found on the grounds when the camp was liberated. On one side, the photographs are not captioned and the victims are unnamed. This reminded me of the attempt of the perpetrators to strip the victims of their identities. On the other side, the photographs were captioned with identification information provided based on extensive research. This was a literal restoration of the names of thousands of victims.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was a whirl-wind of an experience. It was overwhelming in size and power. It was an incredible culmination of years of study. It was a powerful reminder of why I have chosen to study and to teach about the Holocaust.

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The entry gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the arrival platform.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi German concentration camps and extermination centers. It consisted of three parts: Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labor camp). Auschwitz I opened in May 1940. It was originally intended to house political prisoners. Through the operation of this camps, prisoners were used for forced labor. The camp operated for nearly a year before Heinrich Himmler ordered the expansion of Auschwitz and the construction of a nearby camp in Birkenau. In September of 1942, the first gassing of prisoners took place at Auschwitz. A makeshift cellar in Block 11 was converted into a gas chamber and Zyklon B was tested on Soviet POWs. The success of this experiment would lead to the refinement of the extermination process and extensive use of Zyklon B in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is estimated that approximately 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz.

All over the world, Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust. Throughout all of my years studying the Holocaust, I have always been interested in visiting this place. I have felt compelled to come to Auschwitz in order to see firsthand the evidence of the Holocaust and to pay my respects to the victims. On Monday, I finally had the chance. It had been arranged for our group to do a study-tour of Auschwitz I led by Pawel Sawicki, a Press Officer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

auschwitz5Years of reading, seeing photographs, hearing survivor testimony, watching documentaries, and even completing two years of graduate level course work about the Holocaust did not quite prepare me being in Auschwitz I for the first time. I was caught off guard by our arrival. I had not expected for us to get there so quickly. The fact that, in Oświęcim, we were only a few miles from the camp did not compute in my mind. I was turned around in my seat talking to Josh about the reflections session we were supposed to lead later that evening, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a guard tower. As I turned, I saw a line of the notorious red brick barracks of Auschwitz. It was so startling, literally a gut check. We disembarked from the bus and started walking to the entrance where we would meet Pawel.

The hustle and bustle of getting to the entrance and through security was momentarily distracting. There were so many people trying to move through a small area. As I made my way through the crowds and rejoined our group, the nerves returned. I could see the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from where we were standing waiting for everyone to assemble. I felt overwhelmed and even a little nauseated. For better or worse, this was quickly replaced with irritation at other visitors. As we stood before the gate with Pawel giving us a brief overview of the history of Auschwitz, I was distracted by people posing for selfies in front of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. And it wasn’t just one or two people – there were dozens of visitors who took selfies and other posed, smiling photos here. It was hard to reconcile their frivolity with my own feelings of solemnity.

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A memorial containing ashes collected from the crematoria.
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Canisters used to hold Zyklon B – the chemical used to murder victims in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Our tour primarily focused on the permanent exhibition. The exhibitions of the museum are housed in the various blocks (buildings) of Auschwitz and focus on an array of topics such as the life of prisoners, conditions in the camp, medical experiments, evidence of the crimes, and extermination. Of all of the blocks we toured, Block 4 -Extermination stood out the most. Here, photographs, documents, models of the extermination facilities, and other artifacts are on display to explain the killing process. The most striking was the room containing human hair. I wasn’t quite prepared for this display. Although I knew it was coming up, I did not expect it at this particular point. The sheer amount of it was staggering. The display case contains hair from an estimated 140,000 individuals.

 

We also had the opportunity to visit one of the national exhibitions. Several countries have developed permanent installations highlighting the connection between the history of the specific nations occupation and the history of Auschwitz. We were able to visit Shoah – Block 27 which was prepared by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Immediately upon entering, visitors are enveloped by an incredible rendition of “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”). This is a musical rendition of Moses ben Maimon’s thirteen-point version of the Jewish principles of faith. It is an incredibly powerful piece, especially here in Block 27 at Auschwitz. This exhibition also contained a unique item, called “The Book of Names.” This book contains the names of all of the victims of the Holocaust that have been collected by Yad Vashem.

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One side of the “Book of Names.”
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The final page of the “Book of Names.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final place we visited during our tour of Auschwitz I was Crematoria I and the first gas chamber. This facility was in use between August 1940 and July 1943 when the crematoria at Birkenau were completed. This area was later used as an air raid shelter, but has been restored to its original state. Although this space was a difficult way to end our tour, it made an important transition point for our tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau the following morning.

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The reconstructed chimney of Auschwitz Crematoria I.

 

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Oświęcim and the Auschwitz Jewish Center

On Sunday, we departed for Oświęcim to begin the final leg of our three week program. We will spend the remaining week of our time here.

Oświęcim is a small town with a long and complicated history. The first documented reference to the town comes from the twelfth century. Oświęcim was an located along local trade routes and, later with the development of the railroad system during the nineteenth century, the town prospered further as an important stop between Krakow and Vienna. The first references to Jews in Oświęcim date back to mid-sixteenth century. In the years prior to World War II, approximately half of the town’s population was Jewish. Under Nazi occupation, Oświęcim and the surrounding area was annexed into Greater Germany. In spring 1940, the Nazi government approved the establishment of a new concentration camp to house political prisoners. They decided to name the camp Auschwitz, the German translation of the name of the nearby town of Oświęcim. It became the site of the most famous extermination center of the Holocaust. The people of Oświęcim continue to live with this legacy today.

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The Auschwitz Jewish Center.

Oświęcim has a similar history to the rest of Poland in the sense that it is trying to recover and preserve it’s Jewish past. This is where the Auschwitz Jewish Center comes in. Established in 2000, the AJC is a “non-governmental organization which exists to serve as a guardian of Jewish memory, as well as to educate the public about the Holocaust.”* The Jewish Museum is located in the former home of the Kornreich family of Oświęcim. The exhibition uses a beautiful combination of local artifacts, photographs, and audiovisual testimony to tell the long history of Jews of Oświęcim before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation is also responsible for the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, the only remaining Jewish house of worship near Auschwitz-Birkenau. The AJC received the synagogue as a donation from the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community and restored it to its pre-war condition. Finally, there is an on-site coffee house, called Cafe Bergson. The cafe has an interesting history that is also tied to the mission of the AJC. The building belonged to the last Jewish resident of Oświęcim. After Szymon Kluger, died in 2000, his descendents donated it to the AJC. Today, this space is open to the public and is used for various community events. For many, Cafe Bergson provides an entry point for the AJC and the Jewish history of Oświęcim.

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The interior of the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue.

 

*Auschwitz Jewish Center. “Mission & History.” Accessed July 11, 2018. http://ajcf.pl/en/museum/mission-history/

The City of Łódź

Yesterday morning, we left Warsaw and headed back south to the city Oświęcim. Along the way, we stopped in Łódź to see a few locations related to our studies. Prior to the Holocausat, Łódź  had the second largest Jewish population in Poland – second to Warsaw. In February 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in this city. Jews from all over Europe were deported to Łódź. There were also an estimated 5,000 Roma/Sinti people were deported here as well. By the spring of 1944, Łódź  was the last remaining ghetto in Poland. As the ghetto was liquidated between June and July 1944, the remaining Jews were deported to Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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Matzevah in the Jewish Cemetery in Lodz.

Our first stop on our day tour of Łódź was the Jewish cemetery. It is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, containing more than 225,000 graves. It is still an active site, serving the small Jewish population in Łódź. The matzevah are so diverse, varying based on the time period in which it was created, the wealth of the family, and the maintenance over time. Unfortunately, much of the cemetery is in a state of disrepair with broken headstones and overgrown vegetation. It is a difficult task to be sure, given the sheer size of the space. There is an interesting dynamic created by this combination of life and death, hard stone and organic growth, that is quite beautiful.

 

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The Bet Tahara (burial preparation house) at the cemetery in Lodz.
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The interior of the Bet Tahara.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Poznanski Family Mausoleum.
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Looking across “The Ghetto Field.”

We made our way through the cemetery until we came to “The Ghetto Field.” This section of the cemetery was actively used to bury Jewish individuals who died in the Łódź Ghetto. It is interesting that this practice was permitted by the Nazis, given the much more common use of mass graves. One of the markers said that there are 43,527 graves in this section. Standing in “The Ghetto Field” is overwhelming. Some of the graves are marked with simple placards and others have concrete borders. They seem to stretch endlessly in all directions. As we made our way back to the entrance, we noticed several pits along the cemetery wall. As the final deportation left Łódź The Jews left after the final liquidation of the ghetto were ordered to dig these pits. The Nazis intended to use these pits in which to murder the remaining Jews, however, they fled the advancing Soviets. Along the cemetery wall, there are dozens of plaques dedicated to victims who either died in Łódź Ghetto or who were deported from this site.

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The memorial at Łódź.

Just outside of the cemetery, there is a memorial installation in remembrance of the Jews of Łódź. The memorial is a combination of traditional Judaic symbols and images from the Holocaust. The base of the memorial depicts a tree on which the trunk and branches are broken. Representing the tree of life, a broken tree in a symbol that it commonly used in Jewish cemeteries as a symbol of death. A menorah sits atop this base with a plaque that reads, “The light of memory of innocent Jews from around the world, murdered by Nazi war criminals in ghettos and camps in 1939-1945, the memory of you will remain forever in our hearts.” The tall pillar on the left hand side of the memorial is meant to represent a crematoria chimney.

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Radegast Memorial

Our next stop was the Radegast Memorial. Like the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, this location was the major site of deportation of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto to Auschwitz. The inferior of the memorial was inaccessible to our group, because it was closed for renovations. The exterior still gave us a lot to consider. The first think that I noticed upon arrival was a long concrete tunnel with years written in Gothic style characters that culminated in a tall tower with the message “Thou shall not kill” written in multiple languages. Like the one in the cemetery, the tower represents a crematoria chimney. Further into the space is a restored train station building with a train and box cars replicated from those used during the Holocaust. The end of the Radegast Memorial complex is a series of massive tomb stones listing the various locations to which the Jews from Łódź were deported.

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The dedication of Survivor’s Park.

Our final stop before having lunch at the Famulas of Poznanski Textile Factory Complex, the site of a former factory complex owned by Izrael Poznanski, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Łódź, was the the Survivor’s Park. In addition to the actual park are, this location also includes the Monument Honoring Poles who Saved Jews During the Second World War, the Memorial Mound, and the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center. In this space, there was a beautiful public garden with trees that were planted by local survivors and their families. The Memorial Mound featured a statue of Jan Karski overlooking the park and the installation honoring Polish rescuers. At first, the Monument Honoring Poles who Saved Jews During the Second World War seems like a series of randomly angled walls with the names of Polish Righteous Among the Nations listed on them. However, the walls are arranged in a way that forms a Star of David visible from above. Irena Sendler and Irene Gut Opdyke are two women that I have featured in some of my research, so it was special to find their names.

After our short visit to Łódź, we returned to the bus to begin our descent into southern Poland where we will spend the final week of our program in Oświęcim.

Treblinka II

The ride to Treblinka was long and quiet. The site is nearly 70 miles from Warsaw and the ride in the van took around 2 hours. Although the volume on our trips varies as conversations ebb and flow, this morning seemed particularly silent. It may have just been me projecting my own trepidation onto to situation. I felt a tension as many of us were anxious about visiting this site. Most of us had never been to Treblinka before. For me, it was my first time visiting one of the extermination centers of the Holocaust. The location of the camp is remote, even today. When the camp was commissioned as part of Operation Reinhard in 1942, the site was chosen for its isolation in attempt to maintain the secrecy of their nefarious intentions. Along much of our drive, the road ran parallel to, or in some places crossed, the same tracks on which the box cars carried hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths. I found this extremely distressing. The turn off for Treblinka is unassuming. It is tucked back behind a densely wooded area. One could easily miss it without paying close attention.

Soon after we arrived, we dispersed walking around “The Death Road,” which serves as the main path throughout the site. We were doing an independent tour using an audio guide accessed through an application on our phones. Some used the audio guide and others did not. I used it on and off, taking time between each segment to absorb the soundscape and to reflect on my own thoughts. Because the tour was independent, we were able to filter through at our individual paces.

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Stone beams tracing the railway line leading to the platform at Treblinka II.

The path leading from the parking lot to the gate of the camp is wooded by dense trees on both sides. Along the way, there are a few signs providing contextual information and maps showing the layout of the camp. There is also a series of stones inscribed in multiple languages as a memorial to those who died at Treblinka. Next, you come to the gates of the camp. Beyond this point, the area is much more open although the entire complex is still surrounded by trees. Stones play a key role in this memorial and are used symbolically throughout. Dozens of stone beams stripe the green grass delineating the path from the woods to the platform. These beams mark the location of the railroad tracks on which the deportees would have arrived at Treblinka. As I pass them one by one and come closer to the platform, my sense of foreboding steadily increases. I wonder how the people in the box cars felt and what went through their minds as the train slowed until it came to a stop. Earlier on in the series of deportations to Treblinka, the people believed that they were truly being taken east for labor. As the months wore on rumors spread about the camp and the arrivals were less trusting of what was going on. Because of this, measures were put into place to creatively conceal the true purposes of this location. The platform was made to look like a legitimate train stop with tickets and posted arrival and departure times. People were told to carefully mark and hand over their belongings to ensure that they received everything back later. All of this was done to prevent the arrivals from realizing what was going on until the very last minute when there would be little chance for opposition.

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The multi-lingual plaques providing contextual information about Treblinka.
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The English version of the plaque.
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The stone marking the entry gates at Treblinka.
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Stone beans tracing the railroad tracks into Treblinka II.

 

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Butterfly at Treblinka.

The platform today is calm and quiet. Butterflies flutter around and flowers stubbornly push their ways up through the stones. The sun is shining brightly and a gentle breeze blows lightly through the grass. These signs of life counter the understanding that this was a site of mass murder. Most testimonies describe the scene on the platform as noisy and chaotic. It is difficult to contend with knowing that thousands unknowingly spent their last moments here without knowing that they were saying their final goodbyes to the loved ones that they had arrived with. From the platform you can see most of the memorial space of Treblinka, including the main monument. Just off of the platform is a set of stones jutting up from the ground, varying in size and shape. Each represents the country of origin for the Jews murdered at Treblinka, including Poland, Russia, Belgium, Yugoslavia, France, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Bulgaria.

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The platform where deportees disembarked from the box cars.
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Flowers growing in the stones on the platform.

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Beyond the platform sits a graveyard made of stones. Beyond counting, thousands of stones surround the main monument. As symbolic matzevah, they vary drastically in size, shape, and color. Some are inscribed with the names of the communities of Jews murdered here at Treblinka. In many cases, an entire community is memorialized by a name carved into one of these stones. The stones are arranged to mark various locations of the incremental murderous process. One cannot stand in this space and not feel overwhelmed.

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The main memorial site at Treblinka.

The area where the cremation gates stood when the camp was operational sharply contrasts with the surrounding stone memorial. Although, it is also made of stone, it it a darker polished stone that has been carved to look like charred pieced of wood. As I stood here, the words of Vasily Grossman describing the mass cremation rang through my head. This segment of the audio guide was the most difficult to listen to. After providing a contextual description of this location, the narrators read a list names of  some of the victims who were murdered here. While most of the other segments were only a few minutes long, this one was more than fourteen.

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The installation marking the location of the cremation gate.

After listening to the entire list, I started to make my way back to the museum near the parking lot. I met Maciek along the way and we came across an older gentleman whom I had seen with his family at the memorial. When I initially saw him, I wondered who he was and what led him here. By the way he was talking with his family and showing them various stones, I thought that he may be a survivor or have some other connection to Treblinka. Maciek and the man had a conversation switching back and forth between Polish and English. What I wasn’t able to make out, Maciek translated for us later. The man was, indeed, a survivor of the Holocaust. He was from the part of Poland under Soviet rule and his immediate family was deported to Kazakhstan. Later, they were able to escape. The rest of his family was murdered at Treblinka. This was his first time back to Poland in 70 years. It was very powerful to meet this man and to hear his story in this space.

Although our time at Treblinka was the hardest experience of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program so far, I am very grateful to have been able to go. Although it was difficult, it was necessary. We live in a world in which people deny the Holocaust and where hate and prejudice often goes unchallenged. As a student and a teacher of this time period, I believe in the power of education as a means of prevention. The fact that I was able to tour Treblinka does not change the fact that genocide continues to occur today. It does, however, give me further motivation to continue studying and teaching about the Holocaust.

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The “Never Again Stone” in front of the main monument at Treblinka II.

Jewish Warsaw

Warsaw is steeped in history. Memorials, monuments, and markers are all over the place! Although the many modern buildings seemingly disguise it, you soon realize that even these buildings are a piece of the city’s long and complicated history. Because of our program’s focus, our time in Warsaw was predominantly spent visiting places related to World War II in the Holocaust. For the purposes of this post, I have decided to organize my experiences in Warsaw topically, rather than chronologically. In addition to the walking tour led my Maciek on our first afternoon in the city (discussed briefly in “Welcome to Warsaw”), we were led on a tour of Jewish Warsaw by Dr. Angieszka Haska from The Polish Center for Holocaust Research.

The Warsaw Ghetto

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Stopping at the Warsaw Ghetto wall during our tour.

Prior to the German invasion of Poland, there were approximately 350,000 Jews living in Warsaw. This made up 30% of the city’s entire population. In October 1940, the Germans ordered the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw and required that all of the city’s Jews move into the designated area in November. With an estimated 400,000 people, the Warsaw Ghetto was the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe. Approximately 55,000 Jews died in the ghetto during its operation. Between June and September 1942, the Nazis implemented mass deportations of more than 250,000 people from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. The remaining 70-80,000 residents of the ghetto were meant to be used as forced laborers. However, when the SS and police forces entered the ghetto to begin liquidation on April 19, 1943, Jewish armed underground organizations (Jewish Combat Organization and Jewish Military Union) fought back against the German troops forcing them to temporarily retreat. Known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, this is one of the most famous acts of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

 

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A section of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto.
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The bridge at ul. Chłodna divided the Warsaw Ghetto into two sections.
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One of the tenement houses in the Warsaw Ghetto.
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The Umschlagplatz where the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto waited for deportation.
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A memorial plaque at the Umschlagplatz.
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Ulica Miła 18 Headquarters (bunker) for the ZOB during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw was established in the early 19th century. It is one of the largest in all of Europe with more than 250,000 graves. During the war, the cemetery was partially demolished by the Germans and as a result of the uprisings. Many Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto were buried here. Additionally, many of those who were involved in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were interred in this cemetery as well.

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Rows of headstones in the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw.
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A reconstructed wall built using destroyed matsevah (headstones).
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Grave of Dr. Marek Edelman – last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
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A monument dedicated to the children murdered during the Holocaust.
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The memorial to Dr. Janusz Korczak who refused to abandon the children in his care and was deported to Treblinka.

POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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POLIN: Museum of the History of the Polish Jews

After exploring Jewish Warsaw with Dr. Haska, we spent the afternoon at POLIN. We had the opportunity to meet with Joanna Fikus, Director of Exhibitions at POLIN Museum, before touring. She explained the origin of the museum and the conceptual framework of the museum. She also talked to us about it’s programs and initiatives. We were then able to explore the exhibitions on our own. POLIN divides its core exhibition into eight galleries focusing on the extensive history of Jews in Poland (6 galleries), the Holocaust (1 gallery), and the post-war years (1 gallery). Like the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, one of the goals of the museum is to tell a more complete history of the Jewish community.

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The Ghetto Heroes Monument across from POLIN.

 

 

Preserving Jewish History (Part 2)

In part 1 of this two part series, I discussed the various efforts to restore and preserve Jewish history in the city of Krakow. The cemetery, synagogues, and various other buildings in the Kazimierz district continue to represent and to serve the small, but active, Jewish community that lives there and those who chose to visit. This post focuses on five towns and cities located in the area to the east of Krakow, including Dziaroszyce, Kielce, Chmielnik, Dabrowa Tarnowska, and Zbylitowska Góra. Each of these locations hosted significant Jewish populations prior to the war and today have virtually, if not literally, no Jews left.  Yet, here too, there have been initiatives by the local non-Jewish populations to preserve the remnants of the town’s Jewish history.

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The remains of the Działoszyce synagogue.

The first location we visited was Działoszyce. Prior to the war, this town had a prominent Jewish community, making up approximately 80% of the entire population. Immediately after the Nazis occupied the town, the Jewish community was immediately targeted. The rabbi was assaulted and the Torah, in addition to other religious texts, were stabbed. Throughout the war, the synagogue was used as a warehouse. Most of the Jews who were deported were taken to Płaszów. Only a few hundred of the approximately 10,000 Jews who lived in Działoszyce survived and returned to the town. After the war, the town’s Gentile population launched a pogrom against the remaining Jews. In response, the Jews who had returned to Działoszyce left for good. The remains of the mid-19th century synagogue stands out against the unassuming shops and personal residences around it. The restoration of the synagogue was a 2 million PLN project with the town providing nearly 40% of the amount. For a town with a small population of approximately 1,000 people, this is a considerable amount of money. There is also a black stone plaque dedicated to the Jews from the town who were murdered during the Holocaust.

 

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The Działoszyce synagogue.
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Tomiek explaining details of the restoration project.
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The memorial plaque to the Jews of Działoszyce.

 

Of the various locations, we visited on this travel day, Kielce was the largest. Prior to World War II, it was a large Jewish center with more than 22,000 Jews living in the city.  It became a major refugee center for Jews fleeing the Nazi German forces. In 1941, a ghetto was established in Kielce. In August 1942, the Kielce Ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis and their Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian collaborators. The few who survived this Aktion were sent to be used as forced laborers. On July 4, 1946, there was a major outbreak of violence against the surviving Jewish population. Known as the Kielce Pogrom, 42 Jews were killed and at least that many injured by Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians. This event prompted a mass exodus of Jews from all over Poland. While we were in Kielce, we were able to meet with Bogdan Bialek, President of the Jan Karski Society. This organization serves the local community by providing educational and cultural events encouraging positive Christian-Jewish relations. The Jan Karski Society has also established a museum at 7 Planty Street, which was the location of the Kielce Pogrom in 1946.

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The memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Kielce Pogrom (July 4, 1946).
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The installation of a new memorial which names the 42 victims of the Kielce Pogrom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chmielnik was home to approximately 5700-5900 Jews in 1939. Like Kielce, many Jews from the surrounding area sought refuge here after the German invasion of Poland. The population doubled in size because of these refugees. The Germans arrived on

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The memorial for the Jews of Chmielnik who died during the Holocaust.

September 4, 1939. That night, fourteen Jews were forcibly removed from their houses and taken to the prayer house near the synagogue and it was set on fire. The same night dozens of Jewish businesses were vandalized and robbed. A ghetto was established in Chmielnik in 1941 and it nearly encompassed the entire town. The liquidation of the ghetto took place in successive waves between October and December 1942. Most of the Jews of Chmielnik died in the gas chambers at Treblinka. Of the 12,000 Jews in the city, only about 500 survived the war. Today, the exterior of the synagogue in Chmielnik has been fully restored. Like, Działoszyce, this was funded by the local community and the European Union. The interior of the synagogue is used as a museum documenting Jewish life in the town before the war.  It contains one of only a few glass bema’s in Europe. We were able to tour the museum while we were here. On site, there is also a memorial for the Jews of Chmielnik who died during the Holocaust.

 

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Names of Jewish victims from Chmielnick.
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The glass bema located in the Chmielnik synagogue museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The restored synagogue of Dabrowa Tarnowska.

Dabrowa Tarnowska is yet another site that hosted a significant pre-war Jewish population. Today, the only remnant of this history is a beautifully restored 19th century synagogue. During German occupation, a ghetto was established in Dabrowa Tarnowska and the Jews were used for forced labor. Most of them were later sent the Belzec, an extermination camp, where they were murdered. Only about 50 Jews returned after the war, but most left Poland after the waves of pogroms in 1945 and 1946. The restoration of the synagogue initiated in 2012 with funds from the local community and the European Union. The building is home to the Center for the Meeting of Cultures in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, which commemorates the Jewish history of the town. Although, we were unable to access the interior, the outside of the synagogue was beautiful. The size and design demonstrate the significance of the Jewish population of Dąbrowa Tarnowska before the Holocaust.

 

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One of the memorials at  Zbylitowska Góra marking a mass grave of Jewish victims.

Our final destination of the day was Zbylitowska Góra. During the war, the Nazis used this location as a mass murder site. From June 1942 until 1943, approximately 10,000 people (Jews and Christian Poles) were murdered here by the Einsatzgruppen. Many of these individuals were from the Ghetto, including 800 children from a local orphanage. The locations of the mass graves were marked soon after the murders. Today they are fenced off and marked with memorials and plaques. Visitors have left stones, photographs, prayers, and other tokens on these memorials as a way to pay respect to these victims. Visiting Zbylitowska Góra was the most difficult experience so far. This was first time I have ever been to a site of mass murder. It was strange to be there. I had a hard time reconciling the sound of birds chirping with the knowledge of where I stood and what happened here. As I walked around, I heard testimonies of survivors and other witnesses in my head, describing the process of the executions that took place in locations similar to this. It was difficult to say the least.

 

 

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Mass graves at  Zbylitowska Góra.
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The official monument at  Zbylitowska Góra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The fences surrounding the mass graves of Jews include the Star of David.
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Visitors leave stones, notes, and other tokens to show their respects to the victims of  Zbylitowska Góra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A memorial marking the mass grave of Christian Polish Victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The legacy of the Holocaust in Poland is one of the many topics of focus for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program. One of these legacies is the absence of a significant Jewish population in Poland. The attempt to preserve the remnants of the pre-war Polish Jewish history through the restoration of synagogues, erection of memorials, and the establishment of museums is an important initiative.

Welcome to Warsaw

So this will just be a short post – I just wanted to do a quick check in.

Yesterday morning, we said do widzenia to Krakow and dzień dobry to Warsaw.  We traveled by train, so we spent the better part of 2.5 hours driving through the Polish country side. I cannot describe how beautiful it was! Shortly after we arrived in Warsaw and checked into our hotel, we set out with our faithful guide Macieck on a walking tour to and then around the Old City.

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Old Town Warsaw. Many of these buildings were restored after World War II.
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The Mermaid of Warsaw – this has become a symbol of the city and is visible around the city.
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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
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Markers denoting the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto can be found throughout Warsaw.

Warsaw is very different than Krakow. Because most of the city was destroyed during World War II, the architecture is more modern. There is this odd combination of Stalinist-era realism, modern glass high rises, and a few pre-war era architectural styles. Although at first, there is a startling clash to it, you begin to see the variations as the appeal of the city.

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The Palace of Culture and Science. This is a Stalinist-era structure that has come to be a landmark of Warsaw.
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An example of the modernist architecture in Warsaw.
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An example of a pre-war building. You can see the damage from bullets.

In the afternoon, we went for a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. During the war, two different armed uprisings took place in the city of Warsaw. The first, April – May 1943, was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in which members of the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ZOB), led by Mordecai Anielewicz, heroically fought back against the Germans as they tried to implement the final deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka. The second was the operation by Polish Home Army to liberate the city of Warsaw from German occupation during August – October 1944. This particular museum was focused on the latter. In addition to the core exhibition space, there is an outdoor installation of street art and a memorial wall.

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“The Color of Freedom Warsaw 1944.” Exhibition featuring colored images from the Warsaw Uprising.
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Street art installation at the
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Warsaw Uprising Memorial Wall

We are only in Warsaw for a few days. We had a full day today and we will be going to Treblinka tomorrow. On Sunday morning we’ll be heading back south to Oświęcim.

 

Preserving Jewish History (Part 1)

Before World War II, Krakow was the center of Jewish life in Poland. The city boasted a population of approximately 60,000 Jews with at least 90 active synagogues. After the Holocaust, the population was greatly diminished with between less than 5,000 remaining. Today, only 120 people identify as Jewish according to Krakow’s official census. Despite the major shift in population demographics in Poland since World War II, there has been a significant attempt to preserve and rebuild Jewish life in Krakow. In this two part post, I will detail some of the many ways that communities in Poland are trying to preserve Jewish culture, heritage, and history.

One of the popular examples of this attempt to preserve Jewish life in Krakow is the annual Jewish Cultural Festival. This is a 10 day community event, featuring tours, lectures, workshops, concerts, and other performances. People come from all over the world to participate in this festival, most of whom are not Jewish. Based in Kazimierez (the Jewish quarter in Krakow), this year’s theme was Zion. Our group was fortunate enough to be in Krakow for the final few days of the festival. This massive public event celebrates Jewish life and maintains it’s presence in the city of Krakow.

On Sunday morning, our cohort met with a local scholar for a tour of Jewish Krakow. Our tour included visits to 4 of the active synagogues and the Jewish cemetery in Kazimierez.

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Jewish Cemetery at the Remuh Synagogue in Kazimierz.

First, we went to the cemetery at the Remuh Synagogue. Much like others throughout Nazi occupied Europe, this cemetery was destroyed during the Holocaust. The Nazis removed the matzeivah (headstones) in order to used them to pave roads and the site itself was used as a garbage dump throughout the war. After liberation, some of the Jews of this congregation returned to Krakow and began to restore the cemetery. They first cleaned out all of the waste. Then, when they were able to, they brought the matzeivah back , repairing those that they could. They then reinstalled them in the cemetery. Some of the grave sites were known (as was the case with some of the more important rabbis), but most were not able to be identified. Documentation was destroyed by the Nazis and many family members who might have known were murdered during the Holocaust. Because of this, most of the headstones do not mark the correct grave site.  There were also many of the matzeivah that were irreparable and/or unrecognizable. These were then beautifully incorporated into the reconstructed cemetery wall. Today, many visitors will place prayers and notes into the gapes between the stones, similar to the tradition at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The cemetery restoration project continues today. Various community members, students from schools in Krakow, and other people from around the world volunteer to help restore the metzeivah and maintain the cemetery.

Upon leaving the cemetery, we entered the Remuh Synagogue. Erected in the 16th century, this synagogue continues to have weekly synagogue services. Because of this, the Remuh Synagoge is a key fixture of Jewish Krakow. As we filed into the sanctuary, it was hard not to notice the intimacy of this space. Although it is small, it is beautiful. I cannot decide which was more striking: the iron wrought bimah or the painted ceiling. During Nazi occupation, the Remuh Synagogue was used as an armory storing weapons and ammunition. Much of the synagogue’s interior was destroyed during the war, however a few items remained intact, including the Aron-Kodesh, which holds the sacred Torah scrolls. Various projects have been implemented to restore the interior, including the most recent cleaning of the ceiling in 2017.

Next, we went to Tempel Synagogue. Constructed in the mid-19th century, it is home to a modern Reform Jewish congregation. The sanctuary of Tempel Synagogue was much larger and more lavishly decorated than any of the others we visited. This was surprising given the relative modesty of the building’s exterior. It’s design is considered to be “more protestant” as a result of the time of its construction. During World War II, the Nazis used this synagogue as a horse stable. In the mid-1990s when the Worlds Monuments Fund helped to restore the interior to it’s pre-war state. Today, in addition to religious services, Tempel Synagogue is used for community events, including concerts of the Jewish Cultural Festival.

izaak1The final stop on our tour was the Izaak Synagogue. Constructed during the 17th century, it is one of the largest synagogues in Krakow. During the war, the building was used by the Nazis as a storage warehouse and much of the interior was destroyed. In the years after the war, control over the synagogue exchanged hands and was further damaged by a fire. It was not until the early 1980s that restoration work began. Preservation and restoration work continues today. The current rabbi commissioned an exhibition which shows visitors what the walls would have looked like during the pre-war years. Much of the paintings of prayers were destroyed during the war and in the years after, but this exhibit demonstrates the beauty of the sanctuary. It is an active synagogue today, hosting Shabbat services and other community events.

The Jewish community in Krakow is, and likely never will be, the same as it was before the Holocaust. Despite this knowledge, a great deal of time and effort has gone into the preservation of Jewish heritage in the city. It is ironic that the attempts by the Nazis to defile these sacred sites by using them for storage warehouses and as stables are what ultimately ensured that the structures remained standing after the war. In Part 2 of “Preserving Jewish History,” I will discuss our study tour of small Jewish towns and cities in the region surrounding Krakow, including Dziaroszyce, Chmielnik, Dabrowa Tarnowska, Kielce, and Zbylitowska Góra.

“Schindler’s List” and Krakow During Nazi Occupation

schindler's listSteven Spielberg ‘s 1993 film. Schindler’s List, is one of the most famous Holocaust movies of all time. For many people in the United States, this movie is the gateway into studying this time period. It was part of my own entry into Holocaust studies. I can vividly remember watching Schindler’s List in Mr. Cole’s AP U.S. History class during my junior year of high school. The film is focused on Oskar Schindler, who despite being a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. Click here for more about Oskar Schindler. Due to the international popularity of this film, Krakow has become a major destination for those who want to see where these events took place. And much like these tourists and other interested parties, I was excited to see that many of the significant sites included in Schindler’s List (Krakow Ghetto, Płaszów Concentration Camp, and Schindler’s Factory) were on our itinerary while here in Krakow.

So yesterday was the day. After a rainy lunch, we met with Professor Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University at Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) in the area that served as the Krakow Ghetto between 1941 and 1943. One of five major metropolitan ghettos established by the Nazi Regime in the General Government, between 15,000 and 20,000 in this location. The ghetto was liquidated in March of 1943. Those who were deemed capable of work were deported to the newly established nearby Plazow Concentration Camp or taken to an extermination camp where they were murdered. Ghetto Heroes Square was the central communal areas in the Krakow Ghetto. Today, there is a memorial spread out over the square. Known as the “Empty Chairs Memorial,” this installation features 33 chairs made of iron and bronze in remembrance of the Jews of Krakow.

After we left Ghetto Heroes Square, we took a tram and then walked to the site of Płaszów Concentraiton Camp. Płaszów was the sire to which the majority of the Krakow Jews were deported and used as slave labor. Roma/Sinti, non-Jewish Poles, and Jews from other areas of southeastern Poland were interned here as well. Today, the site of Płaszów is covered with lush, verdant, vegetation. The flourishing natural environment is a stark contraction from what one might expect after seeing the film and/or other archival images of this location. We started our tour at the entrance of the camp, just off a major residential road. Professor Gawron also served as our lecturer/tour guide during our time at Płaszów. As part of the tour, she explained the development of the memorial site to our group. For years after World War II, this site went un-memorialized. For years, it was used as a recreational area and many of the visitors still use it for this purpose today. Within the last year, as a result of preservationist initiatives, an outdoor exhibition has been installed, featuring archival photographs and brief historical information, in order to provide context and orient visitors to the site. Because of the religious prohibition against disturbing gravesites in the Jewish tradition, it was necessary to bring dirt in to the site to create raised beds in which the photo plaques could be installed. The preservation project also included adding paved and gravel paths in order to increase accessibility. These paths were based on functional roads during Płaszów’s operation. We used one such path to make our way up to the highest point of the camp where the memorials are located.

The main monument at Płaszów concentration camp was installed in 1964, while Poland was still a satellite state of the Soviet Union. The structure is massive and is made of granite. It was oriented to face the city of Krakow and is visible from the highway and local residential and commercial areas. The front face of the memorial depicts five figures standing forlornly with their heads hung low and their arms at their sides. This monument has been given the name of “The Memorial of Torn-out Hearts,” because of the large gap in the chest region of the figures. The message inscribed on the opposite side of the memorial in unarguably a reflection of the time period in which it was built. The text reads: “To the memory of the martyrs murdered by the Nazi genociders in the years 1943-45.” It is important to realize two things. Firstly, the term “Nazi genociders” is commonly used on Holocaust/war memorials in Poland, especially during this era. Secondly, there is no reference to the Jewish victims. The national narrative of the Holocaust in Poland typically emphasizes the Polish victims of the Nazi German occupation. For this reason, additional memorials were later added by members of the Jewish communities.

Our tour of Płaszów was my first experience visiting a Nazi concentration camp. It is difficult to put into words my reactions to being there. I felt disconnected because of the lush landscape. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was not to see such verdant life. If it were not for the photo exhibition and the memorial installations, I would not know where I was. I would have just assumed that this was a park with walking paths. I was very disconcerted with the runners and bikers who were doing their various recreational activities. I was also disturbed by the houses that had been constructed just off of the premises of the concentration camp. We also walked by the site of Amon Goeth’s villa. Goeth served as the commandant of Płaszów during its operation and was known for his particular cruelty and indiscriminate shootings of the Jewish prisoners. In recent years, the house has been on and off the market and has been the subject of much debate. Within the last year, it has been renovated. It was eerie to see the house and to once again consider the complexity of the continuation of life in a site of mass atrocity.

Occupying the space formerly used as Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory, the Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera was established in 2010. My initial reaction to this museum was extremely negative. I had a very visceral reaction to the Nazi Occupation section of the exhibition, which displayed multiple Nazi flags, a tile floor covered with

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The swastika tile floor located in the Nazi Occupation section.

swastikas, and many other pieces of memorabilia. I was disappointed by the limited focus on Oskar Schindler and his rescue efforts. I was also confused by what historical narrative the curators of the exhibition were trying to tell and was very critical about the interpretation (or lack thereof) in certain sections. Many of the fellows in my cohorts had similar reactions. I’ve spent the last few days talking it though with them and we were fortunate enough to have a Q/A session with Professor Edyta Gawron who was part of the curatorial team. Their combined insights have helped to shift my perspective about the exhibition. The curators realized that the knowledge of a significant number of visitors would be limited to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, so they wanted to focus on the broader history of Krakow under Nazi occupation, highlighting this specific example of rescue. Thus, Schindler’s story is situated within the larger narrative. They were intentional in designing  the carious sections in order to narrate the experiences and understandings of the residents of Krakow during 1939-1945. Thus, the exhibit was entitled “Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939–1945.” Although I still have some serious reservations about the use of some of the artifacts in the Nazi Occupation section, this explains the prominent use of Nazi regalia and memorabilia because the Nazi presence in Krakow was so overwhelming. Additionally, the curatorial team intentionally limited the interpretation of certain artifacts and sections because of the physical limitations of the space and because they were trying to maintain a healthy flow of traffic. For this reason, according to Professor Gawron, some areas have less historical context/interpretive information than others. Finally, they wanted to encourage reflection and introspection in the final spaces of the exhibition, so they also had limited interpretation in these areas. As I said earlier, I still have some significant reservations about the museum. Even as a scholar of Holocaust studies and as someone who is familiar with the curation of exhibitions, I left the space very confused. I am more appreciative of this experience after reflecting on this experience for a few days and thanks to the insights of my colleagues. I do hope to have the opportunity to visit this museum again.