Treblinka

This morning the weather forecast did not call for rain. Nonetheless, on the way to Treblinka it began to rain. The weather dovetailed with the content of the day at every turn - it was as though the weather was providing a soundtrack. When we were listening to intense stories, the rain and wind would pick up. When we were having a moment of wandering around and contemplating, the sun and the butterflies came out. As we left a forest, it gently began to rain and the tall trees were swaying together, in a very mournful way. I am, of course, anthropomorphizing the trees, the wind and the rain in a way that draws a stark contrast to how the Germans dehumanized the Jewish people. 

Here’s how the day went and what we learned. 

Yesterday we visited the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was liquidated beginning in 1941, and to do so, it was necessary to have a place nearby that could efficiently murder the Ghetto’s inhabitants. Thus, Treblinka II was built. There is a Treblinka I - it was a a forced labour camp that mostly imprisoned Polish people who would often serve a period of time and then be released. Individuals were never released from Treblinka II. In fact, the vast majority of the nearly 1 million people who arrived at Treblinka II lived for less than 45 minutes after arrival. In other words, Treblinka II was not a concentration camp, it was a death camp - with the sole purpose of murdering the people that arrived via cattle car. Roughly 4 cattle cars would be unloaded at a time (each one holding around 100 people). The men would be separated from the women and children and told to undress in the square. From there, they would be led down a tunnel like path of trees. I began this post by noting that it seemed like the trees, the wind and the rain were watching us today, somehow purposefully mirroring the moments we were moving through. The story of the tunnel made of trees makes me think of nature as an enduring witness. This is getting a bit ahead of myself, but when I last visited Auschwitz in the winter of 2018 there were two large (and old) poplar trees being cut down. The trees stood right behind the execution wall and the infamous block 11 where prisoners were often tortured. When I saw the tree being cut up and carted away I thought of what that tree must have witnessed. It was of an age that it would have been there, hanging over the execution wall and the barracks throughout the duration of the operations at Auschwitz. How many people saw the branches of this tree as their last vision on this Earth? How many would have had only a small glimpse of these leaves out the small window in the prison cells? Thus, even if the trees cannot literally witness what happens around them and cannot truly hold a memory of what they saw, in some sense they do still “hold” those memories as they stand as living reminders that living, real, individual human beings looked upon them in some of their darkest hours (or minutes). 

In addition to the idea that nature can bear witness to all that humans do in its presence, I was also struck by the purposeful use of nature at Treblinka. To create a tunnel of trees in such a short amount of time would have required landscaping the area with a purpose. Someone would have had to engage in a discussion about the purpose of the trees - they wanted a constrained path that would hide from view the destination at the end. They wanted a path that would direct someone walking through it easily to only one destination. They would have had to bring in mature trees and plant them there, in a specific pattern in order to achieve the effect for which they were aiming. Who were the landscapers of the Third Reich? What responsibility do they hold for being the architects of the natural landscape that hid, directed, and surrounded mass murder? 

The men were directed to run naked down this treed path and at the end, they reached a gas chamber. The early gas chambers at Treblinka were ineffective. Carbon monoxide from engines was pumped into the chambers. The ceilings were too high. Sometimes not everyone died - even after an extended period of time. In an unprecedented move across all of the death camps, operations were actually halted for a period of time in order to rebuild the gas chambers so that they would be more efficient. They lowered the ceilings to ensure that the gas would not rise to the top - out of reach of the small children. 

They did not build crematoria at Treblinka II. They dug huge pits that the bodies were dumped into after being removed from the gas chambers. Death here was not quick. At a minimum, it would take 25 minutes to die - and sometimes upwards of 45 minutes. When the gas chamber doors were opened, the dead bodies would still be standing, clinging to each other due to having been packed in so tightly. 

As the men were sent down the path to their deaths, the women and children were taken into a building. Here they had their hair removed. We listened to a story of one of the prisoners assigned to cut the women’s hair off. He described how the women were, in some ways, often comforted by this - as having their hair cut implied that they’d like go through a disinfection process next, and perhaps from there into a labour camp. Instead, though, the hair was being cut for much more diabolical purposes. The hair was being “harvested” in order to make mattresses for the German submarines. One young girl in her 20s was not swayed by the illusion of continued life and knew that she was headed to her death. She asked the man how long she would suffer. He lied to her and said that it would only be moments. Her name was Ruth. His name was Samuel. As we listened to their story, the wind picked up, and the rain began to fall. 

When Treblinka II had killed just under 1 million men women and children, it closed. The Germans destroyed it, not only dismantling all of the evidence, but even going so far as to exhume the mass graves and burn the bodies. When they were done, they turned the area into farm land. 

Today the site of Treblinka II is a somber memorial site. There are no original buildings due to the destruction of all the evidence. Despite this, we do know the story of Treblinka II. We know for two reasons: first, archeologists have been able to find evidence, including original tiles from the floors of the gas chambers that had stars of David on them. It is these small touches that really lay bare the psychological sadism employed by the Nazis. It was not uncommon that the gas chambers would be adorned with Jewish symbols like the Star of David. It is the history of these small decisions that I would like to know more about. Who ordered the tiles? Who wrote out a request to have X number of ceramic tiles delivered, each emblazoned with a Star of David? We talk a lot about how the Germans dehumanized the Jews and how this dehumanizations made it “easier” to murder them. However, if you look closely, you find small indications that they were not entirely dehumanized. What animal would we ever attempt to “calm down” prior to slaughter by displaying to them symbols of their faith? The very notion of a person having a faith is humanizing. Purposefully attempting to manipulate the psychological state of an individual requires an acknowledgement of their humanity, their consciousness and their emotional existence. In many ways, the Nazis were intentionally considering the humanity of their victims in orchestrating the ways in which they would send them to their deaths. 

The second way that we know the history of Treblinka is from its survivors. On August 2, 1943, the members of the Sonderkommando (the Jewish prisoners forced to run the gas chambers, bury the bodies, raid the bodies and sheer hair) revolted, killing as many SS and Ukrainian guards in the process as they could. The majority of the men were killed by the SS (roughly 200 out of 300). Some 100 escaped, and of those, about 70 survived the war. It is from these men that we know the details of how Treblinka operated and the dark history that the Nazis attempted to hide under fields of wheat. 

The main memorial at Treblinka is a large stone sculpture sitting on the location of the gas chambers. The sculpture itself attempts to depict the men women and children suffocating to death within the gas chambers. Surrounding this sculpture is a large field - but not nearly as large as you would expect. Perhaps the size of two or three football fields at most. In the centre there is a pit filled with black stones representing the open graves that the bodies were thrown into. Surrounding this, the field is filled with stones - of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many of the stones are inscribed with the names of towns or villages from which Jews were deported to their deaths at Treblinka. There are 17,000 stones in total, and 216 of them are inscribed with the names of towns. Only one of the 17,000 stones has a person’s name inscribed on it. The name is Janusz Korczack - the keeper of the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto who went to his death with the children rather than leave them to die alone (I will write more about him when I write about our day in Warsaw). 

On our way to the main sculpture and field of memorial stones, we stopped and listened to various stories of people who died at Treblinka. Each time, the rain would pick up and linger over us as we walked. When the last of the testimonies had been read in front of the main memorial, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and our group dispersed amongst the stones - some searching for the names of towns where they had family. The stones are placed on top of large stone slates, presumably to prevent nature from taking over and hiding the stones forever. Nonetheless, the area is weathered, and nature continues to intertwine itself with the memorial. The slabs of stone that the rocks are on are covered in moss, wild flowers grow in the field and encroach on the rocks. The field, at least today, also seemed to be filled with butterflies. They would pause for a moment on a specific stone, and then fly off to another one. Later in the evening when we discussed the day, and one of the participants noted how the signs of life and beauty juxtaposed to the memories of death and destruction was a visual expression of the following poem:

Go to Treblinka

Go to Treblinka

keep your eyes wide open

sharpen your hearing

stop your breathing

and listen to the voices which emerge

from every   grain of that  earth –

 

Go to Treblinka

They are waiting there for you

They long  to the voice of your life

to the sign of your existence,

to the pace of your feet

to human look understanding and remembering

to caress of love over their ashes –

Go to Treblinka

 

go by your own free will

go by the power of pain over the horror which has happened

from the depth of understanding and the aching heart which has not accepted –

listen to Them there with all your senses!

 

Go to Treblinka

there the green silence, golden or white

which embrace Them each season of the year

will tell you stories of the stories

about life which became forbidden and impossible –

 

Go to Treblinka

watch how time has stopped there

listen to the standing time, to the dead thundering silence

and to the human stones weeping there in silence

Go to Treblinka to feel it even for just one second –

 

Go to Treblinka

grow a flower by a hot tear, by human breath

against one stone – memory of a whole community

on earth which is their flesh and ashes.

They are waiting there in Treblinka for you to come and listen to Them

cry within the silence

and in total mute identification, unifying

bring Them each time the story of life which continues and of reviving love.

 

Go to Treblinka for generations to generations

Do not leave Them alone -

  • Halina Birenbaum

Łódź Memorial: Radegast Station

Imagine for a moment that you were living during a time of war. You, and the rest of your community, have been forced to live in an area far too small for your numbers. You have heard rumours that the overcrowding is not an issue because your enemies plan to murder you very soon. Imagine also that you have been placed in charge of your entire community, and it is your job to arrange housing assignments, work assignments, and to do your best with maintaining some semblance of order and normalcy in a completely upside down world. Imagine that one day your overlords come to you and say that if you can convince your community to turn over all of its children, the rest of the adults can continue to live. What would you do? In numbers, you are being asked to sacrifice roughly 10,000 - 15,000 children in order to save upwards of 70,000 adults. Except, the adults you’ll be saving are the parents of those children.

This is the position in which Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland found himself in the fall of 1942. He gave a famous speech to the parents of the Ghetto - “Give Me Your Children” - in which he asked the parents to voluntarily hand over their children - to be murdered - so that they could continue to live. Why? In order to keep the ghetto in existence, it needed to be seen as a “useful” and industrial ghetto. If that was the case, then there was no need for children, the sick or the elderly. Thus, the deal was, if these groups were voluntarily turned over, those capable of working (10 years of age and up) would be allowed to work, live, and avoid deportation. Unsurprisingly, the parents did not agree. But this did not save the children. Rumkowski ordered that the children under 10, the elderly, and the sick, be removed from the Ghetto. They were sent to Chelmno, a death camp, where they were gassed to death - mostly in makeshift gas chambers in the back of cargo trucks.

While turning over the children, elderly and sick did buy the Ghetto more than a year and a half of reprieve from deportations, it also allowed the ghetto to produce more than $14 Million USD in revenue for the Nazis during the same time period — in 1940s values! In the end, Himmler overruled the “deal” that Rumkowski had struck and ordered the rest of the ghetto deported to Auschwitz. How do we today determine what was a moral or immoral decision under such circumstances?

Today we listened to this story, considered the magnitude of being faced with such impossible decisions, and then visited a memorial to those who were deported from the Łódź Ghetto. The memorial consists of three parts. There is a train station that houses a small museum showing the Ghetto. The memorial is along the train tracks - still in use - so while you are there, every once in a while a train goes by. On a set of train tracks outside the station sits a series of 1940s cattle cars, the same kind of cars that Jewish people were packed into - 100 per car. We stood inside one of the cars - approximately 20 of us - and tried to imagine - impossibly - what it would be like for there to be 5 times as many people in there with us. Walking away from the cattle car you enter a hall of memory, which is lined with page after page after page after page of neatly typed or written lists of names. They are the meticulously prepared lists that dictated who would be put onto the “shipments” out of the Ghetto on which dates. I can’t imagine how long it would take to read each and every name.

At the end of the tunnel, there is a hall of names - names of the places from which people were sent to the Ghetto. Entire towns and communities, families, wiped from the Earth forever. The light coming in comes down from a tall pillar - which, from the outside, looks like the chimney of a crematorium. There is a gate, with the Star of David on it, and the end of this tunnel represents the fate that the majority of the Łódź Ghetto inhabitants met - death followed by unceremonious incineration.

As with many Holocaust memorials, the Radegast Station memorial for the Łódź Ghetto deportations is really only as impactful as the narratives and stories that you bring with you to the site. This is one of the challenges of Holocaust Education. Visiting these sites can reach a visceral level that can never be reached through reading alone, and yet, that level can only truly be experienced if the visitor has done some reading before arriving. Visiting this site left me wondering how it is perceived by individuals who visit without the narratives, without the bigger picture. If they step inside of that cattle car alone, how do they feel? If they don’t know what awaited the passengers at the other end, can they even begin to imagine the terror of that experience? Today it is just an empty cattle car.

We perhaps got some hint of how people may perceive this site. While we were there, two things happened. The first was a young family out for a walk. While we were sitting on the steps discussing the impact of the memorial, the family walked by - a mom, dad, dog, and a young child driving one of those motorized cars for kids. He was honking the horn, driving on the sidewalk of the memorial, and when they got closer to the train station section where the cattle cars sit, he was driving around in circles at the base of the station - clearly within the boundaries of the memorial site. Perhaps the family lives nearby and this is just the most logical place to go for their evening walk? There are what appear to be apartments being built right next to the memorial and I also wondered what it would be like to live there. Could you live there if you were aware of the history and meaning?

The second event was somewhat more jarring. A car with two young men drove past and parked right on the sidewalk of the memorial. They then got out, sat on their car and cracked open two beers. To fully understand this, you have to realize that this memorial is down a dead end street, it is right on functioning train tracks, it is not a grassy area or a park. In other words, it’s not a memorial that happens to be in a place where you’d also want to just relax and have a beer. After a while, another young man walked past the car and from the body language of the conversation that followed, it appeared that this third man was trying to tell the two beer drinking men that this was an inappropriate place to sit and have a beer. The third man gestured back towards the cattle cars, pointed to the dates of the war inscribed on the wall behind where the men were standing and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “this doesn’t seem to be an appropriate place for you right now.” This man continued on, and a few minutes later the two young men got back into their car and drove away. To do so, they had to drive past our group, which was still sitting and discussing. As they drove by, the man in the passenger seat made eye contact with me and then proceeded to smile a rather menacing smile and wave. I don’t know how to describe it. It was one of those things where if you could confront the person they would probably say “What? I was smiling at you, and waving, what is so wrong about being friendly?” And yet, if you saw that smile, you would instantly know that it was not a friendly smile. Up until that point, I had thought perhaps they just didn’t know where they were. Maybe they were just looking for a place to hang out and drink beer. But the way he looked at us, the way he waved, it made me feel as though they really did know where they were, and that they had come there on purpose. Hopefully, I am wrong in how I interpreted the situation, but I fear otherwise. For me, while the whole visit had been quite powerful, the moment of seeing him wave was the moment that hit like a sucker punch. It is one thing to learn about the atrocities of the past, and to question how on Earth humans could ever be so cruel to each other - but it is another to then in a moment be faced with the answer - we can do this because we are capable of disregarding the others’ feelings, of dehumanizing them, feeling contempt towards them, and refusing to empathize. I can think of no greater insult to the victims of the Holocaust than the fact that we, as humans, have failed to learn the lessons inherent in their deaths, and that we continue to treat each other in ways that made the Holocaust possible in the first place.


More Reading:

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/give-me-your-children-voices-from-the-lodz-ghetto

https://speakola.com/ideas/chaim-rumkowski-give-me-your-children-1942

Day 4 - Berlin & Wannsee

We visited a number of places today, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which sits prominently in the center of Berlin, very close to the Reichstag (German Parliament). Nearby we also visited the monument for the persecuted homosexuals as well as the monument for the Roma and Sinti. The day began, however, with a visit to a memorial about the T4 - Euthanasia program. This is an excellent place to start because it represents the Nazis’ first foray into organized, industrialized murder. For me, it is also meaningful as it represents how atrocities can be far reaching and show up in areas we may least expect. The T4 program, so named only because of the address of the building where it started, applied negative eugenics in an attempt to “purify” the German people by removing those who were considered less desirable. This largely meant individuals with mental and physical disabilities as well as individuals considered to be asocial (unwilling to conform to societal norms and expectations).

One of the aspects that was most interesting about visiting this memorial was learning about the actual evolution of the memorial itself. It began with an existing piece of art that was “repurposed” as a memorial, but provided no additional context or information. Later, a plaque was added that gave the facts, but no personal stories. Below you can see the group standing around this plaque. More recently, an educational aspect has been added that includes personal stories of both victims and perpetrators. Why the perpetrators? Doctors, nurses and psychologists were involved in the systematic murder of both adults and children with disabilities. Their stories are told not so that we can empathize with the perpetrators, but so that we can realize that certain positions or professions do not make us immune to participating in mass murder under the guise of “science.”

In Psyc 302 (History of Psychology) and Psyc 441 (Social Psychology of the Holocaust), we learn about the role that psychology, as a discipline, played in the promotion of eugenics. While many today associate Eugenics with Nazi Germany, in this case, the Nazis were taking their cues from North American medical professionals and psychologists. Sterilization programs also existed in Canada and the United States, before and after World War Two. The system never evolved to the same extent that it did in Nazi Germany, but it serves to show how these kinds of programs can be implemented incrementally, and indeed, there are published academic articles from the 1930s and 40s in which American psychologists debated with each other the extent to which Eugenics should be taken, and “euthanasia” was considered an “option” worthy of debate. Thus, beginning the study of the Holocaust by learning about the T4 Euthanasia program is an excellent way to understand how some of the ideas that the Nazis operated under were shared far beyond Germany.

The T4 program in Nazi Germany allowed them to “test out” different methods of killing, as well as methods of keeping victims calm during the process. Thus, the idea of using gas chambers designed to look like showers originated within the hospitals and care homes in which patients were euthanized (i.e., murdered). Furthermore, the program also allowed the officials to test the public response. With no large outcry from society, in a sense, this gave them the green light to go further with other populations in the future.

Our visit to Wannsee, the location where top Nazi officials met to “discuss” the “Final Solution” on January 20, 1942, demonstrated exactly the extent of the ultimate consequences of the T4 program. Having successfully killed people with disabilities using a variety of means, and also having successfully begun to murder Jewish populations throughout Europe, a group of Nazi officials met to discuss how to better “coordinate” their efforts in order to rid Europe of its Jewish population permanently. They discussed the various “challenges” each department faced. For example, those in charge of slave labour were concerned that if the Jewish people were killed, there would be no more slave labour available. This problem was solved by stating that other groups (e.g. Poles, Slavs) would be used after the Jewish population was gone. They discussed minute details, such as what to do with those who were only part Jewish or who were married to a gentile. They discussed the logistics, and the drawbacks of other methods, such as the psychological difficulties faced by soldiers participating in mass murders using bullets and open graves. Thus, while the murder of the Jewish people began long before January 1942, this meeting represents the beginning of the Nazi push to formally coordinate their efforts in seeking to murder every last living Jewish man woman and child on the European continent. In fact, not only did the Nazis have lists of Jewish populations across Europe, some documents have surfaced that suggest they also had rough estimate of how many Jewish people resided in non-European countries, including Canada.

What often strikes people about visiting Wannsee is that the location is majestic. It is in an upper class neighbourhood and Wannsee House is a mansion on a lake. Opposite the mansion is a public beach on the other side of the lake, and people often sail along the lake in the summer time. The interior of the mansion is beautiful, and the day of the meeting was like any other formal business meeting that you may get invited to by your work colleagues. There was an agenda, there were secretaries to take minutes, and breakfast was served after the discussion.

Track 17 & Topography of Terror

After we left Wannsee, we visited Track 17, a memorial to the deported Jews of Berlin. This track was a place where many of the Berlin Jews were deported from Germany. This was not a place where cattle cars arrived. Instead, the Jews were told a date and a time that they must show up at the station. Once there, they purchased their own tickets, and boarded regular passenger train cars. Despite the seemingly ‘normal’ appearance, the majority eventually died, either in a Ghetto, a concentration camp, or a death camp. Along the train tracks, each section presents a date of deportation along with the number of people deported and their destination. Common destinations included Terezin (outside of Prague) the Łódż Ghetto, and Auschwitz. What is most striking is that the deportations continue right up to the end of the war - even after D-Day. The numbers get smaller and smaller over time. While they were originally very large numbers, 1000 or more, by the end, sometimes only 18 people are being sent to their deaths. Essentially, the war was all but lost, it was just a matter of time - perhaps only weeks or months - and yet the Nazis were still hunting down Jewish people hiding in Berlin and ensuring that they were loaded onto trains destined for Auschwitz.

Later in the afternoon we also visited the Topography of Terror, which is located at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. Outside of this building there is also a preserved section of the Berlin Wall. From a distance, you can look back and clearly see the architectural differences between East and West Berlin.

Day 4 - Berlin & the Monument for Homosexual Persecution

Today I am in Berlin. We visited the monument to the murdered homosexuals under the Nazi regime. The monument has a small glass window that you look through in order to view a video of same sex couples kissing - showing the simple act of love that could warrant being murdered by the Nazis - and, importantly, is still enough to bring on violence today.

In fact this is a topic that I am currently studying with some of my students - experiences with public displays of affection - if you’d like to take the survey you can do so here: www.pdastudy.com

Day 3 - Berlin

Day 3: Berlin

We arrived in Berlin very early this morning - around 9am. People were on a variety of flights, so we hung out at the airport Starbucks for a while until everyone had gathered. We then got onto our bus and did a brief tour of some areas relevant to Jewish life in Berlin before and during the war.

We visited the New Synagogue - built in 1866 with a capacity of 3000+. It was badly damaged during Kristallnacht but has been restored. 

I found it interesting to watch these two young policemen pace back and forth in front of the Synagogue, clearly assigned to be providing protection and security for this historic building. Only 81 years ago, young German policemen and brown shirts would have been the ones setting this synagogue on fire and desecrating its internal sanctuary.

I found it interesting to watch these two young policemen pace back and forth in front of the Synagogue, clearly assigned to be providing protection and security for this historic building. Only 81 years ago, young German policemen and brown shirts would have been the ones setting this synagogue on fire and desecrating its internal sanctuary.

The outside of the “New Synagogue” - Built in 1866.

The outside of the “New Synagogue” - Built in 1866.

From there we went to the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. Otto is sometimes referred to as 'Berlin's Schindler' because he tried to save Blind and Deaf Jews living in Berlin by employing them in his broom making factory. In addition to providing employment, he also hid people on the property when necessary. 

We visited the Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery, which is more of just a landmark now, as it no longer houses any human remains or gravestones, save one, the gravestone of Moses Mendelssohn.  

A memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin outside of what used to be the Jewish Cemetery. The memorial is in what used to be East Berlin and was put in place by the soviets.

A memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin outside of what used to be the Jewish Cemetery. The memorial is in what used to be East Berlin and was put in place by the soviets.

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Finally, we visited the Memorial to the Rosenstraße Protest, which tells the story of German wives of Jewish men in Berlin who protested the arrest of their Jewish husbands. For more than a week, 600 women stood outside protesting and demanding the release of their husbands.

It's very rare to hear stories of protests during the Nazi era, but that does not mean they didn't happen, nor does it mean that they were ineffective. In fact, the Rosenstrasse protest is documented as an example of how protesting in Nazi Germany could lead to a response, as the husbands were released. 

Monument for the week-long protest of more than 600 German women protesting the Nazi arrest of their Jewish husbands. The protest was successful and the husbands were released.  More Info: https://fotostrasse.com/rosenstrasse-protest-the-day-hitler-blinked/

Monument for the week-long protest of more than 600 German women protesting the Nazi arrest of their Jewish husbands. The protest was successful and the husbands were released.

More Info: https://fotostrasse.com/rosenstrasse-protest-the-day-hitler-blinked/

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Day 2 - Meeting with Survivors in Toronto

On day 2 of the Leaders of Change program by the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, we had a panel of Holocaust survivors come to speak with the group before our departure for Europe. Although I had heard two of these survivors speak before, and had read their books, everything that they had to share with us was “new to me.” They tailored their comments specifically to our group - a group of educators - and spoke about the importance of Holocaust Education, their experiences talking to young people (and sometimes their challenges in doing that work), and they spoke to us about what we would see on our trip - as well as what we would not see. For example, if you visit Auschwitz today during the summer months, you’ll see a lot of green grass - in a sense, it has a deceivingly “picturesque” aspect to it that fails to convey the reality of what this place was like 80 years ago. Nate Leipciger also spoke about his work in helping to guide how Auschwitz would function as both a museum/educational site and memorial. For example, he told a story about speaking with a gentleman who visited Auschwitz and remarked that it didn’t seem “authentic” because he expected it to be more run down. He said that boards had been replaced, and posts in the fence were new, and that the barbed wire was shiny. For a place 80 years old, surely it should be more run down. But this is where the curators face a challenge. How do they strike a balance between preserving a decaying site and preserving a site of education? If it is left to disintegrate, that is exactly what will happen. However, I really appreciated how Nate answered this particular gentleman. He said to the man, “well, when I was there, the fence posts were new, the boards on the barracks were new, the barbed wire was shiny, so when you visit today and you see it like this, you are seeing it in a way that is much closer to how I experienced it than it would be if it were simply allowed to age and decay without any maintenance at all.” Each memorial and educational site must decide how to deal with this dilemma. To what extent should sites be allowed to naturally decay and to what extent should they be “maintained” in order to present to future generations an image of what the place was like when it was in operation?

Here are the books written by the three survivors that spoke with us in Toronto before we left for Berlin.

Canadian Society for Yad Vashem Leaders of Change Program

not to transmit an experience is to betray it. _ Elie Wiesel.png

On July 1 I took the train from Belleville, Ontario to Toronto. I wasn’t headed to the city for Canada celebrations, instead, I was headed to Toronto to begin participating in the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s Leaders of Change program. The program is designed to take Canadian educators on a journey to learn about how to teach today’s high school and university students about the Holocaust. The trip began with a two day seminar in Toronto where we covered topics like the history of antisemitism and the impossible choices faced by people during the Holocaust. On the second day of the seminar we met with three Holocaust Survivors (more on that in another post) and then later that afternoon we flew to Berlin to begin the “immersive” portion of the trip. 

I’ll be documenting my experiences on the trip here in my Success @ X Blog because one of the main reasons I’m on this trip is to help develop Holocaust education initiatives at St. Francis Xavier University. I currently teach Psyc 441, a course on the Social Psychology of the Holocaust. I also designed the StFX Holocaust Service Learning trip which is going into its 3rd year and I am working on developing a course for the Maple League of Universities that will include a trip very similar to the one I am currently on.  

It can be challenging to write about a trip like this one. There is a balance to be struck between documenting the journey for the purpose of sharing the educational experience and being respectful and not falling into the trap of writing about it as you would any other trip to Europe. I am taking some photos and videos for the purpose of documenting and being able to share the stories of different places, but while I’m on the sites we visit I’m always cautious to first go through without taking any photos or videos. Then, when time permits, I go through again to get a few photos of things that I think will help to communicate the experience to those who are not here. Of course, photos will never do these sites justice. One of the reasons I designed the service learning trip and am in the process of designing the Maple League course is because the only way to really learn about the Holocaust is through a combination of classroom learning and experiential learning. Of course, one can never experience the Holocaust, but still there is something more real, more guttural, and more personal about standing in the very places that this history took place in that cannot be achieved just through reading. At the same time, however, not everyone will have the opportunity to take a trip like this, so an important challenge for today’s educators is to find ways to bring these experiences into the classroom in a way that helps to engage students as best possible and really drive home the universal lessons that the Holocaust can teach us, not only about history, but about human behaviour still today.  

 

 

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