The Holocaust had a great impact on the international community and how the law and its punishments are carried out. Terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ were not used or cited until the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II. The fact that these terms did not exist in the legal arena while the crimes were being committed made trial and conviction difficult. Many major war criminals, such as high ranking officers in the Nazi regime and Nazi judges under the Third Reich, had their sentences commuted or dropped only a few years into their life sentences. The International War Tribunal (the court established to conduct the trials in Nuremberg) had is legitimacy questioned throughout the trials given that it was established by the allies, was predominantly carried out by the United States, yet tried German criminals in Germany. My work was focused on collecting resources and artifacts that encompass these issues and highlight how international law was impacted by the crimes and atrocities of the Holocaust.
Embedded in the functions of running an extermination camp, the Nazis made concerted attempts at deceiving their victims, thereby minimizing their resistance to deportation. Victims were led to believe that conditions “in the East” would be better than those they left behind in the ghetto. Even Jews who had heard rumors of the camps had difficulty believing what the Germans were doing there. Every decision and action the Nazis took was calculated to ensure that their true intentions were not revealed while they reaped the benefits of their forced slave labor before systematically eliminating them. From where they set up their death camps, to burning the bodies of the victims, the Nazis took concerted steps to minimize both the evidence they left behind and who bore witness to their atrocities. Treblinka itself is highlighted by absence: an absence of infrastructure, an absence of testimonies, and an absence of interest. In my paper I analyzed how the construction of Treblinka’s operating system around hope and deception was used in order to maximize the efficiency in the liquidation of Jews.
The Holocaust site I chose for my paper was Treblinka. I examined the Nazi regime’s sinister, calculated planning of the death camp’s location and design, as well as the regime’s deliberate utilization of the available landscape and accessible resources. The Germans selected the location of Treblinka based on their need for a clandestine location stationed in the near vicinity of a railway. Additionally, the space selected needed to support the Nazi propaganda that claimed the Jewish deportations were simply resettlements to the east. The design of the camp appearing as a train station further reinforced this ruse of resettlement. The Nazis utilized the forest landscape to conceal their crimes, and they used existing infrastructure found in the surrounding areas to construct and operate their camp. No visible remnants of the camp remain today, but a symbolic memorial stands in its place. Treblinka is one of the sites in which a presence of absence exists. Consequently, one must visualize the invisible when visiting this place.
What can I say about the last few weeks? Actually, quite a lot. My best thoughts always come after I’ve spent time in solitude to digest the pieces then put them together into a whole, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I ask myself all of time why I chose to study the Holocaust. After all, I’ve only been a serious scholar of the Shoah for less than 2 years. Just as there are many different pieces of a whole, there are many different reasons I took this path that are both professional and deeply personal. Hardly a moment went by anywhere we went in Poland that I didn’t know I was in the right place, and I was there for the right reasons. Mission accomplished!
We had so little time together before the trip, I fretted that students might come back home without understanding it is nearly impossible to comprehend the history of the Shoah without invoking geography. Well, I worried for nothing. Judging from their many questions, observations, interactions, discussions, reflections, etc. while we were in Poland, all of them were ‘practicing geography’. So, congratulations to the historians, they are now honorable geographers.
I also learned much from the group…..For example, did you know Alex can eat an entire Zapiekanka all by herself? Impressive. Dan knows his Bison grass Polish vodkas, Logan can sleep upside down on a bus, and Kelly studies the perogies on her plate like a rabbinical student studying the Torah (very seriously). All valuable life skills. Elena also has admirable detective skills finding something on the menu that didn’t include meat or dairy (a real challenge in Poland). Kaerra hates the camera almost as much as the camera hates him, and don’t ever serve cold apple pie in Melonie’s presence. Last but certainly not least, Dr. Finley missed her calling as a boot camp trainer (my legs fell off somewhere near Lodz).
Prior to this trip, I had no idea what to expect, what I would encounter, and what the landscape of the Holocaust even looked like. What I have learned in my classes and my own reading can not compare to being in the field working with experts on the subject of the Holocaust. I am very thankful to both Dr. Finley and Dr. Chapman who have curated an amazing team in-country, using their networks to connect their students with first-class guides, scholars, and researchers.
What I have learned and experienced on this trip, I realize, is invaluable. There are not so many opportunities for people who are interested to learn about the Holocaust to do it in such a well-rounded manner. We saw both highly tourist-ed sites and sites in various stages of neglect. We saw how modernization has wiped clean impactful traces of the Holocaust and in other cases, contributed to its conservation and integration into the collective memory. We were given the opportunity to connect with witnesses of the Holocaust, and observed Polish life and culture as we made our way across the country.
What now? What do I do with everything I’ve seen, everything I’m holding inside me… I’m looking forward to starting our paper as a way of dissecting my experiences here, because since coming home I just haven’t stopped moving. I think that because of the pace of the trip and my pace of life since coming home, I still haven’t had a chance to really let everything sink in. One lesson I’ve taken away from this trip is the importance of personal responsibility.
Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
This quote by Viktor Frankl has taken on new meaning for me. I know that my personal responsibility is to live in service to others, using interdisciplinary means to deal with the changing tides of politics and the effect it has on the human experience. It is impossible not to feel anger when witnessing human suffering in any form. Turning this anger into action by understanding ones moral and ethical responsibilities means to aid those who suffer from hunger, poverty, lack of education, poor access to resources, and all forms of discrimination. All I hope that what anyone can take away from this trip is that they are obliged to carry on the truth they’ve seen, and are responsible for positively impacted their world in light of the darkness they have witnessed is possible.
Since coming home a week ago from Poland, (I can’t believe it’s already been a week!) I’ve had a moment to readjust to the time and weather.. (I definitely could go back to the cooler weather over this hot, sticky mess). Going on this study abroad trip, I didn’t know what to expect, except that this trip was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I went in with the mind set that this was going to be a humbling experience… and it was truly, all of the above.
I haven’t fully proceeded or decompressed all of the valuable information that was explained to us, or shown to us from our guides, each day on the trip. As it says in other blog posts, “we may have been exhausted, but we never complained. We are not Princeton” and that was the truth!!! We absorbed as much information as possible and knew each moment was going to be an unbelievable experience. Even if our feet ached, and our legs cramped, our backs throbbed, or we felt like we just had fallen asleep.Yeah, I had a few bumps in the road, along the trip with my suitcase wheels busting off. A disintegrating umbrella and a pair of shoes that also leaked, as Dr. Finley’s did too. That being said, I think each one of us would do it all over again to relive each one of those unbelievable moments.
I remember sitting in the New Education Building at our first official class meeting feeling out of place. I was the only elementary education major in a sea of history majors. However, I know now I was exactly where I was supposed to be. As I reflect back, nothing struck me more than the impactful words Paweł Sawicki stated at Auschwitz. He declared that it is not enough to solely teach the history of the Holocaust, we must also teach the ethics behind it. As an aspiring teacher, I will bear the responsibility of educating the future generation. While I do believe it is essential to teach our children the fundamentals of core subjects, teaching our youth the significance of human decency and human responsibility is just as — if not more — vital. I may never teach the Holocaust in my classroom, but as a moral mentor, I will teach my future students the moral and ethical lessons that can be gleaned from such a ghastly event. It is never too early to teach morals, values, and ethics, for Nelson Mandela wisely noted: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” These qualities are not only taught through words, but also simple actions. As our group stood around a Holocaust memorial on one of our last days of the trip, a man noticed us as he was driving past and pulled over his car to pray. He approached us to explain how he had passed that memorial many times in his life, but when he saw us, he felt compelled to stop and pay his respects to the victims. It is amazing how one simple action can compel another to act. There were times on this trip where I lost most of my faith in humankind. However, this simple beautiful act restored my faith and belief in the goodness of humanity.
I have already begun to tell others all I’ve experienced and witnessed on this trip – the good, the bad, and the inconceivable. The last thing I share with them is the memorable experience our group had working with the Yahad-In Unum team. We had the incredible opportunity to interview witnesses who had seen mass executions take place in their village, and we also visited the mass graves where these executions occurred. As I recount my trip to friends and family, I explain how no witnesses or survivors will be left in the coming years. And so, it is our responsibility to bear witness to their memory.
As I was sifting through my photos from the trip, one of them in particular stood out to me. When visiting the site that was once “The Great Synagogue” in Piotrkow Trybunalski, I took a picture of the mural seen below. Scattered throughout this mural, one can visibly see bullet holes. This was the site of one of the countless executions that transpired during the Holocaust. Concentration camps and gas chambers have become the icons for Holocaust remembrance because these structures are the most visible remnants of the Holocaust that remain. However, most often overlooked and forgotten are the merciless mass executions that took the lives of approximately 1.5 million Jews. This mural is one form of tangible evidence of the Holocaust by bullets. As I stared solemnly at this picture of the mural, a passage from Father Patrick Desbois’, The Holocaust by Bullets, entered into my consciousness. The passage reads:
“Cardinal Lustiger has explained that the perpetrator of genocide – the mass assassin – has to abolish a law – the law against killing – to carry out his terrible projects. Hitler had the malign intuition of the close link between the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” and the Jewish people: to abolish this injunction he decided to exterminate the people who had received it on Mount Sinai.”
Days after traveling to this site, I became overcome with emotion as I stared at this photo, fixating my eyes on the bullet holes that pierced the image of the Ten Commandments. In a peaceful synagogue, in front of this mural, right in front of the sixth commandment – “Thou shalt not kill” – human beings were murdered ruthlessly. For me, looking back, this was the most haunting site of the trip. Blood stains on the mural were still observable. Even more ominous was the fact that this site was also being utilized as a children’s library. It is incomprehensible to think that little children gleefully select books at a site where people were maliciously executed years before.
It has been less than a week since our group returned to the US, and I have not stopped thinking about everything we experienced. All study abroad trips, regardless of topic, provide students with unique learning environments. However, especially while studying the Holocaust, these unique learning environments surpass any lesson that can be taught in a classroom. I have read countless articles and books, watched numerous films, and taken several classes on the Holocaust, but nothing compares to standing on site where victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust once stood. To be in the field is to be thrust into the past. After covering over 80 miles on foot (thanks @Melonie’s FitBit), and spending late nights on course preparation for the next day, I was completely exhausted by the end. But our group never complained. We knew that each opportunity we were getting was a once in the lifetime experience, and we were eager to learn as much as we possibly could.
There are still moments that I have not yet fully processed, but as with everything surrounding the Holocaust, there will always be a sense of incompleteness in my understanding. There were so many powerful moments throughout the trip it is hard to sit here and try to reflect on everything. Getting to work with the team from Yahad In Unum is still, by far, the most impactful experience I have ever had. Hearing the story of a witness’ mother hiding two Jewish men under their kitchen floor boards, and getting to see the cellar itself was surreal. I was able to climb down into the cellar where I, a 5′ 6″ woman, was crouched down with my back against the ceiling. To imagine two grown men sharing this space for hours, or days on end was just crazy to me. This is a moment I will not soon forget, and one I will continue to examine for years to come. It is another example of how diverse the memory of the Holocaust can be, and how important it is to track down and record the memories of witnesses and survivors