​Greetings from Berlin! We have been here for about two and a half days and it has been quite a change from Poland. Berlin is so much bigger than Krakow and Oświęcim and I can’t say that I’m exactly used to it all yet. Yesterday, I woke up with a pretty gnarly cold and its been making me a bit less friendly than usual. Other than that, I think it has been going pretty okay. Today we visited the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin and did a theatre workshop [Forced into Exile] for three hours. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I appreciate the fact that our instructor took time out of her day to teach us about the Holocaust in a way that we haven’t really ever been exposed to on this trip. Some of us got really into it and enjoyed it; but I’m more of a museum/book/let’s-just-get the-solid-facts kind of a guy. We were instructed to various acting exercises like posing as real life statues to represent exile and immigration during the Holocaust. We also split into four groups and acted out a few scenes that we got to script and choreograph ourselves.

​The Jüdisches Museum is a very interesting place. When you first enter, it feels like you’re at the airport because you have to go through a very similar security process. This is because at every Jewish museum, synagogue, and even Jewish schools have at least one police officer stationed outside (or inside) at all times. They are stationed there because there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in Berlin. Our previous tour guide, Dr. Jander relayed to us that 20-25% of the German population is strongly anti-Semitic. When I heard that, at first I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t think that many people could really still have such negative feelings about a group of people—but then I thought about how racism is still pretty rampant throughout the United States. It’s sad, really, that some people decide whether or not they like a person based on something as trivial as race. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.

​After you get past security and proceed to the actual museum, you will find out that it is quite the peculiar building. It was designed in a zig-zag pattern and the ground is very uneven. It is to symbolize the uncertainty and unpleasant conditions that those being forced to emigrate, go into exile, or sent to concentration camps felt. Of course, this was nothing compared to what those who were affected by the Holocaust actually felt; but the symbolic meaning is very strong. The rest of the museum is pretty standard, I would say. Many facts, artifacts, and stories were present, and were very interesting.

​After our workshop, we went to lunch at a little cafe near the museum and I had the nutritious lunch of a Mars bar and a doughnut complete with a Fanta. It was nice, though. Then, we went back to the museum where Kari, David, and Tim informed us of a little surprise they had prepared whilst we were in our workshop. We were to go to a place that they had picked. It involved utilizing the underground train system. At first, I was pretty angry. I was feeling tired and sick and just wanted to go back to bed. We found our location with ease…but I can’t actually remember the name [Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church] of the place because we didn’t actually go inside. It looked like it was closed for construction or something. Thankfully, there was a pretty big mall right by the church. Hannah, Alex, Nicola, and I went in and went shopping. It was nice to finally get some time to just hang out and everything. I got loads of chocolate…it’s so delicious!

​After shopping, we went to dinner at the restaurant that we went to on our first night in Berlin. We all ordered Currywurste which is sausage covered in this spicy sauce. It’s a bit hard to explain but it was extremely delicious and I kind of want more of it. It was such a good price that I am definitely planning to visit it again. Other than that, not much else I think has really happened that you guys don’t already know about. I have to admit, I am really missing home and I’m eager to be back in the States with my family and friends.

Have a good one!
Brandon

​Getting up today wasn’t all that bad. I woke up thinking: “My clothes are laid out, my backpack is stuffed with everything heavy, and I’m pretty much packed and ready to go.” After I got ready, I was pushing to make sure I got everything in my bag, and the room was left in at least pretty good condition due to ordering pizza the night before. The only thing I got from being packed was a sure state of mind, and lost winter gear: my only hat, and gloves that were a gift from my boyfriend’s father. (I’m going to have to figure out a way to replace those…)

​On the way to the airport I made sure to listen to some music to mellow out so that I wouldn’t be too frazzled by the time that I got there, which worked pretty well I must say. (It always does. Music tends to be what keeps me together somehow.) This was probably a good thing because when I went through security I completely forget about some of the liquid rules for some reason. Apparently a lot of our group was having trouble during this airport encounter, and I was completely unaware of any of it because I was still mellowing out with my music. I’m glad I didn’t know about any of it too though because by the time we arrived at the plane I would not have appreciated it nearly as much as I had.

​When we arrived at the plane we needed to identify our luggage due to the technical difficulties we had with having our boarding passes and luggage barcodes being printed. However, what was so different for me personally about the plane was how small it was: it had the huge wheels on either side instead of underneath it, and in-front of both of the wings there were propellers. What made me so excited about the entire experience was actually boarding the plane because we boarded right from the ground the plane itself using the steps that come out of the plane just like the original Pan Am. (I was so excited.)

​The first look at Berlin, through the tour starting in West Berlin, it wasn’t exactly what I had imagined it to be. Then, we got into East Berlin, and it was almost exactly like I had imagined. (Except for the fact that for some reason any city I fantasize about I automatically think about it within the twenties. So, it was slightly off.)

​By the time we had actually made it into the city, and had heard a little bit about it I was thinking, “All right, we’re here, I’m tired, let’s go to the hotel.” But then we stopped at one of the memorials we had previously talked about in class. It was quite a bit of land for a city to have for a memorial, there’s square stone slabs that start out really short (maybe an inch) and gradually to the middle the slabs get taller and taller (up to ten feet tall I’d say). All of the slabs are the same size width and length ways, but there’s room where someone can walk in-between these slabs, the ground is uneven in such a way where there are hills through the walkway, and no matter where you are you can always see the light of the other side of the memorial. It’s not very hard to get out, it’s that fact of wanting to know what the artist was trying to convey.

​As you go through, and the slabs get taller and taller, you begin to feel trapped, and personally, I wanted to cry; I wanted to sit down amongst the memorial and just cry for all of those people who felt that same way: being able to see the beauty and light around them, but never really having a way out. I would have sat down if it wasn’t for the snow on the ground. Since we only had ten minutes to just basically look at the memorial, and walk through it to the bus, I didn’t really get the chance to go through all the emotion I was feeling from it. So, when I got back to the bus, I was just sitting inside looking back at the memorial still feeling trapped because I hadn’t felt as if I had gone through everything I should have to truly get the intention of the memorial. I feel like I should have gone through every emotion, and imagined everything someone would have gone through in the Holocaust. Moving through the walkway, because of the effect of the hills of uneven ground, it makes it seem as if you’re moving through time at a really fast pace, as if you’re experiencing someone’s life so quickly you don’t realize what’s happening. I didn’t even realize how I felt about it, and how I was reacting to it until I was sitting on the bus, and realizing I didn’t get the complete experience. I’m really glad to be going back for some more time so I can fully experience what I should have the first time because even now I feel like I’m still trapped within those walls.

Leaving Poland was an interesting adventure (see next post), including a hand-written boarding pass that cleared security (after a quick check by the guard). We arrived in Berlin as scheduled and now begin the German half of our trip.

We started the day off at the Jewish museum in Oświęcim. This museum is inside the last remaining synagogue in Oświęcim and a part of it is still set up as a synagogue. They had some artifacts that were from the Great Synagogue that had stood between the two churches. I say “had” because when the Nazis entered the town, the first thing they did was destroy the Great Synagogue. In the synagogue part of the museum, all the men were required to wear a kipa, which is a traditional Jewish head covering, while the women could if they wanted, but didn’t have to. They showed us a very small example of a Torah scroll and a ram’s horn that is used as a call to service. We also saw a quick video of interviews of Jews that had lived in Oświęcim before the war and survived the Holocaust. All of them now live in Israel, along with their children and grandchildren. Only one of the survivors on the video said that he didn’t want to think about Poland, that to him, Poland did not exist. For the others, they looked back on their lives here before the war as a pleasant memory, even though they had not returned since the war. We noticed that all of them, as well as everyone in the town that we have spoken to, make the difference between the camp and town very clear: the camp is Auschwitz; the town is Oświęcim. Before the war, the town was about fifty percent Jewish and things were very peaceful. The town is not the camp.

Then, we went to the old walled Jewish cemetery. Even though there are many gravestones there, they were mainly just lined up not in their original places. They couldn’t be put back in the same places since the cemetery had been pretty much destroyed and the gravestones knocked over and broken. In the middle of the area, there were two monuments that looked like they had been made of broken gravestones. The space was very quiet and peaceful, placed outside the city like most Jewish cemeteries. The wall cut it off from the things around it, such as the large outdoor market across the street or the gas station on the opposite corner. It seemed to be a world in and of itself.

After the cemetery, we took a quick drive down to the chemical plant that was built near the Auschwitz III camp. The camp no longer exists, save for a few brick guard towers, but the chemical plant is bigger and is still being used. The camp, Auschwitz III, was smaller than Auschwitz I, built to house the prisoners who worked in the chemical plant making synthetic rubber and other materials of the sort. We didn’t spend much time there, just driving by, turning around and driving by again. There wasn’t much to see anyway (the Nazis destroyed the camp before retreating back to Germany), just two brick guard towers standing lonely on the side of the road and empty fields.

After seeing the chemical plant and the cemetery we returned to the hotel and had lunch. After lunch, we met and talked with the resident priest here at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, Fr. Manfred Deselaers. I found our discussion with him enlightening and my favorite part of visiting Oświęcim. He described what exactly the centre stood for, that it was a place, obviously for dialogue; something he said, enabled people to build relationships which I thought was interesting. He stressed that this was important because everyone experiences things differently and has a unique way of viewing and handling situations. With this introduction, he touched on the centre and what its main mission was. As a place located so close to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the center is not only a place of prayer but also of reflection and peace. Here, people can reflect on what they have seen and handle it in whatever way they choose. It has an affiliation with the Catholic Church but they open their doors to absolutely everyone. Father Manfred made a point of mentioning this because he said it was through things like stereotypical grouping and division and the separation of people that things like the Holocaust happen.

Father Manfred started our discussion by saying we would discuss the three perspectives present here in Oświęcim, that of the Jewish, German, and Polish population. For example, he pointed out to us how members of the Jewish and Polish population view Auschwitz as a cemetery, and rightfully so but he also mentioned that Germans who visit, those who weren’t alive at the time of the Holocaust feel immense guilt about the acts that maybe their grandparents or great grandparents committed. That they sometimes feel so guilt ridden that they try not to speak or speak as little German as possible to avoid judgments of other visitors. Fr. Manfred said that when he encounters people who feel this way that he tries to help them understand that what those who came before them did is not their fault. He said he tells people crying about it and feeling emotional can be a good thing but being depressed for the rest of your life and placing underserved blame on oneself doesn’t help anything. Growing up, my mom always told me that you can’t take responsibility for anyone else’s actions. You can only be responsible for your own and be the best person YOU can be. It’s not up to you to shoulder the responsibility and repercussions of another’s actions. He said to us that he tells people the best thing they can do is visit, share the knowledge they gain and be sure to pass it along to others. Education, of yourself and others about this topic and its place in history is the best solution to handling the storm of thoughts and emotions people have when they discuss the events of the Holocaust and visit places like Auschwitz.

One thing Father Manfred said that really resonated with me was that being here, living in Oświęcim, the memory of Auschwitz and the Holocaust is something that the people of this town live with and experience the memory of each and every day as a part of their daily life. Residents of the town and all our tour guides are very clear to always make the distinction between the town of Oświęcim and the death camp of Auschwitz. They want to be sure that people know and realize that the camp is not who they are, that they have a life outside the events and memory of the Holocaust which I think people tend to forget when they come here. I will admit, no place has ever had the effect on me that Auschwitz-Birkenau did. I didn’t cry while I was there because standing on that ground, looking around, seeing what thousands of people before me had seen, I looked up at the sky, the same sky all those prisoners I’m sure looked up at and I thought of the horrendous terrifying way they died and I went numb. All I felt was numbness, I couldn’t wrap my head around it as I thought of what a thousand people looked like, what a million people looked like, what two million people looked like and I couldn’t fathom it, I couldn’t comprehend that those numbers were people. Real live people with jobs, families, friends, and normal lives before the Holocaust began. After I left, I was writing my journal and all of a sudden my numbness wore off and I can honestly say I’ve never cried so hard, been so angry, or so confused in my life. I thought about how at the end of the day, I got to get on the bus, come back to the hotel and leave tomorrow. I can’t imagine living here as the people of Oświęcim do, surrounded by the memory, living the memory as these people do.

When the discussion came to an end and it was time for questions, a classmate asked Father Manfred what I think was the most important question asked all day, one I certainly had wanted to ask and had asked myself countless times as I walked through the camp and all day afterward, “Where do you think God was?” In response to this question Father Manfred became quiet for a moment, looking down at his hands and thinking of how as a man of God, to answer a question I’m sure he had himself given much thought to. While he thought, he looked down at his folded hands and when he looked up, he said in reply “in the dignity of the prisoners.” As I heard this, my mind started racing trying to see where the Father was going with this. I took a moment and thought to myself and as I considered the Father’s answer I found it to be a very good answer to the most difficult of questions. Simply put, we will never know for certain “where God was” but I do agree with Fr. Manfred’s answer. When I thought about those who survived, and the stories they tell, I do think that dignity was a rather strong presence in their stories.

One such story I heard recently was that of a survivor and friend of the curator at the Galacia museum. She said her friend told her despite his living conditions and limited access to things like soap and water within the concentration camp, he always tried to look his best. He would often ask other prisoners to cut his hair, and when given his daily ration of water he would drink some and then use the rest to rinse his hands and face. When Gina, the curator, asked him why he would do such a thing he replied “because then when the guards called me dirty Jew I knew in my head, as well as my heart that it wasn’t true.” This story was what came to mind when Father Manfred spoke of dignity. The Nazis did everything in their power to strip the people under their control of anything that made them human, their names, belonging, families, everything but one thing they never could manage to take away from the people was their dignity. When everything else was stripped from them, this remained.

So I think as we walk away from this place and continue our journey that we must not forget. We must make the effort every day for the rest of our days to remember this place and what happened here, to not forget those who perished under such horrific circumstances. We must take their living memory and keep it alive and pass it along to others to ensure that it can never be forgotten.

Dzien Dobry from Poland, everyone! I am writing to you on January 12th, 2013, from Oświęcim, Poland. So far on our trip we have also stayed in Krakow. I would say that our journey so far has been pretty good. I have really been enjoying Polish life and Polish cuisine (I LOVE Russian pierogi!) I will admit that it has been very hard to be away from my family for so long, and I miss them very much. A cool thing that most people don’t know about me (well, most people on this trip do now due to me talking about it quite a bit) is that I am a descendant of Polish Jews through my Grandmother’s side of the family. Our family is from the city of Chojnice, which is located in northern Poland.

As you have probably read from previous blog entries, we have been quite busy during our stay in Poland! We have visited places such as the Jewish Community Centre—Krakow, The Oskar Schindler factory, the Galicia museum, and today, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would have to say that the last place on that list was the hardest place to visit…and I’m not just talking about during our stay here, I’m pretty sure it was the hardest place for me to visit ever. Even as I type this, a familiar sadness creeps its way into my heart.

Auschwitz. We’ve all seen the name in textbooks, films, and in the classrooms; but today I got to experience the camp in-person. When we first arrived, I thought I would be fine. I am usually pretty good at keeping my emotions in check, but as soon as I saw the “Arbeit macht Frei” sign, I knew it was going to be a heck of a lot more difficult than I originally thought. The bone-chilling cold was appropriate for traveling to Auschwitz, I believe. I don’t know why, per se, but I just feel like it added to the over all sombre appearance of the camp.

During our tour, we not only saw exhibits that offered a plethora of statistics, but we were actually walking where the victims of the Holocaust walked. That really got to me. I was somewhere where innocent people were treated like animals and slaughtered. I know this may sound weird, because I am only a quarter Polish, and not Jewish, but I took what the Nazis did personally. That could have been my family if they hadn’t emigrated. And who knows if I had extended family, or friends of my family who were victims of the Holocaust? It made me angry, to be honest. How could anyone be so heartless and just blindly kill people just because they didn’t believe in the same thing you did? I can’t fathom it.

Like I wrote in my journal, my heart right now feels like it has been shattered into a million pieces, and I’m not sure they can ever be put back together in exactly the same way. I know that sounds a bit outlandish, but I don’t think one can travel to Auschwitz and come back completely as they were. I feel so guilty. Guilty that I have all of these problems that are really quite minor, yet I act like they are such a big deal. In truth, I know very little about suffering, and nothing that is even almost comparable to what the victims of the Holocaust were forced to endure. Visiting Auschwitz makes every single one of your problems feel insignificant. If you’re reading this right now, I’d like for you to really take a moment and think about just how great your life is. Life is our most precious gift ever given, and sometimes we forget it or take it for granted; but we must try to tell ourselves that even though we may go through bad, or tough times, that there are people out there who have it so much worse. Also, never let your loved ones forget how important they are to you. Think about it. If you did not have them, who knows where you’d be in life. I guess that going to Auschwitz and Birkenau really made me realize just how lucky I am in this world, because to be honest, lately I have been struggling in that area.

Auschwitz-Birkenau has honestly left me feeling very numb. I’m not sure how to feel other than the fact that I really wish I were at home with my friends, mom, and sister right now so I could hug them until I pass out from exhaustion. When you’ve physically been to a place where so many people suffered and died…it affects you. I almost try to not think about it, because if I do, I know I will be really sad, and unable to finish this journal entry.

The part that really made me upset is just finding out how many children were actually killed in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was tragic for everyone, of course, but when children are hurt and killed, it makes me even more furious at the SS and the whole Nazi regime. There is no excuse to hurt children. Ever. They are innocent and each deserves the right to live a normal and happy life…and if you get in the way of that, in my book, you’re scum. Needless to say, I will never forgive any of the Nazis for what they did to the victims. It is inexcusable.

Well, I’d like to end talking about something more positive. Learning about the Jewish people has made me want to learn about the Jewish faith as a whole, as I was brought up Christian, I don’t actually know that much about Judaism. My grandmother doesn’t like to talk about it. I’m not saying I’m on board to convert or anything like that at the moment, but I’d like to know more about the faith and what my ancestors believed in. I would also really love to go to Chojnice someday, just to walk where my family did before me. I am also pretty pumped for going to Berlin on Monday, and I think it will be a good experience for everyone on our trip. It is good that tomorrow is a bit of a de-stress day, because I sincerely think we all need it after what a powerful experience we had today. We will be touring Oświęcim with a guide, I think. I’m pretty curious to see if there is a Jewish community here. I think it would be too hard because Aushwitz-Birkenau is just too close, and if I were Jewish, I don’t think I could live here. But, you never know!

All in all I think that this trip has been such a rewarding experience and I have learned so much thus far. Not to mention that my Polish has basically reached B-A status now. I’m proud to say that I can say three phrases in Polish: Hello, thank you, and you’re welcome. I’d type the Polish words but the internet isn’t really working right now and I’d slaughter the spellings. Thank you sounds like: Gin koo-ya. Hello: Dzein Dobry (gin dobrey.) You’re welcome: Pro-sh. Polish is such a difficult language but I would love to learn it after I learn German and Dutch. If you’ve actually been able to read this all the way to the end, then I happily applaud you! I hope everything is going well wherever and whoever you may be! And remember, “Hope is the last thing to die.” So keep your chin up and a level-head, and never, ever, give up on yourself; because as I said earlier, life is the most precious gift we have been lucky to receive!

Hoping you are all well,
Brandon

In the scope of our visit to Krakow, this day was quite significant in numerous ways. Although the morning unfolded rather treacherously due to the fact that most of us were still exhausted from the night before (getting lost in the city for hours on end), the day progressively improved as we made our way to the Galicia Jewish Museum. Upon arrival, Gina, the tour guide, gave us an enthusiastic greeting, and the receptionist exclaimed over what a quiet group we were—ironic because we (and the Poles of Krakow) had previously acknowledged our loud and boisterous American behavior!

Following a quick stop at the coat rack, Gina led us into the exhibit. The Galicia Museum was created in 2004 thanks to a fascinating and beautiful joint project carried out by photojournalist Chris Schwarz and anthropologist Jonathan Webber. Webber, who had been studying and documenting traces of Jewish life left in the Galicia region of Poland (Galicia was the southwestern Polish land annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the latter half of the 18th century), met and decided to work with Schwarz to compile both photographic and written documentation of remaining Jewish history in the area. Eventually, Galicia Jewish Museum emerged as a permanent home for the collection of photographs later known as the Traces of Memory.

Within the exhibit, five sections separated and categorized the pictures: Jewish Life in Ruins, Jewish Culture as it Once Was, Sites of Massacre and Destruction, How the Past is Being Remembered, and lastly People Making Memory Today. For me, this display became exceptionally important as Gina explained that many of the places or objects that Schwarz photographed have now disappeared or more than likely will in the coming years, making it an important aspect of Holocaust memorialization in modern-day Krakow.

At the conclusion of the tour (which was amazing—Gina was very informative and friendly!), our speaker had just arrived. Ms. Stefania (as she was referred to) is a recipient of the Righteous Among the Nations Award, given to those who risked their lives, and occasionally the lives of their loved ones, to protect and ultimately save Jews during the Holocaust. Barely fifteen years old at the outbreak of war, Ms. Stefania and her family took in the Silbermanns, a Jewish family of six: mother and father, grandmother, and three daughters. While they were hidden in the attic, the household suffered and stressed through countless searches by German soldiers and intrusive inquiries from the Gestapo. Incredibly, Ms. Stefania recounted how, despite Nazi suspicion and increased inspections, her small town neighbors never turned her or the Silbermanns in—though she supposed they were aware of the situation.

By the end of World War II, the entire household had emerged with their lives from the merciless destruction and tragedy thanks to the unbelievable compassion of Ms. Stefania. I realized the overwhelming power of this astonishing act as she passed around present-day photographs of herself and two of the Silbermann daughters (with whom she remains good friends); gazing upon the faces of those who may have otherwise perished and seeing their smiling faces hit me with the true beauty of her deed. Addressing the common question “why did you do it?,”  Ms. Stefania smiled herself and simply remarked that one must think with their heart, not their mind, to realize why. 

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After wrapping up with our speaker, some of us did a bit of shopping in the bookstore of the Galicia Jewish Museum, followed by lunch at a charming, but rather stereotypically Jewish, restaurant. Surprisingly, as a vegetarian in Europe (particularly Krakow, Poland) I am amazed at the menu options available for my kind! Everything I’ve eaten has been veggie-friendly and crazy delicious—who knew? Today’s lunch of traditional potato pancakes with a vegetable sauce looked rather appetizing:

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Around three o’clock in the afternoon, our group met up once again to journey to Fabryka Schindlera, Oskar Schindler’s wartime factory turned museum in the heart of Krakow. During World War II, Schindler came to the city as a war profiteer looking to catch a quick buck off of utilizing Jewish slave labor. Upon returning to Germany years later, he was penniless, having used the profits he made to save the lives of nearly 1,100 Jews. Using the now famed list containing the individual names of people he wanted to save (under the guise of needing an increased number of workers for a new factory), he paid Nazi commandant Amon Goeth for each person.  

While the museum was brilliantly designed and the tour an excellent experience, I also found it quite ironic that Oskar Schindler was only mentioned once, at the time when we entered his former office.

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The exhibit itself focused mainly on the Nazi atrocities that Schindler witnessed within the town, which did in turn lead to his change of heart and desire to save his workers. However, I had expected more information on his life and deeds, rather than the history of the Holocaust in Krakow, though that is obviously just as important. Had the Krakow Ghetto and Płaszów concentration camp not existed in this town, the story of Schindler and the Schindlerjuden would not have occurred.

Nearing the end of another fulfilling but tiring day, we returned the Columbus Hotel where some of us stayed and others (including myself) left once more for last minute shopping in Krakow’s main square. As our last day in the town, it has been wonderful but a little bittersweet. I personally have come to love Krakow and am sad to leave it behind. Alas, new and interesting adventures (or maybe misadventures, but hopefully not) await us in Berlin! Before that point however, we must endure the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau…Wish us strength and courage for the experience!

Click the link below to learn more about Jonathan Ornstein and the Jewish Community Center in Krakow.

Jonathan Ornstein-Director of Jewish Community Center