Monday, March 30, 2015

Recovery, Reconstruction, Reflection (Poland 2015) by Jordan Darling

Just a few of the amazing people from my trip!

Recovery, Reconstruction, Reflection(A Day in Kraków): Blog Post 3

      The Friday we spent in Kraków was surely one of the most wonderful days of my life. Upon arriving from our all to regular drowsy bus ride and a brief stop at the factory of Oskar Schindler, we headed for Galicia where we would be meeting with Rabbi Tanya and learned and reflected again on some amazing facts like: the first female Rabbi being a woman from Germany who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, that in pre-war Poland Jews had made up around 50-60% of all village populations and was now zero. We also had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy Rabbi Tanya's beautiful singing voice  as well as learn about what her faith meant to her from her fascinating perspective of being a female rabbi who grew up during the height of Communism in Moscow! 
     Often Judaism is presented as perhaps very observant and concerned more with law and tradition, but through both of our meetings with Rabbi Tanya I was presented with a beautifully deep, natural spiritual Judaism filled with heavenly music, kosher grape juice, and perfect Challah bread. Spending the time with Rabbi Tanya certainly gave me the wonderful sense that there are efforts around Kraków to revive the wonderful Jewish tradition that is so embedded and simultaneously missing from post-Communist Polish culture, the efforts of reinstating Jewish culture in Poland from the debris of a half century of tyranny became more real in my mind. 
     After a nice lunch break in the cafe at the Galicia museum, and the acquisition of "The Course of Modern Jewish History" by Howard M. Sachar we were met by Ana and taken out for a day strolling through the Old Jewish section of Krakow, up towards the Wawel Castle and eventually into the beautiful Main Square. It was wonderful to see an extremely old cemetery in Krakow that was in much greater condition than the one we visited in the town of Oświęcim as well as the synagogue being renovated hopefully for future use, or at the least commemoration or memorialization. Another wonderful aspect of the Old Jewish section was the new Jewish Community Center that was donated or at least constructed under some sort of patronage from Prince Harry. It is an absolutely beautiful building and although we didn't go inside it seemed to have all the necessities as well as some luxuries that a city's Jewish community would need. Equally wonderfully there it was not guarded and maintained by a contracted security force, but the community itself.
    Once again on this final day of our journey that for so many of us was defined by destroying certain comforts of our minds and forcing us to reexamine what we truly care for and should spend energy on, we are showed how wonderful reconstruction can feel and look. 
     After finishing our walk through the Old Jewish section we began the long, gratifying walk up the slope to Wawel Castle, gaining a perspective on the beautiful medieval city of Kraków that I never would have been so lucky to know if I hadn't visited. Beside from the obvious fact of our guide Ana being extremely well-versed on the matters of architecture and art history that were fascinating in and of themselves she also was constantly encouraging us with questions connecting the beauty we saw around Krakow to the context of why we had come to Krakow on this final day. 
Just as to many people all concentration and death camps have become affiliated with Auschwitz as a symbol as Father Manfred said, Poland in modern consciousness has become lost in a swirling ether between the Shoah and Communism, to be frank I cannot think of many times in my life where Polish history culture or society have even been abstractly alluded to let alone focused on. Poland is thought of more so as the place it was than is trying to be, since so much visitation and outside interaction has to do with Shoah education and perhaps studying the effects of World War Two or Communism. That is why our time in Krakow was also so important, we were able to see that in many respects Poland is not different from the other great European cities that we glorify in the West, and because Krakow was not destroyed by bombing during the second World War I was able to gain a deeper appreciation of Krakow not just as a wonderful city in Poland, but one of the most beautiful in Europe. A place where the ground in certain buildings may be almost 800 years old. In our visit on Friday Krakow transformed from a Polish City, to a beacon of hope and source of transformation for Polish culture. 
    One of the first things I realized when reflecting on the trip as a whole was how absolutely impeccably organized the trip was not only on a day to day basis, but the entire arc of the week was also trying to make as deep of a statement as the mini-arc of our trips to Auschwitz and Birkenau. We do not commemorate the Shoah in the way that it must be commemorated simply by lamenting what happened and beating our breasts, but by fighting each day and moment for a more refined justice. A justice that opposes acts of inhumanity whether they are happening in China, Russia, Afghanistan, or America that we must not stand for a world where the basic humanity of all individuals is honored or we become deeply threatened for these injustices to swallow us whole again. 
    It is also become so apparent to me how important discussion and honest reflection are when speaking about these deep issues that should concern everyone on the planet. You cannot wax intellectually in a language that is inaccessible or else you naturally isolate those who are most important to the cause. Everyone's experience and what something felt like to them is valid regardless of their ability to express it beautifully, or ideally. We must talk to and teach every type of person about the importance of discussion and reflection when speaking about the Shoah or contemporary problems because we do not understand 6 million until you truly imagine 1 person dying 6 million times. There is no amount of WW2 videos that could express what can only be understood through true immersion and discussion. When we turn aspects of our humanity into statistics, they begin to lose real tangible meaning.
    As I sit back in New Rochelle and begin to unpack my trip from Poland I can certainly only describe myself as feeling overwhelmingly mixed emotions. I have certainly come back with a shift in attitude, energy, and conviction. I have struggled with some nightmares and other small issues since coming back, but there is almost a deeper context and meaning informing my life than perhaps there was only a short world and it is not a feeling I would trade for the world.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Resilience -Rachel Baio

Leaving Poland was a very bittersweet goodbye. It was refreshing to wake up and see North Ave outside of my window rather than Auschwitz I, but even now it's difficult to find the words when explaining to my peers what I saw there and the experiences I had. "It was interesting," is often how I answered my friends and family when they asked how my spring break went. Birkenau is a place that I don't ever want to see again...and yet I am compelled to go back. I have learned so much on this trip and I feel like there is so much more for me to learn. You really don't understand what happened to the prisoners during the Shoah until you walk through Auschwitz, and even then, actually walking through their footsteps you can never fully feel their footsteps. 

Since being back in the States I've had time to reflect on my journey in Poland, and I can say that although there are feelings of disgust and sorrow at what happened to these victims, I also have feelings of hope and resilience for the country of Poland.

Poland has been through so much, but they are recovering rapidly. Finally getting their independence in 1989 from the Soviet Union, Poland has already rebuilt some of the damages bestowed on them from communism. They're practicing all of their natural rights, such as freedom of religion and speech, and are shinning through their tough past with pure radiance. There are people still living in Oswiecim, as well as other towns and villages that were once taken over by the Nazis. Memorials are stationed all over the country for different heros of the war, such as locals like Oscar Schindler and members of the Resistance, and liberators like the Soviet Union. Victims of the Shoah are honored in countless ways throughout the towns we visited with beautiful statues, flowers, and of course rocks stacked on memorials. 

Not everything we learned in Poland filled my heart with aches. We met a survivor who shared an incredible story of survival with us. This man was put through everything. He was put into a ghetto; which began the first taste of starvation for him. He lost his mother, and his brother when he left for the army. His father disappeared and was never found. He was shipped off to a concentration camp where his skills in the trade of electrician work saved his life by giving him a job inside away from the freezing snow. He saved his best friends by tricking the supervisor in his camp into thinking they were also electricians. He survived transports to other sub-camps. He survived unimaginable hunger and living conditions. He survived the nightmares that was actually reality. Him and his friends leaned on each other for support and had the will to stay alive, and I believe thats why they all survived the war; because they never left each other behind. He survived his death march by escaping and hiding in a sewer for days. And finally, he was liberated by American soldiers and was able to move on in is life by being reunited with his brother, getting married, and having a family of his own.  The only way to move when having gone through something tragic like that is forward. You cannot look back at what was done to you because you will not be able to live your life. He was able to recover with his friends and continue his life by pushing forward. That is pure resilience. This story filled my heart with joy.

The picture I posted at the beginning of this blog is of students from Israel walking along the train tracks exiting Birkenau. I don't think there is a more powerful photo that I took while on this trip. This photo proves how far Poland has come from the Shoah. It proves that there is still hope, pride and resilience in Poland. And most importantly, it proves that life goes on. Life pushed onward in Poland after the great horror of WWII. This pictures gives me certainty that something like the Shoah will never occur again in Europe, especially Poland. People, and more importantly, children are being educated about it. People and children are celebrating their Polish and Jewish heritage.

This picture proves that evil is always destroyed by love.         

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Our Time

  Experience helps us learn more about ourselves and the world around us. A lot of times we hear phrases like “any experience is good experience” or “all experiences are useful”. Would we say that to someone who went through the Shoah? Obviously not.
More often than not, some people decide not to share personal experiences. They can be painful or uncomfortable. It is possible for people to come to a point where they feel ready to share, but sometimes this does not occur at all. If we consider the perspective of someone who lived through Auschwitz as a survivor, there is a greater understanding as to why this person may not want to share their experiences. One such survivor was Marian Kolodziej. With a very low number of 432, he survived Auschwitz, and decided not to speak about it.
After suffering a serious stroke in 1993, Kolodziej began to draw accounts of what he endured and saw at Auschwitz during his time there. These graphic depictions are extremely moving, and oftentimes frightening. They often contain images of monsters as symbolic of Nazi forces, and a lot of eschatological judgement day themes are also present in his work.
This course has offered students going through Auschwitz 1 & 2 the opportunity to use memory as a tool moving forward. While we experienced nothing near what survivors did, even just studying at such a place can move a person to a dark place. By sharing our experiences with people at home in the weeks that follow the trip, we help people become aware of what happened at Auschwitz. Furthermore, we empower ourselves and others to be more keenly aware of what happens in the world around us. Marian Kolodziej’s accounts of Auschwitz were unique and powerful. Was his experience a good one? It certainly was not. Was the experience of any student this past week “good”? In many senses it was not good, but tough. Challenging. Troubling. In many other senses, it was a call to speak out. In our own time we will speak out in many ways, using many different mediums. Thankfully our guided study has taken us from the “teaching of contempt” to the “teaching of respect” and right to the place where we engage others to learn more. In our time.
-Luis Ramos

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Rest of The Week

Going to visit the monuments (chair square and memorial) was for me very powerful and moving because it showed that we are at least moving somewhat forward in our honor and respect for the victims of the Shoah and it seemed like a hopeful sign for the future. We were able to witness the second part of this course, the teaching of respect which helped me to see how we are moving closer to respect of other cultures and other people’s struggles. It helped me today to see the different structures in the ghetto to be able to visualize the ghetto. It was so inspirational to hear about the several acts of resistance within the ghetto and the ways in which the victims were able to fight back with and cause even a little bit of pain for the Nazis. I think today was very important because it showed the many inspiring stories within the ghetto and that was important to hear to lift our spirits and raise our much lowered view of humanity after visiting Auschwitz.

Another really helpful experience was the reflection seminar that tried to answer many of the questions that people have after learning about the Holocaust. I found it really interesting to see the various viewpoints people had on the questions asked, especially the survivors, because I was interested in seeing how people who had been through such a traumatic terrible event, were able to deal with these issues and answer these questions. Additionally, going to the art exhibit the Labyrinth by the artist survivor was moving and heart wrenching at the same time. There was a lot of Satan, skeleton and muselman imagery. It was amazing to see how detailed it was and how much time and effort was put into continuing the remembrance of the Shoah even through a stroke.

 I think going to the Shabbat service on Friday was a perfect summation to our trip and left it in a hopeful positive note after we had all been through such an emotional, and heart wrenching trip. It showed that there is hope in the future for Jewish-Christian relations in the fact that we were able to go and experience Shabbat with them. The fact that they were open to teaching it to us even after we (I) messed up multiple times shows the hope for the future in that we can see the differences in our religion which aren’t many and accept it. It was really interesting learning about their customs from being someone who doesn’t know a lot about the Jewish religion. Overall, I think we needed this ending to show that there is hope for the future and that we have come a far way from the holocaust but still need to continue to improve and change for the better.-----Grace Watters

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Auschwitz 2

After witnessing the vastness of Birkeneau and the horrors of Auschwitz 1, it is definitely going to be difficult trying to settle back into Iona with these images on replay in my mind. Even in the shower, trying to go to sleep and just sitting, I keep seeing the same nauseating, unforgettable, and grotesque images replaying over and over again in my mind as I contemplate what I have witnessed this past week. I will never be able to forget the last view of the barbed wire fence from the women’s quarter where the women who were too sick to work waited for death with no hope of freedom, liberation or peace. I can still see the children’s quarters with children’s names are carved into the walls, most of them never seeing the light of freedom. After witnessing those tragic, horrific sites, it is shocking that it could get worse but again and again I was confronted by yet more images of horrifying detail.
The crematoriums and the pond where the ashes were dumped, for example, had to be one of the most horrific, heart wrenching, nauseating and shocking sites I have ever seen. It literally knocked the air out of me to the point where I couldn't

 breathe and was nauseous. It was infuriating thinking of the disrespect that these people received and thinking about the respect they deserved. It really hit home to me the idea that it is the largest nameless cemetery. They were nameless and forgotten, but we will remember them. The disrespect was nauseating and unbelievable with the SS men’s house literally five feet from the crematorium and pond of memories and bodies. Being there and knowing that there were thousands upon thousands of people suffocated and burned there, some of them knowing full well that they were walking the march to their death and this was last time they would see their loved ones as they held them in their hands, was heartbreaking.
I think something that was very assuring though and gave me some closure was the prayer that we did at the site where they burned the bodies in open air, and putting rocks and flowers on the memorial. I was really grateful for the chance to be able to honor the victims and show them that we remember them even if we can’t see their grave or don’t know their names. We can remember that they were people with loved ones, families, and stories that will never be forgotten.
It was crazy to see how actually big the camp was. Even after going, I still have trouble visualizing the camp. The memorial was really moving too because it showed how each nation was uniquely affected and just how many people were affected around the globe by the Holocaust showing just how large it was. Even though it was such a tragic event, coming here sort of restored my hope because I was severely depressed the first days and after coming here all I wanted to do was to go home. After reflecting on it and talking about it in group, I was able to realize that if I was able to find even a shimmer of hope and light in this bleak severely dark atmosphere, then everything else seemed brighter and I would be able to find it anywhere else. I look at things brighter now because I have been to hell on earth and was able to find a tiny light in it through the stories of the survivors. I am more grateful for everything I have been blessed with.
Even with the horrific and heart wrenching pond, it was sort of peaceful. I thought of how at least now these families that were ripped apart through deportation and selection are together once again in this tiny little, rose covered pond. They are in a better place than at Auschwitz with all of that suffering and pain. Additionally, the sunlight shining on the pond showed the light that was evident in the camp (through defiant requiem, lectures, heroism etc). There was a lot of wind at the pond which made me think of how at the popes funeral, it was really abnormally windy and it flipped through all the pages of the lectionary. These thoughts I think enabled me to have some of the nagging questions I had at the beginning to be answered like where was god in Auschwitz. I think that’s what helped me get through this and not be severely depressed, and to hope for the future that this horrible tragedy is not repeated.
 --Grace Watters

My Only Question Left Unanswered -Maria Wik

I spent my first morning back at home looking through a book I bought, “The Auschwitz Poems”.  I stumbled upon one that almost perfect describes all the feelings that I have yet been able to put into words.

Here I stand in the midst of Auschwitz
My mind racing with the memories
Silent people walk
Where living skeletons worked.

There is a silence,
But I hear the cries of my people.
A slight breeze passes,
But I feel the beating of a whip.

My hands shift through what seems like ashes
And I glimpse a sea of bodies aflame.
There is an open field,
But I see innocent people beaten.

A lone building stands in the distance,
But I see a place of death.
A place where terrible things took place
Horrors not even known to man.

With wistful eyes, I observe this place
Seeing things of the past
This place being as I left it
Wit an echo of remembrance.

-Tawnysha Green (1985)

Earlier this week I couldn’t find the words to say, but today they just keep flowing through my mind. The past week that I spent in Poland simply was just not enough. The thoughts I have surrounding my departure simply were this,  “I don’t want to go.” Five words backed with so much anxiety. I feel as though I haven’t learned enough; now that I am how I find myself being able to process more information that I learned over the course of the week.

‘Becoming a witness’ this phrase has stuck with me all week long. Now, to some extent, I have become a witness; where do I go from here? I go home. I go back to my normal life, with my friends and family who love and support me. They have not witnessed the sights I’ve seen, and their lives have not been impacted the same way that my life has been impacted.  

This journey is one I will never forget. I don’t think I could have made it through the week with out the love and support of the group. It’s a crazy thing to think about that even today injustices just like the Shoah are still happening. The one question I find myself left with after this trip isn’t why or how this happened, the question I find myself asking is: Will the world ever learn?

-Maria Wik

Friday, March 20, 2015

Monstrous Humans - by Charlotte Ference

To delve into the question of God’s location, mercy, or even existence is important in academic circles studying the Shoah only if the role that humanity played in this tragedy is examined in the closest proximity.  Catholic priests, Atheist intellectuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Protestant leaders were routinely captured and murdered in concentration and death camps.  The tragedy of the Shoah moves beyond questions of religion, and indeed demands that humanity answer for its crimes. 
            The Shoah happened without a reason.  It had causes, and it had events that sparked change, but millions of people were murdered for no grand reason.  I refuse to accept the reasons given by the Nazis and perpetrators of the Shoah for their actions- instead I focus on the lack of a reason.  Their reasons were false, their hatred excessive.  The heaviness that one feels on this ground is something I have never felt before.  It is impossible to place myself in the feet of the victims of the Shoah, just as it is impossible to place myself in the position of the SS Officers who executed millions of innocent humans.
Only wire separated the prisoners from the guards, and yet in Auschwitz I 
that wire declared one access to their own humanity

            Human is infinite potential.  This potential may unite us, or divide us, depending on which elements one fulfills.  Despite the options for which way potentiality will move, the human experience is only ever that which can exist in a world one cannot control.  There is too much danger to dismiss the acts of Nazis as those done by monsters, and there is an equal danger in relegating the Nazi acts to those of mere humans culpable of mistake. Judgement and compassion are both important in moving forward after the Holocaust, but they cannot be mutually exclusive.  Those who committed horrendous acts cannot be relegated to mere humans making mistakes, but instead exemplify the worst fulfillment of potential that humanity has ever aimed toward.  Not every perpetrator was a victim, and not every victim was a perpetrator.  The fact that there are righteous gentiles who exist and are recognized displays that the destruction Nazi rule demanded from its participants was not an unavoidable cause of evil.
Inside the National Exhibits of Auschwitz I

            It was not an alien monster running the Shoah and its goals, nor were these people the same as those who rescued people persecuted by the Nazi regime. It is dismissive to both the victim and the perpetrators to portray an either/or situation.  There is more than monster versus human, but it can never be simply one or the other.  There were both decent humans and monstrous humans actively participating in Nazi cruelty.  Why some people were able to resist evil ideology and others succumbed with total devotion is still unknown. 

I have written so many incomplete songs and poems in the past week struggling with the impossibility of this question, but this seems complete enough to post. 

Darkened Skies

If the trees grow strongly from soil that marks a graveyard
Do the birds sing louder
in their branches?

Because I know that there a monster in the attic
Of the house that is a human,
And its poison breath runs deeply in these rivers they call veins.

Air weighs too much to breath too deeply,
Hidden secrets once scripted now glare in the sunlight,
And I am reminded of why I came here.

Ash sinks to the bottom of ponds that bring us peace
But the fleeting moment only can demand  a calculated escape.
We flee from the fences that dared to hold us captive
Even just for some hours

As we live to honor theirs.

Charlotte Ference

This is not a trip, but it most definitely had a destination - by Charlotte Ference

There are countless elements during this trip that cause me immense pain and sorrow on this journey. These moments highlight an experience that defies language, and challenges every conception of what humanity might include.

Every day we walk on this ground, our breath is whisked from our lungs with a power that this earth cannot compete. and we are forced to bear witness to a tragedy that is both indescribable and demanding of description.

The sky is blue, even in hell. 

            Religion is an essential framework to understand the Shoah, and I understand that painfully well after our days here.  What is also present, and less overt, is the overwhelming racism that permeates the minimally cruel actions to the most grotesque of human actions.  After hearing of the plight of the Jewish citizens, we were told constantly at each memorial and museum that of course there were Christian and non-believers as well, but less.  Despite this comparison of pure numbers, both Christian crosses and Jewish gravestone plaques mark the mass graves in Krakow and the Auschwitz system camps.
            I think there is a danger in overly prioritizing religion, and religious hatred as the primary motivation for the Shoah.  Our professors go out of their way to explain how much more complex this relationship was, but still I think even the museums and memorials illustrate both a national and global desire to label this as a religious war.

            One cannot ignore that Polish-Christians were interned with Polish-Jewish citizens in Auschwitz.  Indeed, the first of those who were murdered by Hitler’s fanatics were Polish citizens, and Soviet Union Prisoners of War. Whether they were Jewish or not was not the concern of those murdering them, but the victims were condemned to death for participating in actions against the Nazi regime.
Can you tell what their faith looks like from their pictures? 

            To remove the focus on religion is incorrect morally and factually, but also is removing the racist and nationalistic overtones from which the Shoah was able to develop.  Using religious hatred and anti-semitism as a convenient platform to establish their twisted and horrid ideology, Nazis were clear about articulating their goal of a singularly racial world.  The Nazis had plans for removing other minorities after the so-called “Jewish Problem” had been solved, and let no one be mistaken in thinking the Shoah would have ended with the slaughter of every Jewish citizen of the world.  The Holocaust was not a religious war, it was not a battle of Christianity versus Judaism.  It was twisted and perverted version of Nationalism against any transcendental other that dared attract loyalty and obedience.

            It seems unnecessary to say it ought never happen again.  It is absurd to acknowledge that there have been dozens of genocide since the WWII ended.
View from the guard's tower at the front of Auschwitz-Birkenau
There was no way out when the train tracks stopped inside the camp. 

Charlotte Ference