Well, I knew visiting Auschwitz was going to be one of the hardest (if not the hardest thing) I have ever or will ever experience. Prior to having the opportunity to go on this trip (that would conclude with visiting Auschwitz), I honestly had no desire to visit it or any other concentration camp because of what occurred in them. There are very few other places that have the history Auschwitz and the other camps have. I just couldn’t imagine being in the same place where millions of people were murdered and experienced indescribable brutality.
However, I have always been interested in the Holocaust and World War II and this was an opportunity to learn about it in the place where it occurred and to go beyond the text books and documentaries. When it came to visiting Auschwitz, I felt as though it would not only be a humbling experience but it would be the best way to remember and honor those who were the victims of the Holocaust. It was obviously very tough to be there. It was an honor and privilege to be there with Frank and Lane and to be able to pray with them for the family members they lost.
This was by far the most rewarding academic experience I have ever had. I got to know a lot of awesome people and we experienced a lot together over the past nine days. We worked hard together, learned together, experienced Wrocław, Krakow and Auschwitz together and got really close. I’m glad I was able to be able to be included in this and it is definitely something I hope I can participate in again.
To Dan, Dr. M., Drew, Frank, Lane, Matt, the alumni group and the rest of the students on this trip: It was great to be able to share this experience with all of you. The cemetery work was enjoyable because of the bonds we were forming while working. Seeing everyone working so hard motivated me to work harder. We had great times together over the past nine days and thank you so much for the memories I will forever cherish. I had a great time getting to know all of you and I’m sorry it took me so long to learn all of your names. We’ll have a reunion at school in the fall. Have a great summer and stay in touch!!
As I sit here on the plane back to Michigan, I am asked to share my experiences in Poland over these past nine days and all I can think is, where do I start?
It has truly been one of the most emotional trips I’ve ever taken. Words became truths, facts became realities, and my views on humanity and justice have been put to the test.
Our time in Wroclaw was spent working to restore an overgrown and neglected Jewish cemetery. Our first day there I felt like that was all that we were there to do: clean out a cemetery. I even thought to myself, “How much can we really do in five days of work?” This question was answered through the responses we received from the public. Numerous times throughout the trip while we were out in the town we were asked for the reason a bunch of Americans were in Poland. After explaining the purpose of the trip people were impressed and moved that a bunch of college students would fly half way around the world to do something incredible. It was at those moments that I felt a real connection to what we were doing. We were there to undo what Hitler wanted to ultimately achieve: erase everything Jewish, including the memory of those we were lost. I remember thinking that a cemetery was meant to be a place of honor where memories would be kept, but looking at this literal forest we were working in made me wonder how this place could be that for anyone. By restoring just the small patch of cemetery we had meant that those people could be honored in the way they always should have been.
After our work in Wroclaw, we moved on to the beautiful city of Krakow. Our time in Krakow introduced us to the true Polish way of life. With the help of Matt (our translator, and basically personal tour guide) we were exposed to a new and exciting way of life.
Sunday we went to Auschwitz. It’s hard to adequately sum up the emotional aspect of the experience, but it was definitely the hardest part of the trip. It was an honor to share the experience with the entire group, especially Frank and Lane. Their emotions while we said prayers for their family members who were lost were uncontainable and as each student and staff member took turns reading the words of the prayer, my emotions became irrepressible as well.
Poland changed my outlook on the world. The devastation that the Holocaust brought is and always has been unbelievable to me, but to be in Poland and to be in the presence of where it all took place was surreal, emotional, and in a way indescribable. What really drove the trip home for me was knowing that even in the midst of all the horrors and devastation this world has seen, 23 of us found enough compassion to travel to the other side of the world to take steps towards the direction of change.
I met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise by being a part of this trip and I am grateful for the friendships with not only the other students, but with the staff members and members of the alumni group that were forged. I am also grateful to have been given this opportunity to make this world a little bit better.
My involvement in the HSSLP program has been a remarkable experience from the start. As a new member of the Albion community, participating in the planning and the program has given me an opportunity to get to know members of the faculty and staff with whom I have little contact on a regular basis. Thinking about the course and my part in it helped me better to articulate my understanding of the experience of survivors and hopefully communicate this experience to our students.
This is the first time I traveled to Poland. It has been a difficult trip for me. However, the energy and openness of those I traveled with was wonderful. The section of the cemetery they gave us to work on was large and resembled a forest rather than a graveyard. While clearing brush, Kris found a stone path, covered in a few inches of dirt, roots and ivy. Everyone dug in and by the time we finished, the path was once again free to walk on. While digging, the students also uncovered the marble tombstone of “Max” as he became affectionately known. By Friday, we cleared and restored a large area, righted stones, and visited other overgrown parts of the cemetery that have long been forgotten.
The section of the cemetery next to the area we worked in was full of children’s graves. All of the stones were of “geliebte Kinder” who had died possibly during the influenza epidemic after WWI. Reading their names and the inscriptions was moving as I thought about the families who were no longer here to remember their lost children. Watching everyone move through this part of cemetery, stop to read an inscription, clean off a stone or pick up a broken bottle from the grave was moving.
In Crakow, a group of us attended a Saturday Shabbat service in Synagogue Remu in Crakow. The congregation is very small and it is the only synagogue in use in Crakow today. However, listening to the chanting of the prayers with the same melodies that were in use for centuries was heartening.
Auschwitz was very difficult. The contrast from a cemetery with graves that had the possibility to be restored and the vast fields of Birkenau with no graves for so many killed was stark. Standing on the place of embarkation from the trains, a place of so much pain and fear was most difficult. As some of the students mentioned, my parents were survivors and many members of the family died there. At the site of the crematoria, I wanted to stop and say a prayer to commemorate their memory. Lane and I were deeply moved and touched by the support that everyone offered when they joined us. We stood in a circle and shared the readings and perhaps brought a little peace to that terrible place. I know their support brought some peace to me.
In the evening after visiting Auschwitz, many of us attended Mass at one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. I think all of us, whether Catholic or not, found the sounds of the organ and the chanting of the prayers soothing.
So, I think that the course and trip were successful for everyone who participated. I think that we all have an appreciation of that place and time that goes beyond what cold be learned in the classroom and embodies the meaning of “service learning.” I know that I will remember the trip and those who participated with great affection.
When my husband, Frank, the Director of Counseling at Albion, asked me if I would like to come on this trip, I thought of the experience in terms of accompanying him, seeing a new country together, and also seeing places which have been profoundly tragic in his family’s history. As we prepared to come on the trip, I continued to relate to the experience only through my role as a staff member’s wife. What a surprise! The trip turned out to have profound meaning for me in terms of all the other people, faculty and students, I’ve worked with and lived with and gotten to know. I think I dragged myself out of bed the first morning so as not to disappoint my spouse, because I love him, and so as not to disappoint Chaplain Dan, well, because I think that to know Dan is to wish to fulfill one’s better self, to wish not to disappoint such evident ideals. But the second morning I got up because I wanted to be at the cemetery working with everyone: the incredibly caring students and the teachers who have nurtured them.
Working that first morning I couldn’t help but think about the terrible events which brought us to that place. I thought, as I often do, about the destructiveness created by a sense of “otherness.” I must admit, I thought first about the problem “Other People” seem to have with a need for power and hierarchy and exclusion. I was even ready to comfort myself were I to feel left out of some things on the trip – were I to feel otherness as a non-student, non-staff, non-faculty member. (Sigmund Freud, or your own Dr. Kelemen, would have immediately wondered, as the rain picked up and the temperature dropped, did I perhaps HOPE for some exclusion from this hard working group?) By the end of that first cold wet day, I was marveling to anyone who would listen. “What wonderful students. They work so hard. They never complain. And they are so supportive of each other.”
I was collecting little stories and remembrances early in the week. But by the end there were too many to enumerate and too many I missed. They included the student who moved in to catch something I was dropping, the several students who offered to stay and work so I could take a break or have lunch, the students who gave me or found me a seat on the tram each day, the students who always volunteered for the harder and less glorious jobs. Somehow I was even more touched to see the students step in and protect each other, to quickly phrase any response to my questions in the most inclusive ways, to make sure everyone had someone to go to meals with and to laugh with and work with.
Every conversation seemed to lead me to question my own diligence in putting into practice the ideals Frank and I hold. The second night, Dr. McWhirter talked a little about her course, about the concept of “active goodness” and shared an article with me that she had written about the last trip to Poland and my perspective about our reasons to be there shifted and deepened. I talked with Dr. Dunham about his happiness to extend his home to foreign exchange students and to spend some of his vacation time on community service trips. I came back to the hostel wondering in what ways Frank and I could extend our home and care to more young adults even with our own grown. Chaplain Dan seemed able to think with two perspectives, every minute: what do the students need to be safe and nurtured and what are the students ready to confront about “active goodness,” and individual responsibility?
I’ve never seen a generation so capable of putting ideals to work as the current batch of students. Working closely with this class I saw constant examples of kindness many examples towards Frank and I, many towards each other. Can I call them Generation W – Generation World? I also heard about their aspirations and career hopes and current projects and I was amazed by the commitment to active participation in bettering their own community and larger world.
This last point was key for me. Many students truly experience our entire world as their community. I began the week wondering about the ways we exclude and enforce otherness. The students, however, mostly came to Poland looking for and finding ways to connect and include and extend the community. While the course covered the events of the Holocaust and the students were interested in learning about the Jewish experience in Europe, I hope it wasn’t about the Jewish or Catholic or German or Polish experiences. I hope it was more about the human experience and our ability to choose or allow or oppose cruelty and dehumanization. I came home convinced that the antidote to destructive “otherness” is extended community. I was grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this community.