Rachel: Auschwitz is the kind of place that even with the shining sun, you are always cold. It is the kind of place that even surrounded by people, you are alone.
Aurora: One of the rooms that haunted me the most was the room with suitcases. Seeing people’s names, birthdays and hometowns written out made it all seem more real. These poor people thought they would be able to resettle into new, safe areas and instead they ended up in one of the most horrible places known to humankind. I couldn’t help but think of my own labeled suitcase back at the Galaxy Hotel. The labeled suitcases reminded me of the tombstones at the cemetery, except the suitcases didn’t have death dates. The owners of those suitcases didn’t get a proper burial and a final resting place.
Kristen: The thought of the people enduring what they did is almost incomprehensible. The conditions were horrible, the food rations were basically non-existent, the infirmary was basically a joke, for you were often killed at random if found there. It was a place where most came to die, and met an unfair fate. My heart goes out to all of those who lost their lives at these camps.
Cara: We chose to enter the camp, and we left freely without resistance. Unfortunately, during the Holocaust prisoners did not have options of any kind. My heart raced as we entered the gas chambers where so many human beings just like me lost their lives. As our tour guide shared with us, the prisoners were told, “The only escape from this camp is through those chimneys.” There are no words to describe the pit in my stomach and emptiness in my heart upon hearing that quote. Above the gates are the words, “Work will set you free,” but the horrifying reality is that nothing could set them free.
Kim: For all of those who did not make it out of the camps I feel sad. So many people died from the experience of being in the camp. I hope that they are at peace. If they died I hope they found peace in heaven. If they lived past it, I hope they found a place in the world. That they found a family and were able to find a place where they could feel safe from the horror of what they lived through.
Candace: My experience this week is priceless. I have been able to be part of a project that is so meaningful. I have been able to bring back names into the world and remember these people. This week, our group joined a legacy of restoration. By joining this legacy I have realized that my dream of working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) can be real and I can do this work as a career, which makes my heart happy. This trip has reaffirmed that dreams and my passions, because I was finally able to experience this type of work and make a difference. I want to continue to be a part of restoration. I have finally realized that this can be real and it is indeed a tangible career.
Ilana: Uncovering Jewish tombstones with non-Jewish Americans and Germans was an incredible experience. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to give back to the Jewish people of Poland first-hand. Working to clean up a Jewish cemetery was great work by itself, but working to clean up a Jewish cemetery in Poland unfortunately abandoned by its community with non-Jewish German individuals made for an even more incredible experience. On the third day while working in the cemetery, I was brushing off leaves and dirt to uncover a tombstone, once I uncovered it, I was trying to pronounce the name, but it was in German so I wasn’t having much luck. One of the German individuals came over and helped to translate the writing on the tombstone. I still cannot believe that I was given the opportunity to work in a Jewish cemetery in Poland with Jewish and non-Jewish Americans, with German individuals, with an Israeli, and with Polish individuals. The work we did in the cemetery was not only meaningful in the sense that we were cleaning it, but also in the sense that it brought together people from so many different areas of the world.
Ben: In the cemetery, I really took time to think about the WWI monument and what it meant to me. I found it strange, yet comforting, because in a way they were the enemies of my brothers (infantry) and my country. Yet, at their very core they were who I am, they were warriors who wanted to fight for their country, no matter if they agreed with it or not. They also achieved the greatest honor warriors can receive: a good death in battle. Maybe they weren’t all good deaths, and maybe not all of them were fully willing to die for their country, but that’s exactly what they did. So in spending time with my spiritual family I found solace in the cemetery. I found purpose to what I’m doing here in Poland.
Nicolle: Right now, it’s difficult for me to put into words my thoughts and feelings about this trip to Poland. Perhaps in a few weeks or months, after I’ve had time to sort through my photos and reflect on the words of Jan Gross, Elie Wiesel, and Anne Frank and others, it will be easier, but for now… I ache emotionally and physically from the events of these past 10 days, but I’m inspired by the actions of the current generation of students and others who are making amends for the actions of those who caused such terror in such a short period of time. I’m thankful for the stories from members of our group, the tour guides, and others with whom we interacted who put faces to the members of many different populations of Europeans affected by the events of World War II. I’m thankful that my own family connections to World War II, while sad in their own right, weren’t nearly as horrific as those of others. I’m hopeful that we, as a whole humanity, will continue to apply those lessons learned and act with tolerance, in all of our lives.
Nick: Coming on this trip was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had in my life. It has put into perspective for me something I have read about in history books for years now. It made stories that I never wanted to believe to be true come to life in front of my eyes. It gave me the opportunity to help the Jewish community of Wroclaw by helping to reclaim parts of a cemetery lost to time. It allowed me to expand my knowledge of Judaism, and to experience its practices first-hand. And something I think is so important, is that I was able to do it while getting to know and make friendships with my fellow classmates, students from MSU, and staff from both Albion and MSU. All of this put together is what I found to be the real Albion Advantage, and for that I am forever grateful.
Frank: We are back from in Albion and yet I find my thoughts remain in Poland far away. I am again in the cemetery in Wroclaw hauling armloads to the ever growing piles of branches and tree limbs, pulling up saplings, and uncovering tombstones. I am again touring Krakow, standing in empty fields that were the site of Plaszow concentration camp, and at the end of the trip, standing in the vastness of the graveyard that is Auschwitz. It is a trip that could easily lead a person to despair and lose faith in human nature.
In my thoughts and memories, we again meet and work with Poles and a group of Germans in the cemetery in Wroclaw. We tour Wroclaw and the beautiful city of Krakow. We ride the tram, walk through the Rynek (historic center), and sample traditional Polish foods. We catch glimpses of what Jewish life might have been like before the war. We end in Auschwitz, standing on ground that will forever echo in pain. Here in Auschwitz, my memories confront my personal history and I remember that I was able to take time to mourn for members of my family lost during the Holocaust. When my thoughts reach this end, it would be easy to say, “What good can I do?”
Yet, it seems like something different happens for our students, faculty, and staff. The cemetery is huge and the work of a few days only makes a small dent in the recovery of the space. After a few days of hard work we can see the difference our efforts have made. We can walk through the cemetery and see sections that the HSSLP trip worked on in the past and see clear indications that our work has an impact. Our students embrace the experience with open minds, energy, and they do not flinch from hard work or the pain of the place. I appreciate the serious dedication, energy, and sense of fun and playfulness that the students brought to the much of the project.
On a personal note, while in Auschwitz I took time to mourn for members of my family lost during the Holocaust. I deeply appreciate the students’ kind support and the sensitivity that everyone shared with me enabling me to mourn.
The trip reminds me of a quote from Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it entirely.” Our students take on the challenge despite how easy it would be to turn away and say it was too much too horrible to face. Listening to their discussions and reading their comments it is clear to me that our students use the experience to learn and grow.
Trees grow out of dirt on graves.
Evil grows out of hate of people.
Ignorance grows out of lack of caring.
But that does not mean one cannot
wipe off the dirt and plant hope.