HSSLP 2013 Poland Trip

The Albion College Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project returned to Poland in May, 2013. We worked in the cemetery with another German Action Reconciliation Service for Peace group; we participated in Shavout services at the newly renovated White Stork Synagogue; we heard the story of Holocaust survivor Sam Ponczak; we made another pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Join us on the HSSLP Poland 2013 blog!

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Final Reflections

Molly: Overall, this trip was a mixture of feelings. There was the good feeling you got when cleaning the cemetery and the feelings of accomplishment and pride for what we were doing and how we were helping to carry out this service and keep the memories of the people alive. On the flip side of those feelings was the sadness that I felt while we were touring the cities and hearing all the stories about the cruelty and seeing all the gas chambers and standing rooms and all the ways they tortured people and broke their spirits.

Justine: Every single thing we did made this trip, hands down, the most valuable experience of my life. Looking back on it, I learned so much about who I am. It got me out of my small Albion, sorority, finals, and homework bubble and it challenged me. It challenged me physically and mentally.

Victoria: I have seen that the human capacity and ability for evil is endless. I have seen that in the cemetery where graves have been destroyed and robbed. In “Night” and “Neighbors.” In Auschwitz, where I saw the mounds of hair, glasses, pots, pans, and suitcases that were stolen from the prisoners. The torturing rooms, suffocation rooms, and the gas chambers. The human capacity for evil is endless and it is beyond me. I also witnessed the human capacity for good. That too is endless. Our group doing our very best job to clean up the cemetery in Wroclaw is proof of that. That 20 college students (our age groups is usually wired as self-centered) could work so hard, from different backgrounds and religions. In the Schindler factory where one man made the choice to do the right thing.

Jesse: Working to help bring back some humanity to the cemetery is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Working alongside people of different nationality, culture, and religion. . . . I was so impressed with what we accomplished. It showed me that being different works to our advantage, though maybe that isn’t the right word. It shows that what Hitler was trying to do with the Holocaust was really stupid and pointless. There is no such thing as a superior race.

Deena: I feel the service component is a very important part of the trip because we are preserving the memory of the Jewish people and defeating the evil of Hitler and his followers who wanted the Jews and their memory to be permanently erased. Assisting the small Jewish community remaining in Poland is a wonderful undertaking, and demonstrates a commitment to a positive future for all people. I hope that people will continue to help out at the Jewish Cemetery and hope that the cemetery will be fully restored in the future. It is a symbol that will keep the memory of Jewish people alive, it is a reminder of a wonderful civilization that was eradicated because of prejudice and hatred, and it is a reminder that our destiny as human beings is truly linked together.

Tsiporah: Going home, I am taking a lot of prayers with me. I pray for the Jewish people . . . living and not; for human people . . . living or not; for the people in the world who still experience violence and cruelty; and for [the cemetery caretakers], that they always find pride from their work, that their lives be blessed for the blessed work that they are doing, and that they will never lose their desire for goodness and service. Lastly I pray that all people know what it is to love and be loved, to give it and to receive it. I pray that people open their hearts and open their minds.

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Erica: [Our bus ride to Auschwitz] reminded me of Schindler’s List, when the women were accidentally transported to Auschwitz, and the cheerful ignorance of the women in the car. I was the woman who saw the child on the side of the tracks who gestured his finger across his throat. She reacts as anyone would, stunned, but quietly so as not to cause a panic.

Meghan: As I walked under the gate that bears the lying words of Nazi propaganda, that when translated means “Work makes you free,” I felt as though a shroud had been pulled over me.

Jillian: The sun has been shining and warming us all week but on the most somber day of the trip, it is a miserable rain. I thought about what it would be like without my coat, my good shoes, my umbrella. It made their suffering all the more real.

Megan: We were freezing, wet, miserable, and our bodies ached. But say we had gone on a sunny day? Days that had to occur just as frequently during the war as they do now? How taunting, how wrong, those picturesque fields must have looked. How ugly and angry the brick buildings and puffing chimneys must have been against a blue, blue sky.

Andrea: I was trying to put myself in [my high school teacher’s] shoes and see what it would be like as a 17/19 year old girl at Auschwitz. For me, getting a good education and doing well in school was always one of the major things on my life’s list. For my teacher at that time, basic needs like water, food, and human identity were way more important to what I believed was important.

Marie: Walking into the prison block was a very scary experience. Knowing that every person that walked into that building would not walk out unless being led to the shooting wall made me feel like a part of me would never leave that building either.

Matt: There were so many things that I actually saw with my own eyes that until yesterday were true stories I could never prove. But I went there, I saw the bunkers and the chambers and the prisons. I saw where Maximilian Kolbe was killed. I saw the Hoess house and I went to the watch tower that looked out over the long, long tracks that shipped so many Jews to their death.

Katie: It was hard to see and hear everything about Auschwitz and know it did not change the world. There are still genocides and dictators and power-hungry people and countries. There are still racial jokes heard and said, still signs hung and destruction done. I guess that is what is hard for me. How do people end up the way they do? How did Hitler, Goebbels, or Mengele become that way they are? How does one keep themselves from becoming like that? How can we as a society eradicate these ideas?

Brad: The only words going through my head was “I’m sorry” for like 15 minutes. I couldn’t understand why this happened and I guess I’ve always wanted to help the people of the Holocaust in some way and since I can’t do anything to bring them back, all I could do was say sorry and that’s what I did.

Kaitlyn: [The emptiness] of Auschwitz and Birkenau really impacted me because it left me feeling hopeless and sad, which was only one tiny fraction of what the inmates must have been feeling when they were in the camp.

Riet: I kept forcing myself to think, “On this spot. On this stone. On this field. In this room. How many clashes of hobnailed boots? How many prayers? How many thuds of crude wooden shoes? How many lifeless limbs dragged over this threshold?” And I know I didn’t even begin to grasp it.

Kylie: The group of people praying near the crematorium was so touching to witness and brought the whole trip around a 360 degree for me. It made me realize what all of this work and educating myself was for – to make sure that those who were lost are no longer forgotten and never will be.

Marissa: It was comforting to me that on that cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, so many people were touring Auschwitz. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand, people there keeping the memory alive and forcing themselves to face the fact that this awful event did happen and that it should be remembered so that it doesn’t happen again. They were forcing themselves to face reality and to acknowledge that humans can be unfathomably cruel and illogical. It was so special and important for me to see hundreds of Jews and non-Jews praying at the memorial site at Auschwitz and to see teary-eyed people forcing themselves to keep moving through the camp. It, to me, was so necessary that people realize that what happened at Auschwitz not too long ago was a tragedy and that it was so very wrong. It is imperative that they face these facts of the past so that people can begin stopping and preventing genocide now and in the future.

Becca: The final thing I did was make the walk that thousands never got to make. I walked back out those gates and I did it for everyone who never could.

Photo by Alejandro 

Inspired by the candles placed by visitors at the memorial in Birkenau, Daniela wrote this poem:

Burn brightly, little candle
You carry my sorrows and my fears.

Burn brightly, little candle
You carry my family’s loss and tears.

Burn brightly, little candle
You carry the memory of hundreds

Burn brightly, little candle
You carry the six million who are dead

Burn brightly, little candle
You carry the pain of men and women, boys and girls

Burn bravely, my candle
You carry the weight of the world.

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Sightseeing in Krakow

Yesterday we spent most of the day touring Krakow. While cities like Wroclaw and Warsaw were heavily bombed during the war, Krakow was mostly spared. The city is full of old synagogues, churches, and even a castle!

Our tour began in the district of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter were we are staying. We visited the largest synagogue in this district. The synagogue now houses a museum of Jewish history and culture.

Before the war, Krakow was home to about 70,000 Jews. They constituted 30% of the city’s population. Only about 5,000 Krakow Jews survived the Holocaust. Today, only about 200 remain. They meet for prayers in the smallest synagogue of Kazimierz.

We crossed the Vistula River to the Podgorze district. This is where the Nazis established the Jewish ghetto. We spent some time on the square where the Jews of Krakow were rounded up for deportation. Some went to the nearby work camp at Plaszow. Most were sent to Auschwitz.

Some of us had read Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s memoir The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy. Pankiewicz owned the “Under the Eagle” pharmacy in Podgorze. He was the only non-Jew permitted to live in the ghetto. The pharmacy became a center for underground activity. From the front windows, Pankiewicz had an unobstructed view of the main square. He thus observed the many atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews of Krakow. It meant a lot to see the pharmacy and the square as described in the book.

Our tour proceeded to the Wawel castle and cathedral. When Pope John Paul II was archbishop of Krakow, this was his seat.

We saw the inside of the cathedral, but we didn’t take any photos.

We went to the Rynek to walk around and grab some lunch. It’s about twice the size of the Rynek in Wroclaw

Our tour ended at the Oskar Schindler factory. We visited the new museum that has recently been installed there. The exhibit gave us a great idea of what it must have been like to live in German-occupied Krakow. The highlight of the visit, however, was seeing the plaque on the front of the museum. In 1999, when the first Albion College Holocaust Studies students came to Krakow, there was nothing at the factory to indicate that the former owner had saved 1,200 Jews from deportation. The students commissioned a plaque and had it erected in 2001.

Here’s a close-up of the plaque.

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HSSLP Alum Lands Internship

Two years ago, Mallory Fellows ’10 was pulling ivy in the cemetery and seeing as much of Wroclaw and Krakow as she possibly could. She is now beginning an internship at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

For more about Mallory’s internship, go to http://www.albion.edu/news/archives/2010-11-archives/news-releases/1425-fellows-10-to-use-chemistry-history-knowledge-in-museum-internship.

Best wishes, Mallory! We’re proud of you!

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More Student Reflections

Jesse: Yesterday part of us worked on a new section in the cemetery and the other half cleared off headstones.   Both aspects are so important I think.  Clearing the large sections so people can see that it is a cemetery makes a great difference, but working on individual headstones is very rewarding.  To me, people are not really remembered if you cannot see their name.  Some of the headstones were not visible at all; I had to trip over them or be clearing something near it to know it was there.  It is sad that the cemetery is in such bad shape that whole headstones can disappear.  I am glad I got to come on this trip to help the forgotten be remembered. 

Tianyang: The cemetery is very different than what I expected – it is beautiful, peaceful and powerful. It locates at one corner of the city Wroclaw, which is dynamic and a wonderful combination of the old-fashioned architectures and modern facilities. The cemetery seems a little bit forgotten in this city; however, we all from Albion College working in there definitely will not only help the cemetery itself, but also draw people’s attentions to the Holocaust that seems a part of history already but actually is really important for humans to remember not to  repeat the tragedy ever again.

Victoria: Yesterday was the last day at the cemetery.  It was bittersweet because for the past few days working in the cemetery is all we’ve been doing, but it is nice to move on to Krakow.   I met a woman there whose great-grandparents were buried in the cemetery; she was visiting them from Berlin.  She kept thanking us for everything that we had been doing and she asked me why we, as a group were doing this, even if not all of us were Jewish.  I thought that was kind of funny because what religion I was, was never an issue for me.  It made me think how cool it actually was to have so many people from so many different cultures and religions coming together to do the right thing.

Daniela: Today we are leaving Wroclaw for Krakow.  I’ll definitely miss working in the cemetery every morning and being able to see the massive amount of work a few dedicated students can accomplish.  I’ve only been to the cemetery, the hostel, and around the Rynek, and I feel like I could stay here for another year and still not be able to fully appreciate the city and culture.  I’m grateful that a small group from a small college in a tiny city in Michigan can make such a change in an overgrown cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland. We’re here to keep the memory alive!

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A Tour of Wroclaw

We spent Friday morning and late afternoon on a tour of Wroclaw. Our guide Wojciech was always ready with some basic information and interesting anecdotes. We saw:

The memorial at the site of the New Synagogue, a Reform temple built in 1872 and destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938. Wroclaw (formerly Breslau, Germany) was a major center for the Reform movement, and this temple was the second largest synagogue in Germany.

The largest department store in town, formerly owned by Jewish family who were forced to turn over their property to the German government soon after Hitler took power. The building has been recently renovated and now houses an upscale mall.

The view from the department store roof.

The White Stork Synagogue. After the New Synagogue was built, the White Stork was turned over to Breslau’s Orthodox Jewish community. This synagogue was not destroyed on Kristallnacht, since it is located near several other buildings that would have burned right along with it. It eventually fell into disrepair and was only recently restored.

Before 1933, about 30,000 Jews lived in Breslau. They accounted for 5% of the city’s population, and included several wealthy businessmen and University professors. Many Breslau Jews won Nobel prizes — including Fritz Haber, the chemist who invented Zyklon B. Today, Wroclaw’s population includes about 1,000 Jews. Their community center overlooks the courtyard of the White Stork Synagogue. Yesterday we met their rabbi and had lunch in their dining room.

We also saw the Rynek or town square, where most of us have spent much of our free time.

Down by the university, we met the Archbishop of Wroclaw!

We went into the St. John the Baptist cathedral. After the siege of Breslau in 1945, it was not much more than a bombed-out shell. It has since been gradually restored.

Our tour ended at the Old Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery is much smaller than the New Jewish Cemetery where we worked. It is also better maintained, since it became a state-operated museum after the war. In a way, this makes it more depressing than the New Jewish Cemetery, which is at least still in use. On the other hand, the Old Jewish Cemetery did not share the fate of most German cemeteries in Wroclaw. The Soviets obiterated most of them after the war.

We were so tired after our tour, we climbed into our bus and immediately fell asleep! We arrived safely in Krakow and are ready to enjoy this beautiful city.

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We Reflect on Our Experience

Jill: What a whirlwind adventure it has been thus far! Despite not sleeping on the plane at all, I am surprised with the amount of energy I have. After a fulfilling day of breaking down as many trees as I could find, I love walking around and people watching in the town square! Mom, I hope you appreciate the thumbs up pictures!

Marissa: The cemetery is absolutely beautiful and is so much bigger than I thought it would be! I had so much fun clearing trees and uncovering the graves of dozens of people whose memories would have likely been lost if it were not for what we are doing. I am so glad I came to Poland with this amazing group of people!

Megan: For the first time, I’m living as a foreigner in a different land. Many locals speak English, but even so, the language barrier is something I’ve never encountered before. It feels so alienating; the students must make use of other forms of speech (gestures and such) to communicate at all. I think going through something like this can really make you more sympathetic and understanding of foreigners you might encounter in America, and how hard things might be for them.

Becca: Our first day in the cemetery was an eye opening day. We got a tour and saw how truly run down the cemetery has become. It was really sad to me to see all the gravestones that are illegible and broken apart. Graffiti is all over everything. It made me sad to realize how many families will never get to pay respects to their families and how many of the deceased have been disrespected. It gave me a huge sense of purpose in our project to give both the families and the deceased the rights and respect that they deserve.

Matt: The work we have been doing is already starting to show. The area we started in looks totally different then what we are in now. The work has been hard but totally rewarding. I can’t wait to see what the next two days of work will bring us and how nice we can make the cemetery look.


Brad: When I first saw the cemetery I was amazed at how overgrown the cemetery was. It looked like a forest to me and you could hardly see the graves tucked in between the trees. I was a little skeptical at first as to how we could clear the place but I was pleasantly surprised by the end of the first day. I was astounded by the work ethic of our group and the amount of wood that we managed to clear away. It is so rewarding to see the progress that we are making and after our second day being here, its beginning to look like a cemetery again. I am so proud of what we are doing!

Christian: As our group entered the cemetery, we really had no idea what to expect. This group read and studied about the surrounding area and knew the basic background of the cemetery, but to see living history was a different matter. The cemetery was overgrown by ivy, trees, weeds, and many of the gravestones were overturned, it was no longer a story, it was the reality we faced. We were provided a tour of the entire cemetery by “Matt,” a caretaker. He showed us where the elite of Wroclaw are buried and described to us that it used to be a treasured jewels of the city. We then realized what he had to do. We were provided a section of the cemetery and we got down to work. The work ethic of the group was tremendous and I could feel that it provided “Matt” a renewed hope. We asked him on the tour why he had decided to work here and he described himself as an idealistic fool, but in reality we were all there for the same reason, to change the course of history. I feel that being there and helping no longer made him feel idealistic, but appreciated, especially when this group displayed a great deal of diversity, non-Jewish and Jewish.

Erica: The Rynek is the most beautiful square ever. The buildings are colorful and old fashioned, street vendors line the streets, and street performers entertain the people eating outside of the many restaurants. Last night we saw a fire eater. Working in the cemetery is satisfying, in a way, because it has been almost completely forgotten and neglected.

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The New Jewish Cemetery

The cemetery where we’re working is one of two Jewish cemeteries in Wroclaw. The “Old” Jewish Cemetery is now maintained as a historical site. The “New” Jewish Cemetery is still in use. Polish Jews are buried near the front gate. As you walk farther back into the cemetery, however, you begin to notice German names and German epitaphs. This cemetery served the vibrant Jewish community when Wroclaw was the German city of Breslau.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how it must once have looked. The front gate opens from a circular drive.

Once you are inside, the World War II memorial is directly in front of you, at the end of a shaded lane.

To the right is an open field. This used to be a flower nursery, complete with greenhouses. Surely many families bought flowers here, so that the cemetery was covered with blooms.

To the left is the funeral house and synagogue. Here is a photo of the original building:


After the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the Polish government expelled all Jews from Wroclaw. With no Jews left to protect and maintain the property, the cemetery rapidly disintegrated. The synagogue was destroyed and the bricks were looted. This is what it looks like today:

Near the center of the cemetery is a large clearing. This is where the elite Jews of Breslau were buried. It used to be the most beautiful spot on the entire property.

The large tombstones have all fallen over.

Most of the 40-acre cemetery looks like this:

For more information about the New Jewish Cemetery, go to:


You can also check out this great PowerPoint slide show.

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Cemetery Volunteers

We are not the only volunteer work party in the cemetery this week. A group from Germany labors nearby, cleaning grave sites and restoring fallen tombstones. They belong to an organization called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. The tombstone replacement is a continuation of some work we began in 2007. Here is a photo of the area we worked in then, as we left it:This is what it looks like now. Check out all the upright tombstones: A second group of Germans is at work on the World War I memorial. This memorial commemorates the German Jews of Breslau who gave their lives for the Fatherland. When we arrived at the cemetery on Monday, we saw that some vandals had defaced the memorial: Volunteers from the German Army Reserves, with logistical support from the Polish Army, have managed to clean off the graffiti. They are also tending the monument and its surrounding area.

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