Albion’s Work in the New Jewish Cemetery

Frank: With the ending of our 2013 HSSLP trip, I am left with several thoughts.  First and foremost, I am impressed by our students.  As a group, they all engaged in the seriousness of the endeavor that took us to Poland while still managing to experience pleasure in a new country, to meet new people, to try new foods, and to generally be excellent traveling companions.  Each one of these students embraced every activity we suggested including sitting through a religious service conducted in Hebrew followed by a lecture in Polish!  Our evening book discussions were notable for thoughtful engagement and heartfelt contributions. During the days, the group pulled weeds, ivy, and hauled piles of brush and logs in the cemetery even when getting scratched, muddied and bitten by insects.  Yet, when uncovering a tombstone, one that perhaps had not been seen by anyone for decades, they gathered around to clean it off with reverence and respect, restoring a forgotten name to the world.

Jocelyn: I, too, am impressed by the energy and devotion of the students. For the most part, I think their passion for the work made them find satisfaction in what they were doing. At times, however, one or another would express frustration at what we were unable to accomplish. Can thirteen hours’ work by ten people really solve the problems posed by a neglected 40-acre cemetery?

Yes — and more than we can know. First and foremost, we are honoring the dead: people buried in the cemetery; their families who are unable to tend their graves; the Holocaust victims memorialized there.

Second, we are performing a service for the living. Cemetery caretakers Piotr and Mateusz; Holocaust survivor and former Wroclaw resident Sam; Magda and the members of Wroclaw’s Jewish community — all of them thanked us, some over and over again, for the work we do.

Third, we inspire others to give their time and energy. In 2009, a local magazine ran a feature article on the “Forgotten Cemetery.” It mentioned American students who help with its restoration. That article brought the cemetery to the attention of Wroclaw residents and led to an increase in local volunteers.

Finally, our work over the last twelve years has contributed significantly to the cemetery’s restoration. On the first few trips, the Albion group cleared the paths of roots and debris.

In 2007, we cleaned Fields 12 and 13. Here’s what the area looked like then:

Here’s what it looks like now:

In 2009, we focused on Field 11:

Field 11 today:

Chelsea and Allie painstakingly pieced together a broken epitaph.

The epitaph has now been restored to its monument.

In 2011, we made a massive pile of German-American-Polish-Jewish-Chinese friendship out of Field 17:

Field 17 today:

In 2007, you couldn’t see the walls from the middle of the cemetery. You couldn’t even see them from 20 yards away.

All that underbrush has now been cleared.

Piotr and Mateusz have been hard at work with a heavy-duty weed-whacker, a chain saw, and a tripod for raising fallen tombstones — tools we have bought for them over the years.

They work so hard because they are racing against time. Without their efforts, nature would take over within 10-15 years.

We can help with that.


Tiffany: Auschwitz was not at all what I expected. I’m not altogether sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. I had no idea how expansive Auschwitz was and yet even after being there and seeing it I still can’t grasp the scope. The number of people who were sent there, the number of people who died there is still beyond my comprehension.

Katelyn: I remember when I first figured out that other people were also people like me. How can a person torture another person? How could they honestly look at their faces and see them and believe they weren’t human? I don’t know. This entire trip has created more questions than answers . . . . I feel lost. I want to do something. I want it to matter.

Beth: I couldn’t believe that they kept the gas chambers and crematorium. I couldn’t believe that there would actually be such a thing in the first place. People had to actually sit down and draw out plans and then enact them in order to do such a thing. They had to sit and think how best to kill as many people as possible and still get as much as they could off their dead body. It is horrible.

Kassy: At the crematoria, Frank said the prayer for the dead. After his prayer, I lit a candle that had the Star of David. I felt honored to commemorate the victims of Auschwitz in such a way.

Frank: The afternoon spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau was perhaps more difficult for me than the last time I was on this trip. Throughout the time in Poland, thoughts and images came to mind unbidden and tears were close to the surface. By the time we reached the crematoria, where I stopped to recite the prayers for the dead, my personal sorrow could no longer be held back and flowed more freely. The caring and sensitive company of our students and Jocelyn made this part of the trip less overwhelming for me. After the afternoon in the camp, we had dinner in Kazimierz. We had time to reflect on and share reactions to that place.  Sadness, pain, sorrow, despair, horror, anger…words seemed insufficient to express what the experience meant to everyone.  Listening to the conversation, I had a sensation of the effects of violence, an effect that doesn’t disappear after the lives of the victims are over but lives on in all of us who come after whether it is the result of school violence, urban violence, the violence of war, or religious or personal persecution and oppression.  Every tragedy is different and cannot be compared or conflated with another.  However, it is important to recognize toll that violence takes on us all.

Brian: I want to talk about perhaps the most important part of the trip for me, the birds that occupied the ruins of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Most visitors may not have noticed the birds, merely discounting them as background noise to the seemingly far more unique parts of the tour. However, the birds serve to remind us that, even in the most heart wrenching of places, life really does go on. I could see them as they flew around, talked to each other, and prepared to start families. At the end of the day, our lives are analogs because we are all products of nature, meaning our lives are easily comparable. Just as the birds, we should mourn the dead (some species of bird —e.g., western scrub— are known to hold ‘funerals’ for dead members of their flocks), but we should laugh, fall in love, reproduce, and, eventually, pass away. I know that events like this have the possibility of leaving permanent scars on people, preventing them from ever believing the sincerity of human nature. But you have to balance the good with the bad. As Jerry Garcia once put it, “We will get by, we will survive.” They, the victims and the perpetrators alike, were humans, aligned by common goals. We should never forget that we are all of the same species. When we separate ourselves from other humans based on our own distinctions, we ultimately let the Nazis win by demonstrating that such distinctions, no matter who makes them, have merit.

Christina: I may not understand everything about the Holocaust but I now understand more about the most important part: the victims. Yes, it is important to know the history of the perpetrators to understand the greater meaning but focusing on them gives them power. By working in the cemetery we remembered those who had been forgotten. We honored those who were persecuted. The damage caused to the Jewish communities in Poland is not remedied but working towards that makes me feel good.

Salaina: I started this trip nervous and unsure of what to expect. I end this trip a changed person, a witness to the history and consequences of what may have been the worst example of human behavior in modern history. Since I have no personal connection to the Holocaust I am surprised by the level of closeness I now feel with it. I am not Jewish. I had no family members who were victims. But just by being a member of the human race, I am connected to the Holocaust, for better or for worse. This is the most important thing I learned from this trip: every human being, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or belief system has the responsibility to learn about and remember the Holocaust in order to realize what humans can do to each other and in the hope that what has happened before and still happens today can be prevented in the future.


Sightseeing in Krakow

Greetings from Krakow! We’ve been here since Friday evening. Due to time and internet constraints, these posts have been running behind schedule. But we’re catching up this morning!

Yesterday we had a fantastic tour of Krakow. Here’s what we saw:

Wawel Castle and Cathedral:

The fantastic view from the Cathedral tower:

The oldest university building in town:

The Rynek (Market Square):

What’s left of the old city fortifications:


The Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz:

The “Empty Chairs” memorial at the main square of the Jewish Ghetto, where Krakow Jews were forced to move in 1941:

The Oskar Schindler factory. The commemorative plaque erected ten years ago by Albion College students and faculty is still there to remind visitors that “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”:

The Plaszow work camp, where Jews and other prisoners worked like slaves under the sadistic camp Commandant Amon Goeth:

This afternoon we travel to Auschwitz. On Tuesday we will post about our experiences there. On Wednesday this blog will conclude with some final reflections about what Albion College students have accomplished in the cemetery over the last 12 years.


Our Last Day in the Cemetery

On Friday we were back in the cemetery. We only had a couple of hours to work before we had to leave for Krakow. Here are some photos with a few more thoughts from our students:

Tiffany: Uncovering and helping to restore some of the graves in the cemetery has been a powerful and deeply moving experience for me. It has been humbling for me to see, understand, and experience the breadth of history in this place. Something that really struck me when we were working in the cemetery was the vandalism. It wasn’t until I saw this that I realized how prevalent anit-Semitic attitudes can be. I mean I knew that they were out there, but I guess I had this optimistic view that they were a much smaller minority than they appear to be now. This realization made me realize how truly important the work we did here is. We did far more than restore a cemetery, we built bridges. It is important for the people who care to take a stand in the face of such injustices. We cannot ignore the history, so we must do what we can to change the course that our history will take through simple acts like these.

Brian: I originally pursued enrollment in the Holocaust Service Learning Studies Program as a means to become a more global citizen. After spending nearly a week in Wroclaw, I am pleased to say that this trip has expanded my horizons far beyond what I
thought could be possible. Additionally, the program changed my post-graduate plans. Whereas before I was only focused on working in a corporate environment, I have decided how important it is to travel to other countries, not just Poland. In addition to exposing me to a completely different culture, this trip allowed me to study the Holocaust, one of my favorite topics, in a totally unique, hands-on style of learning. Our experiences exposed us to the dynamic interplay of academic topics involved in studying and learning about the Holocaust. For instance, museums and memorials we will visit on this trip, such as Schindler’s factory, will allow me to explore the ethical issues of the Holocaust: what specifically made Hitler’s actions bad? What motivated the few brave gentiles who risked their own lives to save others? How can these
experiences shape my values nearly 70 years after World War II ended? I was amazed that, even though I am now an alumnus, Albion still has the opportunity to amaze me with opportunities that can change me so deeply.

Here is a farewell photo: our group with our German colleagues, cemetery caretaker Piotr, and assistant caretaker Mateusz.

After posing for this photo, we stood around in a circle, held hands, and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” Some of us even knew all the words.

Here is the result of two hours’ work: two more piles of German-American-Jewish-Polish friendship.


The Jewish Community of Wroclaw

Yesterday was the second day of Shavuot, so still no working in the cemetery. What we wound up doing instead was almost as good; maybe even better.

After a free morning in Wroclaw, we met for a book discussion (Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night). We then walked to the White Stork Synagogue by way of the monument to the New Synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallnacht.

The White Stork Synagogue was spared due to its proximity to German homes and businesses. It was, however, vandalized and later requisitioned for use as a storage facility. It has recently been renovated and now serves as a sometime synagogue, sometime concert venue, and symbol of the renaissance of Wroclaw’s Jewish Community.

They’ve done a beautiful job with the restoration.

The synagogue president gave us a nice welcome. He explained the history of the Jewish community and pointed out some of the features of the synagogue. Then a man who was involved in the renovations showed us around the balcony, which hosts an exhibit about Jewish life in Breslau/Wroclaw.

For more about the two synagogues, see our 2009 trip blog.

After the tour, we hopped a tram and rode to the Edith Stein house. Edith Stein, a Breslau Jew, converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun. After the Nazis took power, she moved to a convent in the Netherlands. In 1942, however, the Nazis caught up with her. She was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in the gas chambers.

Her family home in Breslau is now the home of the Edith Stein Society. We gathered there with our German friends from the cemetery along with Holocaust survivor Sam Ponczak. We know Sam because he contacted us after Frank gave a presentation at a survivor’s conference last year. He very kindly arranged to be in Wroclaw this week. He met us at the airport on Sunday and arranged our meeting with the Polish students. Now he was with us at the Edith Stein house to tell his story to us and to the German group.

Sam asked whether some of the Germans might like to share why they were in Wroclaw working in the cemetery. Some of the older Germans, born shortly before or after the war, shared that nobody had spoken about it during their childhood. They bear many burdens: what their fathers may or may not have done during their service in the East; what their parents knew but never told them; what other Europeans thought of them as they matured into young adulthood. By helping to restore the cemetery, they are making the reparations their parents did not.

It was amazing to sit there in the Edith Stein house with Germans and Americans, Jews and Poles, young people and older people — many whose families were directly affected by the war in Europe — listening to the story of one man whose life from infancy has been shaped by the Holocaust, each one vowing to keep the memory alive and to work for peace and reconciliation.

Thank you, Sam!



A Tour of Wroclaw

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) began Tuesday at sunset. Shavuot ends at sunset tonight. The New Jewish Cemetery is closed, so we have been unable to work there these last two days.

But we have been able to learn about Wroclaw and its Jewish community. Tuesday evening we were invited to attend a brief prayer service in the newly-renovated White Stork synagogue. After the prayer we enjoyed a lecture from a university professor, all in Polish. We are learning Polish very quickly so we understood every word. (Not!) After the lecture — dinner! Challa bread, tuna with cheese, cheese strata, cake with cream cheese frosting. It’s traditional to have a “dairy dinner” on Shavuot.

It was a new experience for everyone to hear Hebrew prayers in a Polish synagogue and then to share dinner and conversation with Polish Jews.

Yesterday morning we took a guided tour of Wroclaw. We saw:

The cathedral.

We went to the top of the tower. What a great view!

The university.

We met a distinguished colleague.

The Rynek (market square) with its beautiful town hall.

The Old Jewish Cemetery.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is maintained by the Polish government. It’s in better shape than the New Jewish Cemetery.

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What Are We Doing Here?

Jocelyn: We have graduated from hauling sticks to hauling logs.

Kassy: Uncovering the graves was such an amazing experience.  These graves probably haven’t been seen for fifty or sixty years.  By cleaning the graves, I felt like we were honoring these people once again, especially now that there is no one in Wroclaw to remember them anymore.  The work that we’ve done in the cemetery is so worthwhile.  It was amazing to see just the progress that we made and what a difference just our group was able to make.  After just a couple of days, this trip has been absolutely amazing and I am so glad to be a part of this work.

Katelyn: I think the appropriate term for this trip is bittersweet.  On one hand, this is an amazing experience.  I am so grateful that I am able to come to Poland and able to work in this beautiful old cemetery.  Looking at pictures from before and after, the difference we are making is clear.  However, there is still so much to do, and still so much we can’t do. At certain points we uncovered graves without names, it was so sad.  We are trying to restore these cemeteries, but we can’t do it all.  We can’t clear off every grave, but that makes this trip even more important.  We might want to do it all, but if we can’t we should at least set a foundation and raise awareness so that others can do what we can’t.

Salaina: This trip to Poland is proving to be as transforming as I had hoped it would be.  Not only am I being exposed to a new culture and language, but I am helping to restore the memories of the Jews of Wroclaw by working at the New Jewish Cemetery.  The cemetery is simultaneously beautiful and tragic.  Seeing the graves overgrown and taken over by nature brings on a feeling of hopelessness, but also presents an amazing challenge.  By clearing the trees and the dirt and the ivy from the graves we were uncovering the memories of people who have not been remembered for decades.  What we are doing may not bring us any closer to understanding how the Holocaust could happen, but it is significant for the now basically nonexistent Jewish population of Wroclaw.  We are tending to the graves because there is no one else to do it.  That alone makes this whole trip to Poland worthwhile.


Jocelyn: Piotr, the cemetery caretaker, and his assistant Mateusz are working with us. So is a group of Germans associated with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace.

As Piotr and Mateusz say, we are building a pile of Polish-Jewish-German-American friendship. Here it is:

For more information about the New Jewish Cemetery, go to our 2011 blog.

The New Jewish Cemetery

Wroclaw’s “Old” Jewish Cemetery was established in 1856. Space was getting tight by the end of the century, so the Jewish community opened its “New” Cemetery in 1902. Since 2001 Albion College students have made a biannual treck to the New Jewish Cemetery. We’ve cleared paths; we’ve cut underbrush; we’ve taken a chain saw to a fair number of trees; we’ve cleared decades of leaf mulch from fallen tombstones.

Today our 2013 group was initiated into the proud tradition of hauling sticks. These photos tell the story:















From Detroit to Wroclaw

Here we were in Detroit:

Here we are in Wroclaw:

Looking worse for the wear after a long trip but feeling better after a traditional Polish dinner! We’re excited about our first day working in the cemetery tomorrow. Until then, good night!

Poland, Here We Come!

Dzień dobry and welcome to the 2013 Albion College Holocaust Studies Learning Project Poland Trip blog! Here at Albion, we’re done with final exams and waiting for Commencement. Most students, faculty, and staff are enjoying graduation parties and making summer plans. But we’re getting ready to fly to Poland.

We’ve been preparing for our trip since February. In our Thursday evening seminars, we’ve learned about the causes and effects of the Holocaust in Poland. We heard Ken Waltzer speak about children and youth interned at Buchenwald. We set important goals, like “Keep the memory alive,” “Develop an emotional connection with the place and its history,” and “Restore some graves.”

We’ll be in Wroclaw from May 12 until May 17. Then we’ll transfer to Krakow for the weekend. Whenever we have time and internet access, we will be adding photos, news, and views. You can come with us by following this blog. Do widzenia and we’ll see you in Poland!