To Auschwitz and Beyond

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.

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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.



Last Day in Krakow

Everyone is well and happy. We traveled to Auschwitz today. Tomorrow we’ll be up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to the airport. So, no more blog posting tonight!

On Wednesday, look for our final reflections. Meanwhile, we’ll see you back in Michigan!

A Tour of Krakow

Today we enjoyed a tour of Krakow. Of course we visited the Wawel castle and cathedral complex.


But most of our tour focused on the history of Krakow’s Jews. Before the war, about 65,000 Jews lived in or near Krakow. Today’s population: about 130.

We visited Kazimierz, the historic Jewish Quarter.


From there, we drove across the Vistula River to the site of the ghetto where the Nazis confined Krakow’s Jews.

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In 1942 and 1943, the Nazis cleared the ghetto in a series of three “actions.” Many Krakow Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Others, deemed fit to work, were sent a short distance to the labor camp at Plaszów, commanded by the notorious Ammon Goeth. We spent about an hour walking around the site of the camp, starting from the main gate and passing the roll call area on our way to the memorials.


As always, we stopped at Oskar Schindler’s factory, now renovated into a museum. When our project’s student founders visited the factory in 2001, they found an abandoned plant with no commemoration of what had happened there. The students arranged for the purchase, transport, and erection of a memorial plaque.


Posing with “our” plaque.


A legacy of hands-on learning!

Sabbath Prayers in the Wroclaw Synagogue

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Ilana: One of my favorite aspects of attending Jewish services outside of Michigan is the consistency in prayers and tunes. We walked into the synagogue to attend Friday night (Kabbalat Shabbat) services with the attitude of “everything is going to be in Hebrew and Polish and thus we won’t be able to follow” however, that was not the case. The Rabbi of the White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw, Poland ironically is from Michigan, even an alumni of the University of Michigan. He was able to switch back and forth between Polish and English smoothly and quickly making the night actually understandable! As a Jewish student who is fairly well educated with the Friday night service, I was excited to be able to follow along with both the words and tunes. Once services were over, we enjoyed a Kosher fish meal as well as listened to an interesting discussion on the topic of using electricity on Shabbat. Sitting at a table with Polish Jews singing Zemirot (Hebrew Shabbat songs), fulfilling the Shabbat rituals, and just having conversation was one of the most interesting nights of this week so far. A man sitting across the table from me ironically has family in West Bloomfield, Michigan (my hometown)–real life Jewish geography! The night ended with one of the Jewish men who had just attended services and dinner with us helping us navigate our way back to our hotel–even with a pit stop to the Russian Memorial for World War II veterans. As an American Jew traveling in Poland spending Shabbat dinner with local Jewish people added that much more meaning to such an incredible trip.

(Editor’s note: We couldn’t take photos in the synagogue on Friday night. This photo was taken there in 2009.)

Student Reflections

Nate: The Holocaust has always been very important to me as a Jew and student and I have always taken a large interest in learning as much as I can. So naturally, when I was approached to attend this trip, I jumped for it quickly. Getting to spend time in Poland and learn about the country, people, and history has been an eye-opening experience.

A major component to my experience here has been getting to interact with the students and faculty from Albion College. I was nervous not knowing the whole group when we showed up to the Detroit airport just two days ago, but I think we all are getting a long great, making friends, and helping each other benefit and learn.

On our third day on the trip, we started by heading to the cemetery to get acquainted and oriented to the work we’d be doing for the rest of the week. Not only did we start to work right away, but we also toured around the beautiful property and met the groundskeepers and some other volunteers. The first step in cleaning up the field we were assigned is to start clearing out sticks and branches. While this may sound easy, it was quite the job! Massive branches had fallen out of trees and bushes and completely covered our area in wood. We spent our whole day doing that.


Ariel: When I signed up to go on the HSSLP trip with Albion College, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I wanted to go to Poland and I knew I wanted to help out the Jewish community, but I had no idea how. I wasn’t sure how 18 people from Michigan could truly help out the city of Wroclaw. As we arrived at the cemetery on Tuesday, we got a tour of the grounds, looking at the restored areas and the newer areas first. As I looked around and saw the area we were going to clean, I thought it was hopeless. Were we really going to make a difference?  However, after just a few short day of clearing sticks and pulling weeds, we could see grave stones that haven’t seen daylight in many, many years. It was exciting and beautiful to see graves and try to discover facts about the people they belonged to. Doing so really showed me that even though you may not believe so, every time you volunteer or help a community, you are making a difference in some person’s life. We may not be saving the world, but we’re making a difference to a community who truly deserves it.

Aurora: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” This quote by Mohandas Gandhi is one that has stuck with me throughout this trip to Poland, specifically relating to our work in the new Jewish cemetery. To some, picking up sticks in a nearly forgotten cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland is insignificant. We aren’t saving lives, feeding the homeless or building homes for those less privileged. Our work does not have an immediate, resounding impact on us or our community, but it was very important. As we removed brush from the tangled landscape of our assigned field, we had the opportunity to bring the names of long lost people to the light for the first time in who knows how long. We spoke their names and brought them back into human memory. I have rarely experienced something so special, so important. This has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life and it isn’t even over yet.


Kayla: Over the last couple days we have been picking up sticks, pulling weeds, removing fallen trees, as well as finding and uncovering graves in the cemetery; this work made me realize how much time and effort goes into maintaining cemeteries. There is constantly something to do in order to ensure that those buried there are remembered properly. For me, this work was a challenge because many of the graves were so covered in fallen leaves, sticks, and plants that we often found them by accidentally stepping on them, inches below the dirt. I hated the idea of disrespecting someone’s final burial site, but at the same time knew we were doing something good for them and the community. Every time we uncovered a grave, the whole group would get excited to have found another member of this community, whose grave had not been seen in years. It really drove home why we are here and the importance of volunteering and helping out communities around the world.

Candace: We have picked up fallen trees, sticks, saplings, trash, and discovered graves this week, but that was only the beginning.  On Friday, a group of us visited the Old Jewish cemetery. The Old Jewish cemetery is filled with distinguished members of the Jewish community and beautiful grave stones.  While walking, our group became witnesses to pure destruction. Destruction of everlasting peace and human dignity.   As we passed gravestone after gravestone, we saw bullet holes.  The bullet holes are the result of soldiers using Jewish graves as target practice. These marks were made intentionally, not by accident.  Throughout this trip I have been stunned and saddened by the lack of respect and human dignity the Jewish community in Poland had experienced and still experiences today.  The disrespect the Jewish community received was more than just violent beatings and persecution in the streets, it followed many to the grave. The grave is meant to be a final resting place—a place of everlasting peace—but that was taken away. This simply breaks my heart. However, I am reminded that we are here. We are hear picking up sticks and saplings to bring back a name, yes, but we are doing something bigger. We are restoring and returning the respect and human dignity to the Jewish community here in Wroclaw, Poland.

Rachel: “All that is required for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke). I think about this quote every day we are here. This is how the Shoah first was able to occur, and it is how every single genocide or historical atrocity begins. I do not believe people are inherently evil, for this would be a very sad and discouraging idea to hold in life. Rather, I think there are simply those who choose to do evil things. There are also those who see these evils thing and choose to do something about it. These are the good people. Then, there are those who see the evil, believe it to be evil, and then do nothing. By going to Wroclaw and Krakow, we are witnessing what occurred here to the millions of people affected by the Shoah. Our work in the cemetery may seem like a small act, but it has profound meaning. We are choosing to see the evil and do something about it. We are choosing to be good men and women.


Next: Adventures in Kraków!

Goodbye, Wroclaw!

On our last day working in the cemetery, we got up close and personal with about 1,000 oak seedlings.


In a short while, they will grow into volunteer saplings. That’s why we pulled them out by the roots.


Meanwhile, our German friends were planting roses.


The cemetery used to be filled with roses. Many donors, including our group, are helping the roses to come back. Each flower is a sign of the cemetery’s rebirth.


Here’s what our area looked like when we left this afternoon:


It’s cleared of just about everything except the largest tree branches. Most of the gravestones are now uncovered. Well done, Britons and Spartans!


Service and Learning

There’s always something to learn about the New Jewish Cemetery here in Wroclaw. Yesterday we noticed a plaque on the cemetery wall, next to the main gate.


Jedryk, the cemetery caretaker, told us the story. In 1943-44, after the deportation of Breslau’s remaining Jews, these 22 people were found in hiding. Each of them was shot and interred in Field 26, near the back of the cemetery. Here’s the spot:


At least that’s where historians think they are. The graves aren’t marked, so it’s hard to tell. Erwin Ludnowsky, the man who was forced to bury them, was deported and never returned. In 2012, the plaque was erected to their memory.

According to the German record, one of the deceased was named Chaja Teichmann. But Chaja Teichmann not in fact been shot. She had faked her death with someone else’s corpse and fled to Israel.

We are working in the cemetery with a group of Germans associated with Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace). One of them told us the story of how the cemetery’s World War I memorial had been vandalized in 2010. Apparently some local students had been partying in the cemetery. The police arrived, and the students fled. Unfortunately, one fleeing student disturbed a large monument which fell over and killed him. His friends returned to take revenge on the cemetery. Here’s what they did:

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Here’s the monument today:


It honors German Jews who fought for their country — a country that, only a few decades later, would chase their families out of Breslau and murder those who remained.

That’s the learning. Here’s the service:









Hands-on learning for sure!


Lots of new experiences today! We started with a sausage, yogurt, and cucumber breakfast in our hotel. Then it was off to catch a tram to the cemetery. Only one missed connection and then we were there.


Jedrek put us to work clearing an area near the back fence. The volunteer saplings had been cut down but not yet removed. So we removed them.




We were getting a lot of “hands on” experience!





It was a short day in the cemetery because we had to return to our hotel and get ready for a tour of Wroclaw. We started with the cathedral.


We wandered through the university and into the Rynek (market square).


We visited the White Stork Synagogue. In 1941-1942, the Jews of Breslau were deported from its courtyard.


The synagogue has been beautifully renovated.


Our host explained that, in 1995, their congregation was harassed during sabbath prayers.  Local clergy soon declared the neighborhood “the quarter of four denominations”:  Jewish, Lutheran, Jesuit, and Eastern Orthodox.


We ended the tour by paying our respects at the site where the Reform Jewish synagogue once stood. In November 1938, it was firebombed on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass).


There is a lot to learn in Wroclaw!