HSSLP 2017: The Video.
Albion College Students Help Restore the New Jewish Cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland
Lauren: Our first city, Wroclaw, was small and let us ease into being in an entirely new atmosphere. Here I tried pierogies, patzckis, hunted for gnomes, and got a little dirty serving. We spend four days cleaning the New Jewish Cemetery. We gave identities back to people who were hidden in the past. We fought against hate, against antisemitism, undoing some wrongs from World War II. Along with going this somber work we were able to talk with the Jewish community in Wroclaw. I attended my first shabbat dinner and attempted to dance and read Hebrew in Polish. I never had so much fun in a religious service before.
Cameron: Wrocław is a city that has found a special place in my heart. The city itself was more modern and European in layout, yet still held so much history in its walls that it was the perfect concoction of old and new. I certainly understand why the name “city of bridges” would stick so well with the city. The island of cathedrals, in particular, was a beautiful sight. Being able to have the honor of showing respect to these deceased families is a beyond humbling experience. I love to think of my work there, in that special place, as helping the helpless. The service I provided within the city will probably be one of the most formative events of my life. If I can do nothing else like this ever again in my life, I will count myself lucky for having chosen this place, in this time, with these people, doing this good work.
Brianna: I’ve learned how much work I’m willing to put into something that was completely unattached to me in the beginning. I have a picture that is a “before” and “after” of the gravestone I found, and I’m so proud of it. In the before picture, you can’t even tell there’s a stone under it. Bur, after almost two hours of hard work, there is a seven-piece gravestone uncovered and clean. Oscar Simon was laid to rest there, and that name will stick with me forever.
Robert: The book readings and class discussions we have had have significantly increased my understanding of the Holocaust and what can be done to stop genocide in the future. I had no idea that some Poles actively participated in the destruction of Jewish life in Poland. Nor did I have any idea of how the survivors of the camps remade their lives after the war. Their stories and how they have dealt with tragedy offer an empowering message to those that are fighting oppression across the world.
Andrea S.: I believe this trip has definitely changed me and my perception of the world. I was able to take full rein on helping others. That’s all I ever wanted to do is just help anyone in any way that I can, that’s one of the main reasons I would like to pursue a career as a family or immigration lawyer. I have realized that human beings are capable of so much, both good things and bad things. I have seen humans capable of demonstrating love and compassion through the restoration of the cemetery and the bonding time that we spent with the Jewish community. I have also witnessed humans capable of showing the worst of themselves by visiting Auschwitz. That was most definitely the hardest part of this trip.
Bekah: This trip has most certainly changed me. It has changed me even more than I ever thought that it could or would. It has left me inspired and restored my faith in humanity which was something I had not expected. I had expected to be in Poland, to see the history of the atrocities that had happened here and be left with a sense of dread and horror. Instead, I chose to see the hopefulness. The work we did in the cemetery, the interest we showed in the history of these people and then the knowledge gained inspired me. On our last night in Krakow, when Carrie spoke about how without sadness, we cannot truly experience happiness I was left reflecting on the truthfulness of this statement. It was then that I chose to see the good in the bad. This trip has not only changed my perspective on the holocaust, which I still see as a horrendous act but can now see the hopefulness in the survivors, but it has also changed my perspective on life which is a truly a wonderful gift.
Amy B.: Before this trip, the Holocaust was just something we learned in class. Some dates, some locations, and some statistics. Something vastly impersonal, with which I had no connection. Now, after having interacted with members of the Jewish community and those affected by the Holocaust–both the living and the dead–I have been able to personalize these numbers and statistics and locations. I’m able to assign faces and names to victims and survivors. I have been made aware of the lasting devastation of the Holocaust.
Rachel A.: For every name in the cemetery, there are hundreds and thousands dead in the Holocaust who never got a proper burial and many who no longer have someone to remember them. When we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I thought I was ready, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience. In philosophy, I learned about qualia–first-hand experience. We can learn everything there is to know about a topic, but without qualia; without actually experiencing it, do we ever truly know?
Kate F.: Before we left, my grandmother shared with me a page of quotes. All of the quotes are relevant and interesting, but one part in particular stood out to me: “There is one response to such overwhelming tragedy: the reaffirmation of meaningfulness, worth, and life–through acts of love and live-giving. The act of creating a life or enhancing its dignity is the counter-testimony to Auschwitz” (Rabbi Irving Greenberg). For me, this quote affirmed the work that we did in the cemetery in Wroclaw. By caring for the graves we showed those buried there and their families–lost or living–that they are meaningful, worthy, and cared for. We will remember all lives with dignity and share their stories as much as we can.
Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau
Rachel Z.: As our group walked through the gate [of Auschwitz I], I began to think about how we knew exactly what we were walking into, what had happened there, and that we were allowed to leave while those who perished there had no idea what lay behind the wall.
Andrea B.: At the museum we saw many exhibits of things left behind. We saw two tons of hair, the jars of gas used to kill people, a pile of shoes, luggage, pots and pans and so on. This was one of the hard parts because they were going to use it when they were here. These people had no idea what was going to happen to them.
Rachael: The final stop on the Auschwitz I portion of the tour was the only remaining crematorium left on the Auschwitz-Birkenau campus. It was hidden under a hill. We saw the platform in which people were forced to undress, totally out in the open. We were in the room in which the gas was administered and people died. We were in the crematorium, with the four different ovens that held two bodies at once. Sixteen memories erased. And then we were out, unlike the majority of people that entered those doors.
Megan: [At Auschwitz II-Birkenau,] we saw the selection area and I cannot fathom how one could just decide the worth of a life. You were either deemed ready for work or you were selected for pretty much immediate death–though the labor also frequently led to death. We heard the story of a young boy whose mom made him leave her in the selection process as a last-ditch hope to save him. He had no idea what was going on and so acted like his age and told his mom, “I hate you.” That’s the last thing he said to her as he never saw her again.
Kendra: Knowing these people’s living conditions and me complaining about air conditioning just really hits home how to never take anything for granted. Two words stuck with me the whole time I was there: never forget. I think that might be my biggest take-away from the trip.
Katie F.: As I stood by the barracks and looked from the inside out, I recognized that this was the view of many before me. I can’t help but to gaze at the fence, with an unanswered question of why.
Erin: I really appreciated that Frank was comfortable enough to share his [family’s story] with us. It meant a lot to me that he trusted us that much. It made me wonder about how everyone had their own stories, and how little we have heard. With how much we have talked, sometimes it’s hard to believe that we’ve only heard a slice of survivor stories and that there were hundreds of thousands of stories we will never hear. It’s crazy to think about. Everything about Auschwitz-Birkenau is crazy to think about.
Rachel S.: Birkenau gave a good indication of how expansive these concentration camps were. Row upon row upon row of chimneys went on beyond my sight. This place made me feel so somber. I don’t have any more words for the emotions I felt. I just hope I can somehow find a way to relay these feelings to friends and family at home, in hopes that they’ll better understand this tragedy, and be inspired to fight for a better future for our world.
Madi: At dinner someone asked what we could do after the trip and I think the one thing we can do is remember. Remember those who perished in the camps, remember the brutality of the Nazis, remember the stories of those who survived, and make sure this never happens again. The most powerful thing and the most challenging thing we can do is not hate. People can rub us the wrong way, they can hurt and manipulate us, but learning not to hate anyone is how we prevent genocides from occurring again.
The Ultimate Souvenir
Two years ago, it was the postcard. This year, it’s the magnet.
Yes, for the low cost of 3 Polish zloty, you too can own a miniature Albion College Schindler Factory plaque! Too bad it cuts off the inscription that explains who erected it.
Still, it’s pretty sweet to think that “our” plaque–with its quotation about saving a life–adorns filing cabinets and refrigerators all over the world!
HSSLP Faculty and Staff
While waiting for student reflections to roll in, let’s thank this year’s faculty/staff leadership team!
Patrick, Amy, and Frank managed the many logistical details along with Drew (who gave up his place on this trip and so is not pictured here). Jocelyn taught the course. Marc faithfully attended committee meetings and contributed key ideas.
Carrie participated in our 2016 meetings but then stepped out for the duration of her spring semester sabbatical. We’re glad that she came back for the trip and grateful for her energy and insights. We’re also grateful for the company and good cheer of our colleagues David and Beth.
All in all, our team’s passion for the project inspired the group for meaningful service and deep learning. Thanks to each and every one!
Putting the Pieces Together
Two days ago, we toured Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II–Birkenau. We’re still trying to process all we’ve learned and experienced. Look for the bulk of our reflections on Monday. Meanwhile, here are some initial thoughts about Holocaust Studies and service learning.
Bria: The first tombstone I uncovered was beautiful. It was hardly weathered-looking even though I know it had been through so much. It reminded me how resilient life can be, if that makes any sense. As I walked down the path holding twigs and sticks I thought back to the time when the person on that tombstone had passed (1926) before World War II and wondered what the cemetery looked like then. Was it bustling with people grieving for their loved ones? Was it colorful? How much of the cemetery was being used at that time? Was the vegetation drastically different from now?
David: Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau today was an intensely personal experience for all of us. When walking past actual artifacts such the massive piles of shoes sized from adults to tiny children, it quickly became overwhelmingly painful knowing that each shoe had a personal story and was worn by someone who perished horribly in this place. The windows at the end of the exhibit room were open and I leaned out the window sill to try and calm my nerves by looking across to the next cell block. There I saw a young couple with their infant baby whose mother was nursing her child. Just a short time later in Birkenau as we walked down the long platform I spotted this couple again now changing their baby’s diaper on the same ground where 75 years ago at this very spot, people were roughly forced from cramped cattle cars, separated from their families and many cases immediately sentenced to death. Perhaps because of my need to find something positive to offset so much evil, this couple made me aware of the gift of new life that will continue to flourish long after the unfathomable nightmare of the Holocaust.
Jessica: I think what this day has taught me is that life goes on. The past has happened and it can and should be learned from, but no matter what life keeps going. While the Jewish community in Wroclaw may be smaller than it was in the past, it is still surviving. It may have been on the edge of extinction, but life kept moving, and so did the Jews. This is idea is evident in the happiness the Jewish people I have met here exude. They may have a terrifying history and resent some of the things that happened and be angry about them, but they have kept moving, kept living, kept thriving.
Katie M.: Over the past couple of days, we have been working in the cemetery, cleaning up sticks and weeds from the plots, as well as uncovering hidden graves that must have been buried for years. Uncovering these graves was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever had. It’s so heartbreaking to see that these graves have been hidden for so many years, but yet, so gratifying to see someone’s name and to give them life again.This experience has been one that I will never forget. It was difficult just looking at this vandalized graveyard and see how hatred still goes on today. Although the Holocaust is over, the ideas and hatred that stemmed from it is not. But with every headstone we uncover, we fight the hatred. This trip is something so much powerful than just doing service, it is standing up against hatred and coming together as humans to create a more peaceful, loving world. That is something that I will always hold dear to my heart after this service learning trip.
Carrie: It’s been an honor and privilege to travel, study, and learn with this amazing group of young (and not so young) people. It is a great testament to their character and the hopefulness of our future that they chose to invest in a non-traditional study abroad experience where they did manual labor, service work, and travel that involved deep pain and introspection as well as enrichment. We had some fun along the way and made great memories and friendships, but let’s be honest–this is not the travel abroad experience most students are dreaming of when they imagine coming to Europe for the first time. What an outstanding group of young people!
A Tour of Krakow
Happy Mother’s Day! We celebrated by taking a long, engrossing tour of Krakow. In the morning, we focused on the story of Krakow’s Jews. We toured the story backwards, but this blog post will tour it forward.
Before the invasion of Poland, Krakow was home to about 60,000 Jews — about 25% of the city’s population. Many of them lived in Kazimierz, a “city within a city” set aside for Jewish settlement in the 14th century. Kazimierz is home to many synagogues, including the Old Synagogue pictured here.
The Old Synagogue, built in 1407, now houses the Jewish History Museum. The Jewish community of Krakow now holds services in the smallest of all the synagogues, Synagogue Remuh.
In March of 1941, the Germans established the Krakow Ghetto in a district just across the river from Kazimierz. They evicted the district’s 3,000 residents and moved in the 15,000 remaining Krakow Jews. Many were put to work in nearby factories. Starting in May of 1942, the Germans liquidated the ghetto in a series of three bloody Aktionen. Those still capable of work were sent down the street to the work camp at Plaszow. The rest were deported to death camps.
Here is the square where the ghetto residents were forced to gather for transit. Their suffering is commemorated with ranks of empty chairs.
One of the factory owners was able to save his 1,200 Jewish laborers from deportation and death. This, of course, was Oskar Schindler. His factory is now a museum with exhibits that depict the history of the German occupation of Poland. The best exhibit of all is a plaque, created at the initiative of the first Albion College Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project students and dedicated in 2001.
We were ridiculously happy to see this plaque!
We were not so happy to visit Plaszow. The work camp there was built on the site of a Jewish cemetery. We now feel pretty strongly about Jewish cemeteries, so it was quite disturbing to view the desecration of this one. The guard house and the roll call square reminded us of the horrible conditions endured by anyone who lived under the command of Ammon Goeth.
Such was the first half of our tour. After unwinding with lunch in Kazimierz, we made our way to the old town of Krakow. The chief attraction is Wawel Hill with its castle and cathedral complex.
Not far behind is the beautiful, busy market square.
Many of us are now opting for an early bed time. We’re dead on our feet, plus tomorrow we travel to Auschwitz. If tomorrow comes and goes and you don’t see a post about Auschwitz, look for it on Wednesday. Until then, good night!
Searching for the Right Words
Carrie: Yesterday we completed our work in the cemetery. As we finished we took time to contemplate our thoughts and feelings. In small groups we were challenged to identify a single word or phrase that best captured our experience. What follows are the words that were shared.
Grateful: We are privileged to be here and humbled by the reminder of how much we take for granted in our daily lives.
Harmony: It is peaceful working together. We come from different backgrounds, religions, and experiences, but working side by side we find harmony with each other and with the dead.
Humanizing: Despite past atrocities that have been committed we are trying to make a difference. We are doing something and in the process showing that evil doesn’t always win. Good can triumph in the end if we want it to.
Unity: Participating in this project has unified us as a group. It has unified us with the Jewish community of Wroclaw. It has unified us with those resting here and their families.
Resilience: Families show resilience when they fight for each other. Through this work we are symbolically fighting for those resting here just as families fight for each other against all obstacles and hardships.
Relationship: Each relationship is unique, just like each tombstone. We have each developed a unique relationship to this place and to the people who are buried here with whom we now feel connected.
Responsibility: Now that we have been here and shared in this experience we have a responsibility to carry our knowledge and the lessons learned forward and apply them.
The people resting here will not be forgotten.
Frank shared this poem with us:
A Jewish Cemetery in Germany
by Yehuda Amachai
On a little hill amid fertile fields lies a small cemetery,
A Jewish cemetery behind a rusty gate, hidden by shrubs,
Abandoned and forgotten.
Neither the sound of prayer
Nor the voice of lamentation is heard there
For the dead praise not the Lord.
Only the voices of our children ring out seeking graves
Each time they find one – like mushrooms in the forest, like
Here’s another grave! There’s the name of my mother’s
mother, and a name from the last century.
And here’s a name,
and there! And as I was about to brush there moss from the name —
Look! An open hand engraved on the tombstone, the grave
Of a kohen,
His fingers splayed in a spasm of holiness and blessing,
And here’s a grave concealed by a thicket of berries
That has to be brushed aside like a shock of hair
From the face of a beautiful beloved woman.
Cemetery Work and Sabbath Rest
Carrie: In the cemetery as we gather tree limbs, pull weeds and saplings, and cut through the ivy, we reveal tombstones that have been swallowed by the forest. It is a rewarding experience to bring back to human memory a name–a person who may have become forgotten to the living. Each uncovered stone represents a loved one–someone who had a mother and father, perhaps a lover or a sibling or spouse. Each engraving represents someone who lived a human life that it had its share (perhaps more or less) of joys and sorrows, love and loss. Someone who was loved by someone and certainly loved by God. Through our work in the cemetery we live out our belief that a different world is possible; that we can define our neighbor broadly and love that neighbor through acts of service that strengthen our connection. As we peel the moss from each grave we point to the shared humanity, worth, and dignity of the Jewish dead of Wroclaw and also of their descendants living and dead. We show that it is possible to live as one human family and that Albion, Michigan, USA and Wroclaw, Poland are inextricably connected as part of a global human family which includes all varieties of nationalities, religions, races, gender identities and sexualities–a human family that can transcend difference. We believe that each of us is equally deserving of human dignity in life, as well as in death. It is a belief, as well as a hope, that through our small efforts we can reaffirm that human dignity, repair past harms, and rebuke those that continue to seek to dehumanize others. As the cemetery is transformed, so are we.
Katie M.: Over the past couple of days, we have been working in the cemetery, cleaning up sticks and weeds from the plots, as well as uncovering hidden graves that must have been buried for years. Uncovering these graves was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever had. It’s so heartbreaking to see that these graves have been hidden for so many years, but yet, so gratifying to see someone’s name and to give them life again. This experience has been one that I will never forget. It was difficult just looking at this vandalized graveyard and see how hatred still goes on today. Although the Holocaust is over, the ideas and hatred that stemmed from it is not. But with every headstone we uncover, we fight the hatred. This trip is something so much powerful than just doing service, it is standing up against hatred and coming together as humans to create a more peaceful, loving world. That is something that I will always hold dear to my heart after this service learning trip.
Amy: One distinctive trait about Albion is a tangible sense of family, community. Often when I ask current students and alumni why they chose to come to Albion, they say, “Once I came to campus it felt like home.” Stepping out from the Krakow airport upon our arrival on Monday, one student noted how each place has a distinctive smell to it, and that the air in Poland smelled different than in America. For some of our students, this trip has taken them the furthest away from home that they have ever been. New smells, new spaces, culture, language… and yet, after five full days here in Wroclaw, it’s amazing how quickly a place can feel familiar. The Polish people in general and Jewish community especially have been incredibly welcoming and hospitable. During our work at the Jewish cemetery, after many hours it was apparent that the individuals in our group felt intrinsic connections to this place. Students who spent considerable time and energy on clearing tombstones, revealing names that haven’t been seen in decades, claimed a familial care for these people they had never met, who lived in different times, across the world, with almost nothing in common except this shared space–this forested area, peaceful with birds singing, a scene that will make you forget you are actually inside a city–a space that has seen much throughout history. Today, as we concluded this year’s project at the cemetery, we came up with words to describe our experience. The word I thought of immediately was “family.” First, because this work is especially emotional when I think of those in t he cemetery and those killed in the Holocaust as family members and loved ones. Then, because the care we have taken over the last several days physically and emotionally makes us feel connected to these people. As many of their families were killed in the Holocaust, for years there was no one to care for their graves. In Jewish custom, loved ones and visitors place stones on graves –a marker that someone has been there to honor that person’s memory. Stones are natural and will not wither away like flowers. Today we took some time to place stones on the headstones we had carefully uncovered. This symbolic gesture will be signs of our care, family, community, long after it’s time for us to go home.
Rachel A.: The birds are out and the sun is shinning. Today was the first day in which we were not frozen while working. Our task of the day was to remove weeds from the ground. It was taxing work requiring a lot of squats, but when I look up to see how far the cemetery plot has come, I know it was worth it. We ended the day early and had just enough time for a quick shower and lunch. We went to a kebab place that had really good food. It was fast and cheap and we ate on the way back to the hotel. After lunch we headed to the synagogue. It was truly a beautiful synagogue. The chapel was recently renovated and everything looked so beautiful. The rabbi’s wife was awesome! She was not what I was expecting, but in a good way. During the short trip, I learned about liberal orthodox. In my head, I envision traditional and mostly conservative orthodox Jews. Learning about liberal orthodox was an great experience. Having such a view allows people to be observant and open minded. Danielle (the Rabbi’s wife) is helping to renovate a mikveh (ritual bath). That project is her baby and I can certainly see why. The mikveh area was extraordinary and has so much potential. To hear that she hopes to have it in working condition to use and as an educational exhibit makes me want to come back to visit it (and maybe even partake in the ritual bath). I didn’t realize that mikvoth are still in use and to hear that they are was great. It’s good hearing that traditions are being preserved. I also learned that mikvoth are mainly used to purify women after their periods. I previously thought ritual baths were for men and to hear how they are for the women was great.
Cameron: Going to the synagogue I had many preconceived notions on how the meeting and meal would go, and I was mostly concerned with how late it started and how long the services would take. All the things I thought it would be in the end are completely wiped from my mind. I am writing this after the most spectacular Shabbat service I will probably ever experience. The people were so welcoming and joyful. Their music and service were new to me in tone and language, yet by the end I was horribly singing and pronouncing the words in Hebrew with the other Albion students, staff, and professors. Everyone involved in the service made accommodations to our limited language skills, and was kind enough to translate the entire service that was, again, surprisingly short. Even the traditions that we took part in were explained to us. At one point the man that led the congregation in song encouraged another woman to lead a song we would know. The song had one word: “hallelujah”! It was also a tune we all knew! Most of the Albion people had sung it themselves in Vacation Bible School or in Sunday school as children. It was wonderful to sit in the new synagogue and laugh until I almost cried, dance with everyone in the spinning circle, and share our experiences with people so different, and yet so similar to ourselves. I hope that in the future I will be able to visit again. It would be a shame for this powerfully joyful night to only be one of a kind.
A Tour of Wroclaw
Today, after a couple of hours clearing ivy from cemetery monuments, we took a tour of Wroclaw. Come along with us and see some of our new favorite places.
The cemetery tops the list.
Tomorrow, we’ll post more about the cemetery. Meanwhile, you can learn about the work that Albion College students have accomplished there by clicking on these posts from 2011 and 2013.
For the first stop on our tour, we crossed the street from our hotel to the White Stork Synagogue. There we were met by the rabbi and his wife, who shared with us their mission to build a healthy community among Wroclaw’s 350 synagogue members. Our conversation took place in the newly-renovated community synagogue, located in a building adjacent to the White Stork.
For more about the history of Wroclaw’s Jewish community, along with pre- and post-war photos, go to our 2009 trip blog. It’s quite a story.
After our synagogue tour, we hopped a coach and drove to the Edith Stein house.
Edith Stein was a Breslau Jew; a philosopher who converted to Roman Catholicism and took vows as a Carmelite nun. When the Nazis took over the German government, her order moved her to the Netherlands. But she could not escape the Holocaust. In 1942, following the German invasion, she was discovered and deported to Auschwitz, where she perished in a gas chamber.
Next stop: Cathedral Island, the site of the first settlement that became Wroclaw and the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Wroclaw. The surrounding Oder River gives this island a sense of peaceful isolation — if you can ignore all the tour buses.
Now that we have become cemetery buffs, we had to see the so-called “Old Jewish Cemetery.” We learned that this cemetery, unlike many other Jewish cemeteries in Wroclaw, was preserved by the Soviets because Ferdinand Lassalle, an influential socialist philosopher, is buried there.
Finally, we arrived at the site of Breslau’s “New Synagogue,” a large Reform synagogue built from 1865–1874 and burned on Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938. After learning so much about Breslau’s large and vibrant pre-war Jewish community, it is always a sobering experience to view this monument to the beginning of their end.
It’s hard to believe that tomorrow is our last day in the cemetery. We’ll have a full day of work (weather permitting) followed by a book discussion on Elie Wiesel’s memior Night. We’ll then cross the street again to observe sabbath prayers in the community synagogue, followed by dinner with the people we have served this week.