What did you learn about the Holocaust?

Old synagogue in the former Jewish quarter of Krakow. This is the first day of our study tour.
The group listens to a local expert at an old synagogue in the former Jewish quarter of Krakow on the first day of the study tour.

Laura Romero-Ballesteros: In general, my understanding was based on statistics and some stories. Being part of this educational opportunity, I was able to learn of specific treatment, various locations and chain of command, but most importantly, my misconceptions or questions were cleared. Although I did walk away with questions related to humanity and the actions/motivations of people, I was able to gain a better understanding of how and why the “Final Solution” was proposed, the people behind it and the sheer scope of how it almost succeeded. Going to Wannsee where all the initial decisions were made and learning of the men behind these decisions was information, I did not have a full understanding but know I can use this information to answer questions my students consistently ask.

Katherine Scholler: I realized during the trip that the more you learn about the Holocaust, the less you understand. The word of the trip for me was incomprehensible. Because of this trip, I now have a more functional understanding of the administration of it and the geography of the genocide of the Jewish people during WWII, and I took a multitude of notes over the course of 17 information-packed days that vastly expanded my knowledge base. Yet at every turn, this trip confronted me with the fact that the Holocaust isn’t something we can ever (or should ever) comprehend. Even so, it only further solidified why Holocaust education is vital. Because what also came starkly into view is that even if we cannot comprehend it, we are capable of it. Knowing that and learning the depths of it is terrifying and uncomfortable, but also integral to preventing it from happening again and understanding our role in the present world. This trip taught me that in more ways than I can adequately express.

  • Apart from a lack of understanding of the execution of the Holocaust, what also came into greater focus was the vast number of victims’ stories I will never know, whether because I don’t have the time to or because they didn’t live to share them. There is such a sadness in thinking about all the stories that are lost. Doris’ and Edward’s stories alone weigh heavily on me, as well as other memoirs, such as Elie Weisel’s, that I’ve read in the past, but there are just so many more. It’s hard to consider the weight of that.
  • After reading Doris’ and Edward’s stories and visiting these places and seeing what they went through on a day-to-day basis, it is hard to understand how anyone survived the Holocaust. It is astounding and also showed why so many couldn’t. Often, we saw stories where a mixture of luck and innovation led to someone’s survival, and in others there was no chance for that.
  • That being said, of course I learned elements and characteristics of the Holocaust that I had limited knowledge of prior to the trip. Seeing five different camps, how they were created and what their function was in the Nazi system gave me better understanding of the camp system and how it was administered. I also gained better spatial awareness of how a camp was built and physically organized. I learned more about the different positions and jobs in the camps, and how Nazis manipulated prisoners by creating divisions within the inmate groups.
  • I was exposed to more details of the endless depravity of the Nazis, and the level of detail and effort that went into their dehumanization, deception, and murderous campaign. For example, they sometimes gave soap to prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz to attempt to trick them into thinking they were going to the showers. There was also a story our guide at Auschwitz-Birkenau shared of a Jewish woman who gave birth prematurely in a concentration camp in the Netherlands. The Nazis brought in a famed doctor and an incubator to keep the baby alive, only to deport the mother and child to Auschwitz a few months later. Stories such as this seem endless.
  • The complicity and awareness of crimes by those in the Nazi-occupied territories was something I knew of but learned a great deal more about. Examples ranged from companies benefitting from forced labor to civilians seeing prisoners marched through towns to neighbors gaining property from deported Jews. The Nazis sold human hair to industries that created textiles and other products from it. City crematoria were used to burn bodies of victims before specially ordered crematoria were constructed in camps. Many more examples demonstrate this, but these were some that are seared in my memory.
  • I did not realize the extent of the efforts by the Nazis toward the end of the war to create new camps and move war-making operations underground. I had heard of this but didn’t know the size or length of tunnels that prisoners were forced to create—one system that we saw was 13 kilometers long. Also, the effort to relocate prisoners to camps eastward into Germany, to maintain forced labor sources, where so much energy and so many resources were put into these death marches and creation of new camps was just striking.
  • What survivors experienced after liberation is a topic that I did not have much knowledge of before the trip. I didn’t know that it was survivors of Auschwitz who stayed at the camp afterward and created the memorial site. I also didn’t realize the lack of support or even violence faced by some who attempted to reclaim property stolen from them in their original communities.

Amanda Johnson: There is so much—I can’t possibly begin to convey it all! I will just say that the depth of understanding and the personal connections I made to that knowledge will resonate with me for a lifetime. Perhaps one of the most important overall lessons I began to process is that persecution and genocide can only occur as a result of human choices—to persecute, but also to be complicit in our words, actions, silence and inaction.

Jaime Festa: There was so much that I learned. Being able to follow the paths of Doris Martin Springer and Edward Gastfriend contextualized the experiences of Holocaust survivors and helped me understand that every story is unique and deserves to be told. The stories of the human lives destroyed can’t be told, and it is up to us to ensure government-backed atrocities and persecution of individuals does not happen. As educators, we must be vigilant in teaching young people how to not become perpetrators.

Jeffrey Mann: Two things jump out to me:

  • How deeply ingrained the prejudices/conflicts in that part of the world are and how many different fault lines those conflicts have been drawn over time, whether religious, class-based, “race” based, nationalistic or ideological. It is complex. It is nuanced. It is deeply felt. It is messy. They are neighbors.
  • How uniquely individual people’s responses to the Holocaust/World War II/Nazi period are for the people who lived through them and subsequent generations. In my head, I knew how much denial there was or people’s tendencies to hold their noses and feign ignorance while distancing themselves from the unpleasant past. It was very different to see it in person, though, juxtaposed as it was with examples of unblinking ownership of Nazi atrocities. I had never really thought about the ways successive generations challenged the sanitized narratives their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents claimed or about the emotional impact such conflicts could have. Seeing the different ways that “official” responses developed in Poland, Western Germany and Eastern Germany was eye-opening too. The underlying ideologies between formerly communist governments and western-led governments was clear too.

The parallels were painfully vivid between the responses we saw in Central Europe and the responses we face in the U.S. confronting (or denying) the injustice, racism, vitriol and politicization of our own shameful history. As before, these aren’t new to me as intellectual constructs or phenomena, but their presence was more immediate and pronounced in this context. It was good for our group to confront these realities as we did.

Unfortunately, I learned so much that it reinforced the truth of how little I really know!

NAU Communications