Jaime Festa: This trip allowed us to follow in the footsteps of two survivors and connect to their specific experiences. We were also led by Dr. Krondorfer who served as an expert facilitator and teacher for the group. He helped lead us so we were able to engage with other teachers about our experiences as we moved from location to location and discussed how we will apply that learning to our practice. The other component that made this trip so excellent was the connections that we were able to make with each other. The relationships we made with each other by sharing this experience will be long lasting.
A place that stood out to me as most impactful was Langenstein-Zwieberge Concentration Camp. I was reminded of the stark truth that Holocaust victims were essential elements of the Nazi war machine. Victims from all over Europe were used as slave labor for the German industrialists who supported the Nazi regime and Nazi Germany, even as it was clear the Nazis would lose the war. This stark reminder was on full display at Langenstein as we toured deep tunnels that were dug by slave laborers to benefit a war that could not be won. The complete disregard for human life is something I am still grappling with.
Amanda Johnson: There are so many incredible insights and impressions I will treasure from this experience—it facilitated my growth as an individual and an educational professional. The impact of our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau will forever be imprinted on my psyche: walking the ground where so many struggled, resisted and were murdered brought so many emotions and questions to the surface; I know I will be processing the experience for a long while. In particular, seeing artifacts stolen from the victims of the Nazi regime and its collaborators brought me to an emotional low; I couldn’t imagine that human beings would take everything—even the most basic human dignities—from other human beings. Processing that this inhumanity was the result of human choice created so many questions that I will wrestle with for a while. Another part of the journey that really impacted me was walking the grounds of the Blechhammer camp. The first element that really hit me from this experience was how important the preservation of this history really is—as human beings, we absolutely need to remember so that we can make choices to stand up and speak out against injustices. At Blechhammer, the forest—trees, ground foliage, moss—encroaches on many of the cement camp structures that scar the land. At some places, you have to concentrate to see the remains of the camp as nature covers it and erases the evidence. Other parts, like the guard towers and crematorium, stand all too tall from the foliage—reminding us of how humanity can be so destructive. This also impacted me because of the personal history Björn Krondorfer shared so willingly with our group; his story placed very real events in their context and taught empathy so powerfully.
Jeffrey Mann: The meticulous and purposeful planning of this trip stands out to me. It is clear that Björn thought deeply about the sequencing, pacing and intermediate objectives he had in mind as he designed the itinerary and daily agendas. As a teacher myself, I know how important those larger strategic decisions are to achieving growth in students with a wide range of skills and prior knowledge. Our group was no different in this regard, and Björn moved us through complex content masterfully, with room for all of us to grow at an individual pace.
I really appreciated this trip’s geographic emphasis, paralleling the temporal space in the literature we tracked with our own physical movements through the landscape and artifacts. This facilitated natural comparisons/contrasts between the larger, macro-level aspects of the Holocaust such as industrialized genocide, racism and the stark realities of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Buchenwald as well as intimate, personal micro-level experiences of the victims, witnesses and perpetrators of the Holocaust, such as the home where one of the survivors had lived, the wind rustling through trees in a remote work camp in Blechhammer and the chill of descending into subterranean slave-labor tunnels outside Langenstein.
Further, framing this inherently historical trip around literature (a pair of survivor accounts) rather than “traditional history” was incredibly effective. Doing this allowed me to center my experiences during the trip in those personal narratives (therefore emotions) as opposed to experiencing them through “historical analysis” (therefore intellectually). The difference was profound for me, as it pushed me to confront the history of the Holocaust in a way that makes me uncomfortable, vulnerable and ultimately open to the process of growing. I was impressed with Björn’s deft handling of these dynamics. He pushed and prodded us through regular reflective activities helping us create meaning out of the cacophonous thoughts and impressions in our heads while simultaneously nurturing a safe, accepting space for us to engage that way. I know that I felt safe to struggle with my feelings and give them voice within the group. We were set up to succeed with these reflections due to their regularity, the individual accountability required and Björn’s varied grouping strategies.
Ultimately, I think the combination of strategic planning, access to unbelievable resources/people (through Björn’s professional connections), adequate funding to allow our group to experience a range of sites, locations and mediums (from state-run museums to impromptu memorial sites, walking tours to scale model reconstructions) and skilled leadership on the ground all coalesced into an unforgettable learning experience for me.
Laura Romero-Ballasteros: There are numerous instances that made an impact on me, but to provide a few examples, I would have to say one is going to Groos-Rosen Labor Camp and seeing the contrast in beauty of the land to the horrors that land held for thousands of people. In addition, going to the quarry where they were forced to extract the stone and seeing the sheer depth the quarry held. Being provided with the details of many deciding to take their own lives, plummeting off the top of quarry rather than enduring another day of this endless torture, provided me with a depth of empathy I cannot explain. Being provided with the added information that prisoners were forced to start collecting the rock before it was safe while soldiers stood by in protected structures was a terrible image to envision, as well as hearing of the commander creating games forcing prisoners to run in front of him while he shot at them as if they were mere rabbits for sport. We hear over and over that those soldiers had no choice but to follow orders or they themselves would be subject to persecution, but the more I saw of these locations and the evidence provided, for many, this was not the case. These soldiers enjoyed what they were doing and felt no remorse or sense of humanity as they carried out these horrific orders. It is difficult to digest the atrocious acts that took place in the name of duty. There is no excuse or cause for what was done.
Another impactful instance was that of seeing Doris’ childhood home and meeting the husband and wife who inhabit the home today. As we traveled, we did not encounter many places that have strong Jewish communities, or any Jews for that matter. It was wonderful to meet this couple who have opened their home and heart to Doris, her family and us. They are doing their part in making sure the story of Doris does not get written out of history as well as taking part in effecting how important is to change the feelings of hate into understanding and compassion. When they received their copy in Polish and would now be able to read it in their native language, it was heartwarming. The wife truly showed how grateful she was to play a small part in Doris’ story. Along the way we met many more people who in their own capacity are attempting to keep the story alive of not only the horrors of the Holocaust but also the individual people who were affected. Providing places for the public to “see” who those lost souls were and how they lived their lives prior to Hitler’s hatred and destruction. If we all contribute to “teaching” what happened, we can ensure this will never happen again.
Björn Krondorfer: Of the many highlights, I can mention one: We had reached out in advance to the current Polish residents of the apartment in Będzin (Poland) where Doris Martin and her family lived before the war and during the Nazis occupation of her hometown. The Polish couple (Monika and Michael) residing there now welcomed our whole teacher group at their home, offering refreshments and allowing each of us to enter their apartment in small groups. We all went up the stairs to the apartment that are featured in Doris’ memoir. These were the original steps that Doris mentions: After a particular gruesome Nazi selection in Będzin, her family returned to their apartment, still united: upon return, they kissed every step of the stairs in their home as a gesture of relief—the very stairs our teachers now ascended themselves.
What can be easily missed in this encounter is the fact that many Polish residents are very hesitant to let people back into apartments formerly owned by the town’s Polish Jews. But not Monika and Michael. Years ago, they had already started a friendly relationship with Doris’ grandniece in San Diego. When we met Monica and Michael, they were open, curious, unafraid, welcoming. And when I handed them as a thank-you gift the recent Polish translation of Doris’ memoir, our host Monika literally began to cry, thanking us because she now was finally able to read Doris’ story in the Polish language (since our hosts do not speak English). This is just a taste.
Katherine Scholler: I could write a book on the impact of this trip (maybe I should!), so I don’t think I can get into everything here, but I will share some major takeaways.
- Starting more broadly, the overall journey of the trip was incredibly thoughtful and well-organized. We moved from the towns where Doris Martin and Edward Gastfriend and their families lived and worked before the war, to seeing the camps where they were imprisoned, to ending in Berlin—the nucleus orchestrating the atrocity. As Björn said, we moved from victim spaces into perpetrator space, and the impact of that was felt and appreciated by the group. It provided a good structure for the trip. It was clear how much effort went into the planning.
- The loss of Jewish life and culture is still so clearly seen and felt in the various cities that we visited. To see remnants of this life was hallowing—for example the indentation of a missing Mezuzah in a door frame, or a menorah welded into the metal work on a balcony or the gap in a row of buildings where a synagogue had been burned down, all in the midst of a city going about its daily affairs, spoke volumes as we toured these areas where few to no Jewish people now live.
- It was empowering to meet so many people who have dedicated themselves to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors, not all of whom are Jewish themselves. All of the museum directors, guides, researchers, historians, etc. that shared their knowledge and expertise with us did so with great detail, attention and passion for the importance of this work. It was inspiring and challenged me to find ways to do this at home.
- Another theme that struck me was the overall newness of the acknowledgement, memorializing and effort for education at most sites of the targeting and murder of Jewish people. Due to continued antisemitism and lasting discrimination after the war, as well as the Cold War politics of the eras that followed, there wasn’t significant attention given to the Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. That often discussions of it were focused largely on many broad groups, such as Poles, Communists and other political dissidents, but the efforts to focus on the murder of Jews specifically didn’t take place in earnest until after the Cold War. Many of the sites we visited were relatively new. This reiterated to me that the Holocaust really wasn’t that long ago and that we still have a lot of work to do today in educating people and preventing genocide from recurring.
- At the end of each day (or the next morning, if it was too late), we had a group session. In these, we discussed what stood out to us at the sites we had just visited, how we were feeling and challenges we faced. Björn also created some group activities for us to work together to explore these feelings and our learning from each site. These sessions became one of my favorite parts of the day—even if I was too emotionally overloaded to share myself, because they helped us to get to know each other and become a cohesive group, provided opportunities to be vulnerable, challenged us to be open-minded and expanded our perspectives to see how a site may have impacted others in a different way than we experienced it. These sessions were a key part of the trip and truly helped me to mentally process the heavy and often uncomfortable nature of the sites we toured.
- To get more into more specific experiences now, it was humbling and overwhelming to go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. We did this on the second full day of the trip, which I think set into me the necessary discomfort that would be with me throughout our journey. To witness this place in person after years of learning and teaching about it was indescribable, at least in a way that I think I could do it justice. It’s hard to fathom that humans are capable of carrying out what happened there, and facing it in real time was something that will stick with me forever. It challenged me to think in stark terms about my daily actions and be intentional in my life and work.
- We went to four other camps that are connected to Doris’ and Edward’s stories, each one its own horror story. In comparison to Auschwitz, which has millions of visitors, we also went to a labor camp called Blechhammer, a subcamp of Auschwitz, which is now mostly overgrown; most of it is a pathway through greenery with concrete remnants strewn throughout the trees that follow along the path. The crematorium there was preserved as a memorial, but it is clear that the former camp doesn’t receive many visitors. Seeing both camps provided a wider view of the expanse of the Holocaust and the multitude of experiences of the victims. There were thousands of camps, and although it felt like seeing five of them was a lot, it was merely a small glimpse into the massive system of terror.
- In Sosnowiec, Edward’s home before the war, our guide, Tomasz, had taken specific locations mentioned by Edward in his memoir, and we visited each of them in the city. He had also compiled a list of excerpts from the memoir for us to read at each location. It provided such an intimate view of his life and story and was such a powerful experience.
- In Będzin, where Doris lived before the war, we were welcomed to enter the building she had lived in by the current owners of the unit. It was surreal to walk through the space and imagine her life there and the experiences she wrote about in her memoir. What stuck out to me especially was walking up the stairs, as the title of her memoir, Kiss Every Step, came from a comment made by her mother to “kiss every step” after her family returned home after surviving a selection. It was amazing to me how the current owners, Monika and Michael Wójcik-Kapuścińska, were so hospitable and gracious to us, a large group of strangers.
- At the Gross-Rosen Memorial, another former labor camp that we visited, we saw the quarry where prisoners performed slave labor. This camp was notorious for its death rate of workers and demonstrated yet another level of cruelty and depravity (which seems to have had no bounds) exercised by the Nazis. The impact of the camps designated as labor camps and their role in torture and murder of the victims was something that I learned more about here. It also showed the complicity of communities and companies that surrounded these camps and benefitted from the forced labor of the inmates. This last point was true of many places, but this was a glaring example.
- At Buchenwald Memorial, our guide, Joachim, showed us a document they discovered of Edward being sent to hard work at Langenstein. Seeing the primary source material enhanced the connection to the part of the memoir where he discussed Buchenwald. To see a document showing Edward’s story from the Nazi administrative machine was a powerful moment.
- The last experience I’ll recount here was the most emotional and impactful one for me. We went to Langenstein-Zwieberge Memorial, the last camp where Edward was imprisoned before liberation. Here we saw a mass grave, where Edward’s cousin Nathan’s body was thrown after he died from dysentery. They had survived the past three camps and death marches together, leaning on each other as their source of strength to continue on. His death was so close to liberation. At the site of the mass grave, another member of our group, Lisa Carotenuto, and I jointly read a passage to the group from his memoir describing Nathan’s death and Edward’s reaction. To read it again at this spot was profoundly sad, but also a way to honor and remember him.
There are so many more I could share, but I think these give a glimpse into the magnitude of the trip’s impact on me.