A Sobering Experience

Interpretive Blog


Poland was a wild couple of days. From exploring the charm and openness of Krakow’s city square, to visiting Auschwitz and the Schindler Museum, and being evacuated from our hotel the first night, I experienced a whirlwind of emotions.


Auschwitz-Birkenau was a gut-wrenching and gripping experience. Seeing the camps for myself really put into perspective the genocidal campaign the Nazis executed against Jewish people. I was astonished with the collection of victims’ hair that was displayed in the museum. When I first saw it, my stomach dropped. I had the same feeling when I saw the pictures of starving, bony, suffering children when I first visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. While I knew about the horrific events of the Holocaust, both exhibits sparked a reaction in me that was like: “wow, this is really messed up.” The vastness of the site changed my visualization of the Jewish experience at Auschwitz. By seeing how prisoners arrived on train, walking in their footsteps toward the gas chambers, and seeing how millions of Jews were packed into small living quarters throughout the site, it illustrated the massive organizational campaign the Germans took just to demolish Jewish people.

Schindler Museum

Schindler Museum

Schindler Museum


On the second day, we visited the Schindler Museum, which was dedicated to occupied Krakow during World War II. It stressed the destruction Germans brought to the city of Krakow and its residents. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles suffered, and Jews were often moved to ghettos separate from the German parts of the city. At times, the museum misled in its attempt to push Polish national innocence. Our tour guide mentioned how there was not much Polish people, including those of her ancestors, could do to save people during that time. She also mentioned how Poland was a “Catholic country,” subtly downplaying the amount of Jewish suffering that occurred. Yet, we learned this semester that not all Polish people were innocent bystanders under Nazi rule. Pogroms in towns such as Jedwabne, located in eastern Poland, decimated the Jewish population. Non-Jewish Poles carried out acts of violence against their Jewish neighbors, yet Polish memory is often silent on this event, blaming most horrific events on the occupying Germans. Their absence of national sovereignty during the war is used as a shield from accountability. as they are focused on maintaining their independence and morale with a unified national message.


My Poland experience is twofold. I learned of the destruction and hate brought by the Nazis on occupied Polish lands against Jews and Polish citizens. I also gained a sense of their national pride, sometimes even to a fault, when it comes to their history grappling with the Holocaust during World War II.


The Importance of Historical Preservation Throughout Poland

The two sites we visited in Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau and The Krakow Museum, illustrated the devastation World War II inflicted on the country. It’s impossible to describe the emotional toll of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Every step through the grounds weighs on you. While walking through the gas chambers and crematorium, anything but silence seems disrespectful as those four gray walls signified death for tens of thousands. The uncommon silence among my colleagues on the ten-minute bus ride between the camps showed that everyone felt the gravity of this site. One reason Auschwitz-Birkenau evokes such strong emotions is its historical preservation. With many original buildings still standing at Auschwitz I, the purpose of its construction remains evident. The high electrical fences, public gallows, and the infamous Block 11 death wall cement the reality of the Holocaust, which no class discussion ever truly does. After visiting the camp, I understood why successful-escape stories were rare. To give context to the camp’s powerful physical presence, a guided tour detailed all members of society, such as Poles, Roma, and homosexuals condemned to life – death — in the camp and emphasized the importance of preserving important historical sites for their memory. 

Walking into Auschwitz I


The Krakow Museum, which is situated within the old workplace of Oskar Schindler, presented information regarding the war’s effect on the city of Krakow. The museum occupied the building of a former government office, a space never intended to house grand historical exhibits, but I felt as if this element added to the museum’s effectiveness. The narrow hallways and intricately designed displays force the viewer to travel through the stages of the war. I genuinely enjoyed the layout of the site, but its emphasis on Krakow’s war experience limits its applicability to the entirety of Poland. The exhibits highlight the mistreatment of Krakow’s Poles and Jews, but there is no reflection on the anti-semitism prevalent throughout the country’s history. Although the museum provides an engaging account of the war in Krakow, it runs the risk of over-generalizing information about Krakow for less informed visitors, who might be led to assume that all Poles experienced a similar war.  

Cross found in the wreckage in Krakow


The Depths of Nazi Depravity

Truly little can prepare you for setting foot in Auschwitz. It is hard to connect with statistics, but walking through the very place where over a million people were murdered and seeing the tons of hair taken from the victims to use for fabric or the piles of children’s shoes highlights just how brutal and evil the Nazi regime was. We learned about Auschwitz in preparation for this trip by reading testimonies from prisoners who escaped the camp, but even their brutal attestations paled in comparison to the gravity of being in the camp itself. This was elevated by our tour guide, who explained the awful conditions and violent mistreatment that the prisoners had to endure every day. Each barracks was crowded with hundreds of people, and prisoners could be locked in solitary for weeks for the most minor of infractions. Even though the Nazis tried to hide their crimes by destroying the camp, parts of it survived as a testament to their atrocities. I was surprised to learn that Auschwitz was a series of camps instead of just one. These included Auschwitz I which was the main camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which housed the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau was a massive complex and included the gas chambers and crematoria that became infamous for their implementation of the Final Solution. Walking through one of the surviving gas chambers it is hard to fathom how willing the Nazi regime was to commit genocide. The creation of a complex dedicated solely to the murder of innocent people shows how dangerous indoctrination and totalitarianism can be, and how low humanity can fall.

Looking out at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau from inside the camp

The Memory a Space Holds

By Cecelia Minard

It is impossible to prepare yourself for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical readings, documentaries, and photographs pale in comparison to the feeling of the physical site. In class this spring, we read The First Report about Auschwitz by John S. Conway, which included eyewitness accounts from two young Slovakian Jews who gave a breakdown of the numbers and classifications of the prisoners, as well as an explanation of the methods of extermination used by the Nazis. We also watched the documentary The World at War, which included horrifyingly detailed videos from the discovery of the camps. Yet after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that nothing could capture the memory of such a horrendous place more than the physical site. Auschwitz-Birkenau as a source in and of itself highlights each of the hundreds of thousands of people murdered there.

While the report and the documentary focused on the details and the scale of the genocide, Auschwitz-Birkenau showed me each victim’s personhood. Rather than seeing a number on a page or a video from 70 years ago, walking through Auschwitz showed me the very space attached to the memories of those who were there.

In the barracks, there are displays of the victims’ belongings: their suitcases, shoes, pots, pans, and even the hair from their heads. While looking at these belongings, I focused on the remembrance of each individual who lost their life there. I couldn’t help but think that this could have been their favorite pair of shoes, this pot and pan could have been a gift from a loved one, and this was the hair on their head that they brushed and cared for each day.

While studies are vital to understanding history, documents cannot hold a memory the way a physical site or object does. While walking through the same spaces as the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt their memory in a way I never had before. I felt a deep connection and sorrow for each person who was murdered there.

Horrifying Holocaust Realities

     I have learned about the Holocaust in my history classes for as long as I can remember. Despite seeing pictures from Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to walk around and stand in the death camp.

     Before we entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, I never understood the sheer size of it. We passed through the gates that I have seen in every textbook and museum I’ve visited, and it suddenly became real to me. I didn’t realize how little I had internalized the brutality of the camps until I stood crying at a pair of toddler’s shoes behind a pane of glass. Even worse was seeing the “beds” that prisoners crammed into. The dark, hard wood looked uncomfortable at best, and hearing stories about people waking up next to cold, dead bodies, and being happy that it wasn’t them shook me. We saw the blocks, the death wall, the tracks, and stolen valuables. We were able to see pictures of victims, and hear about how they got there. Our guide was especially good, helping us understand what we were shown, connecting it back to the lives robbed from all of these people. Our studies had covered the estimated number of deaths in the camp and explained the inhumane treatment of prisoners, but facts and figures will never compare to standing in the camp itself and seeing the aftermath personally. The piles of shaved hair, glasses, and shoes continue to haunt me.

     Brutality was palpable in every room, but most telling for me were the rooms dedicated to different modes of execution. I work in a veterinary clinic and have been present for animal euthanasia. I have held and comforted  animals as they passed from an injection to the heart. The pictures of human beings killed in a similar manner – but without sedation or comfort — made me feel sick. Learning more about the terrifying deaths of millions of people has truly shown me how these prisoners were treated as not only less than human, but as less than animals.

How Poland Remembers

There were many aspects of the museum in Krakow that reflected Poland’s claim to national innocence during WWII. The museum focused on the severe punishments forced on the people of Krakow under Nazi occupation. Public executions and arrests occupied much of the museum, especially in the first exhibitions. Next, the museum detailed the suffering of the Jewish population because of Nazi occupation in Krakow, such as being moved to the ghettos and concentration camps. The order of the exhibits implied that what the non-Jews in Krakow went through after occupation explained, and perhaps excused, why so few of them decided to help the Jewish people and why some even betrayed them. Our tour guide even said repeatedly that she did not think we should blame the Polish people for refusing to help because helping would mean putting themselves and their families in danger. I do agree that helping Jewish people would have been a risk for many Polish people and their loved ones. However, to insist that they should not be blamed for remaining silent and even betraying Jews felt unfair. The Poles in Krakow would not have had the power to defeat their Nazi occupiers but that does not remove the blame from those who chose to betray Jews.  

To be fair, the museum did showcase complicity for some of the Poles. Exhibits showed that even those who did help had ulterior motives for doing so, and that there were many who denounced their neighbors for aiding Jewish people. The Krakow Museum also had first-hand accounts of Jewish people, including children, who were moved to the ghettos. It was refreshing to read the experiences of Jewish people that went through it, rather than just being told the information. The museum allowed Jews to tell their own stories, which was more beneficial than getting the facts second-hand.  

Tainted Polish Innocence

            Poland holds some of the deepest and darkest aspects of World War II, the most gut wrenching took place at the Auschwitz Concentration Camps. As a Polish/Hungarian Jewish woman, I felt such a deep connection and appreciation for my ability to walk through these places where my family endured so much. After the visit to the concentration camp, the group had a chance to visit Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, which primarily focused on the city of Krakow. This museum brought to light some truth behind the Polish innocence in the war and participation.

            Throughout the course of the semester, this class has studied participation in the war and passive action that benefited the Nazi regime. Poland was occupied  quickly by the Nazis and unfortunately left many endangered citizens unprotected. The Schindler Museum discusses the conflict that the Poles faced with protecting the Jews or protecting themselves. Many Poles did not stand up in defense of the Jews because their resistance threatened them and their families; they adopted a “better them than me” strategy.  Even those inclined to help sometimes faced this choice. In one case, a Krakow  woman had housed a Jewish man for some time until  “our cleaner threatened to expose us to the police. By morning I asked him to leave the house not caring where else he went.”

            Because they chose to protect themselves over the Jewish population, Poles can be held accountable for aiding in the Nazi work. In our studies we read a book discussing the mass murder of a Jewish population in the Polish town of Jedwabne by their own Polish neighbors. The Poles acted in fear of being the next victims of the Nazi regime. Families turned on each other and so did neighbors. Although there were several Poles who were participating in a resistance and helping the Jews, one cannot disregard those who participated in Nazi actions just to preserve themselves at the cost of others.

Interpreting Poland’s Innocence

            Prior to our European travels, our class spent significant time on Poland’s claim of national innocence concerning the Holocaust and violence against Jewish people during World War II. Poland has dealt with two brutal occupiers throughout much of the past century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and, perhaps understandably, prefers to pin immoral actions on the occupiers. However, Poland also has a history of violent antisemitism, a history which reached an apex in World War II.  In the Jedwabne massacre described in Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors, and similar pogroms throughout the war, Nazi Germany’s presence allowed centuries of ethnic tensions to be acted upon, against Polish Jews. During this massacre, hundreds of Jewish Poles were humiliated, tortured, and

Pictured: victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

eventually murdered by their own neighbors. Though the massacre was carried out with the basic support of German occupiers, the most egregious offenders were Polish Christians. Pogroms in other areas of Poland were similar to the Jedwabne pogrom, with the worst occurring just after the war in the city of Kielce, about 70 miles from Kraków (Gross 21) (Apple Maps). As pogroms occurred in many regions of Poland, interreligious tensions and violence were not limited to a specific area. Despite this, in the sites that we visited in and around Kraków, I was unable to find many, if any, references to Polish cooperation with Nazi Germany or Polish inter-religious tensions.


            The museums and sites that our group visited in Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Kraków Museum, were not places that I expected to find many displays that highlighted Polish cooperation with Germany. At Auschwitz, I found the exhibits entirely focused upon the terrible reality and sheer loss of life caused by Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. Nazi Germany brought its hateful beliefs to thethe nations it occupied, but, in these occupied nations, ethnic tensions were already present that could be utilized by the occupier. At the Kraków Museum, I expected more information to be conveyed that acknowledged pre-war and wartime ethnic tensions because I had previously read similar acknowledgements by other European nations. Given Jedwabne is far from Kraków, and the museum focuses upon local history, I did not expect the specific pogrom to be covered, but I expected examples of Polish cooperation or ethnic tensions to be highlighted. Concerning Jewish treatment under occupation, the Kraków Museum highlights the experience of their Jewish residents, before and after being forced into ghettos, and the help that Poles provided to them. I feel that the museum did not put similar effort into highlighting the role that Polish people had in seizing Jewish assets or careers, even though it was a reality. Poland’s failure to significantly acknowledge collaboration with Nazi Germany in this respect, specifically carrying out aspects of Germany’s ethnic policies, is similar to France’s depiction of its collaboration. As France downplays the role of its collaboration with Germany, effectively blaming the worst collaboration on a small group of Vichy leaders, Poland downplays or ignores its collaboration with Germany.

Pictured: The Kraków Museum prefers to highlight examples of Polish Resistance instead of Polish Cooperation


Pain in Poland: A Comrade’s Journey Through Hell – A Historian’s Blog

At an early age I read Night by Elie Wiesel and the graphic novel Maus. I watched Schindler’s List and The Pianist, and I am blessed to say I have visited Yad Vashem, the world’s premiere Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, a handful of times. Yet, no part of my past truly prepared me to step foot on Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Third Reich’s most deadly killing complex that operated from 1940-45. While I am incredibly grateful for my previous education on the death camps and the terror of the Nazis, no class I have taken nor survivor I have met invoked the same emotions I felt on May 17th as I moved through Auschwitz. As I write this, I feel like I have no more tears left in my body, and my sleeves are blotted with snot from wiping my face dry. I shivered as I walked underneath the infamous arch at Auschwitz’s entrance reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free), and I felt somewhat weak as I moved through courtyards, barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums. I broke down at the sight of mountains of hair and shoes once belonging to prisoners, with some locks still being braided or curled, further proving the fragility of life and the unthinkable realities that awaited men, women, and children.

There is no doubt in my mind that these grounds stand alone as the source on the Holocaust and attempted extermination of the Jewish people. Sitting at a desk or behind a screen did not allow me to grasp the importance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The truths of it are, frankly, unbelievable and incomprehensible. The train tracks leading into Birkenau’s extermination camp were significantly longer than any picture has expressed, and the cold, rainy day accentuated the camp’s brutality better than any source I had seen before. Rarely have I felt so strongly about being in the exact location where an event occurred, and I think it’s because of how different being at Auschwitz was from classroom materials, regardless of their accuracy as primary resources.

I have touched the Western Wall and explored the Temple Mount, and recently I have seen some of the most magnificent cathedrals known to mankind. But I can confidently say that today I walked upon the most sacred land I know – one that filled me with fear, anguish, and horror, and yet also an incredible sense of pride to be a Jew. Auschwitz-Birkenau, amongst other death and concentration camps, functioned with the idea that I – a 21-year-old Jew in the year 2023 – would not exist. And I have just walked the exact lands where these ideals ran amuck and almost became a reality. This context shook my perspective of misfortune, leading me to believe I live an unbelievably blessed and beautiful life. If this entire excursion through Europe is not representative enough of this concept, I’m not sure what is.

Seeing History Firsthand

Seeing History Firsthand

A Historian’s Blog of Poland

Meg Brosneck

Two brick buildings surrounded by grass. On the right side of the photo is a rocky and muddy path, and towards the bottom it connects to another path made of wooden planks.

Barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Poland is a beautiful country to visit, but its beauty was not the reason for our visit. The main reason belonged to one of the most horrific places in history: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Three wooden bunks stacked on top of each other. The wooden planks making up the “mattresses” are cracked and old, and the walls are made of decaying brick. There is a window in the back.

Bunks in the barracks

Though the story of Auschwitz is well-known in history classes, the true scope of its horror cannot be understood without visiting the location itself. Some of the buildings were transformed into museum exhibits. Most of these are on the main camp, and they were the first places we visited. While they included some important photos and explanations, the most important exhibits came from the Holocaust victims’ personal belongings. Entire rooms are dedicated to displaying the pots and pans, shoes, or suitcases a fraction of the victims had brought with them. They are all that remains of entire families. The Nazis collected everything the Jews had to sell or distribute after they murdered them. While the physical items were horrible to look at, nothing came close to the room filled with several tons of human hair. The Nazis shaved their victims heads and sold their hair as a product, and Auschwitz still has some of it behind glass cages. No pictures were allowed.

A largely empty, concrete and brick courtyard between two buildings. There is a wall at the far end with flowers in front of it as a memorial to the prisoners the Nazis executed there.

The Death Wall

We continued through the rest of the camps and walked along the muddy roads where over a million people suffered and died. This explained more than any textbook ever could. We saw the buildings the Nazis forced the victims to build and then sleep in, four to seven people crammed into each tiny, cold, muddy, wooden space. We walked through the courtyard in which they executed countless people. Most of the buildings were well preserved, and our tour guide was marvelous in his explanations of what happened at each facility. Downstairs, in the basement of the infamous Block 11, we saw the standing prison cells the Nazis would cram four people inside all night. There were no pictures allowed and we were rushed through the sites, but that location impacted me more than any others. You can read all of the books you want, view all the images in existence, but until you stand in front of the torture chambers yourself, it will not sink in. This is why preservation of these sites is so important; they are physical proof of what happened and irreplaceable sources for historians and the public alike. 

Bitter Lessons of the Past: The Importance of Historical Memory in Poland

Bitter Lessons of the Past: The Importance of Historical Memory in Poland

Contemporary Blog

Erik Ehrenfeld

     Poland was a country of incessant memory. The monumental events that occurred there have left a deep mark on the Polish people, both those who lived through them and those who came after. Even in discussions of current events, allusions to the past were bound to come up. Most of these narratives portrayed the nation as a courageous yet tragic victim that reflected a desire to never let the slaughter of the past happen again.

     The Polish self-perception of victimhood is not surprising. Poland’s eastern and western neighbors have partitioned, occupied, and brutalized the country for centuries.

Despite this long history of foreign conquest, the Polish museums demonstrated that the country often fought until resistance became futile. Even in defeat, therefore, the Polish people were proud of their fight.

These patriotic feelings and actions continued during Poland’s World War II and Cold War occupations. During a tour of the Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow, our tour guide told me that her father privately, and illegally, told her the true story of the 1940 Katyn Massacre—when the Soviets killed 22,000 Polish prisoners of war—when she was a schoolgirl despite the communist authorities’ false assertion that the Germans committed the crime. In this manner, history itself became a form of resistance.

     These memories provided the Polish people with a unique perspective on the current war in Ukraine. Throughout the visit, Polish, Ukrainian, and European Union flags adorned many public and private buildings and monuments.

These sights communicated a desire both to resist foreign aggression and, as opposed to the dual Soviet-German invasion in 1939, to do so with the help of allies. Finally, again at the Schindler Museum, our guide stated that the 2022 invasion did not surprise most Polish people, which suggested a lingering animosity towards Russia based on historical experiences. The past, therefore, remained at the forefront of most Polish people’s minds.

A Tour of Polish Remembrance in Krakow

The tour of Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow provided a unique insight into the modern national identity of Poland. The tour guide provided at the museum led us quickly through the narrow exhibits, explaining how WWII affected Poland politically and socially. The most beneficial aspect of having a tour guide at this museum in my opinion was the ability to perceive how a Polish person today views their country’s place in the war and in the Holocaust. Our tour guide stated how proud she was to be Polish through and through and spoke on the closeness of Slavic states because of the treatment they received from Nazis. The deportation of Poles during the war is exhibited in this museum, and firsthand accounts of Polish people in ghettoes are shown as well. It also displayed a sort of shrine to Poland, with lights spelling out L.O.P P, the Air Defense League of Poland, Polish flags, the crest of Poland, and more. Seeing all of this gave me an even deeper sympathy to how the people of Poland were treated during this era and a broader perspective on how they defended themselves.  

Our guide made sure to emphasize to us how poorly Polish people were treated by the Nazis, including some of her own ancestors. This was a very interesting perspective to hear from yet some of her comments left me wondering about her bias towards her nation. At one point she stated matter-of-factly that Poland was the only occupied nation which did not collaborate with the Nazis. On the other hand, she also mentioned how people who chose to comply with the Nazis could not be blamed as themselves and their families were most likely going to be put in danger otherwise. It seemed slightly hypocritical to me to be proud that the Polish government did not collaborate yet also stating that collaboration and compliance on an individual level was justified for fear of repercussion. The patriotism of Poland and its people was clearly conveyed in this tour, both by our guide and by the exhibits of Polish pride during this era. Polish people were and continue to be proud of their nation and coming out safely on the other side of Nazi and later Soviet occupation.  

Auschwitz: A Chilling Lesson in Scale

In the spring, we were taught statistics and shown images of the murders that occurred at Auschwitz and other death camps. Visiting Auschwitz both aligned with that information and made it seem like they were an underwhelming representation of the true scale of the camps and the horrors committed within them. We visited the camps while it was raining, which fit the ghastly and sickening tension that permeated throughout our visit. Our tour guide, although he spoke quickly and without much inflection, conveyed the severity of the atrocities committed there by how bluntly he described the murders and abuses toward Jews, Poles and other groups.

Being at the site taught me more about how the camp was structured and just how industrial the operation was. In one room, a display case held two tons of hair cut off of murdered Jewish women in order to create fabric. As I walked through this room, I could feel my stomach twist, and I tried to fight back tears as our tour guide explained how this was just two of seven tons that were actually collected. That was just one of several instances where I felt like I could no longer walk, and all I wanted was to be back home in Cincinnati away from the darkness of one of humanity’s worst episodes.

The scale of the camp operation became even clearer once we visited Birkenau/Auschwitz II. Compared to Auschwitz I, much of the camp was cordoned off and you could see the camp stretch a distance that isn’t really captured well in the pictures. I found myself unable to bear the sight of it and tried to keep my head down and focus all my attention on taking my next step forward. Despite my distaste for being there, visiting the site was important because it emphasized the industrial nature of the Final Solution was and reminded us just how much hate lied at the heart of Nazi ideology and Hitler’s regime.

Auschwitz II/Birkenau Camp


The Polish Narrative of World War II

Growing up, I attended St. Adalbert of Berea, the oldest Polish church in Ohio – built brick by brick in 1874. In Berea, Polish-Americans quarried sandstone alongside German and Irish laborers. One cannot blame them for wanting a religious sanctuary from that backbreaking work. They wanted to preserve their history and culture in a nation that sought to assimilate and often exploit them for cheap labor. My great grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American whose family mined coal in Gallitzin, PA before moving to Cleveland. Sergeant Joseph A. Szczelina served his country as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He did his part in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. After the war, he altered the spelling of his last name from Szczelina to Selena. He made that decision because his superiors could not pronounce his name at roll call. From my own heritage, I thought that I understood the relationship between Polish history and identity. My short time in Krakow proved that I still have much to learn.

Once home to Copernicus and Chopin, Krakow was the center of Polish education, culture, and faith for centuries. Be that as it may, I was unprepared for the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica (pictured) and Wawel Cathedral. Unlike the ones I visited in France and Germany, these cathedrals were filled with people. Even on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was evident that religion remains a powerful component of Polish identity.

Throughout the twentieth century, Poland endured cultural and political oppression from neighbors that sought to erase it from the map. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. It was not prepared (and how could it have been) for a two-front war with the most powerful war machines in the world at that time. As a result, historians sometimes diminish or even disparage the role of Poland in the war. However, one should respect the courage of Polish soldiers who scrambled through railway stations to fight a losing battle and partisans who waged guerrilla warfare at great risk to themselves.

After visiting the Oskar Schindler WWII Museum, I found myself empathizing with the Polish wartime experience. When the Wehrmacht first entered Polish villages, it pursued a vicious policy of racial extermination which saw Poles as sub-human. The Schindler Museum stressed that the Nazis deliberately annihilated most of the Polish intelligentsia, including local officials, clergy, businessowners, and intellectuals. They attempted to slaughter anyone capable of criticizing the regime or leading resistance movements. In the end, World War II claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, half of which were Jewish, via starvation, shootings, forced labor, and the death camps. Considering the dual occupation and its aftermath, perhaps no nation in the twentieth century suffered as much as Poland.

It is important to note that native Poles participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, a reality which the Museum failed to address. From class lectures, we know that the anti-Semitic myths of Judeo-Bolshevism and collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus fueled these gruesome beatings. The environment was ripe for these atrocities because of a foreign occupation that encouraged them and eliminated civil society. The SS, for example, executed Soviet collaborators and conducted ruthless reprisals for alleged resistance activities. Nazis manipulated popular frustration with the Soviet regime for their own advantage. Sadly, the historical memory in Poland overlooks these complexities and outlaws discussion of any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

Churches in Krakow are filled with shrines and reliquaries to Pope John Paul II, the pride of Poland who resisted the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a Polish soldier’s in Auschwitz. These figures symbolize Poland’s resilience and spirituality in the world today.

Remembering the Holocaust: An International Responsibility

Travelling through three different countries in two weeks required a lot of grit and stamina, but it also gave me the opportunity to compare a few different cities, modes of transportation, and cultures.  It allowed me to view and compare many different museums as well, and I particularly focused on the strategies different nations used to recount the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII.  The British Imperial War Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum in France, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland each addressed the tragic history in slightly different ways depending on their proximity to the events and their perceived audience.

The Imperial War Museum offered the English perspective on the events of World War II and included a section on the Holocaust that was surprisingly larger than any other portion of the museum. This museum reminded me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in that it provided considerable background about German history and Hitler’s rise to power before describing the different groups who were persecuted over time and the terrible fates these groups met either in civil society or  Nazi camps.  The material was engaging and offered a general idea of the experience of the victims, but the museum was clearly designed for people who had no background in studying the Holocaust and focused less on individual towns and people than on big picture statistics and ideas.

The French exhibit on the Holocaust in the Caen Memorial Museum was more specific and personalized than the exhibit in England was.  It offered less general background information and told many individual stories instead, making the history feel closer to home.  This is likely because the curators assumed prior knowledge of the Holocaust from the museum’s visitors.  France was occupied by the Nazis during the war, and the population was affected by deportations firsthand – presumably this history is taught to new generations in schools and through family memories.  The exhibit is also within the larger WWII exhibit in the museum, rather than having its own unique section, implying that France remembers the Holocaust as an integral part of the  war, as opposed to a separate but parallel part of world history.  This museum was more emotional than the British museum  because it was more personalized, and it still included a lot of important information about different people who were brutalized and the various methods the Nazis used in their war for “racial purity.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum solely revolved around the evils that occurred at the infamous death camp, and while this museum’s focus was incredibly narrow, it was by far the most heartbreaking.  Poland sponsored this state museum to allow visitors to get a glimpse into the terrible conditions that people were forced to live and work under in the concentration camp.  We were able to see where over one million people lived, worked and were killed, whether passively,  from starvation or illness for example, or actively, by torture, gassing, hanging, or any number of other cruel and unusual methods.  Walking through Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the earth itself felt calm, and I could not reconcile how the quiet area once held embodiment of human misery and evil.

The panels and tour guide were informative about the events that had occurred there, but the energy of the place, and especially the exhibits that had been set up housing the detritus left behind after the evacuation of the camp, were more telling of what had happened than any words could ever be.  A volume of suitcases, children’s clothing, prayer shawls, hygiene products, crutches and artificial limbs, and even human hair were displayed throughout the old barracks in Auschwitz I. These exhibits all spoke to the magnitude of  barbarity at Auschwitz and the sheer waste of life.

Seeing just a fraction of the  worldly possessions a few victims left behind helped me imagine the camp’s enormity.   What would have happened if those people had lived and had children? What if everyone had been allowed to work, rather than most people being systematically killed upon arrival?  So many preferable different outcomes spiraled through my head, and this was just one camp.  What about the other camps, and the ghettos, and the villages overrun by Nazis?  The mix of anger and despair and hopelessness I felt was almost unbearable, and while this museum had the  fewest words dedicated to explaining the details of the Holocaust, the remains of the abandoned camp system were enough to make me understand and loath the truth of the mass murder more than I ever had before.

Each museum was key in helping its respective audience better understand the terrible truth of the Holocaust.  Moving closer to the largest site of mass murder with each new city allowed me to better understand how the international community differs in its attempts to guarantee remembrance of the Holocaust.  It is essential to ensure that people never forget what happened to the Nazis targets of cruelty, for those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it as they say, and museums like the ones we visited help prevent people from denying or downplaying the traumatic events of the Holocaust.