The Brutality of History

Auschwitz is a place we must visit to understand the Holocaust. Assessing this site and the new knowledge I have learned is difficult. The information on the tour was not new to me, but the delivery and setting were and as such immersed me in the information. Seeing a picture of the “Arbeit macht Frei” banner and walking under it are two very different experiences. Understanding the breadth of the Holocaust by reading and listening is difficult, but seeing thousands of kilograms of human hair puts things into perspective. Walking through a room with 100,000 adult shoes is inconceivable at first, but when you walk the 25 or so yards through the valley of shoes, history becomes tangible.

Seeing a child’s single shoe, then realizing it was only one of 10,000 made me immensely sad and angry.

The site-specific experience in Auschwitz reinforces what we have studied. Pen and paper fail to expose the tremendous brutality and extermination.

The Schindler Museum in Krakow was another example of living history. Poland was a destroyed nation, encircled and invaded from east and west. The Polish narrative was one of national victimhood. A lack of control among the Poles was the general feeling throughout the museum. Poland was at the mercy of other nations for most of the 20thCentury. Our guide showed this general discomfort and portrayed Poland as the victim of Western indecisiveness, Nazi brutality and Soviet “liberation.” Rightfully so in my opinion: Poland was utterly ruined by Axis and Allied powers. Yet as we walked though, the victimization narrative shrouded Polish complicity and subverted the book Neighbors we had discussed in class. In our discussions we talked about how some Polish people turned on their own Jewish neighbors and either killed them or reported them to the Gestapo. Our guide described this predicament as, “some people are good and some are bad.” The concept applies but comes off as overgeneralization to the point of being incorrect. History is not black and white, yet this museum actively forgot about the grey. History is complicated, messy and difficult, but it should be discussed honestly, not revised to a more flattering version.

“When we were singing, we forgot the fear”

Music is something that captures feelings when words fall short. Traditionally, music can be everything from uplifting to devastating. When considering music through the WWII lens, the Nazi party used music to control others. However, the Jews used music as a way of staying strong, keeping up the fight for their freedom, and surviving the holocaust. During the war, music had two main objectives; control and staying alive. 

While we were on our tour in Poland, we visited the concentration and death camps of   Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau. While we were there, our guide mentioned that the Nazis forced musician prisoners to play classical music while prisoners were marching to and from work. The prison guards marched them in orderly fashion to control the prisoners as they were counted on their way out to work. Though this was easy in the morning and quite effective for organized marching, it was a much more disorderly and painful job in the evening. As men and women returned from their long days of work, exhausted and starving, the band would play. Each prisoner would stand at attention and be counted over and over. Often, those who were weak would ultimately collapse and be taken away to be killed. This position in the camp had a high turnover rate because these musician prisoners were not released from their usual work duties and due to the nature of this position, there was a high suicide rate. Forcing musicians to share their art in a sadistic manner was both degrading and traumatic. This is yet another example of the Nazi party using art as a form of control. [Auschwitz additional band information courtesy of:] 

Wall of survivors’ quotes in the Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland

On the other hand, Jews also used music to keep morale up during the ghettos, deportations, and camps. At the end of our tour in the Schindler Museum, there was a room with quotes from Holocaust survivors about their experiences. The room was circular and bright, with calm music playing in the background to make visitors stop and read all the quotations. One quote that stuck out to me was, “we were terrified. All of a sudden he began to sing. We all joined him after a while. When we were singing, we forgot the fear”. Just as the music was used as a tool by the Nazi regime, the Jews were using music to achieve solidarity and unite as a people 

Using music as a tool is seen around our modern world. In the days of slavery in the United Statesslaves used black spirituals to send messages. Lyrics were modified to keep fellow slaves out of danger and possibly find freedom. more recent example would be the French people who gathered in front of Notre Dame as it burned. They collectively sang a French tune and remained together to mourn. [Watch here: ] Music will always be a tool used to feel deeper and understand further. Whether music is used for good or evil, it is a powerful way to control a narrative. 

What Do a Million People Look Like?

Like a hellish twin to the Louvre’s glass pyramid, the dynamited concrete roof of Crematorium II’s gas chamber slopes down into the soggy Earth. On the overcast day of our visit, the caved-in roof of the gas chamber, black and flooded as though by sorrow, seemed to be a black hole. According to conservative estimates, the SS murdered 1.1 million people in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Standing in the camp myself, looking at the remains of the crematoria, I suddenly realized that hundreds of thousands died within 50 feet of where I was standing. I wanted to run away. What do a million people even look like alive, much less dead? At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the loss to humanity hangs heavy in the air. The American cemetery in Normandy drew tears from me, but standing where more people died per square foot than anywhere else on Earth more so evokes dumbfounded depression, incomprehension, and terror.

What do a million people look like alive? How could a nation condemn so many? FG: a pit containing the ashes of some of those killed in the chambers. BG: the dynamited remains of a gas chamber. Photo courtesy of Ian Mintz.

Though mediocre and lapdoggish bureaucrats filled the ranks of Nazi Germany’s civil service, Auschwitz embodies the terrifying efficiency by which the world knows the Nazis. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the terminus of Germany’s vast rail-deportation network. Cattle cars of starved innocents arrived daily through its gate, each one sorted by SS officers and racial doctors for either work “selection” or immediate death. In the most perverse sense, those sent to the chambers were lucky: the forced laborers were given only starvation rations, crammed six-abreast in triple bunks, and worked to death. In Auschwitz I, the original camp, guards tortured and starved (and sometimes gassed) Poles, Jews, Roma, and others. They exploited labor by terror and mass punishment.

The camp even has ghosts, of a sort: the remains of long since dismantled shelters stretch into the distance in eerily neat rows. Only the bones of the buildings, the chimneys and foundations, remain. Photos cannot fully capture the camp’s expansiveness. Even with most buildings gone, one cannot easily see from one end of the camp to the other.

Prisoner barracks at Birkenau were dismantled and shipped to Warsaw for emergency housing after the Germans, in full retreat and bloodied by an uprising, destroyed 90 percent of the city.

Auschwitz offers no great historical lessons on its own. Its memorial plaques do not preach with walls of text, but rather offer a warning to humanity. The camp speaks on its own behalf. Students talk of racialization and dehumanization in the abstract in classes, and we naturally recoil at mention of those –tions, but the praxis of those –tions is quite different and far more harrowing. The Nazis needed assembly-line-style murder facilities because their soldiers in the East could no longer stomach shooting innocents and kicking them into mass graves; perhaps that fact should give us hope for humanity, but Auschwitz itself offers no balm. Its existence should curb visitors’ enthusiasm for the dehumanization rampant in modern politics. Neither blood nor creed nor origin are sufficient to treat humans like livestock. Nothing is.

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazi murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”

Visit Auschwitz yourself. It’s our duty as human beings to bear witness, to remember, and to act to ensure no regime can enact such horrors again.

Painting the Picture of Honor in War

The Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland and the Army Museum in Paris, France gave starkly different narratives of World War II, even though the experiences of the population share certain similarities. The Polish and French wartime narratives emphasize certain themes: France highlights its heroism, Poland its victimhood. This is partly due to the differing Nazi policies in each area. The Nazis invaded and occupied France in order to conquer a powerful neighbor; they occupied Poland in order to expand German “living space” and to carry out exterminationist policies. Polish and French narratives might be an attempt to salvage national pride by using each country’s “honorable” actions to represent their wartime experience and contributions.

There were similarities in the Polish and French wartime experiences.  Both countries spent most of World War II under Nazi occupation. Each country’s army fought bravely, but both states fell about a month after the respective German offensives began. The Germans deported Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and political figures from both countries to concentration camps. Polish and French citizens alike collaborated with and resisted the Germans. The Germans also divided each country into new administrative zones, toppling any semblance of self-determination even in unoccupied areas. Nevertheless, both countries have reacted to their defeat in different manners.

The French War Museum devoted particular attention to its resistance movements against the Nazis as well as its contributions to the Allied war effort, no matter how small. One exhibit reads “the Maginot Line, even encircled, resisted at every attack and did not capitulate.” This stance emphasizes France’s role as an active and sacrificial ally during the war, even though they were often not an effective ally since they were occupied by the Nazis. This account isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t account for French collaboration. France, embarrassed that they capitulated so early in the war, focuses on their heroic resistance efforts against the occupation.

     On the other hand, the Schindler Museum emphasized Poland’s weakness—and therefore its victimhood. When the German blitzkrieg began in August 1939, Poland had only regained their statehood for about twenty years (after a century and a half of Austrian, Prussian, and Russian occupation). Militarily, Poland did not stand a chance against Germany’s combined air and artillery attack, let alone fend off the Red Army invading on another front thanks to the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland suffered additional humiliation when its allies, Britain and France, declared war on Germany yet took no military action. Furthermore, the Nazis treated the Poles as sub-human via exterminationist racial policies. Even after the war ended Poland did not experience liberation and instead became a Soviet satellite state.

Poland was indeed weak. However, the Schindler Museum failed to recognize that an alarming number of Polish villages conducted pogroms against their Jewish neighbors with minimal encouragement from the Nazis. Additionally, most of the Nazi extermination camps were located on Polish lands. Our tour guide took time to emphasize that Auschwitz-Birkenau—a Nazi concentration and extermination camp where a minimum of 1 million Jews were killed—was officially located in Germany at the time of its operation from 1940 to 1945. As the main site of the largest genocide in history, Poland oddly ignores the question of national enablement. This safely preserves Poland’s moral standing against the Nazis.

It seems easy to judge Poland and France for neglecting to remember the morally-repugnant parts of their past. However, people in these countries made decisions under a certain set of circumstances that are almost impossible for us today to fathom. It was impractical to act out of honor or morality, especially when survival was at stake and in a context of almost unprecedented violence. As historians of WWII, the best we can do is try to imagine what it was like to endure and survive the fog of war.

Seeing My Name at Auschwitz

I saw this photograph of a victim at Auschwitz, named Helen Dudek.

On of the most sobering experiences I have had in my life was seeing my last name at Auschwitz. I knew my family was from Poland during World War Two, and I knew that I had family in the concentration camps, but I never fully comprehended what this meant. Seeing the last name “Dudek,” under a picture of a Polish woman, forced the reality of the holocaust to set in. Seeing Auschwitz was an experience that I cannot describe with words, but I will carry the feeling with me forever.

My absolute favorite city we have visited thus far is Krakow, Poland. From the moment we got off the coach  and I saw the city, I immediately understood why Krakow is considered the cultural capital of Poland! I loved being able to walk down the street and find random street art graffitied on the walls or stumbling into markets every few blocks. Also, the locals were extremely friendly and helpful. At every shop, I was greeted with a friendly smile. My favorite experience was when I bought hand-made Polish pottery to ship home, and when the owner saw my last name, he said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were Polish yourself!” This experience, like many others, made me feel very welcomed. Also, it was very noticeable that Krakow has a lot of colleges in the town. The locals were very close to college aged, and the city had a very “young people” vibe. The age and cultural feel of Krakow spoke to the “rebuilding” character of Poland since after World War Two. Everything in Krakow looked old, but the people and vibes of the city were young and new. Poland is an old country, but they have been rebuilding and re-growing since after the end of The War.

One specific thing I noticed about Krakow was that about 25% of locals I met in the mall and in shops did not speak English. I tried asking a worker a question in the Oskar Schindler museum, and she did not speak English. Neither did the cashier in a pierogi place I visited. This was interesting and surprising, because everyone I spoke to in other countries spoke English. I am not sure why this is. I plan on asking my Polish Grandfather when I get home to see if he has an explanation. It was tricky, but I loved trying out my minimal Polish language skills I learned from my grandfather those three days! Another note I made during our stay was the abundance of Catholicism in Krakow. I know Poland has always been a Catholic country, but I loved being able to see all the old Catholic churches and memorials throughout the town. On our free day in Krakow, I was able to visit St. Mary’s Basilica, St. Andrews, and the Wawel Cathedral. These three churches were all so beautiful, and I felt very connected to my faith while visiting them.

Auschwitz: Where Words Fall Short

Only a thin pane of glass stood between me and two tons of human hair. Some of it was still in braids. Most of it had lost its color and I couldn’t handle it. I rushed through this exhibit in the Auschwitz I museum and I thought I was going to vomit. For me, looking at the hair was like looking at someone’s arm or leg. Each piece was once attached to someone’s body, a woman’s body, but was hacked off to inflict hurt, shame, and inhumanity. In that moment I had the privilege to walk away from a place that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but the million people who died at Auschwitz didn’t have that luxury.

You could read a thousand books about concentration camps, but they would never evoke the feeling you get while standing in one. A sentence could never convey what it is to touch the boards women laid on, sick and dying, while they awaited their selection for the gas chambers.

These are the barracks in block 25 where sick and dying women were sent until there were 1000 of them. Then they were sent to the gas chambers.

Learning about military operations is important, yes, and I am eternally grateful to the men who gave their lives to the war against Nazi Germany, but I felt that my classes fell a little short in emphasizing why these men were fighting. But I get it now – it is almost impossible to explain Auschwitz and the emotions that accompany the experience without being there. The power of place is critical to learning; it creates an intense muddle of emotions. We learn from uncomfortable situations and the atrocities that happened there deserve to be remembered with a lingering sense of discomfort. I felt anger, disgust, confusion and overwhelming sadness all at the exact same time. And I think that was Professor Steigerwald’s point: nothing he would’ve given us to read would’ve prepared us for the experience we would have there and so he left it open ended.

I still haven’t quite sorted out how I felt about it all – and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t think anyone will ever understand why the Nazis killed six million people in the ways that they did and visiting sites of human destruction only makes it all less clear. But what I do know is that nothing prepared me for this experience, not one novel or one personal account and it is an experience that I will never forget.

A cattle car on the train tracks at Auschwitz II – Birkineau. It is a replica of the ones used to transport people into the camps.


The Horrors of the Holocaust

Walking around Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was an emotionally complicated experience. Throughout my life, I have learned of these places and the sickening events that occurred there, but actually standing where more than 1.1 million prisoners were brutally murdered was almost impossible to process. My understanding of the war experience was enhanced through emotionally processing the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

Learning history from books is important but visiting a site, like Auschwitz, can completely change your perspective. For example, the first thing that stood out to me when we arrived was how big the site was. When learning about the Auschwitz camps I saw pictures that showcased the inhumane cramped conditions. Consequently, I mentally processed the space as smaller, rather than the amount of people as greater. The size of the space made me realize the amount of people that suffered there was beyond my comprehension. Contrary to my assumptions, being there actually made it harder to understand what happened. Now to clarify, this was not a big area, and the buildings were most definitely cramped, but in my mind, I had always viewed the camps as smaller.

Walking around with our tour guide he discussed the different forms of torture enacted at the camps. In previous classes there were discussions on the purposeful starvation that occurred as well as the combination of inhumane forced labor. I was unaware of women prisoners being routinely used in Auschwitz for sterilization experiments. These women would be hand selected and forced to endure torture in the name of “medical research” that either resulted in their death or their permanent disfigurement. All over the camps men, women, and children were tortured and murdered in the name of science.

In the past, when learning about death camps or concentration camps, hearing the story of the few who escaped was simultaneously uplifting and horrendous. Uplifting for the fact they were able to escape a living hell, yet, horrendous for learning about the reality of what was occurring at these camps. Our tour guide explained that for every 1 prisoner who escaped Auschwitz, 10 prisoners were chosen to go down to cell block 11 and starve to death. Cell block 11 is where prisoners were punished in either a regular small cell, a completely dark cell, or a standing cell. Punishments could last days, weeks, or until death. Standing in cell block 11 for less than two minutes made me nauseous and claustrophobic.

Included in those sent to cell block 11 was Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest. After someone escaped, Kolbe was not chosen as one of the 10 to die by starvation. A man named Franciszek Gajowniczek was chosen along with 9 others. Kolbe heard Gajowniczek’s cries to be spared and desperation about never seeing his wife and children again. Thus, Kolbe requested to take on Gajowniczek’s death sentence, and the Nazis allowed him to do so. Kolbe sacrificed himself for Gajowniczek who was able to survive until 1995. In 1981, Maximillian Kolbe was canonized as a Martyr by Pope John Paul II.

This example of self-sacrifice and love by a complete stranger to another is nothing short of extraordinary. I would never have thought a place filled with hate and unthinkable evil could also bring out the best of humanity.

Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, left me feeling drained, angry, sad, depressed, and immensely frustrated, but it was one of the most important days of this trip. I would highly recommend everyone at least once in their life to go and view the Holocaust in a new perspective. I feel I have become more aware of the privileges in my life because of this experience. Going there is a reminder to be grateful for everyone and everything in our lives.

What Story Do I Tell? Poland Versus France

Having completed my time in Poland, I am fascinated at the differences in the museums between there and France. Leaving France I was dissatisfied with some of the museums, specifically the Caen museum, and the interpretations of the French war experience. I was frustrated with the lack of recognition France had for its role in the murder of its Jews. It mentioned the deportation or killing of other European Jews before it mentioned French Jews. It also tended to focus more so on the role of other countries in the Holocaust as opposed to France’s role. Before going to the Schindler Museum, I believed the interpretation of Polish war experience would be similar to the French: overshadowing, if not outright denial, of complicity against the Jews. I was surprised, however, to listen to our tour guide discuss how there were both good and bad Polish people. For example, she discussed the Volksdeutsch, Polish people who were able to become German and gain advantages under the German occupation, sometimes at the expense of the Jews.

Text at the Caen Museum. The mention of Belgium Jews comes before that of the French Jews.

Another stark difference between the Schindler Museum and the Caen Museum was the attitude towards defeat against the Germans. In the Caen Museum there was a poster that read, “Invaded but not Conquered.” For the French, the identity of France as a nation still remained, only temporarily controlled by the Germans. The Schindler Museum showed that Poland’s experience was not the same. Even though they had been preparing for a German invasion, their defeat meant being conquered and not merely invaded. These two differing attitudes also meant they viewed their resistance differently. The Caen museum portrayed resistance as exemplary, so much so that a quip stated that France was liberated by the summer of 1944 with or without the help of the Allies. While the Schindler Museum recognized Polish resistance, the tour guide also explained the uncomfortable acceptance of Soviet help to expel the Germans. Altogether, these differences helped exemplify the differing war experiences between the two countries, and how each remembers their own story.


French propaganda poster at the Caen Museum.


Beginning in the second paragraph, the Caen Museum dismisses the Allies crucial role in liberating France.

A Forced Claim of National Innocence

Krakow is an old but beautiful city filled with charm and character. I couldn’t help but admire the bright and colorful old buildings as I explored the town square, as well as the quaint street food stands that lined the marketplace. However, as I toured different locations throughout Poland, namely Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Oskar Schindler museum, I also couldn’t help but notice a common theme of Polish victimization and claim to national innocence. This was portrayed not only through the museum displays but also the local people and what they believe in.

Colorful buildings within the town square of Krakow.

The first of the two places we visited, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was a very emotional experience and the sufferings and victimhood of both Poles and Jews was very apparent. We were led on a tour throughout the camps by a very informative guide who graduated from the University of Wisconsin who did not shy away from the details of the sufferings of the Jews and the large population of Poland who were killed. Needless to say, the blame of these acts of genocide was placed upon the Nazi regime.

Watch tower inside Auschwitz I concentration camp.

The second of the two places we visited was the Oskar Schindler museum, which was mainly focused on how life was in Nazi- occupied Krakow. Here, we were led on a tour by a local Polish woman who was incredibly informative on the history of her city. However, here is where I started to really notice the Polish claim to national innocence. When explaining the breakout of the war and occupation of Poland she frequently spoke defensively about it, using claims such as “We didn’t have enough time to rebuild after WWI.” Additionally, when asked about Polish complicity with the Holocaust and Nazi regime, she was never able to give us a full answer, never really admitting that this ever occurred. Later, I discovered that Poland had a law which made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi German crimes.

After visiting these sites and participating in tours led by both Americans and Poles, I was able to compare and contrast their perspectives on the history of Poland and World War Two. By doing this, I noticed how the Polish national memory worked itself into museums and how they stressed national innocence during WWII. Being able to see the way national memory plays into the histories of the different countries we visited is crucial in being able to compare the differing perspectives and arriving at an accurate conclusion about what actually happened during WWII.

Manipulating the Narrative of Victory and Defeat

As we have traveled across Europe, it has been clear that the national memory of the war is very different in each country.  True, everyone highlights the victories and brush defeats under the rug. But after finishing our time in Poland, I was intrigued with the way that they have presented their collective memory of the war, especially when compared to what we were seeing in France.

On our visit to the Schindler Museum we had a fantastic tour guide. She was very knowledgeable and tried to give us the  fullest picture possible of life in Krakow and around Poland during the occupation during the war. While the museum is located in the former Schindler factory, it is not simply a shrine to Oskar Schindler. They have taken the space and turned it into a very interesting museum that displays how Krakow evolved before, during, and after the war.

Similarly to what we saw in France, there was a big emphasis on the Polish identity topping all other religious or social identity. Our tour guide explained that while there Jews in Krakow, they were Polish first,  just as a French Jew  was French first and Jewish second. One of the striking similarities was also how both countries are manipulating the narratives of the war to remove any  national blame. In France everyone was a resister.  In Poland there were good and bad people on both sides, and the death of the Jews was the sole responsibility of the Nazis. In Poland it is actually illegal to claim that the Poles had anything to do with the Holocaust. While it is not that extreme in France, the sentiment is still there.

There were also some differences that I noticed between the countries. Something that kept coming back to me was the exhibit in Caen that claimed France would be victorious “with or without the Allies.” In Poland there did not seem to be this claim of  self-liberation.  Our tour guide pointed out that Poland never signed an armistice, they just lost the fight. She also brought up how Poland needed the help of the Allies because their army was too weak to defeat the German forces. While other parts of the museum may have downplayed the  conquest of Poland, I appreciated the mild honesty that came when she explained that Poland would not be able to stand alone.

Poland and France are very different countries, and the war is significant for different reasons. I don’t know what I expected when I came to Poland, but I was surprised to see how their national narrative, while still flawed, was  comparable to the French.  I think that it will be interesting as we travel to Germany to think about how the national memory can be shaped and redefined based on who is telling it and where it is being told.

The pre-war street signs displayed at the Schindler Museum.

An example of how the Polish resistance would hide weapons in secret compartments in their refrigerator.

Another example of one of the explanations from the museum in Caen…with a little bit of an editing done by me at the end…