Selective Exposure

As I gazed out at the entirety of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, two dominant emotions emerged: desperation and suffering. These sensations can characterize Poland’s national experience throughout much of the 20th century. Most Poles maintained a defying temperament throughout the war, operating one of the largest organized resistance movements of World War II.

Poland has suffered like few nations have in recent memory. When World War I began, the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires still ruled over Poland after partitioning it in the late 18th century. Much of the fighting in the Eastern Front occurred in Polish territory, ravaging the land and unleashing disease and hunger. The Russian and German armies looted and destroyed Polish homes and businesses and deported hundreds of thousands of civilians to labor camps. Over one million Poles died during the First World War. Sadly, worse suffering was yet to come.

Poland regained its independence following World War I and began to rebuild itself during the inter-war period. It only had a brief twenty years, however, before Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded in September 1939. The Third Reich took the Western half of Poland while the Soviet Union laid claim to the Eastern half. The Eastern Front of World War II was located yet again in Poland when Germany and the Soviet Union ended their armistice. Besides the destruction that a combat theater provides, Poland was the site of perhaps the most reprehensible atrocities humanity has ever witnessed. The Nazi series of extermination camps situated on Polish lands, combined with the wanton violence of the Einsatzgruppen, resulted in mass murder on a scale the world had never seen. The Nazis brutally and senselessly killed millions of Poles, both Jews and non-Jews, viewing them as subhuman. As the Soviet Union pushed back starting in 1943, destruction continued. Over six million Poles perished during World War II – nearly one-fifth of its entire population; over 90% of these deaths were non-military.

After the Second World War, Poland, despite all of its suffering, did not regain its independence. The Soviet Union continued to imprison, deport, and execute Poles as they established a Communist government that joined their bloc of nations. Today the Polish claim national innocence during the Second World War, maintaining that they played no part in the Holocaust or other tragedies. That is simply not true, as there are examples of Polish groups murdering and maiming Jews. While Poland should take responsibility and acknowledge their actions, it is easy for us to urge them to do so. Americans’ knowledge of Polish history is very limited, and we are privileged in having not experienced the unspeakable tragedies the Polish endured throughout the 20th century. We tend to overlook the courage and resiliency of the Poles and their resistance movements and fail to recognize their suffering through our own biased lens.

Bearing Witness to Brutality

Walking through the notorious gate of Auschwitz I was an experience I’ll never forget. The sky above was dark and gloomy, and the series of brick buildings in front of me, surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, emanated a sense of evil and menace.  As we made our way through these cramped buildings, quickly ushered along by our tour guide, a mixture of profound sorrow, anger and disbelief at the number of individuals who suffered and died here weighed heavily in my chest.

All that I have learned about the Nazi death camps in my classes, even the harrowing pictures and personal narratives from survivors that I have read, could not compare to walking the grounds in person and really understanding the scale of the events that took place there. 1.1 million dead are an unfathomable number, which the exhibits and tour guide sought to help us visualize and comprehend. There was a room filled with 100,000 pairs of shoes, and these were just some of the shoes that were deemed to be unwearable. Shoes in better condition were shipped back to Germany to be worn again, as were other articles of clothing and more personal items such as hairbrushes or pots and pans. Most upsetting for me was the room filled with 2 tons of human hair, or the equivalent of 40,000 women. Some of it was still carefully braided, exactly as it was 75 years ago. This hair would also be sent back to Germany, to be weaved into cloth or to stuff pillows and mattresses.

While the two camps we visited did feel a bit more touristy than I was expecting, with bookshops, several snack stands and groups of people taking selfies outside, I believe that it is important for people to see these places in person. It is our responsibility to preserve the memory of the millions who suffered and died in the Holocaust, and to prevent it from happening again. Understanding what happened and seeing the place in which it occurred in person, where it is impossible to ignore the brutality, is the most powerful way to accomplish this. I believe that given the chance, it is an important place to visit and also to preserve for generations to come.

Recognizing the Gray Areas


At the Oscar Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland I was exposed to one of the most insightful lectures I have heard on the trip so far. Our guide took us through the museum, stopping to address each exhibit’s historical context as we covered the experiences of Germans, Poles, and Jews. At each location, she was happy to answer questions, but my group remained skeptical. We had learned that in modern Poland there was a false portrayal of the Poles as victims of the reign of Nazi tyranny during World War II. This portrayal, as we had previously learned from our readings, was incredibly far from the truth. In many instances, the Polish people were active participants in the Holocaust, massacring Jews in small towns such as Jedwabne. With this historical knowledge in mind, we expected an opportunity to challenge our tour guide and offer examples that contradicted her view.

At every stop we spoke to our guide about a multitude of issues. At one point she asked if we knew why the Germans had originally decided to establish the General Government in Poland. Based on the research I had done, I clarified that it was for resettlement of the German people. She appeared confused by my answer and declared instead that it instead was established to maintain stability in the region. At several other points my friends brought up points that were outside the scope of what the museum had to offer, leading us to believe the portrayal was at best limited in its account of how the war played out. However, she was not to admit that in many instances the Poles collaborated with the Nazis. When asked by a student, she explained that many Poles signed up to become part of the German volksdeutches, or collaborators who would be granted the ability to be “Germanized” in the New Reich in return for their betrayal. At another point, we even learned about Polish Jews known as kapos, who ruthlessly beat and tortured fellow Jews in the hopes that the Nazis would spare them.

To dialogue with another historical perspective in such a way is one of the most important aspects of this trip. Despite the fact that her perspective appeared incomplete, our conversation reflects a duality we have discussed in class centered around how human beings can act as victims and perpetrators at the same time in many instances. Conversations like this are important to forming a wholistic view of history and recognizing the gray areas in our moral understanding of the past.

Auschwitz: Healing the Past and Educating the Future

When we first got to Auschwitz, we all knew it would be an emotional day. From accounts of Comrades in previous years of the WWII trip and the disclaimers given by Professors Steigerwald and Breyfogle, we expected to be shocked. However, nothing could’ve prepared me for the trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau.

Upon arrival, I felt uneasy and had an uncomfortable feeling that we were not alone in this camp. It wasn’t the other schools’ groups and visitors that I had felt, but it was instead the raw emotion, trauma, and evil that was left behind by the Nazis when they fled Auschwitz in January 1945. Walking into the main tour building to receive our headsets through which we would listen to our tour guide, you see a sign before the entrance that reads, “Prepare for Inspection.” For a moment I felt uncomfortable that I was to be “inspected”, and if I am completely honest, saw it as a slight inconvenience. It was then that I realized: while I was just being inspected for a brief moment heading to the museum, the Jewish and other minority prisoners here before me were forced to endure a much harsher form of “inspection”. Those inspections stripped them of their dignity, dehumanized them, and sent most of to their almost immediate deaths.

As we moved on into the camp, this feeling of guilt washed over me. I felt as if I shouldn’t have been there. Not out of disinterest, but I felt as if I was disrespecting the victims who died here by taking a tour of the camp; walking the same roads they were forced to march down and passing the shooting blocks and hanging posts in which so many were murdered. I grappled with whether I should even take any pictures, as I didn’t want to offend the people that had passed nor their families. I decided not to enter the cellars in which prisoners were beaten by the Gestapo and the gas chambers that took the lives of so many, because of this guilt and overall sadness. I couldn’t shake this feeling as we continued onto the Auschwitz II Birkenau camp. At this camp, we could really see on such an enormous scale just how large this death camp operation was, from the rows and rows of barracks that held all of these prisoners to the many watchtowers and fences of barbed wire that line either side of the train tracks.

Overall, I agree with the use of Auschwitz as an educational site while still honoring the people who were murdered there. While it was tough to walk through the camps, keeping places like Auschwitz open is important for so many reasons. Education about horrific events of the past is pertinent to preventing them in the future. As George Santayana said it best, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A Gathering Storm

“This picture is from August of 1939,” explained our tour guide at the Schindler Museum.  “This is when the last rays of sunlight were cast on Poland.”  Her country was still gaining its footing as a re-established nation after World War I, yet was knocked off its course for decades after that bright August due to a combination of German occupation and Soviet control for decades after the war.

Street signs for roads that were renamed during occupation

The national memory of war that our Polish tour guide communicated was extraordinarily interesting.  The museum used a striking combination of light and space to evoke certain emotions in its visitors, such as a cramped and dark display to represent the Krakow Jewish ghetto or an uneven rubber floor to show the feeling of uncertainty as Poland was “liberated” by the Russians.

All of these tools were a supplement to our guide’s description of the displays and the war itself, such as her account of the outbreak of war .  After describing the helpless situation in which the fledgling nation found itself, our guide emphasized that the war would have been drastically changed had Great Britain and France sent the promised troops and equipment to Poland to continue the fight.  Immediately I wondered how, even with this help, Poland they could have fended off the Germans.  I was curious how plausible this could have been, especially considering the failure of British and French troops to thwart invasion in France in 1940.

A section of the museum depicting the Krakow Jewish Ghetto, which used tight spaces and darkness to emphasize the poor conditions that Jews were forced to live in

The most interesting aspect of this museum tour, however, was what we heard about collaboration.  Our guide tried to give us a clear picture through careful language about the different sects of society in Poland at that time, saying that there were, “good Poles and bad Poles, good Germans and bad Germans, and good Jews and bad

Jews.”  What I did not know as I heard this semi-ambiguous statement was that in February of 2018, the Polish senate passed a controversial law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish state or its inhabitants of being involved with crimes committed during the Holocaust.  The president of Poland described the law as a means to prevent Poland from being insulted and if broken calls for either a fine or up to three years in prison.

Bearing this in mind, it was fascinating to hear what our guide had to say.  It was clear to me that she had to “tip-toe” around different subjects with her remark about the good and bad sides to war, but she in turn created a more non-biased look at this issue as a whole.  Overall, our tour at the Schindler Museum provided me with an interesting look at Krakow’s history within the context of the war and subsequent liberation.  Viewing the war through Poland’s eyes as an occupied country definitely offers museum guests with a unique story that is often forgotten outside of Poland, even if it may be tainted by recent laws.  This tour, and the tours of museums in other nations, has left me curious to see how World War II history is taught across Europe, what information may be lacking in the US’s narrative of the war, and to what extent that nations are willing to let these tough conversations go.

I Don’t Want to Write About Auschwitz

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz. It is difficult to grapple with the atrocities that the Nazis committed there and in so many other places in eastern Europe. When I walked through the famous gates reading “arbeit macht frei,” I was sobered but disassociated from the place, as one is in places where unfathomable trauma has occurred. I continued on in this state as our tour progressed, past fences, photos, and then a room filled with human hair.

The objects collected at Auschwitz when the Soviets liberated it are only a small fraction of what the Nazis took, which makes seeing them all the more horrifying. The Germans made cloth out of human hair from women that they killed in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t this hair that snapped me out of my trance, but a stack of tallits, Jewish prayer shawls. Somehow, that made everything real.

I grew up Jewish. I have left wing political beliefs. I am only here because my great-grandfather immigrated from Poland to the United States. Walking through Auschwitz, seeing the faces of people that look exactly like those I grew up with, and knowing that had I been in Poland at the time I would have certainly been in that camp wearing a red triangle with a yellow one on top of it (meaning political prisoner and Jew) made Auschwitz personal.

The last stop on our tour, in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was through a prisoner barrack preserved the way it was in 1944. It was in this barrack that those condemned to death would spend their last few nights. Already given starvation diets, prisoners at Auschwitz condemned to the gas chambers were not given any food or water. And the Nazis would not take these prisoners to the gas chambers until the barracks were filled with 1,000 people. Tired, starving, parched people stayed in these barracks awaiting their deaths. Walking through it, I felt like I was disturbing something sacred. I felt that my very presence somehow trivialized the suffering that had occurred in this room.

I don’t want to write about Auschwitz, but we all have to. I am privileged enough to have had the opportunity to study and stand in the places where genocide occurred. It is my responsibility to educate others about what I saw and felt. What gives me the most anguish, however, is that I feel that the world has not yet learned from these crimes. Mass murder and genocide continue on into the 21st century as our own country bombs others and shuts its doors to asylum seekers and refugees. We are all humans with fundamental rights. We all deserve freedom.

Remembering Catastrophe

Before arriving in Poland, we visited sites where most of World War II’s heroic stories unfolded.  In London, the Blitz was devastating. Nonetheless, the allies were victorious, and England’s national identity remained after the war. In France, we visited Normandy and walked the same beaches as those who liberated France. In Western Europe, we saw examples of resilience, perseverance, and triumph over evil. In Krakow, however, the sites and museums did not bear the usual Western European happy ending.

About one-third of Krakow’s pre-World War II population was Jewish. They were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and most importantly, people.  Jewish people in Krakow were Polish citizens and were incorporated into life throughout the city just like other citizens. The Nazis quickly occupied Poland and all of this changed. The Nazis treated Jewish people as less than human and made every effort to break the Jewish population. 70,000 Jewish people were relocated to a ghetto with space for 17,000 people; rations were less than three-hundred calories per day; and Nazi terrorized the community as part of their mission to gain living space.  Eventually, Krakow’s Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Outside of Krakow, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most brutal Nazi death camps. Over one million Jews and even Polish citizens were sent here, and most of them never left. These atrocities were unfathomable to me, especially considering that they happened in a modern society.

Amidst my shock and attempts to understand how Nazis created a system that murdered millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcasts, I realized how important it is to study these catastrophes and visit sites where they took place. Visiting Auschwitz was hard. Gaining a sense of how many lives weren’t lived was even more challenging. The system responsible for nearly seven million Jewish people’s murder was created through a series of societal changes and motivated by hatred in an attempt to portray someone else as the enemy. Visiting these sites is gut wrenching, but if we don’t take time to pay respect to those who were victims of Nazi Germany or attempt to understand why these atrocities happened, we risk accepting a similar fate in the future.

Poland and the War in the East

In the months leading up to this trip, I had guessed that a few places would open my eyes in some way, but Krakow’s Schindler museum, which occupies the site of the factory at the center of Steven Spielberg’s renowned Schindler’s List, was not at the top of that list. However, after touring the museum and listening to our tour guide discuss the war from a Polish perspective, I certainly was left pondering some new thoughts.

As an American, I learned to think about World War II in a much different way growing up than Eastern Europeans, especially Poles. I always viewed the outcome of the war as an ultimate Allied victory and total liberation of Europe. Although my recent studies in this class and others have opened my eyes to the other perspectives, I did not realize the extent of the legacy the war had on the Poles. Without going in depth about the history of Poland and its highs and lows, the brutality it experienced at the hands of both the Nazis and Soviets in World War II cannot be overstated. That is not to mention the atrocities committed against Polish Jews by both invaders and, in some cases, native Polish gentiles. Numerous pogroms that resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews were carried out across the eastern front. Many Poles were complicit if not active participants in the persecution and murder of eastern European Jews. This is a reminder of the widespread antisemitism already present in Europe before the rise of Nazism. The museum portrayed all Poles as victims of the war and did not offer much explanation for antisemitism on the part of the Poles. It frankly left out a great deal regarding the role locals played in pogroms. Our tour guide really opened my mind to the impact a violent and oppressed history has had on generations of Poles.

From the museum, I gained a better understanding of the Polish experience under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. I did not realize the extent to which the Poles suffered starvation, racism, and mass murder. The museum told a different story from the ones in London, Normandy, and Paris. Those museums tended to focus on the global impact and military history or the Holocaust. I had nearly forgotten about the east when I arrived in Krakow. So much of my attention was centered around the Allied invasion from the west or the Holocaust. At Auschwitz, obviously, I was thinking about the Jews of Europe and other minorities who were persecuted and murdered.  Though the museum in Krakow doesn’t necessarily leave out or dispute those aspects of the war, it highlights the Polish experience in a specific manner and approaches remembering this time period in a different way. The Nazi march to the east left millions dead and millions more starving and oppressed. In Poland especially, it’s easy for a casual observer of history to forget that Poland was not truly liberated after its suffering during the war but incorporated in the Soviet Bloc.

This museum is about the suffering of Poles and how the major events throughout the war affected people within Poland. The events that took place in the east are easily overlooked by too many Americans, me included, and should not be dismissed when thinking about World War II. Overall, the museum fails to acknowledge some of the atrocious acts committed by Polish gentiles, but still manages to deliver a powerful story about the Polish experience during World War II. It was one of the biggest highlights of my experience and left me thinking about the eastern theatre of the war much more critically.

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.