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…


On Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019, our group had the enormous responsibility of going to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the concentration and death camps where as many as 1.1 million people died, including over a million murdered Jewish men, women, and children. I say that this is a responsibility for us to go there, as the camp still stands as a testament to the worst of humanity, and we need to make sure that such a thing never happens again. As I went through the camp, however, I started to wonder if actually going to Auschwitz is the best way to do that. 

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, we milled about in a sea of tourists who had come as well, most of whom were students even younger than we, who were unfortunately not even acting their age in line. There were so many people there, in fact, that we needed a guide with a carefully timed tour of the camp to lead us, which theoretically prevented the throng of people from making the exhibits too crowded – after all, over two million people visit every year. Our tour guide, a graduate from the University of Wisconsin, led us briskly through the main camp. The exhibits, located within the former cell blocks that held the prisoners, felt more like queues that we needed to file through – our tour guide kept prompting us to keep up with him as we sped through the placards and photos commemorating those lost. 

The speed of the tour did not particularly bother me until we got to the first gas chamber and crematorium, which the Nazis used as a test site before unleashing them on an ever- larger, terrifying scale at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I entered the dank, low-ceilinged building and instantaneously felt my soul leave my body. Every step that I took felt heavy as a hobbled my way past the holes where they dumped Zyklon B on the unsuspecting prisoners. I hugged my arms to my body as I made my way into the adjacent crematorium, and my jaw went slack as I stared into the claustrophobic ovens where the bodies burned. I had never imagined the ovens being so small, so personal; and then all of a sudden it was time to go. 

The one thing I did not expect about this experience was how, for lack of a better word, “touristy” it had become. The teens in line did not seem to think it any different from a museum; the tour guide was under orders to keep us on a tight schedule to accommodate the millions of visitors that this death site receives every year. Worryingly, I also counted two gift shops and a snack bar among the outside buildings. On the surface, this seems like it cannot possibly be conducive to broadening our perspectives on the Holocaust.

Yet without a doubt the moment where the brutality, the unimaginable horror, and the inhuman atrocities became real was when I stood where hundreds of others had stood in the crematorium. Rude teenagers and tight schedules cannot take that away. And because of that, I will take into the world an understanding that I have a responsibility to the world to do my part in preventing anything like this ever again. That is why the camp stands today—to make history unavoidably real and personal that to ignore it becomes impossible.

Searching for Stolen Art

By Matthew Bonner

We arrived in Krakow, Poland on May 21st, greeted by a thunderstorm and the smell of fresh perogies. My personal mission in Krakow was to explore how museums and neighborhoods feature Polish artwork, as the country has had a turbulent history with its cultural treasures. Over the course of the Spring semester, I researched Nazi art looting during the Second World War, touching on the story of art from preparation to restitution. While researching I focused mainly on France, but Poland’s experience specifically captivated me. According to the Nazis, most Polish and other Slavic artwork was deemed “degenerate artwork” – meaning it did not align with Nazi ideology or was made by Jewish people, immigrants, or other enemies of the Third Reich. In Poland the Nazis waged a violent war against Polish culture by targeting monuments and artwork. Additionally, as Poland was the site of a majority of Europe’s Jewish population before World War II, the Nazis attempted to eradicate both the Jewish community and its cultural artifacts. However, the Poles also possessed a multitude of artwork from all over Europe, as Krakow had long been the capital of Poland, that the Nazis systematically targeted, confiscated, and shipped back to Nazi Germany.

The two Polish masterpieces I had the opportunity to visit were among those not targeted for Nazi destruction, but instead were looted from the country by Nazis for Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum. The Veit Stoss altarpiece is a massive wooden altar that took 12 years to create in 1477 and stands in the heart of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s Main Market Square. Before the war, Poland attempted to protect the cultural treasure from looting by dismantling the altar and shipping it to the countryside. However, Hitler tracked down the altarpiece and shipped it to Germany, due to its creator’s German origin. Additionally, I had the pleasure of viewing Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, one of three surviving oil paintings by the master painter. Older than the Mona Lisa, the portrait is a depiction of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s employer Ludovico Sforza, holding an emblematic ermine. Before the war, the painting was also shipping to the outskirts of Poland for protection, but was seized in 1939 by Nazis and sent to Berlin. In 1945 the painting was restored to Poland.

The Veit Stoss altarpiece, located behind the High altar of St. Mary’s Basilica.

Looking at these pieces of artwork in real life was a surreal experience after reading about their tumultuous stories the past semester. The art fell into many people’s hands and was hunted down for years to finally end up in their current buildings for visitors’ viewing pleasures. Though some pieces such as these two made it out of the war intact, the same cannot be said of other Polish artwork and cultural sites. Specifically, Rembrandt’s Portrait of A Young Man was lost in the war and could have been destroyed. In the Czartoryski Museum there is a blank wall stating that the art piece was lost during the Second World War, possibly destroyed or still owned illegally. The wall and empty picture frame symbolize the thousands of other sculptures and paintings lost or destroyed by the Nazis.

Matthew Bonner with a copy of “Lady with an Ermine”, at the special exhibit in the Main Krakow Museum.

Additionally, when traveling through the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, I visited the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was used to bury members of the Jewish community from 1552 to 1800 and is considered one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe. During the war, the Nazis took a place of reflection and prayer and desecrated the graves. Now, the shattered gravestones form a mosaic wall surrounding the cemetery and the adjoining synagogue serves as one of the only practicing Jewish religious sites in Krakow.

Old Jewish Memorial wall featuring gravestones broken during Nazi occupation and persecution.

After visiting the artworks and sites in Krakow, it is obvious that Poland is still attempting to reclaim and restore its great cultural treasures. The Nazis waged a war of destruction against the Polish people, with the goal of eradicating an entire culture, people, and memory. Though it is shocking that only around 200 Jewish people in remain in Krakow, what was once a vibrant Jewish community and cultural hub of as many as 68,000, Krakow is rebounding to its former glory. Street art is rampant throughout the city, new exhibitions are featured in museums, and the Old Jewish Cemetery was filled with Jewish community members praying. Although the arduous work of restoring Polish artwork to its original owners and rebuilding damaged sites is ever evolving, that which remains is celebrated and showcased. This is both a testament to the Polish people and evidence that though the Nazis murdered millions, the legacy, culture, and memory of those lost will never be destroyed.

Nazi Death Camps

Going into this trip, I figured that Poland was going to be the most unique stop on our trip. Poland is the eastern-most stop on our trip, the least tourist-y, and the most conservative. In January 2018, the Polish government passed a “Holocaust Bill” that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Specifically, referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps.” I wondered how our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would be effected by this new law and if my comrades would need to be wary of prying ears while giving their reports on Polish history.

Our visit to Auschwitz was profoundly austere and chilling. It was my first time at any of the Nazi death camps that I have read so many horrible things about. The tour was conducted by a Polish speaking tour-guide and an English translator. Our guide made a point of calling the camp a Nazi-death camp and explained repeatedly that the Polish town of Oświęcim (“Auschvenken”) was Germanized to Auschwitz.  The Nazi’s eventually evicted the town’s inhabitants evicted in 1940 when the Nazi’s decided to make it a prison for political prisoners, and later into a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Throughout the camp there were statistics and data regarding the persons who had been sent to and murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound. Something that stood out to me was that the numbers of Poles and the number of Jews killed here were kept separate, and our tour guide continued to mention Poles and Jews, but never once said Polish Jews. Yet surely, of the 1,100,000 European Jews that were murdered here, a large portion of them were Polish citizens. Many of my comrades mentioned that they noticed this phenomenon as well during our class discussion.

Our tour guides never once said anything in their guides that put their government nor their countrymen to shame. Was this a result of fierce national loyalty, common knowledge, or reflective of the new holocaust law? As a first-time visitor to Poland, it is impossible to say. And yet, one thing that remains clear is the obvious effort by the Polish people to absolve themselves of blame regarding the years of occupation. During our studies here there was no mention of the multitude of anti-Jewish progroms conducted by Polish peasants, an utter split between “Poles” and “Jews” during the war, and an obvious desire to drive home the point that the death camps in Poland were Nazi death camps, a distinction that I always thought was common knowledge.

Memorial plaque in Birkenau

Remnants of the barracks

Polish Resilience: Determination and Denial

Going into this trip, I was most looking forward to Poland due to my extensive studies of the nation through both my International Affairs Scholars Program Capstone Project (Interwar Polish History) and through my specialization project for this study abroad (Polish Society Under German Occupation). I received a Polish Studies Initiative Scholarship from the Center for Slavic and Eastern European Studies at Ohio State, and I was excited to present the second portion of my Polish Historical Studies research that went along with receiving it. From what I learned through extensive readings about Poland, especially by historians Jan Gross and Norman Davies, I came into the country with an image of a dynamic yet distressed country that has experienced invasions, war, and changing borders and demographics for centuries. To no surprise, I found a national character of resilience apparent through sites and attitudes.

There were monuments and symbolic acknowledgements of the destruction Poland faced during World War II at every turn in Krakow. However, at the same time there were symbols and clear examples of strength through successful commercialization and the beautifully preserved and maintained city center. This spoke to the national character of resilience and determination against the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Poles and the Soviet attempt to replace Poland with a Russian satellite. In addition, the augmentation of a future and a continued Polish nation through family pride and community development was clear in the society that stands today.

Though the determination of the Polish people is a positive national characteristic, the refusal of the Polish people to fully acknowledge the facts of the Holocaust is most definitely negative, and it is widely noticed today through international news. Recently, a bill was signed that bans any accusations of collective responsibility by the Polish Nation or State for Nazi Germany’s war crimes. The basic premise of this bill asserts that all collective action during the Holocaust was at the hands of Nazi Germany. However, as I illegally announced in a public park, this is not the case. The collaboration that took place was at a relatively small scale, but it is still relevant to understanding the functionality of the systematic genocide that took place in Poland. It is the responsibility of all nations to accept, acknowledge, and strive to counteract their dark pasts. It is now the responsibility of Poland to step away from bans on free speech and to step towards a more thorough understanding and acceptance of its history. This begins with the acknowledgement of the nationality of the Polish Jews that perished in the Holocaust (90% of the nation’s Jewish population).

Tours of the Inconceivable: A Visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau

Walking through the main “Arbeit macht frei” gate of the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, in Poland was for me the most powerful moment of our study tour thus far. Even as we had approached the camp that morning, driving through the short stretch of trees and grass that separated the place of terror from the surrounding Polish neighborhoods, I had not known quite what to expect from our trip there. I was thinking about the context of Poland’s new Holocaust laws, which ban open discussion of Polish collaboration or complicity in the events that took place at concentration and death camps across the nation. After all our discussion about this new law in class, and our introduction to a Polish guide and translator, I was mindful of how our tour of Auschwitz might be effected by such a law, and on high alert for moments when the implications of the new rules might be made apparent in the words of our guide. However, when our scheduled tour began and we rounded the corner, entering the enclosure of barbed wire and witnessing the infamous black metal gate before me, this issue was momentarily set aside under the immediacy of what I was seeing. Here was the path that millions once tread as they endured the deep evil and oppression of the Nazi regime. The majority of individuals who walked through those gates lost any chance of returning to the world beyond the barbed wire. Walking across the same soil years later was a chilling experience that is difficult now for me to put into words.

Main gate at Auschwitz I


Although we were only in Poland for a few days, the sites we saw there, particularly at the former concentration and death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau, quickly became some of the most important and memorable. In the main camp, Auschwitz I, our class took a guided tour that led us through the barracks where prisoners had slept and washed, the courtyard where they had stood for hours during daily roll call, and the gallows and gas chambers where they had been murdered. In Birkenau, the adjoining death camp, we witnessed the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers abandoned by the Nazis in their retreat, and the memorial that has since been erected to commemorate the millions who lost their lives there during the years of the Holocaust. Seeing these sites firsthand was very poignant, adding new layers to my existing knowledge of the genocide. The Holocaust was no longer just a list of facts in my mind but fully materialized in front of me. I gained a more formidable understanding of the horrors of the concentration camps as I stared across former prisoner barracks now lined with photographs of the dead, and entered rooms filled with piles of dishes, shoes, suitcases, glasses, and human hair, remnants of those wiped out by the Nazis. The enormous loss of human life struck me as I envisioned the people behind those artifacts, the women, men and children who had carefully packed their suitcases full of personal valuables and boarded trains bound for death. After visiting the camps, these are images that I will forever hold in my mind.

In addition to the high emotion I experienced at Auschwitz, the visit also prompted me to consider the purpose of historical preservation and the ways that history can be effectively retold. Today, Auschwitz/Birkenau, once a mechanism of murder, is a popular tourist destination. Even with the structure of the guides, there were many who treated it as an attraction on the basest level. Before we had even entered the camp, I saw many individuals taking selfies and photographs of themselves by the gate and barbed wire. Later, despite a sign prompting silence, one school group spoke loudly and disrespectfully in the crematoriums. These instances of insensitivity made me reconsider the effectiveness of allowing public tours of a place like Auschwitz. Doing so seemed to open up the possibility of important sites being taken less seriously or being treated as bucket list checkmarks or photo ops for social media. This diminution takes away from the historical resonance and importance of the site, as well as creates a channel for disrespect toward an extremely sensitive topic.

Ruins of the crematorium at Birkenau

Despite these complications, my own experience at Auschwitz ultimately made me realize just how important it is to provide access to places like the concentration camps. Our guide emphasized the purpose of keeping Auschwitz open to the public as a way to preserve the truth of the past and carry its lessons forward toward a better future. The weight of this mission was something I felt deeply as entered the barracks at Auschwitz and walked alongside the railroad tracks at Birkenau. The narrative being told at the camps was highly controlled, aided by many photographs, statistics, and informative signs. In order to visit Auschwitz, it is also necessary to take a guided tour, a method that ensures that everyone is given access to the same structured narrative. This system helps to prompt tourists who come to Auschwitz to do so critically, engaging them in conversation guided by access to facts and information. There is an irrevocable chasm that can never fully be bridged between the Auschwitz prisoners who once were forced to be there and the millions who walk through the site today. Those who were not there cannot possibly understand fully what it was like to suffer the Holocaust. Visiting the camps, properly conducted, certainly makes the gap a little narrower, bringing into firmer reality the suffering that so many underwent during the war, and ensuring that the lessons of the tragedy endure well into the future.

Barbed wire surrounding the Auschwitz I camp


May 26th:

The Main Square in Kraków.

While I am looking towards going to Germany, I am glad that Kraków, Poland was a part of our program. Buying food and souvenirs in Kraków were not as blow to the wallet as it has been in previous cities. Kraków also provided many beautiful sites to see and adventures to have. On the first day, the whole Study Abroad group went the Main Square, or Rynek Główny, where we all decided to break into smaller groups to eat dinner. Many of us tried a well-known Central and Eastern European cuisine called pierogi. The Square itself is one the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Despite the food and the man-made structures, these are not the main reasons why that I am glad we went to Kraków. The main reason is a serious one and should be treated as such.

As students, we are always taught certain topics in our history classes and to analyze the consequences of these topics. However, I believe being in a location of such historical significance can further enhance a student’s understanding on a topic. Physically being at the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps made me have a sobering experience about the Holocaust. However, it did leave me with some questions that irked me. We know the despicable political party that was the National Socialist, how they came into power, and with Hitler, enacted policies that discriminated against anti-Semitic and other groups in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territories. These policies were based on their twisted Aryan supremacy ideology and in 1941 culminated in the Holocaust; a horrific genocide in which around two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe, along with the Roma people, people with disabilities, and other groups, were persecuted, sent to concentration camps, and murdered. Though we walked through the camps, and saw them with our own eyes, it was hard for me to imagine how one human would let another go through unspeakable atrocities. How would anyone live with themselves after personally witnessing such death and destruction? And how could they come back to the camps day after day?

Crematoria II in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

As the Soviet Red Army approached Poland in November 1944, the SS scrambled to remove any evidence of the atrocities committed at the Auschwitz concentration camps. They destroyed many written documents, plundered goods stolen from the prisoners, and demolished many of the camps’ buildings. Among these buildings were crematories II and III in Birkenau. They have remained untouched ever since and were shown to us in our guided tour. Looking back at it, I am glad we got to experience the camps because they serve as a reminder to us and future generations of the atrocities that happened there and give us a responsibility to ensure such atrocities on this scale is not repeated.

Thank you for reading this blog. Do widzenia.

A Lingering History

Even though our time in Poland was short, I absolutely fell in love with the city of Krakow. Krakow is a hub for the arts as well as academia, and is a true cultural center in Poland. It has a rich history dating back thousands of years with traditions that have persisted for centuries. Part of Poland’s history has to do with its involvement in World War II. For many Poles, this is a history that they have yet to come to terms with.

Polish history in World War II plays a large role in the contemporary issues surrounding Poland today. Recently, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Many right-wing groups have been pushing back against talk about Polish complicity in the Holocaust ever since the end of the war. This law has become very controversial because it is seen as a Polish attempt to “rewrite history.” One of the major points in the bill that was passed is the banning of reference to Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, as “Polish death camps.” When we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on May 24, the importance of what the camps are called seemed to be the most notable issue. Before we even entered the camp, our tour guide made a point to tell us that UNESCO had changed the name of the Camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp. While changing the name to reflect those who ran the camp seems an innocent measure, changing the name affirms the Polish government in their measures to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It removes the agency of the Poles that lived in the surrounding areas and even worked inside the camp, yet did nothing to help those inside or stop the atrocities from occurring.

This controversial bill passed by the Polish government caused an uproar in the international community, but from our time in Poland, its effects were not as noticeable as I thought they would be. Besides the insistence on calling Auschwitz-Birkenau a Nazi German Camp, the effects of this new bill were not really visible in the day-to-day life we witnessed in Krakow. I expected a bill as divisive as this to produce a visible outcry that we would witness during our time in Poland. The lack of voices publicly speaking out against this issue speaks to the character of Poland as a nation, and their inability to fully deal with their role in the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II, Poland has tiptoed around their own complicity in the Nazi crimes committed in occupied Poland. The silence from the public surrounding this issue further shows how the Poles have not yet been able to accept and deal with their own history.

A Stark Reminder

After traversing the cities of Bayeux and Paris in France, The Ohio State World War II program travelled to Kraków, Poland. The purpose of our expedition to Kraków was to further explore the Holocaust with Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where at least 1.3 million people were systematically murdered, being an important stop. Poland recently passed a bill that outlaws blaming Poland for complicity in any crimes during the Holocaust with varying penalties based on the severity of the condemnation. I was eager to witness how the passing of the law shaped my experiences in Kraków.

Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work sets you free”, sadistically stretches across the entrance to Auschwitz 1, the section of Auschwitz that served as a labor site. For prisoners, the only freedom from Nazi terror was in death through labor or murder. Worn brick barracks lined each side of the uneven dirt streets. There was an immediate, overwhelming presence of sadness upon entering the gates of Auschwitz. We toured several of the barracks, seeing prisoner’s belongings and representations of living conditions. One of the most powerful moments was walking down a narrow hallway filled with prisoner photos taken upon their arrival to camp. The sense of fear and hopelessness was palpable from their gazes. Towards the end of the hallway, shoes taken from prisoners filled glass cases. Seeing the large quantity of shoes and knowing each pair represented a person was a jarring reminder of the death and inhumanity at Auschwitz.

In addition to visiting Auschwitz 1, we went to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the location of the infamous railroad station where prisoners were selected for labor or death by gassing upon arriving to Auschwitz. There is an example of a train car in the spot where selection occurred along with an image of a selection taking place. It is eerie to stand in the same location where someone’s fate was determined with a point of a finger. As we walked the grounds, we followed the same path as those who were condemned to death in the gas chambers. It was difficult to imagine human beings being ruthlessly herded to their deaths. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis once the outcome of the war was determined in an effort to erase any evidence of these horrific war crimes. The remains rest in their same state as a reminder to the atrocities at Auschwitz.

I did not see the Polish law altering my experience in Poland. The exhibits at Auschwitz made clear that the atrocities occurred at the hands of the Nazis and Poland was not responsible, but I would imagine this has been the case for years. Our tour guide at Auschwitz did not hide any history but did reiterate that Auschwitz was a German death camp built for German use. The murder at Auschwitz was directed at Jews but I detected a Polish narrative reminding visitors that Poles were affected too. The systematic dehumanization and murder that occurred during the Holocaust must never be forgotten so history is not repeated.

Collective Responsibility

Poland was home to 457 concentration camps during World War II. These camps were responsible for killing millions of people whom the Nazi regime thought to be inferior to their Aryan race. In the past, historians have called these camps “Polish death camps.” However, on February 6, 2018 the President of Poland signed a law to prohibit the use of the term “Polish Death camps.” When I heard this news earlier in the spring semester, I wondered what the intentions of such a law are that so blatantly changes history. My interactions with our tour guide at Auschwitz as well as walking around Krakow showed me that is just what the Polish government is trying to do: change history.

On our way to Auschwitz our guide told us that we have to remember that Poland was occupied during the war, and that the camps were German. While I see her point, it is hard to understand how an entire country turned their heads as they saw millions of people entering their country. She also discussed the idea of “collective responsibility,” that Everyone around the world needs to take responsibility for the atrocities the Nazis committed. I think this goes directly against what she said regarding the occupation of Poland during the war, as well as the government’s stance on Polish Death Camps. I think the world has to take responsibility, but then so does Poland. The country can not have it both ways.

At Auschwitz, we had time to ask our guide some questions. A classmate asked what knowledge the Polish people had about the camps, finishing the question with “did Poles ever work here?” The answer shocked me. She told us that the Poles knew about camps, Auschwitz specifically in this case. What shocked me even more was that the Polish people worked at Auschwitz. This answer goes against what the Polish Government is saying about the death camps in Poland. Poland has the strong stance that Nazi Germany was the group responsible for the death of millions, but there is record of Polish people helping in the process. The Polish people helped to murder 1.1 million people at Auschwitz. The Polish people were complicit and collaborators with the Nazis, proving that these should be called Polish Death camps.

Polish people carried out horrific acts against their Jewish neighbors. On July 10, 1941, an estimated 340 Polish Jews were killed in the town of Jedwabne. Their murders were carried out by 40 of their Polish neighbors.  Poles killed towns of Jews, and the country now is trying to sweep that under the rug by saying the Germans forced them. However, we learned that this was not the case. However, the Nazi takeover of Poland gave the Poles the platform to kill rather than forcing them to. The Polish people were not forced to kill their neighbors; they did it on their own.

After we left Auschwitz, I wasn’t sure if the views our tour guide expressed were her own or if others in the country believed as she did. Then, on my way to dinner one night, I saw a flyer in a storefront window (shown below) reminded the viewer that concentration camps were Nazi German. I was shocked to see the flyer and realized the government is forcing people to believe this false narrative they have created. The poster contained an internet address(Germandeathcamps.org). The website rehearses the government narrative that the Nazis ran the camps and forced Poles to be complicit.

The poster preaching Nazi death camps. I saw this in the town square in Krakow, Poland.

History is necessary to ensure that events don’t repeat themselves. Poland is taking a black mark out of their history book and shredding it. Kids in Poland will grow up learning that their country was not involved in the Holocaust. Poland needs to take responsibility for their role in death camps. The Polish government should be helping to educate about the Holocaust instead of altering their story. Poland, you preach collective responsibility, now own it.

I Didn’t Have To Imagine

As a Jew, an American, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I understood that Poland, and more specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, would be an incredibly difficult experience in the course of this trip. I couldn’t predict how I would react, but having visited the Dachau concentration camp on a trip in high school, I assumed I would be similarly saddened and mournful. However, the emotions at the German camp came through clearly and more digestible than at Auschwitz. I felt a wave of complicated emotions and an indescribable frustration while visiting the camp where over one million prisoners, mostly Jews, were killed.

Viewing this site visit with hindsight, I am finding it surprisingly difficult to group this visit in with the rest of our itinerary. Our trip as a whole has been incredibly academically motivated and informative about many points in the war’s trajectory, but I don’t believe this site quite fits in with that description. I understand the visit’s importance to establish memory and by no means would I advocate for eliminating it; but in comparing the camp to the Schindler Museum, I personally did not wish to view Auschwitz as another opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hoped to go through the site on my own terms and feel whatever came over me and this was not the case. The site is widely presented as a museum, rather than a memorial or a place of mourning and the required guide and audio tour made it difficult to have a personalized experience. The presentation of the site only furthered the touristy and attraction-like feeling I was left with.

While we were walking through the camp, the main point that prompted my frustration was a somewhat predictable one – the wealth of indescribable inhumanity the camp reeked of. The entire site lacks compassion or sympathy; survival was based on luck and those sent to the camp were stripped of their status as a human being long before their arrival. There have been centuries of historians and psychologists whose job is to analyze the complacency and trajectory of how the Holocaust came to be. But as I was standing within the gates of the camp, I was continuously reminded of how incomprehensible the camps are on an individual level. We walked through rooms of shoes, of suitcases, of human hair and our guide told us to “imagine an individual occupying that space,” but those responsible for keeping the camps running and efficient did not have to imagine. And for me, I didn’t have to create a fictional character; I thought of my grandmother. I thought of how guards looked mothers and fathers and children in the eye and sent them to their death every day.

I have studied the Holocaust in school and my Jewish learning practically every year since I can remember and never had this thought until walking through Auschwitz. The Nazi Party were not responsible for committing the daily atrocities, individuals were. Individuals who in some capacity could have objected and prevented this from occurring. It’s easy to forget that even the most grandiose operations such as the Holocaust, are on a fundamental level, singular individuals making choices.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” — Elie Wiesel



A Jew Visiting Auschwitz

            Even before I set foot in Poland I felt wary. While on the flight to Krakow, I knew the very next day we’d be going to Auschwitz. As a Jew and as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors I knew it was important to visit that cruel place, but I was faced with this overwhelming feeling that I did not want to go. I wanted to have already gone, to have already visited. I did not want to visit the place where my great-grandparents were murdered and my grandparents subjected to extreme suffering. I told my grandmother that I was visiting, and she said when she visited she went to the place she and her sister separated from their parents and grandparents. She told them would come back, that she did not forget them. I did not want to visit, but I wanted to tell my great-grandparents that I had not forgotten them, and I wanted to visit the only semblance of their gravesite that I have.

            One aspect of Auschwitz that struck me was that very notion of a gravesite. We had come to Krakow after our visit to Paris, which was right after our stop in Bayeux. I was honored to pay my respects to the soldiers who so bravely fought for our freedom and was happy to see the cemeteries being so well kept to honor the fallen. These well-kept cemeteries, however, provided a stark contrast for me when compared with Auschwitz. There is no cemetery for my great-grandparents or their parents, no graves with their names on it that I can place a stone upon. Auschwitz is the closest thing I have to their graves, and it felt odd to have to be allowedto enter. Why would I need to request entry to a place my family had tried so desperately to escape for so long? Why would I want to? These thoughts ran through my mind as I entered the concentration camp, and as I walked around I could not help but cry. My grandmother told me before I went that she was sorry I had to visit the cruelest place on earth. To stare up at buildings and barbed wire and to see the very sites of such cruelty took the breath out of me.

            It also felt odd to be visiting with a group of mostly non-Jews. While it is important for all people to learn as much as they can of the genocide of European Jews, the tour guide seemed to word her tour for those who have less of a direct connection to the victims. As we passed the many shoes in glass cases, for example, our guide told us to imagine a person’s feet in those shoes, to humanize them and allow one to picture the humanity destroyed in Auschwitz. I, however, did not need to be reminded that the shoes belonged to people. I did not need to be reminded that we were visiting the camp to commemorate the destruction of humanity, of life. When I saw those shoes I thought of my grandmother and great-aunt, I thought of my great-grandparents. I did not need to be told to think of them. It felt as though the guide was used to talking to groups of schoolchildren who did not know why they were there, so she had to guide them into sympathy. I did not need that. Rather, I needed silence and the chance to walk around, instead of being herded along each section.

            In any case, visiting Auschwitz was an important opportunity that I am so grateful for and that I will never forget.


My great-grandfather, Sándor/Zangvil Szász


My great-grandmother, Mariska/Margit Szász

There is Nothing to be Proud Of

There is Nothing to be Proud Of

On our first day in Krakow, we toured two of the three main camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. That was neither a happy nor a fun day, but it was one of which I am glad to have been a part of. We stood and toured through barracks, offices, and a gas chamber, all which existed solely to aide in the killing of over one million people, the majority being Hungarian Jews. Today, these same facilities are a museum to teach about the atrocities committed there, and to warn against their recurrence.

It was surreal to walk between the offices at Auschwitz-1 and to see an I-beam gallow on your left with a kitchen right behind it. Auschwitz-Birkenau existed, only seventy-three years ago, as a death factory. Factories produce goods and farms produce food, but at Auschwitz, thousands of SS soldiers worked to produce death, with any manufactured goods, stolen possessions, or profit,  as the byproduct. It was bizarre to see such a place in today’s world, where the only goal was to eradicate as many other human lives as efficiently as possible. Such a place does not need to exist.

I was further confused while looking at where the Final Solution was carried out, and because that experience makes it even more inconceivable that people still choose to identify with Nazi ideology today. I saw many artifacts of destruction, more than I could list, at Auschwitz but not a single one could have helped me understand why there are such people as “Neo-Nazis.” Nothing I saw could explain why people around the world could know that a place like Auschwitz exists and still choose to rally or march in its favor.

Auschwitz was so moving because it was so personal. The tour took our group passed the long hallways full of confiscated shoes, luggage, and cookware; the Jews were told they would be resettled, so many brought home goods to start a new life. It was easy to compare a piece of myself to all of those things, whether it was the shoes that I was walking in, the luggage that I purchased for this trip, or the plates that I bought to furnish my first apartment. What’s more, buying new shoes and moving out are nearly universal experiences, which anyone could quickly identify with. The Auschwitz museum made me feel the weight of every one of those 1.2 million lives, and their experiences, which were snuffed out for hate’s sake.

Putting myself in the victims’ shoes made it even more incomprehensible to consider that some of these Neonazis are people I am also supposed to identify with. Nearly a year ago, protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, the “Unite the Right Rally” brought Nazi imagery and ideology out in full force in the American South. American men, my age or a little older, marched with tiki-torchers in the night, shouting Nazi slogans like “blood and soil,” and “the Jews will not replace us.” These people, my compatriots, proudly waved swastika flags and used the Nazi salute to protest some perceived threat to white nationalism, which frankly disgusts me.

Neonazism, white nationalism, and racial extremism have always been confusing to me, but they never offended me until touring Auschwitz. I realized that the holocaust had always been at a distance, in movies or textbooks, which kept me from truly understanding what it meant to be a Nazi supporter. I have seen the remnants of some of humanity’s worst acts against itself. I have seen the torture cells, and execution cells in Auschwitz 1, and the wood plank bunks where up to 10 emaciated bodies were forced into a space built for four in Birkenau. I have seen the scratches on the walls of the gas chamber gouged out by dying Jews whose last few minutes on this Earth were sheer terror. These are remnants of the Nazis; memorials to the men, women, and children who suffered, for no fault of their own, at the hands of truly hateful men. The holocaust produced only death and terror, nothing productive or to be proud of. I do not understand why, while these remnants exist, Neonazis exist, because there is nothing productive, or to be proud of, there.