Interpretations from I to Us

By Matthew Bonner

We arrived in Berlin, Germany on May 24th after a day-long charter bus ride from Krakow. While in Berlin, we visited numerous museums, but two that stood out the most were the Topography of Terror and German Resistance Memorial Center. The Topography of Terror is located on the site of the previous SS and Gestapo headquarters. The museum is at a cross section of Berlin’s history, as a portion of the Berlin Wall is still standing in the complex along with recently excavated SS underground torture chambers. The German Resistance Memorial Center is a museum dedicated to German resistance in all forms. The center is located on the site where members of the failed July 20 plot that attempted to assassinate Hitler were executed.

Both museums are examples of the theme we discussed in class of the German struggle with the reality of mass support for the Nazis. The museums are unique compared to other countries’ museums because they focus on the individual, rather than the collective. The Topography of Terror is one of the only museums that focused on the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of Nazi persecution. The exhibits highlight how individual German Nazis were supporters of the Third Reich’s actions. One of the most shocking and disturbing takeaways from the museum was the human element of perpetrators, as a photo revealed SS men and women having a fun time on a sunny afternoon only a short distance away from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Topography of Terror exhibit depicting SS men and women at a retreat 30 km south of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In the German Resistance Memorial Center the focus was again on the individual, taking us through different assassination attempts and resistance by Christian Churches, networks of Communists, and Social Democrat groups. Though it is overwhelming to read about all the different resistance movements and individuals active in opposing the Hitler regime, the museum does not disguise that a majority of Germans supported the Nazi Party and that there was never an effective large scale resistance movement mobilized. The two museums in Germany both highlight individual stories and actions in an attempt to come to terms with the actions of a whole country and “the resistance that never was”.

A wall showcasing the individuals behind resistance efforts at the German Resistance Memorial Center.

This depiction and focus on the individual from Germany is in direct contrast to the museums we visited in Krakow, Poland. Poland largely interprets the war and its aftermath as a claim to national innocence and focused on how the war affected the unified people of Poland. Specifically, the Schindler Museum walked us through the war’s impact on both Poland and the city of Krakow. We were guided by a tour guide from Krakow, who added an extra level of insight through her Polish perspective. For example, she constantly mentioned how the war was a war against all Poles and described how Jews had been assimilated into Polish society for centuries. In addition, one of her main themes throughout the tour was that there are always both good and bad people in a society as a way to explain many of the atrocities that occurred in the country under occupation. In the museum, the exhibits largely focused on the Polish people, instead of individuals and specific populations. Oskar Schindler himself was only allotted two rooms in the museum to describe his contribution, with the focus instead on the Polish experience during the war as one collective memory.

Recreation of Oskar Schindler’s office where he worked to save 1,200 Jews from concentration camps.

Both the individual and collective interpretations can be harmful for a society post-war. Many German museums highlight the individual in an attempt to showcase the heroes during a horrible time in its history. However, other museums vitally depict how the German people were largely complicit in the Nazi rise to power. In contrast, Poland focuses on the collective – often washing out individual stories – with the claim that the war was terrible for everyone. This collective memory fails to acknowledge the stories of specific populations in Poland, such as Jews, that had drastically different experiences in the war. Ultimately, this duality is critical to understand because the best way to come to terms with the war is through a combination of both the individual and collective perspectives. History and people are not clearly defined as good and bad or black and white, and only through a comprehensive and inclusive look at the past can we begin to fully understand World War II and its impact.

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.

Incomprehensibility in History

The entrance sign of Auschwitz I (Taken by Ian Mintz)

Pictured is just a small segment of the thousands of shoes left behind by victims of Auschwitz (Taken by Ian Mintz)

Stepping foot into the Auschwitz I complex, the original part of the notorious death camp, I was left chilled by the seeming inoffensiveness of the buildings in front of me. The metal sign hanging above the grounds reading “Work Sets You Free” in German rings hollow only because history has taught me the utter falsity and depravity inherent in its message. However, despite knowing that Auschwitz is the site of the single largest mass murder, I was surprised to find myself incapable of visualizing the past evils. Ahead were simply rows of brick buildings, washed of their original purpose. I realized my view was not far removed from that of the victims arriving on site. To them, these buildings appeared to be nothing but humdrum working and housing quarters. Without historical hindsight, they seem no different.

Once I actually entered the quarters, the mounds of human relics taken from the fallen victims jarred me. Baby shoes, hair, kitchenware, filled the rooms— the final and most tangible symbol of the lives lost. Such sights provoked in me emotion that was both unregulated and overwhelming. Trying to fully picture the camp 70 plus years after its use— removed of both its criminals and victims— felt impossible. The personal items provided the clearest exposure to the genocide, and yet they offered an inadequate glimpse. No relic, movie, or building replica could transport one back to the unfathomable realities of Auschwitz— a fact that left me simultaneously heartbroken and relieved.

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.

Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau

As soon as I stepped foot on the streets of Krakow’s old town, I knew that my blog post about the city would be conflicted. Krakow is beautiful and is one of the only parts of Poland that was able to retain some of its pre-World War II historical architecture. There were shops all throughout the main square selling, not just kitschy touristy items, but jewelry and some incredibly comfy looking scarves that I kind of regret not buying. The exchange rate between US dollars and Polish zloty makes it so that you can buy huge amounts of food for amazing prices. I ate my fair share of pierogis during our limited time in Krakow, and I am sure that once I get home I will find the frozen grocery store ones to be lacking. Overall, I had some of the most fun of the trip so far in Poland, so I want to be mindful in balancing that with a sensitivity for the most important reason we were there: Auschwitz.

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Some art on the streets of Krakow


The Schindler museum was a fitting precursor to the experience. It is built in Oskar Schindler’s original factory and features exhibits dedicated to his efforts to save 1200 Jews, as well as a general history of the Nazi occupation of Poland. The museum offered a welcome contrast to the many others we had visited in France as it presented history more from a social than military perspective. The Schindler Museum’s design was considerably effective in giving the viewer some idea of the environments that the Polish people had been forced to inhabit. The room that covered the initial Nazi invasion was filled with swastika insignias; the tiles on the floor were even swastika-shaped. This atmosphere served to reinforce how completely the Nazis took over Poland and turned it into an unrecognizable place. Most impacting to me, however, was the exhibit dedicated to the ghettoes. It took you through a dimly lit hallway, and mounted on the wall were written personal accounts from people who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto. It was deeply moving to read descriptions from children as young as five-years-old who had seen their loved ones be killed right in front of them. It was even more devastating to realize that most of those Jewish people would have later been killed in death camps. It is those personal touches that help me to fathom such massive devastation on a smaller scale.

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Looking through the barbed wire at Birkenau

Without a doubt, touring Auschwitz was a deeply moving and important experience. The exhibit that affected me the most emotionally was the room filled with 70,000 shoes belonging to the men, women, and children who had been killed at the camp. Most of them were practical leather, but some were decorative heels, and far too many looked as though they could have belonged to toddler-aged children. Witnessing that sheer scale and looking at the separate types of shoes drove home that every person killed during the Holocaust was a real human being. Even worse was the realization that those shoes belonged to only a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million individuals killed at Auschwitz. Another powerful experience was walking through the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium. It was hard to fathom that so many people had lost their lives in such a relatively small room. The last thing that helped to drive home the reality of the Holocaust was walking along the train tracks at Birkenau toward the remnants of the burnt down gas chambers. It felt surreal to stand in the spot where thousands of Jews were sentenced to death after disembarking from their crowded train cars, especially because I had previously seen so many photographs of it happening. Still, I expected to be more emotionally affected by the tour of Auschwitz. I think a large part of the problem was our tour guide. She was effective in conveying facts and statistics, but she seemed too rehearsed. There was a lack of emotion in her delivery that made it hard for me to connect the sites I was seeing to the atrocities that had been committed there in the past. Because of this, I appreciated Jon and Nicole’s site reports. Hearing the story of Primo Levy personalized the experience of being imprisoned at Auschwitz more than our tour guide was able to. His closing words also served as an important reminder that there is no bright side to the Holocaust and that we should not disrespect its victims by trying to search for a happy ending.

Never Again

We began our next leg of the trip with a flight from Paris, a connection in Brussels, and finally landing in Poland on May 22nd. I spent most of my time exploring the city of Krakow with Katie and Beau, including visits to the Wawel Castle, St. Mary’s Church, and local market. We were largely guided by a list provided to Katie by her father, who spent his early life in Krakow. Wawel Castle was built for King Casimir III the Great and is built in the styles of medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods of architecture. It is one of the most historically and culturally significant sites in Poland and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built to house the kings of Poland, it now contains an art museum. We made several stops to the market at the city center which once played a more vital role in the city but now houses souvenir goods. Polish Eagles and amber jewelry, apparently quite popular with the locals, were incredibly popular. We paid a visit to Saint Mary’s Church in the Main Market Square (after Katie purchased a shirt to cover her bare shoulders) to see the gothic architecture and its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. Every hour, a trumpet is played from the tower, with the tune breaking of mid-stream to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. It was founded by King Casimir III the Great and completed in 1347. The main group stop aside from our final day was the Schindler Museum, which examined not only World War II but its origins and aftermath. This was a different perspective that what I’ve seen thus far. The material on Oskar Schindler’s aid to the Poles who worked in his factory was only a small piece of an exhibit that moved through the war through different rooms set up to detail the experiences of different population groups throughout the war. Unlike the other countries we’ve visited, the war could not be neatly bookended in Poland. The destruction of the war was followed by a forty-year Soviet occupation of sorts. In the present day, the Polish people are still developing a new national identity through museums like this.

Our final day in Poland was spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz I is primarily a museum, with displays in several of the barracks and some preserved to provide a sense of daily life for inmates and guards. Auschwitz II Birkenau is what remains of much of the camp and purpose-built for the Final Solution. It is what the average person imagines when thinking of what a concentration camp might look like. It is a place that can be visited, the history can be learned, and attempts can be made to imagine it, but I found it to be beyond comprehension. I was struck by my lack of emotion walking through the camp, as I had anticipated to be shaken by my visit. Even now, I have yet to process my feelings completely. I’ve found that I’ve become frustrated with my reaction (or lack thereof), but it seems that my experience was not unique. After discussing this with other students on the trip, I’ve found that many people feel the same as I do. There is a disconnect of the history from the location in my mind, as though it was a story I’d read and not atrocities tied to a location and committed by other men and women. Thus far, I’ve settled on the idea of the camp as a stark reminder of history that cannot be denied. The camp is a monument to the importance of tolerance and it stands to remind people that never again can a megalomaniacal leader be allowed to coopt a nation’s power and, in a genocidal rage, attempt to eliminate a population group. Despite its power, it is disheartening to know that genocides have continued to occur across the world without regard for this lesson.

The Longest Walk

Poland was the next country on our list. We were headed to Krakow to visit Auschwitz, one of the locations I was most interested in visiting on this study abroad trip. I was very apprehensive about going to Auschwitz, though. How does one correctly react to walking the very steps of a murdered human? That is exactly what we did in Auschwitz on the tour. At Auschwitz II- Birkenau, the tour guide had us walk the very steps that thousands of victims had done before us.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

It started at the railroad that led into the camp. It was so hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people had been brought through that very gate by rail car. We then stopped in front of an actual rail car that was used during the Holocaust to transport Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Our tour guide explained the selection process of who would live and who would die. It was so hard to watch as he physically pointed at the areas that the selected would stand. We walked the path that those selected to die would walk. I could not help but to stare at the ground as we walked. It seemed impossible for me to grasp that exactly where I was walking, a girl the same age as me had probably done the same thing. It made me feel ill. During the final part of our journey, we walked through the actual gate doors that led to the crematorium. It felt surreal knowing all the death that surrounded me on those cursed grounds.

Inside one of the huts.

Inside one of the huts at Auschwitz II- Birkenau. The men, women, and children who were to be sent to the crematorium stayed here.

The whole day of walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau left my chest feeling heavy. I could not believe all that I had actually witnessed. It was one thing to read about this place in historical fiction and nonfiction books. It was entirely different to actually walk into an old crematorium and see the furnaces, or walk into a brick building full of wooden shelves that people slept on until they died. Everywhere I walked I saw death and destruction, the consequences of pure evil. Walking through the labor/death camp felt like the longest journey I had ever taken, as each step weighed my heart down more and more. It was a day I will never forget and an experience that will stay with me forever.

The day of this trip I was faced with another interesting predicament. It was my 21st birthday. I was again faced with a challenging question: how do I celebrate my 21st birthday on the day that I visited the location where so many were murdered? I felt guilty having any sort of excitement for that day. I approached the situation the best way I knew. I accepted birthday wishes with a smile, but while at the camp I pushed the memory of my birthday out of my mind completely. It felt disrespectful to be happy about anything in such a morbid place.

Once we left Auschwitz II- Birkenau, I took the bus ride back to the hotel as a debriefing time. It was a way for me to transition to a celebratory mood without feeling selfish or conceited. That night I enjoyed my time in Krakow, walking around the town square and hanging out with my friends. I would occasionally think back on the day and remember all that I had seen. Although it would be a very sobering memory, I looked upon my current joy as a way that I could honor those who lost their lives. Remembering and honoring them is right, but it does not need to consume the life I have been given. I am honored to say that I went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau on my birthday. It is important to celebrate life as well as mourn death.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.

What is “Evil”?

Hoess Home

The former home of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, located just feet away from Auschwitz I and within view of the first experimental gas chamber and crematoria

On Wednesday, our group toured the site of the former Nazi labor and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, located about an hour outside the Polish city of Kraków.  During the war, the site saw the murder of around 1.2 million people – most of them Jews.  I didn’t know what to expect when our group first entered Auschwitz.  Despite the ominous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” gate and barbed wire fences, the camp seemed rather unimposing; while large in size, the buildings and ruins gave me little sense of the horror that occurred there.  What did affect me, however, was seeing the personal belongings robbed from the victims – shoes, eyeglasses, kitchenware, and hair – there was an entire room with hair shaved from the heads of the prisoners.  I had known beforehand I would be seeing these things, but it was still a shocking experience.  I expected I might feel grief, but I didn’t feel this at all.  Instead, I felt angry.


The unloading ramp at Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of arriving transports were “selected” for labor in the labor camp or for immediate death in the gas chambers

People talk about the impersonality of the killing, but this clearly was not the case.  Someone had to unload the deported Jews from the trains.  Someone had to select who went to the labor camp and who went to the gas chambers.  Someone had to guide the deportees to their execution sites. And someone had to dump the Zyklon B into the gas chambers.  There is nothing impersonal about this.  Seeing the piles of hair (at least for me) was the most upsetting aspect of the site.  The simple task of cutting the hair from the individual heads of murdered prisoners or forced laborers at a work camp seems incomprehensible.  The first word that comes to mind is “evil,” but this description is too easy.

The word “evil” conjures up images of malice and sadism, of monsters who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on others.  It is an absolute term.  “Evil” gives us clear monsters, people we can easily point to and blame.  Rudolf Höss was one such monster. During his time as commandant of Auschwitz, Höss personally oversaw the camp’s expansion from a labor camp into a death camp, as well as the first experimental gassings.  He lived at a villa with his wife and family, just feet away from the camp and within viewing distance of the original gas chamber and crematoria.  Focusing on monsters like Höss, however, lets others off the hook.


Canisters of Zyklon B on display at Auschwitz I

Our guide at Auschwitz briefly spoke about the guards and bureaucrats working at Auschwitz who were not directly involved in the selections and gassings, and in particular, he mentioned the case of Oskar Gröning – a former SS guard at Auschwitz who was convicted last year of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.  Gröning worked as a bank clerk before the war and joined the Waffen-SS after the German victories in Poland and France.  Gröning worked various clerical jobs before being sent to Auschwitz.  There, he continued his clerical work, taking inventory of the various items and currencies stolen from arriving Jews.  Gröning never directly took part in the killing process, which, for him, made it easy to get cozy with work at the camp.

In a 2004 interview with historian Laurence Rees, Gröning expressed guilt for his actions during the war, but explained that he “drew a line between those who were directly involved in the killing and those who were not directly involved.”  The former SS officer never invoked the “I was just following orders” defense.  Instead, he referred to the power that Nazi propaganda had had on his thinking.  As he explained, he continued to work at Auschwitz (even after personally witnessing a gassing) not because he was ordered to, but because he genuinely believed that the Nazi extermination program was “right” – that by aiding in the destruction of Germany’s enemies (the Jews) he could protect his family back home and do his part in the war effort.  In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Rees wrote: “the essential—almost frightening—point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet.”

Hannah Arendt, a famous German political theorist, termed this frightening realization the “banality of evil.” The crimes of the Holocaust did not occur because of Germans’ will to do evil and commit murder – evil intentions are not always required for evil actions to take place.  Most Holocaust perpetrators became involved in the genocide not because of their desire to kill, but because of their simple failure to recognize the humanity of other human beings and to identify the moral and human dimensions of what they were doing.  When we fail to recognize the humanity of others, it becomes impossible for us to understand their suffering, opening the door for any number of horrors and crimes to be committed.  The Jews at Auschwitz were not treated as human beings, but as raw materials.  The room full of hair at Auschwitz displayed this point quite literally.  The hair of prisoners was sewn into various products for use back in Germany.


The main entrance to the Schindler Factory in Kraków, where around 1,200 Jews were saved from death by Oskar Schindler. Today, the former factory houses a museum and is a growing tourist attraction, largely thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List

Last February, Timothy Snyder, another prominent Holocaust historian, came to Ohio State’s campus to speak about his book Black Earth.  In the book, Snyder contrasts Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” with his own theory of the “banality of good.”  Despite widespread collaboration with the Nazis during the war, there were still thousands of people throughout Europe who courageously acted to help individual Jews escape death, even though, if caught, they could be subjected to punishment or death from the Germans.  These people were certainly not all saints, but they acted out of a basic sense of decency; even in the horror of war, they still managed to recognize the humanity of others.

Von Galen

A portrait of Bishop Clemens August von Galen at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. As the Bishop of Münster, von Galen had a large audience, and his sermons against the T4 program caused a large public backlash against the Nazis’ euthanasia policy

During our group’s trip to Poland, we encountered another Oskar: Oskar Schindler.  Unlike Oskar Gröning, Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who rescued around 1,200 Jews during the war.  After the invasion of Poland in 1939, he opened up business at an enamelware factory in Kraków, where he exploited the slave labor of Jews for profit.  Despite this fact, Schindler later took up resistance against the murder of Jews, personally protecting his Jewish workers from deportation and extermination – usually by bribing high-ranking officials and at great risk to himself (he was arrested more than once).  Why? What did Schindler have to gain by saving these Jews?  While it is hard to say what the turning point for Schindler may have been, his actions almost certainly arose from his recognition of the humanity of the Jews he was saving from death.

Schindler was not alone.  In our class with Professor Davidson, we discussed the T4 euthanasia program, which implemented the mercy-killing of thousands of mentally ill and physically disabled men, women, and children.  Unlike in the case of the Holocaust against the Jews, there had been widespread outcry in Germany against the T4 program, thanks largely to the sermons of a Catholic bishop in Münster.  What examples like these show is that there were alternatives for Germans (and Europeans at large).  It was possible for people to resist the Nazis, to recognize the humanity in others deemed “unworthy of life.”

Happy Nazis

Auschwitz camp personnel enjoying a weekend retreat in the summer of 1944. Just a few miles away from where this photo was taken, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was taking place (Photo taken from USHMM)

When we think of evil, we think of monsters like Adolf Hitler or Rudolf Höss, but these monsters are the exception.  In writing this blog, I thought back to a photo album on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The photographs depict Auschwitz personnel – ordinary people like Oskar Gröning – enjoying a weekend retreat near the camp.  The smiling and laughing Germans in these photographs aren’t monsters – they aren’t demons with glowing red eyes and horns growing out of their heads – they are simply normal people enjoying a warm weekend retreat.  That is what I find most terrifying about the Holocaust: not the idea that the Nazis were a special kind of evil, but the realization that ordinary, every-day people are capable of evil.

Tears for the Victims

Train entrance into Auschwitz from within the camp.

Entrance into Auschwitz from within the camp.

No words can describe it. Walking the same path as hundreds of thousands of Jews who were sent to their deaths, I felt an eerie calm. Auschwitz is the most notorious concentration camp from World War II, with over a million people systematically eliminated within its electrified fences. I’ve seen people break down in tears just hearing about the atrocities that occurred in this place, but to stand where thousands had before me waiting for death, is a completely different experience. Of the three camps that were in Auschwitz, I had the opportunity to visit two of them: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

Standing before the gates of Auschwitz I, I see the infamous words “Arbeit macht frei,” Work makes you free. The irony of the phrase is sickening. As I went through the brick buildings

The words "Arbeit Macht Frei" above the gates into Auschwtiz I

The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the gates into Auschwtiz I

that lined the paths, I realized that I couldn’t even begin to imagine what went on here. Looking at thousands of shoes and realizing each shoe belonged to someone who has long since perished would get to any sensible human, but seeing a room with literally several tons of hair, that was practically ripped out of the heads of innocent people, left me speechless. Belongings that were taken from people are piled up in rooms in building after building. If that wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, walking through Block 11, where they tortured Jews, will be. Claustrophobic spaces, where dozens of Jews suffocated and starved to death, and even the incinerator has been preserved so visitors can get an idea just how inhumane the Nazis’ methods were. Sad as it was, this camp was the smallest of the three and focused mostly on experimentation instead of extermination.

After a short drive from Auschwitz I, lies the largest camp within the complex: Auschwitz II Birkenau. Driving in, I saw the very arches where trains went into the camp. Looking around, there were countless chimneys and remains of

Ruins of Incinerator II

Ruins of Incinerator II

what was once the wooden structures that housed thousands of prisoners. As I looked around, I was informed that I was standing in the very place where people saw their families for the last time. I crossed the tracks that brought the trains right into the camp and walked the very path of those who had been sentenced to death straight towards the ruins of Incinerators II and III. Despite their efforts, the Nazis were unsuccessful in destroying all the evidence and the incinerators’ remains give a glimpse of what occurred. Some might consider those sent to the gas chambers lucky, they faced a quick death. Those who were selected to survive faced something even worse than death.

A portion of the barracks that housed thousands of Jews.

A portion of the buildings that housed thousands of Jews.

It’s hard to grasp just what transpired within the camp. The bitterness and hatred can still be felt within the camp after all these years. But the most tragic thing to me is the fact that it’s unknown exactly how many have died in the camps. The majority of the records were destroyed, and many Jews weren’t even accounted for before they perished. With keeping this in mind and after all I was exposed to at the camps, I was going into sensory overload. I found it fitting that at the end of my time at Auschwitz, it began to rain. It seemed as if even the skies above were shedding tears for the victims of the monstrosities that occurred at Auschwitz.