BY DEVRA KATZ
Scholars and students of the Holocaust have the exceptional opportunity to visit the very places they study; this is indeed an indispensable experience for historians to contextualize the enormity of these events and help bring their understanding to life. As such, seven months into our studies, 22 members of our group ventured to Germany and Poland as participants in the program study tour. The tour promised to be eye opening, educational and emotional. In the end, it proved to be far more than this. It was humbling, enlightening, interesting and truly invaluable to our studies and research.
Three very knowledgeable and interesting guides, one German, one Polish and one Australian-Israeli, led the tour. The tour brought us to places in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Tarnow, Lublin and Lodz. Beginning in Berlin, the program worked its way through the complex history of the city highlighting World War I, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Era and the Cold War. The comprehensive approach to our time in Berlin really allowed us to frame the crux of our studies into the larger context of world history and Germany’s national historical narrative. Then after only 3 days, we traveled to Poland. Our group spent 5 days in Poland during which we visited concentration and extermination camps, ghetto remnants, pre-war synagogues and cemeteries, museums and more. In only 8 days, we visited an array of historical sites, memorials, academic institutions and venues of modern day Jewish life. Although every place we visited was powerful and important, what follows is a glimpse into a few of these sites.
For scholars and students of history, particularly those studying the Holocaust, nearly all of Germany and Poland stand as historical sites. However, our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau was particularly meaningful. Some members of our group had been before and for others it was their first experience there. Seeing a place that our group had studied so fervently for the past several months was very surreal, yet our academic understanding of the place really enhanced our experience. Furthermore, certain members of our group also have parents and grandparents who survived the camp. Hearing the personal stories of their families at the actual site really added a very special, personal perspective. Also as part of our tour, we were fortunate to visit the conservation center at Auschwitz I. Here we learned about the very important work being done to preserve the artifacts found at the camp to insure its memory for generations to come.
In addition to visiting historical sites we also visited numerous memorials. Again, all of the memorials commemorated people and places relative to our studies, but three of the memorials we visited in Berlin were particularly impressive. The first memorial is that which commemorates the European Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. The memorial is situated in the heart of Berlin very near to the Brandenburg Gate and the historic divide between former East and West Berlin. Not only is its location notable, but also the size of the memorial itself is striking. It covers a huge space making it nearly impossible for locals and tourists of Berlin to miss it. This is truly a remarkable testament to the importance of Holocaust memory in Germany. What’s more is that in Berlin we not only visited the memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but also to the homosexual victims and the Roma and Sinti victims as well. The incorporation of multiple victim groups in German national memory was very encouraging to see.
During our study tour we also had the opportunity to visit academic institutions, hear lectures by prominent scholars and meet students from both German and Polish universities studying similar topics. This was a very useful and unique opportunity for our group. These meetings allowed us to connect with other students and learn from each other about studying the Holocaust and related subjects in our respective countries. Since our return, we have maintained and built upon these connections and established an interesting dialogue among us. Our knowledge and studies were also greatly enhanced by hearing important scholars present their work to our group. The information we gained is now being discussed and applied in our classes and research.
Finally, our study tour included visits to places dedicated to preserving and educating about Jewish life, both modern and historic. The major site relative to this aspect of the trip was our visit to the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The museum, which only opened its doors to the public in April 2013, depicts the thousand-year history of Jewish life in Poland. Although the museum is still finishing its core exhibition, it is already welcoming locals, tourists and students alike to shed light on Poland’s rich history of Jews. This visit to the museum, as well as a meeting with some of the curators and educators, was a really positive experience of our group to remember and study Poland’s Jews not only in death, but also in life.
After eight full days our group headed back to Israel very tired- physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, nearly six weeks after our return, we have had time to process and reflect on the journey. The study tour definitely provided us with an emotional and intellectual experience. Although it was heavy and challenging, it was also thought provoking and inspiring. The tour offered our group a different environment in which to learn and study together and was one of the first steps of hopefully many of the practical application of our studies. It was truly a beneficial experience and one we are very grateful to have had as part of our educational experience.