Current Students, Genocide Studies, Research Forum

Cohort V Student Shares on the Cambodian Genocide

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Chenda talks about the Cambodian Genocide. 

Cohort V has the distinct pleasure to include Chenda Seang, our first student from Cambodia. Throughout the year our students sat together in classes with Chenda, but recently Chenda was in the front of the classroom sharing about the Cambodian genocide. Here’s a bit of what he shared:

The Khmer Rouge party was founded in the 1950’s, they grew from a small group of ideological radicals to an organization which overthrew the corrupt government in 1970, led by General Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge aligned themselves against this government but also against the western bloc and the communist bloc, though the Khmer Rouge was communist, it pushed back on Russian and Chinese communist agendas. They designed their own Cambodian communism. Because of their refusal to work with either Russian communists or the Chinese communists the Khmer Rouge government gained support from the US government, who was fearing a domino effect in Asia. American support is clearly complicated, nevertheless a direct line of American support is noted.

IMG_3656American foreign interests were specifically concerned about Vietnam, Cambodia’s neighbor. The Vietnam War spilled over national borders into Cambodia; American intelligence thought that Vietnamese guerilla outfits were stationed in Cambodia, so a series of secret bombardments were carried out in Cambodia between 1969 to 1973. These bombings didn’t end communist influences in Cambodia rather it strengthened it, specifically the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people turned to the Khmer Rouge. They offered security, food, and shelter.

When, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, led a march into Phnom Penh, the capital city, the people welcomed him thinking the new Communist regime would bring peace to Cambodia. One of the first actions as established rulers in Cambodia, was to implement mass killings of soldiers, political enemies, and anyone associated with the old government. Then they turned on intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and other professional people. Thousands were killed immediately and brutally by the Khmer Rouge.

Throughout the Khmer Rouge reign, confessions were held through severe torture, most did not survive. The confessions made during these torture sessions resulted in a long list of names of people who were also supposedly politically subversive to the Khmer Rouge party. This led to chaos in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge “gangsters,” as they called themselves, murdered people openly in the streets and secretly in the forests for example, without any real cause other than allegations that the victims belonged to the old regime.

The Khmer Rouge saw city-dwellers as dangerous because cities held out the longest against communist influence, while rural populations were more easily swayed. As a result, the Khmer Rouge evacuated all cities, with a vision for a more agricultural society. City residents were told that the US was planning to bomb the cities so they had to evacuate quickly, but they would return to their homes in a few days, consequently most did not pack sufficiently for the long journey ahead, thousands died from starvation and exhaustion.

In the villages a sort of ranking began, “base people” or “old people,” those who had lived in the villages before April 17, 1975 were deemed safe, but “new people” or those who were forcefully deported to the villages after April 17, 1975, were regarded as unsafe, and were kept at a distance. Most villages weren’t fit for the massive population growth and many died from poor living conditions.

The Khmer Rouge’s vision for a more agricultural society meant an industrial development of agriculture with unrealistic expectations. Their Four Year Plan included a doubling of the rice production between 1977 and 1978. This resulted in exhaustion which led to starvation and death. Most of the land, even with industrial improvements, wasn’t able to cultivate these amounts production, so the Khmer Rouge cut food rations. They realized that land in the Northwest was more fertile, but because of drought even they weren’t able to meet goals. This region was also, according to Pol Pot, more susceptible to Vietnamese influence. As a result, the Northwest and Eastern-zone regions were “purged” of Vietnamese influence.

In one of the most inhumane acts of the Khmer Rouge, residents of this area were forced to march into the interior, many died along the way. During the march, Khmer Rouge members gave blue striped scarves to those they deemed most ideologically dangerous, these scarves acted as symbols for the Khmer Rouge members to kill them in their new destinations. Chenda brought one of these scarves with him to Israel, and he wears it often. He explained this is part of Cambodian culture to bring your scarf with you wherever you go.

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Chenda wearing his blue scarf from Cambodia in the Auschwitz archives. 

Chenda’s research makes him particularly interested in post genocidal aftermaths, because he lives in a post-traumatic society. This is one of the reasons Chenda chose to study the Holocaust. Chenda says that there is a loss of trust in Cambodian society and many young people wonder about their backgrounds. The trauma of genocide makes a division between the old and the young in the nation. Chenda shared with us that his mother was a survivor of the genocide, and she told much of her history to him. As a trend, children of survivors know their parents’ stories. But Chenda’s father was a member of the Khmer Rouge, and they never talked about his involvement. Many of the Khmer Rouge members were never tried in court, but after the fall of the regime, continued with their normal lives. Essentially, Chenda is hoping to bring restoration and healing to Cambodian society, and we hope that we’ve helped him through the resources we’ve offered as a result of our program.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Holocaust Survivor, Research Forum

Holocaust Survivor: Zev Kedem Shares with Cohort V

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Zev Kedem and Hana Green

Earlier this year, Hana Green, a student in Cohort V, met Holocaust survivor Zev Kedem. She and Dr. Yael Granot-Bein invited him to shared in a Research Forum. We were very fortunate to hear his story. Here’s what he shared:

The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Zev was only 5 years old. He and his sister were on holiday, which was cut short, his mother made them leave early. Zev remembers being so upset, he said, “Little did I know that this darkness of the Holocaust would pursue me for six years.” They took the train back which stopped short of home, he and his family had to walk through Krakow in the middle of the night, to their grandparent’s home.

Zev shared about another time they traveled together; they were walking when they came upon a German checkpoint in the road, many cars were lined up to go through the checkpoint. Zev’s mother was very beautiful and charismatic, she went right up the a German soldier’s truck and convinced them to give her and Zev a ride into Krakow. Alone, they would likely suffer at the checkpoint. As they got into the car, Zev’s mother looked down at him and said, “See, the impossible is possible.” He remembered this the rest of his life, and made it a sort of mantra.

In 1941, all Jews in the area were forced into the Krakow ghetto, before this Zev’s family was living outside Krakow in poor conditions. Zev and his family were hoping to live with his grandparents in the Krakow ghetto, but they already had three other families living in their apartment. Zev and his family moved into the apartment next door in order to be close, Zev said they were proud to had a whole, small, room to themselves, and even a bed. Food was scarce, life was hard and then the deportations started.

The deportations forced a division in the ghetto, those with a work permit lived in one section of the ghetto, those without lived in another section. Zev’s mother had a work permit, and she was the only one in the family with one. Hunger forced Zev to smuggle food. Children were less suspicious, so he snuck out of the ghetto with his head down and shoulders up. A habit, he admits, he still keeps today. While he was out two German soldiers called him out and started asking questions, but two pretty Polish girls came and talked to the soldiers, giving Zev an escape. He went to the farms he had stayed at, along with his family, and they gave him some food, not much but as much as they could afford. When he returned his mother was frantic but they had food.

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The square in the Krakow ghetto where deportations took place. The chairs were installed as a memorial to those that were killed here. (Photo was taken during Cohort V’s study tour to Poland) 

In March 1943, the Krakow Ghetto was liquidated; as Zev stood in the crowded square, a man was shot and fell next to him. His mother came and grabbed him from the crowd, she hid Zev, his sister, and his grandparents in his uncle’s pigeon coop. She told them to stay there, she closed the coop, locked the doors leading to the coop and went back to work. They could still hear the deportation for two or three more hours, then silence.

A truck came through and announced to anyone in hiding that if they didn’t come out they would be shot on sight. Then they heard shooting gradually coming toward them. Zev heard a Nazi making his way up to them. He stood at a metal door which his mother had locked, so as to look like no one could be behind the door. Zev’s grandparents had vials of poison but Zev realized they only had two, so he and his sister would have to endure what the Nazis had in store. Zev said, “You can’t realize how a child of seven or eight has to internalize the direct fear of death.” But the German didn’t come through the locked door, his mother had hid them well.

An announcement was made among the workers of the ghetto for volunteers to go through the quarter and salvage valuables. Zev’s mother, of course, volunteered. She came and saved them, Zev’s grandparents could pass as laborers but she knew she needed to hide the children. She negotiated with her wedding ring to hide them in a wagon which was used to bring the valuables back to a warehouse.

But he didn’t make it to the warehouse. He was pulled from the wagon and told to go to an unfinished barrack alone, it was dark and he heard someone moaning in pain next to him. He didn’t know this was part of the plan. Then his mother came in with a doctor, he said to Zev, “if you want to stay alive you will have to be silent and invisible.” Zev attached himself to a group of older boys; they became his camouflage. He followed them wherever they went.

He ended up working with them in a brush factory. He sat in the back row on top of a box to make himself look taller, and older. He was only eight years old, the age limit was thirteen, any younger than thirteen, and the children couldn’t work so they were killed. Zev shared his perspective while at the factory, he said “I realized I had no right what so ever to be alive in the concentration camp. Many of the inmates had lost their children, so they resented me.” In order to prove his worth, he made more brushes than anyone in the factory. He sat next to a man who had been a teacher, all of his students had been killed, he said to Zev, “If you survive, you won’t be a human being unless you learn to read and write.” Somehow he got Zev a Jules Vern novel, and taught Zev how to read.

One day in the factory, a man was shot by a German guard. The guard said the man was working slowly, the thought was that it would terrorize everyone to make them work harder. Then the small boy in the back, Zev, caught the eye of this German. Luckily, Zev spoke German, he told the guard admittedly that he was smaller, but this meant that he ate less, and he proved his productiveness with his hard work. The guard was conflicted but left Zev alone. Zev explained that he never gave himself the luxury of feeling like he was suffering, rather he told himself he was playing a game, and winning the game meant survival.

Dr. Gross, the doctor that Zev had met before, was on Oscar Schindler’s list, Zev and Dr. Gross became very close, he was something of an adoptive father to Zev. Dr. Gross pulled strings to get Zev, Zev’s sister and Zev’s mother on Schindler’s list as well. Zev recalled that they travelled all over the Third Reich to different factories with other people on the list. During one of the their travels the women’s train, where Zev’s mother was, was sent to Auschwitz but Schinder negotiated for their return before they were killed, he sent a train to pick them up. The train conductor took five boys with him to Auschwitz on this train meant to save the women. Zev was abducted onto this train.

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Crematoriums at Birkenau. (Photo taken during Cohort V’s study tour to Poland) 

Zev arrived to Auschwitz in October 1944, he remembers the gates were closed so they were ordered to walk around the entire perimeter of the camp to the crematoriums in the back. They were ordered to strip naked, Zev knew about the gas chambers and he was sure he would be killed. But they were taken to a table, and a man started tattooing a number on Zev’s arm; Zev cried, not because it hurt, which it did, but because he was so happy, a number meant registration to the camp, which meant a chance for survival.

He and the four other boys were taken to the children’s barrack. Zev explained that they were on reserve for Dr. Mengele’s experiments. He remembers a young handsome looking German coming into the barrack and offering sweets, Zev hid under a mud covered blanket, he didn’t trust this man. The children that left with, who he assumed to be, Mengele, never came back.

When the Russians were closing in on Auschwitz, Zev was convinced that those who couldn’t march would be killed: the sick and the elderly (and the young), so he volunteered to leave. Eventually he made it to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, he worked in one of the fifty sub-camps but towards the end of the war he returned to Mauthausen. In Mauthausen there were two fields of labor: the death industry, and the quarry. Zev knew he wouldn’t be strong enough for the quarry so he worked as a Sonderkommando.

One day, he recalls, he came out of the hospital (where he worked clearing dead bodies) and the gates to the camp were open. Soldiers were standing at the main entrance to the camp, and he was convinced they would kill him because he was still under thirteen years old, so he ran. He discovered that the kitchen of the SS was completely empty so he ate as much potato salad as he could, which wasn’t very much. He remembers, “To this day, I have never had a better meal.”

As he left, he came upon more soldiers, one of them threw him a chocolate bar, but he still didn’t trust them, because of Mengele and his sweets. He took a closer look at the soldiers and realized one of them was black, so he knew these soldiers weren’t German, and that he could trust them.

He left Mauthausen and sought refuge in nearby villages, but he says “I got shot at more during this time than ever before.” Austrians were afraid of the inmates because they were scared of them for two reasons: the truth they held and of their illnesses.

After the war, the American troops organized for Zev to be sent to the UK. There he grew up with an adoptive family, and received an Oxford education. After forty years, Zev met his mother again in communist Poland, on her deathbed. It was hard to get a visa to Poland, but he managed it. One of the after effects of the Holocaust was divided families, and this was very much Zev’s case as well.

Today Zev lives in Haifa, Israel. He lives a very active life sharing his education and experience with University students. We were pleased to host him and hear his heart-wrenching story.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Holocaust Movies, Research Forum

Aida’s Secret: The Heartbreaking Story of Giving Up a Child

The Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies recently hosted director Alon Schwarz to discuss his recent film Aida’s Secrets. The documentary is about the director’s uncle, Izak Szewelewicz, and his adoption in Israel a few years after the end of WWII. Izak was about 3 years old when he was adopted. For years, the family and his village kept a secret from him about his blind brother. On occasion, Izak’s biological mother, Aida, came to visit him in Israel from Canada, where she immigrated to after the war, while his brother Shepsel lived with his father and step-mother in Canada. However, Aida never visited Shepsel, even though they were only a few hours from each other.

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Director, Alon Schwartz, shares with Cohort V. 

Aida grew up in Poland as an orphan, her parents died when she was only 3 years old. When Aida was 14, WWII broke out. As a Pole, she was taken to Germany to work as a forced laborer. When she was 20 years old, the war ended and she made her way to Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp. There she met Grisha, a Polish Jewish man who survived Auschwitz. Seven months later she gave birth to Izak, and 10 months later she gave birth to Shepsel while suffering from Tuberculosis. While at Bergen Belsen, she converted to Judaism. In 1947, the family made plans to immigrate to Canada, but she decided to send Izak to Israel. Meanwhile she, Grisha and Shepsel made a new life in Canada, but this was short lived as she and Grisha separated soon after arrival. After the divorce, Aida tried to immigrate to Israel, but her visa application was denied because her conversion was not recognized. Aida recently passed away, but before her death her she met her son Shepsel, whom she hadn’t seen for decades. Why hadn’t she made an effort to see Shepsel before? As Shepsel developed a relationship with his mother, he tried to ask her this and more questions. While it’s obvious that she cherished this time together with Shepsel, she wouldn’t answer any of her questions. Izak too tried to ask her questions but she wouldn’t answer him, despite their lifelong relationship.  

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Doron Livnat and Arieh Kochavi sit with Cohort V 

Through archival research and some detective work, more questions arose than answers. The film was recently released in Israel and will be released in the United States this summer. We would like to thank Alon Schwarz for visiting and answering some of our questions about the film and sharing the development of the project.

For more information on the film check out their website: http://www.aidassecret.com/


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Research Forum, Seminars

Attacks on Holocaust survivors and pogroms in post-war Poland – a lecture by Dr. Edyta Gawron of Jagiellonian University

Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron

In her first lecture, Dr. Gawron discussed the difficulties Jews faced in reacclimating in post-war Poland.  Her second lecture was given during Dr. Lea David’s class, “Human Rights, Holocaust, Genocide: The Politics of Remembrance.” In this lecture she shared insights regarding post-war Poland. The thought in Poland remained, even after the war, that Jews had caused WWII, or at the very least the invasion of Poland. Nazi anti-Semitism was well known, and because Jews were being attacked in Germany, specifically after Kristallnacht, Poles feared the Nazis would invade to strike against the Polish Jews. Another rumor prevalent in post-war Poland was that the Jews brought the USSR to Poland because they were associated with Bolshevism, just as the Nazis linked Jews and Bolsheviks. These were not the only reasons for anti-Semitism in Poland, however they exemplify the idiocy of anti-Semitism that was rampant in Poland.

In 1945, immediately after the war, there were some pogroms in Poland where Jews were physically attacked and beaten, as well as emotionally attacked through social exile. Jews were essentially pushed out of the towns they used to call home.

Dr. Gawron shared an instance of a pogrom that took place in Krakow, approximately 70 km from Auschwitz, on Saturday morning April 11, 1945. A group of Holocaust survivors went to pray in the synagogue near an open air market  when a group of boys began throwing rocks at the synagogue. One of the boys entered the synagogue and ran out screaming “Jews are trying to kill me! I saw Christian blood in the synagogue!” In the post war situation, the crowd reacted without thinking, and the rumor was spread throughout the city that Jews were killing Christian children. The pogrom lasted for several hours, dozens were seriously injured and a Holocaust survivor named Roza Berger was shot in her apartment a short distance from the market. After the pogrom, the accusing boy admitted that he had been bribed to slander the Jews and lie to everyone that the Jews were killing Christian children for sacrifices or blood libel. This was a common fabrication to stir anti-Semitism.

The Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, was even more violent. 42 Jews were killed. An eighteen year-old-boy was missing for the weekend; he didn’t want to tell his parents the real reason he was missing (he had snuck out with friends), so he made up a story. However,the authorities directed the conversation and asked him if he had been kidnapped and he answered affirmatively. Then they asked him if he was kidnapped by strangers, to which he answered yes. Finally, they asked if his kidnappers were Jews, which he affirmed, adding that they lived in a building where many of the returning Jews lived. They ask him if they had also kidnapped other Christians and he again confirmed that they had. The resulting pogrom lead to the killing of 42 Jews, starting with those who lived in the specific building the authorities had pointed out. Then the whole town was involved, all hunting out the Jews who were running from the pogrom. After this event, all of the surviving Jews in Kielce banded together and left Poland.

Altogether, 1,500 Jews were killed in post-war Poland. Although Dr. Gawron mentioned that it’s not fair to say that all of the murders were inspired by anti-Semitism, there was a lot of violence in post-war Poland. Many people were were attacked and murdered on the road because it looked like might have food or valuables. Within one year, 100,000 Polish Jews left Poland to establish lives elsewhere. Perhaps the Poles acted out of fear, specifically fear of confrontation? Maybe non-Jewish Poles were scared to confront Jews with their inability to act during the Holocaust. After the war, people became desensitized, and post-war Poland was rife with crime. One theory is a psychological phenomenon that victims (Poles) will victimize others (Jews) for a sense of control. This resulted in tension between the two groups.

Unfortunately, immediately after the war there was no public education in Poland about what they Jews had gone through, nothing about gas chambers in the papers. In the general public,  the realities of the Holocaust were unknown. Maybe better Holocaust education would have helped? Polish-Jewish life after the Holocaust was difficult, even impossible.

We would like to thank Dr. Edyta Gawron for coming and presenting to our students, and for the research advice and expertise she offered.

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In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.

In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Research Forum, Seminars

Attacks on Holocaust survivors and pogroms in post-war Poland – a lecture by Dr. Edyta Gawron of Jagiellonian University

Dr. Edyta Gawron from Jagiellonian University in Krakow is visiting the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies this week, offering one-on-one time with students who are particularly interested in her research, as well as giving two lectures to our students. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Head of the new Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Krakow Jews.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron

 

In her first lecture, she discussed Jewish survivors in Poland and Jewish life in Poland after the Holocaust. Before the war, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland who made up about 10% of the population; only 10% of the Jewish population survived the Holocaust. Approximately 250,000 Jews returned and stayed in Poland, after the war, while roughly 100,000 survivors found homes elsewhere. The majority (50-60%) of Polish Jews survived by fleeing to the USSR, which was by no means a safe haven, however it offered more security for Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. An additional 10% of Polish Jews survived German Nazi camps. 10-18% survived among Poles, meaning they could pass as Aryan, however they needed access to forged identification papers and they needed to remain anonymous: Jewish leaders or any other recognizable or renown Jew could not have survived among Poles. Another minority survived as partisans living in makeshift villages in the forests of Poland, such as the Bielski Otriad. After the war a minority of survivors fled Europe entirely to Asia, South America, Australia, Palestine, and more.

When Jewish survivors returned to Poland, they returned to a culture of survivors: six million Poles died in WWII, meaning that, on average, every Polish family lost as least one family member in the war, while among Jewish survivors on average only one family member survived the war. These survivors of war-torn Poland made for a hostile community for those returning to Poland.

There were challenges in identifying Jewish survivors returning to Poland. Among the surviving community, there was an extreme fear of registering with any Jewish organization because these registries were used by Nazis to round up Jews prior to the Holocaust. Furthermore, many of the survivors were forced to change their names with new identification papers, and giving up what had been their lifeline was difficult and sometimes impossible.

Within the Jewish survivor community there were further challenges of dissonance: those who survived camps felt their suffering was greater than those who had hid or those who were forced laborers in Gulags, and visa versa. Many Jews who were in the USSR had no knowledge of the gas chambers, and those who survived in Poland had no clear idea of the torture of the Gulags. These comparisons and lack of knowledge led to challenges in the organization of Jewish welfare groups and the revival of religious life after the war.

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Dr. Edyta Gawron speaking about “adult orphans.”

Yet, these organizations were desperately needed. All survivors, children and adults, had no one left; there were boarding houses full of children as well as adults, a phenomenon known as “adult orphans.” The Jewish organizations in Poland were needed to provide shelter, as well as food and government representation, all of which were sorely lacking.  These organizations also started the important work of starting the initial database of survivors and those who had perished.

These organizations also provided documentation for post war trials, which were held locally, nationally and internationally depending on the crimes and sometimes perpetrators were tried three times. These trials attempted to offer a sense of justice, which introduced the thought of normality through closure. The perpetrator’s punishment for these trials varied but the most common was exile from the community. Factors of normality included age, whether family members had survived, and the establishment of Jewish religious life. Still, the road to normality was long, and upon return to Poland most Jews still found anti-Semitism prevalent among their communities, and pogroms continued even after the war. (Dr. Gawron spoke more on this in her second lecture, which you can read here.)

After WWII, some 250,000 Jews returned and remained in Poland, and after several mass waves of immigration, only approximately 8,000 Jews remain in Poland today. Despite the numbers, the Jewish community is active within Poland, with many synagogues specifically in Krakow, Warsaw or Lodz hosting Jewish visitors every week, making the community seem larger than it is.

The Jewish Holocaust wasn’t at the forefront of discussion in Poland until after the collapse of communism in 1989, and as a result, Holocaust education was decades behind other perpetrating countries. Scholars, like Dr. Edyta Gawron and her research, continue to better Holocaust education in Poland. We were happy to host her and glean from her knowledge.

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In order from left to right: Anat Bratman-Elhalel (Director of Archives at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), Lindsay Shapiro (Cohort IV), and Dr. Edyta Gawron.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Guest Lecturers, Research Forum

Guest Speaker: Yoram Haimi

Since 2007, Israeli Archaeologist, Yoram Haimi, and Polish Archaeologist, Wojciech Mazurek, have been excavating at the former Reinhard Extermination Camp site, which was created by the SS in Sobibor, occupied Poland. Yoram came to share his research with Cohort V for a Research Forum lecture. All that had been known about Sobibor before the excavation was from about 50 survivors. From their testimonies, historians have made educated guesses on what the camp must have looked like and what happened there. After the uprising in October 1943, the Nazis razed the camp and planted trees to hide their crimes.

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Yoram speaking with Annika, University of Haifa Holocaust Studies student

The excavation has revealed some inaccuracies of what has been thought about Sobibor and also proved historian’s theories. The project has made a completely new map of the camp. Originally the major goal of the project was to find the gas chambers. After 7 years they found the foundations of the gas chambers under asphalt which was laid as a foundation to two Polish memorials that were constructed at Sobibor following the war. In the process they found a lot of other details which made the story of Sobibor more complete, such as the escape tunnel that some of the survivors have mentioned.

Sobibor was built in March 1942, as well as other death camps, Treblinka and Bełżec as a part of Operation Reinhard. From April 1942 to October 1943 about 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor. Just like the other death camps there were three main sections of the camp: reception, administration, and extermination. At any one time only about 100 Jews lived at Sobibor. They were forced to aid in the extermination of their own people. Of these workers, around 50 survivor. Their testimonies constructed what was known of Sobibor, now the excavations complete this information.

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Yoram speaking with Mason, University of Haifa Archeology Student

Most of the victims of Sobibor were Dutch. Throughout the excavations the team has found valuables such as jewelry. Recently they found a pendent that was identical to one of Ann Frank’s. This pendent belonged to Karoline Cohn. She and Ann Frank were born in the same year, 1929. The pendant was found along the Himmelfarhtstrasse (the street to heaven). The Himmelfarhtstrasse was a path with high camouflaged fences on either side, that lead to the gas chambers. Without the excavations the path would not have been found. When the team found the Himmelfarhtstrasse and then they knew it had to lead to the gas chambers.

When the excavation find items that they can tie to specific people they notify living family members. For example, Yoram told us about a family’s story whose questions they could answer about a small child who was murdered at Sobibor. His sister came to Sobibor and finally said the mourner’s Kodish for her brother, she didn’t know where he was during the war but she was certain that he had been murdered. But she couldn’t be sure until Yoram and his team were able to answer her questions.

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Yoram sharing about the different families’ stories he’s been able to provide some answers for.

The excavation includes a team of Polish people from the area, and volunteers. One of our students from Cohort II volunteered and wrote a blog post about it. You can read it here.

For more information, check out the articles below:

http://www.yadvashem.org/research/research-projects/sobibor-excavations

http://news.leiden.edu/news-2015/excavating-the-gas-chambers-at-sobibor.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/nazi-concentration-camp-excavations-anne-frank-links-extermination-sobibor-jewish-israel-yad-vashem-a7529161.html

http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/the-archeological-excavations-that-led-to-the-gas-chambers-of-sobibor-a-993733.html

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Guest Lecturers, Research Forum, Seminars

Dr. Dan Michman | When did the Holocaust happen?

Dr. Dan Michman, Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, came to share with Cohort V earlier this month. His seminar included three topics. This blog is about the third topic: “Twelve Years of the Nazi Regime, Eight Decades of Research: The History of Holocaust Research from a Bird’s Eye View, 1933-2015.”

For the final session of Dr. Michman’s seminar, we discussed the periodization of the Holocaust. Here are some various starting dates: 1939 (the beginning of the WWII), 1941 (the beginning of the Final Solution), 1942 (Auschwitz begins mass murdering), 1789 (Jews are emancipated under the French Empire), or 1933 (Hitler becomes Chancellor); and some ending dates: 1945 (End of WWII), or 1948 (Creation of the State of Israel).

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1789 is included because some think the only reason Jews were emancipated was to push them toward acculturation. When the Jewish community continued in their culture and tradition, there is said to be a pendulum swing reaction in that the rest of Christian Europe started to heavily persecute Jews as punishment for not assimilating. The definition of periodization can be broad. Should the period of the Holocaust include so much? Any historian can provide documents and arguments for their own definition.

Another issue we discussed is what the term should include. The Shoah was not only the murder of six million Jews, it was also the destruction of their communities, the destruction of Synagogues, Torah Scroll, and books. So what limits can we set as we discuss the Shoah? Do we have to set limits, or can it be all inclusive?

We also discussed the popular view of Auschwitz representing the Holocaust. Dr. Michman says it is not a proper representation of the Holocaust. One-million-one-hundred-thousand Jews were murdered at Auschwitz which is not to be downplayed, but it represents ⅙ of the Holocaust. It does not represent the Jews murdered in Concentration Camps, Death Pits or by hard labor. Auschwitz is a factor that defines the Holocaust, but in of itself it cannot describe the totality of horrors.

The next question we discussed was how do historians define the Holocaust. Dr. Michman suggested two paths of historiography: the Jewish Historiography and Perpetrator Historiography. After the Holocaust survivors began writing about their experiences and collecting stories to make  a history of the Shoah. The center of this study was not Nazism but rather the Jewish experience.

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The other path was the study of Nazism. The foremost question in perpetrator historiography research was “What went wrong with Germany?” Their research included very little Jewish testimony, but relied heavily on Nazi documentation. Immediately, the research was used in the Nuremberg Trials. In a sense it was also used as a coping mechanism for Germany. Their research often started in 19th century Germany to understand trends of German culture, that may have lead to the acceptance of Nazism.

The next generation of Holocaust research in Germany lead to the Historikerstreit (Historians Fight/argument). The children of the perpetrators started asking their parents “What did you do?” Which lead to student uprisings in 1968 in both Germany and France. Their research started broadening the scope of bystanders to German, French etc citizens. (Before the term bystander applied to Eisenhower and Churchill.) Historian, Götz Aly, belongs to this younger group of historians.

The definition of the Holocaust is complicated. But each definition adds to the greater understanding of what happened. It is important to take each of these perspectives into consideration when defining the Shoah for yourself.

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We want to thank Dr. Dan Michman for his insightful seminar, and we look forward to meeting with him again in the Spring Semester!


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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