The Jewish History of Krakow



While in Krakow, we visited the Jewish Studies students of Jagiellonian University. At the Jewish Studies Center, in the heart of the vibrant Jewish Quarter in Krakow, the students study Yiddish, Jewish History specifically in Poland, and the Holocaust. We divided into small groups and met with a selection of students. We talked about different research projects and research ideas, they exchanged resources and angles for their studies. It was a pleasure to meet with these scholars and learn a Polish perspective on the Holocaust.

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Polin Museum: An All-Encompassing View of Jewish Life in Warsaw


Our students in front of a memorial to the Polish Jews outside of the Polin Museum.

While in Warsaw, the study tour group went through the Polin Museum. The museum showcases history of Jewish people in Poland, starting in the Dark Ages. The opening exhibition of the museum relays the story of the first Jew to come to Poland, said to be a merchant, and as he traveled through the land he heard from heaven: “Po-lin (Poe-Leen)” or in Hebrew “rest here.”

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Behind the Scenes of the Museum and Memorial Auschwitz-Birkenau

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was surreal. The infamous camp sees about one million visitors every year. Each of the barracks have been renovated as exhibition spaces or offices, and many of the exhibitions have been organized by specific countries for the Jews from these respective countries. In 1947, Auschwitz became a protected site of the state with the purpose of remembering those who perished there. Since then, the staff has been preserving and conserving the site and artifacts found at the site.

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Touring the Former Warsaw Ghetto


Near the apartment complex, there is this small memorial to those that died in the ghetto, and some information about ghetto.

On Shabbat, the study tour group took a walking tour through what was previously the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite Nazi intentions to destroy Warsaw as they pulled out of Poland, pieces of the city still stand, including sections of the wall. We visited a quiet corner of an apartment complex where a portion of the Warsaw Ghetto wall remained. At this intersection, we talked about smuggling into the Warsaw Ghetto. During the first few months after the establishment of the ghetto, walls were built between buildings using existing walls, so houses at the edge of the ghetto had windows that gave access to the outside world. As a result, children were often used as smugglers and breadwinners for their families because they could fit through windows and were often less suspicious. Through the years, Nazis built walls in the middle of streets to restrict underground activities, though this did not end smuggling.

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Our visit to Poland: the Lublin Ghetto and Museum


Students Meredith, Coos and Hana and Guide John listening to our NN Theatre guide.

While in Lublin, our group visited the NN Theatre. After the fall of communism in Poland, there was a surge to regain the memories lost about the war. The project’s goal was to study and learn about Jewish history in WWII, and it started at the Grodzka Gate, or the gate to the Jewish Quarter in old Lublin, which became the NN Theatre. Coincidently, it was also the gate to the Jewish Ghetto during the Holocaust and it was part of an underground black market in Lublin.


Files in the background as students from Cohort V listen to our guide

Now, the building acts as a functioning museum and education center about the Holocaust. The rooms are lined with archives, most rooms have rows of shelves all around the walls, and they have a folder for every single Jew who lived and died in the Lublin Ghetto. Sometimes, there is only a name and an address and other times the folder is full of information, but the group continues to collect information on the Jewish population. They also curate an impressive photo archive, and in many of the photos the staff can identify different people and tell their stories.

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Cohort V’s Visit to the Lublin Ghetto: Death and Camp Pride



Students Chenda and Coos standing in the gas chamber, this one was used for the disinfection of clothes.


Student Anat looking into a storage room for Zyklon B pellets.

Recently, Cohort V took a study tour through Poland, with our guide John Phillips. Our first day in Poland, we drove to Majdanek and spent the day there, learning about the death camp. The first building we went through were the disinfection and gas chambers, which were still stained blue from the Zyklon B pellets.

When we left the building, one of our students shared about an artist that she research through the Ghez Collection course, Léon Weissberg. Weissberg was born in Przeworsk, Poland in 1895, and studied in the art academies of Vienna and Munich. In 1923, he moved to Paris, the heart of the avant garde. Weissberg had a wife and daughter who was born and raised in Paris. He was best known for his Parisian cityscapes and circus scenes. After the Nazis invaded France, he escaped with his family to the South of France but they were betrayed by two French Vichy policemen. They were arrested and sent to Gurs concentration camp in February 1943, and on March 6, 1943 Weissberg was deported to Majdanek death camp.


The barrack which is now used to display the exhibition of shoes.

One of the exhibits in the remaining barracks especially stood out. The barrack we visited was full of shoes, from the doorway to the end of the barrack, about 30 feet. Another student shared a personal story about this exhibition, he is also a guide at Yad Vashem. In a section of the Yad Vashem museum, there is a glass floor and beneath the glass are a few pairs of shoes, including a pair that belonged to a little boy. Our student wanted to include these shoes in his tour because his family, from Holland, were Righteous Among the Nations.


Student Coos sharing his family’s story about a little boy they tried to save, and his shoes.

They tried to save a little boy and his parents by hiding them, however neighbors informed on them and they were all sent to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers at Birkenau. The shoes that were chosen to represent this story were actually from Majdanek. The reality is that Majdanek has a surplus of these artifacts. Clothing items, valuables, anything Jews brought with them to surrounding death camps Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka II were sent and sorted at Majdanek. The sheer volume of goods at Majdanek was overwhelming, each item associated with a separate life.


Our guide telling us about “Camp Pride.”

Another notable aspect of the camp is the attention to architectural detail. Our guide talked about a concept called “Camp Pride;” the commanders of the camp actually took pride in their camps, so they added architectural details to make their camps stand out. At Majdanek, the prisoners were forced to create decorations for the camp: a model castle, a life-size architecturally German doll house, a giant cement turtle and more. These elements show the perversion of Nazi ideology, that these camps would be something to elicit pride.

After touring the camp, we saw the crematorium and the memorial, a weighty dome, which now rests over a massive pile of ashes and human remains. Behind the substantial dome are zig-zig pits, which is where the “Harvest Festival” or “Erntefest” of the fall of 1943 occurred. This was one of the last, large efforts to rid the Lublin District of Jews. After studying, the Nazis found that the best way to kill and eliminate people  was to dig these zig-zag like trenches, shoot the people into the pits and burn the corpses. 42,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi “Erntefest.”

At the end of our time at Majdanek, students from our group lit candles for Kaddish and said a prayer for those who had been murdered here.

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

A Visit to the Atlit Detention Center

Students from Cohort V recently visited the Atlit Detention Center, now a heritage site, with Dr. Tami Rich for part of her Curating the Holocaust course.


Cohort V on a ship which was made into an exhibition at the Atlit Detention Center

After the establishment of a National Socialist government in Germany, the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine exponentially increased. Because of the infighting and violence already existing in the country, the British imposed immigration quotas, restricting Jewish immigration in accordance to a ratio of Jews and Arabs represented in the population. In 1939, the British established a detention center in Atlit in order to maintain compliance with immigration quotas. Naturally, women, children and the elderly were released from the Atlit Detention Center at a quicker rate than men, because the British wanted to control the numbers of young, able Jewish men into the general Palestinian population for obvious reasons.


Our Guide describing barrack life at the Atlit Detention Center, this was a women’s and children’s barrack. 

In 1946, the immigration situation was amplified by the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe. Most, if not all, Jews lost their homes to members of the community, or otherwise, who moved in after they were deported to the East. Holocaust survivors were kept in displaced persons camps, as before the war they applied for visas elsewhere but were continually denied. With promises from organizations like Haganah, the Joint Distribution Committee, and Mossad many Jewish refugees boarded overcrowded ships to Palestine. Many of these ships were meant to hold half of the occupants they were now taking to Palestine. In 1946 alone, 22 ships brought 22,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Only some were allowed to enter the country, others were sent back to where they came from or kept in British detention centers.


A photo of the disinfection showers. 

The Weiss-Livnat students of Cohort V were given a tour of one of these camps earlier this semester, the Atlit Detention Center which is just south of Haifa. Most immigrants came to Haifa first, as it was and is the main port in Israel. Upon arrival they were taken by train, not unlike the cattle cars used in the Final Solution, to Atlit. Here they were required to take disinfection showers, which was traumatic for the Holocaust survivors whose families were killed in gas chambers marked as disinfection showers. If the British guards were kind they would turn the water on to prove the pipes were real, and in fact, water did come out of the faucets.


An example of the trains used to bring immigrants to the Atlit Detention Center.

Only 4,000 people could be kept at the Atlit Detention Center, so the British opened a second detention camp in Cyprus, Operation Igloo, which housed many more immigrants. The demands of the Jewish immigrants were ignored and not met; they were stuck between a rock and a hard place, between displaced persons camps in Europe and British operated detention camps. The decision to come to Palestine was already difficult, the voyage itself was perilous; 3,000 migrants died on their way to Palestine. The ships they used were often derelict and overcrowded. When they were detained by the British they were kept on the ship much longer than they had planned for, and their provisions ran out.


This is an example of a ship that would be used to bring displaced persons to Palestine. 

Tami Rich’s “Curating the Holocaust” class requires a tour of the detention center, though all students are welcome. One of their assignments after visiting is to prepare a mock exhibition for the Heritage Site, and this experience will hopefully help the students obtain jobs in the museum field after graduation. Many of Tami’s students in the past are already working in museums, and this class helped them achieve their goals. Tami will work on this project with the students and teach them how to design exhibits for museums.  

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