Special Tours

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.”


Student, Hana, poses with cutouts of Polish Jews from the 19th century.

The museum continues to tell of special circumstances in Poland that made the country more welcoming to Jews than most other countries in Europe. These accommodations included protected ghettos or neighborhoods where Jews could live in their community without fear of persecution as here Jews were also given freedom of religion. This isn’t to say that Poland wasn’t without anti-semitism and hate-crimes against Jews, but many Jews saw Poland as safe for them and their families. An exhibition in the museum discusses the complicated relationship between the Church and the Jews; the exhibition included anti-semitic paintings found in cathedrals and crimes committed against Jews in the name of religion.


Student, Alexa, walking through the Museum.

Polin Museum shapes what Jewish life would have looked like, complete with recreated sections of a medieval synagogue decorated with astrological animals painted in bright pastels. Here they chose to show some artifacts found in synagogues that survived World War II. The museum also highlighted religious life in Poland with digital reading rooms. The curators set up touchscreen desks with digital versions of the tanach, complete with commentaries written in Poland.

The different exhibitions detailed all classes of life throughout Jewish history, including a tavern, a train station lobby, a printing press office and the parlor of a wealthy household. Other exhibitions highlighted different famous Jews in Polish history, including painters, philosophers, and more.  


Students, Hana and Tutti, learning about despotic monarchs who have conflicting interests in Poland.

This establishment of pre-modern Jewish life in Poland led to World War I and the inter-war period. The curators chose to showcase this with a common city street. The different shops detailed different aspects of modern Jewish life, such as a room with a record player and numbered footprints on the floor to learn how to dance. Across the street was a newspaper room, which specified events in the interwar period.

Finally, the students arrived at exhibitions of the Holocaust in Poland. Leaving Poland without a strong Jewish community, most of the surviving community migrated in the years after the war, leaving very few Jews in Poland. The closing exhibition in the museum looks out on a field in Warsaw, signifying the unbuilt Jewish future in Poland.

The entirety of the museum can be self-guided with audio tours. To learn more about the museum, check out their website. http://www.polin.pl/en

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

Special Tours

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.


The man in the background of this photo is testing samples slivers of windows from Auschwitz barracks. 

We were fortunate to arrange a tour through the conservation lab with a specialist in paper conservation. Our tour guide took us through many different offices in the lab. In one of the offices, we met a man who was testing a sliver of one of the barrack windows. His test determined whether the windows were original; if they were he would have to establish a plan to preserve them, and if they were not original he would be able to take more liberty with replacing the windows, still making them looking as much like the original as possible. The test he ran took much longer than the time we spent with him, so we don’t know what he decided. The dedication to authenticity is remarkable.


Different paper items in the paper conservatory lab. 

In another office, we saw a dozen or more paintings done by forced laborers in the camp. When artists entered the camp, officers would demand different paintings including portraits or copies of famous works of art. The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau organizes exhibitions of them periodically.


The pieces of paper found in prisoners shoes. 

We also saw a room for the preservation of luggage and shoes. Each shoe was put into a special box for preservation. In some occasions, preservationists find papers stuffed into the shoes, maybe they were too big for the owner. The preservation lab keeps everything they find, even these small, torn slips of paper, as they make the image of the person more complete.

The last office we visited was the paper preservation room where they preserve different journals and story books found in Auschwitz and Birkenau. One of the most touching objects was a children’s Christmas storybook, with detailed and colorful pictures of Santa Claus and different scenes of Christmas including Christmas dinner, mistletoe and stockings hanging on the mantel.

This tour through the conservation lab was enlightening as it changed the way we looked at the different artifacts in the camp. Each of them was carefully cleaned, selected and placed. Each object belonged to a separate individual, and the attention given to each object reminded us of the individual to whom it belonged.


Auschwitz archivist with our students.

We were also able to meet with one of the archival researchers at Auschwitz. He showed us different artifacts, including deportation lists, identification cards, etc. He also informed us of the process to identify individuals that had been at Auschwitz. People often send requests to the office and received either identification cards or deportations lists, as well as any other information that was collected. Generally, only an identification card with limited personal information or a deportation list is available. Those that were selected for forced labor had identification cards, while those who were sent to the gas chambers right away had no identification other than a name on a deportation list. However, the office also archives mail sent in and out of the camp, however this mail was extremely censored so it didn’t offer a real sense of life in the camp. Nevertheless, it still offers more information about the individual. When Nazis censored the mail, they would literally cut out the sections of the letter they didn’t like, which often resulted in a flimsy scrap of paper left to send to their families and loved ones. Oftentimes, in cases like those sent from Theresienstadt, those deported were forced to send postcards back to Theresienstadt saying they had arrived safely and the camp was similar to Theresienstadt. All these letters have been preserved.


Our group entering Auschwitz-1 under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. 

Thanks to these offices and the hard work of those we met, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz and Birkenau offers information that would have been lost about those who lived and perished there.



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

Special Tours

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.

Our guide took us to an apartment complex that survived the bombings and was within the ghetto walls. The building was typical of the housing within the ghetto. It had a courtyard with only one entrance to the street, and each corner of the courtyard had staircases that lead to the various apartments. The design was functional for Nazis as during roundups they blocked the entrance to the courtyard and called for everyone to come out as they entered the buildings. With lists of who lived in which complex, they efficiently cleared out each apartment. Standing in the courtyard of such a building gave the study tour group a small sense of the helplessness the people living there must have felt.

In October, 1942, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the camp. As Jews were organized at the Umschlagplatz (the platform for the trains which took Jews to their death), Jewish fighters armed with pistols snuck into the ranks of those about to be deported and attacked the German officers. After this, fighting continued for about three months and the next deportation was delayed until January, 1943. During these months, many of the Jewish fighters were killed, however some survived. During our tour through the Warsaw Ghetto, we stopped at a manhole in the street which was significant to those who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. During the uprising, fighters used the sewage system to evade and surprise the Nazis, and eventually used it to flee for their lives.

As we stood looking at the manhole on Prosta Street, we imagined the story our guide told us. Toward the end of the uprising, a Jewish fighter, Simcha Rotem, also known as Kazik, found himself on the Aryan side of Warsaw. He nevertheless convinced two sewage workers to show him the way back to the Warsaw Ghetto. As he lifted himself out of the manhole, all he could see was burning buildings, but he forced himself to look for survivors. He found some dozen survivors in the sewage system beneath the Ghetto. He instructed them to go to the manhole on Prosta Street, just outside of the ghetto, and he organized vans to pick them up at dawn the next day. Some of them were restless and wouldn’t wait, because it was dangerous. They search for other venues of safety, but didn’t find any. Eventually, the Germans found them, and they were killed. Rotem was forced to drive away knowing that more people remained in the sewage system, but he had no way to communicate with them. Rotem saved countless people that day. Almost all of the remaining 42,000 Jews were deported to Majdanek, and many of them were killed during the Erntefest (Harvest Festival) in the fall of 1943.

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

Faculty, Program News

Dr. Jan Grabowski’s New Course: The Extermination of Polish Jews, 1939-1945

grabowski_smallDr. Jan Grabowski visited the University of Haifa earlier this Spring. During his visit he gave a lecture on Jews in Poland to our students, and moreover he filmed the videos for an online course which will be available to current students. Dr. Jan Grabowski is a professor at the University of Ottawa, originally from Poland, he offers a growing network to our students.

The course will be on the extermination of Polish Jews, it focuses on German initiatives against Jews in Poland, and reactions from the Jewish communities. He will discuss the creation of ghettos, and the strategy of Jewish leadership within the Ghettos. The video lectures will include lessons on the escalation of German terror, and different Jewish responses including those that fled, those that stayed, leaders and the murder of 3 million Polish Jews. In specific, the topics include Aktion Reinhard, the Judenrat, survival strategies within Poland, the role of the Polish Catholic Church, as well as the story of Jews that returned to Poland. The course marries the focus on perpetrators and victims, while also including the narrative of the Polish bystanders, and collaborators.

We welcome Dr. Jan Grabowski to our faculty and we look forward to see where this partnership will lead our students.

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

Special Tours

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.


Students from Cohort V in the NN Theatre 

As there are very few Jews remaining in Lublin, the center is run almost completely by non-Jews. Throughout the year, they host different educational activities to learn about Jewish culture and the Holocaust. They also offer guided tours through the museum, and, most importantly, their archive offers amazing research to scholars looking for information, particularly on Jews in Lublin.


Our Guide at the NN Theatre explaining the background of the organization. 


Feel free to learn more about the museum and their archives at their website: http://teatrnn.pl/en/


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

Special Tours

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

Faculty, Research

A Nation Destroyed: An Existential Approach to the Distinctive Harm of Genocide


Professor Shmuel Lederman

In his recent article in the Journal of Genocide Research, Professor Shmuel Lederman – a professor a the  Weiss Livnat International MA Studies Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa – examines the distinctive harm of genocide. He makes specific reference to Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization of the harm of genocide, positing that despite its flaws it brings a valuable perspective to the issue.

Lederman opens by citing the views of historians who distinguish the harm of genocide as stemming from the loss to the world of a unique culture. As he notes, culture is difficult to quantify. If one understands culture as referring primarily to high culture, one would have to argue that the genocide of the Jews is ‘worse’ than the genocide of the Roma, who have not made the same level of cultural contribution. On the other hand, Lederman writes, one could approach cultural loss as the destruction of a distinct way of life. This viewpoint is also difficult to defend, since for example the majority of German Jewry killed in the Holocaust were assimilated into German society and did not live in any way that differentiated them from their non-Jewish compatriots.

Portrait Of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Yet another conceptualization of the harm of genocide is the effect that the destruction of the group has upon the survivors, who are left without a group to which to belong. The evident drawback to this position, is that this harm would be avoided by destroying an entire nation and leaving no survivors. Yet other writers point to the harm of genocide as lying in its destruction not just of individuals but of the mass of accumulated knowledge and wisdom within their group memory. This perspective, Lederman comments, comes close to that of Hannah Arendt, on which he wishes to focus.

According to Arendt’s philosophy, every nation shares similar views to those of other nations but also possesses unique perspectives. If any one nation is destroyed, the entire world will have lost a unique perspective without which we as a whole become conceptually poorer. Arendt espouses a view that she sources in ancient Rome, that only when an idea is fully exposed from every facet can it be said to truly exist. Thus lacking one nation’s perspective on an idea effectively means that the idea is not fully revealed. Arendt writes that the more we are exposed to other points of view, the richer we are both as individuals and nations. In this way, Arendt encompasses cultural genocide, which strips a nation of its differentiated perspective without bloodshed, as a crime for removing some of the plurality of viewpoints from this world. Lederman adds that Arendt also valued the richness of individual viewpoints within each nation. Thus, to Arendt, even partial genocide weakens the whole world by reducing the spectrum of viewpoints therein.

Lederman points out that Arendt’s approach is not the same as any of the earlier-stated concepts of genocide as destroying a culture. Instead, she viewed the harm of genocide as stemming from the loss of that nation’s unique point of view, as formed by their unique political, social and historical experiences. From this perspective, assimilated German Jews had a different point of view to those of their non-Jewish German neighbors, despite sharing the same culture, thus defining the act of genocide.

Lederman summarizes that this approach underlies Arendt’s consideration of the Holocaust as worst of all crimes The Nazis specifically wished to wipe out the plurality of viewpoints. Lederman acknowledges that it is a failing in Arendt’s philosophy that in contradistinction to the Holocaust, she viewed other attempts at genocide to constitute a loss to humanity (through the loss of plurality of perspective) but not a crime, since they were not motivated by a desire to remove a plurality of viewpoints.

Lederman concludes that Arendt distinguished between morality, and existential or political values. To Arendt, genocide is a unique crime because of the existential loss it causes to plurality of humanity, not because it brings a moral loss of human lives. Lederman presents this as a flaw in her philosophy, but nonetheless wishes to add her unique categorization to the understanding of the true harm of genocide.

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