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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Seminars

Yad Vashem Seminar 2017 | Yosi Goldstein

Yosi Goldstein shared different perspectives with the cohort on Latin America during the Holocaust. Latin American countries had relatively large Jewish populations. Today there are less Jews in Latin America than there were in 1939. Yosi shared that Nazism wasn’t constricted to Germany but was an ideology that could have been, and was, adopted by many nations. During the “Crucial Years” (1938-1939) “The Jewish Question of Refugees” was a primary source of debate. The Evian Conference, July 6-15, 1938, called by President Roosevelt, sought to answer this debate, to no avail. No one was willing to increase their immigration quotas for German Jews, or any other Jews in crisis. Of the 32 countries that were present, 18 of them were Latin American countries. During the conference no one actually referred directly to the Jewish people, they instead referred to an “undesirable” population, saying they “didn’t want to import Russia’s problem.”

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For example, the book “Alex’s Wake” talks about a ship of Jewish refugees that made it to Cuba, all those on board had visas to Cuba but they are declined at port and were refused to disembark. The ship then went up the East Coast of the United States and was turned away at every port. They were finally sent back to Germany.  

The Argentinian government stated at the Evian Conference that they were of course sympathetic but at the same time they would not increase immigration quotas. The different countries, essentially, were saying that they can’t offer visas to anyone that was expelled or were deemed undesirable by their own country, and this was for their own economic protection. When Jews applied to the Argentinian government for visas many lied and said their were Christians, appealing the the Catholic presence in Argentina. Many immigrants entered Argentina illegally, as well. It wasn’t until January 1944 that Argentina cut relations with Germany and declared war against the Axis in March 1945.

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This is not to say that there weren’t Latin American countries and people who didn’t help Jews. Many did. Of the 26,120 Righteous Among the Nations, 6,000 were Latin American. For example, Manuel Antonio Muñoz Borrero, of Ecuador, sent 80 blank visas to Istanbul which were distributed to Poles, most of whom were Jews. This was against his country’s foreign policy, and he risked his life to do so, which is why he is considered Righteous Among the Nations.

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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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Research Forum, Seminars

Dr. Dan Michman | Holocaust or Shoah?

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 second topic: “Shoah, Holocaust and More: The Emergence and Distribution of Terms Designating the Holocaust.”

Dr. Michman says, “there is an importance to names, because a name is a definition.” Some names are invented like “computer.” This name had to be designated with the invention of the computer. Other times, an old word is used to describe a new phenomenon, but the semantics are different. This is the case with the Nazi and collaborator persecution of the Jews within the period of time that includes the murder of six million Jews during World War II.

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The first term Dr. Michman discussed is Shoah (Show-AH). This is a Hebrew word for destruction or ruin, see in Isaiah 10:3, and Psalms 35:8. The more common translation is destruction. Ben-Zion Dinaburg’s used the term in a speech, “Fate and Destiny in our Generation,” June 1945. Other documents use the term Shoah as early as 1933. Michman says, “The term became so loaded it became sanctified.” Now the only proper use of the word Shoah is in relation to the specific murder of about six million Jews by Nazis and their collaborators. It used to be that one could use the term Shoah for an economic depression, in modern Hebrew they now use other words.

Some survivors use the term “catastrophe.” When Phillip Friedman was liberated his first order of business was documenting the Jewish Catastrophe. One of his students, Hilburg, uses the term Jewish Catastrophe in a letter from 1955. The popular name in modern Russian is something close to Catastropha. While the common modern French reference is, “Shoah.”

Another popular name was “Hours/Days/Years of Wrath.” In the Warsaw cemetery a memorial stone says: “In commemoration of martyrs, to those murdered by the Nazis in the Years of Wrath, 1939-1945.” This also gives a time period of the Years of Wrath, as 1939-1945. In September of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, some say this is this the start of the Years of Wrath. Others would argue that they Years of Wrath started in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Very Orthodox circles still use this term, “The Years of Wrath,” which has religious significance in the Torah.

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Other terms include: Cataclysm, Extinction, The German Extermination of the Jews, Untergang (German: Downfall), Hurban (Chour-bahn | Hebrew: Destruction, Talmudic term).

Finally, we arrive at the term Holocaust. The origin of the word Holocaust is Greek. In Greek, Holokauston means an entirely burnt sacrifice, which is used in the Greek translation of the Bible. Before the Holocaust, the word was used for a wide variety of significant disasters. In the 1950’s Yad Vashem started using the term, but the use of “Holocaust” was not singular, still the word was used to describe other atrocities such as the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, WI, which is about slavery in America. The term was popularized as the term we use today, in singular reference to the Holocaust, by the 1978 TV series called “Holocaust.” Since then it has been cemented as the only term to describe the Holocaust in English. The term has been broadening in recent years to include other people groups killed by the Nazis: Roma, the Mentally Handicapped, Poles, and more other groups, in total approximately 12 million people murdered.

In 1948, the UN used the word, Genocide to describe the event. For several decades afterward genocide was used exclusively in relation to the specific persecution of the Jews. Unfortunately, genocide now applies to many other global events. Despite human effort to say “Never Again,” genocide continues.

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Current Students

“May God Eradicate Their Name”

This post is written by student, Meredith Scott:

Shabbat is a new experience for me, but one I would like to continue to celebrate. This week I had the pleasure of joining the Rabbi and his family for Shabbat from the Chabad at the Technion in Haifa. Every week they invite students to join them for Shabbat.

After dinner the Rabbi sat with me and my friends and started telling us this story:

In 1987 there was a theft case, that was decided by the American Judicial System. Someone had been stealing books from a Chabad library that was over 200 years old. The Rabbi that pursued the suit was one that had fled occupied France, the thief was a great grandson of one of the Rabbis that had started the library. The grandson felt that he was entitled to the books because it was his inheritance. But the Rabbi said, no this is our inheritance, the communities’ inheritance. The Rabbi emphasized the importance of the community rather than the importance of the individual. He argued that the library belonged to the community, not the founders of the library, therefore the man who took the books was stealing from the community. In the end the American Judicial System ruled in favor of the Rabbi.

When the Rabbi was talking about the Nazis that the old Rabbi had fled from, after he said their name he said “May God eradicate their name.” I had read this phrase before in a reading for the course, “Final Solution,” with Dr. David Silberklang, because I’m not Jewish I didn’t understand the significance of the phrase, and it bothered me. Fortunately, living in Israel, I have access to many resources that can answer my questions.  I went up to the Rabbi while we were getting ready to leave and I asked him what this phrase meant.

He said in Judaism, specifically within Chabad, speech is a powerful component of daily life. God created the world with just words. The Rabbi said, in order to not give anymore power to the name of Nazi, and the evil they represent, he says “May God eradicate their name,” after saying the name. Or in other words, “May God take power from the name of Nazi, and stop this evil’s impact.” In our conversation, he said the Nazis were more than just a group of hateful people, it was evil enacted, and this evil should not have reign in our world.

The reading that I first read the phrase in was about a village in Lithuania. It was a letter from a man whose family was killed by the Einsatzgruppe. He was in hiding with his son, eventually they were caught and killed as well. The letter was addressed to a family member to warn them about what was happening. In the Lithuanian village all of the Jews were murdered, this story is abnormal. When the man mentioned the name, Nazi, he would follow it by writing, “may God eradicate their name.”

The Rabbi also said to me, maybe you can think of this in your studies, the German government was secular, based on manmade law. Law that could be molded into the evils of Nazism. He reminded me that Germany was the first country to have animal rights laws, and workers rights laws. The Nazi government worked hard to increase the quality of life and wages for German workers. But because the law was manmade and was not subject to a higher power, and it was perverted. The Nazis were convinced the Holocaust was right, may God eradicate their name.

It’s amazing to me to live in Israel and learn about Judaism in my daily life. If I had read this document in the States and come across the term “may God eradicate their name,” getting to the resources to answer this question would have been very difficult for me as a non-Jew. But in Israel, I am invited to Rabbi’s homes for Shabbat dinner, and invited to philosophical discussions with them.

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Guest Lecturers

Dr. Efraim Zuroff Opens the Spring Semester  

IMG_2330.JPGThe first speaker our students had the privilege of hearing at the opening session of the Research Forum for the spring semester was Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who is currently the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. For the past 36 years Zuroff has been involved in the efforts to track down and help bring Nazi war criminals to justice, initially (1980-1986) as sole researcher in Israel for the Office of Special Investigations of the United States Justice Department, and for the past 26 years (1986-2016) as the chief Nazi-hunter of the Wiesenthal Center.

Zuroff began his talk by discussing the latest book he co-authored with Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite that was published last month. The book, Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), is currently number one on the Lithuanian bestseller list. It sold 2,000 copies in the first 48 hours and is in its 4th printing. Vanagaite reached out to Zuroff to co-author a book on Holocaust complicity on the part of Lithuanians after she discovered that her grandfather and her aunt’s husband collaborated with the Nazis to murder Jews. The first part of the book is historical research on the collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis across multiple segments of society. The second part of the book details Zuroff and Vanagaite’s joint visit to 35 sites of mass murder in Lithuania and Belarus where the Nazis and their local collaborators shot Jews during the Holocaust. The pair searched for and interviewed eyewitnesses who reported that local Lithuanians carried out the murders.

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Zuroff likened the book to Jan Gross’ Neighbors because it has succeeded in opening up discussion on Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis in the mass murdered of over 90% of the country’s Jewish community. Lithuanian society, like that of other Eastern European countries, has suffered from a history of Holocaust distortion. Lithuanians have denied the widespread local collaboration in the mass murder of Jews and advocated a double genocide theory, which holds that there were two equal genocides – the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis ad the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Zuroff said he has worked in Lithuania for 25 years but everything he said went in one ear and out the other. It took a book co-authored by a respected Lithuanian who acknowledged her own family’s role in the Holocaust to get the message across.

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After speaking to our students about these recent developments in Lithuania Zuroff turned to his work tracking down and getting countries to prosecute former Nazis. He spoke about the complexities of bringing these cases to trial and why it is so important to do so. Zuroff explained that after WWII the legal system couldn’t deal with prosecuting all former members of the regime and so the decision was made to go after the main leaders and officers only. There was also eagerness on the part of German society to move on and be done with the Nazi past. This allowed many Nazis to escape the justice system. While many Nazis used the so called rat lines to escape to South America some found refuge in western democracies like the US or Britain by either being knowingly admitted in order to help with Cold War scientific or espionage efforts or the vast majority by lying on their immigration and naturalization forms. As these former Nazis were identified the trouble was that they couldn’t be prosecuted in the US for crimes committed outside the country. Instead, they were prosecuted for lying on the immigration and or naturalization forms. The trouble with what Zuroff termed the Capone compromise is that the sentence was light and not commensurate with the crime.

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Zuroff argued that we shouldn’t stop prosecuting former Nazis. He believes their continued trials are of the utmost importance for justice, education, and the prevention of Holocaust denial and distortion. Zuroff said the passage of time doesn’t diminish the crime, age shouldn’t protect someone from prosecution, we owe it to the victims to prosecute former Nazis, and continued prosecution sends an important message about justice. Zuroff stated that so many Nazis got away with their crimes that it is not obvious there will be a consequence for crimes against humanity, which is one reason why “never again” has not been fulfilled. Zuroff’s talk was passionate and interesting and our students enjoyed the opportunity to hear from the only Nazi hunter.

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/

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Guest Lecturers

Jan Gross: Interviewed by Student of Holocaust Studies MA Program

IMG_2265 (2)We were privileged to welcome Professor Jan Gross to our program, and learned so much from his dialogue with our student Pe’era Feldman-Gordon.  Pe’era came with questions that ranged from asking about his childhood to his experience as an activist, which provided us all with a nuanced perspective on his research.  He discussed the controversies surrounding his research in Poland, and much more.

We’re happy to share the entire interview with you:

IMG_2295 (2)IMG_2305 (2)Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/

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