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Lighting the Hanukkah Candles

It is our tradition at the JFR to light candles during Hanukkah.  Last night we lit our menorah, a gift from Board Chairman Harvey Schulweis, to celebrate the final night of Hanukkah.  Although we have a mixed staff of different backgrounds and beliefs, we all came together to share in this special ritual. 

Development Program Associate Deborah Wax lighting the candles; staff members who knew the Hanukkah blessings sang them.

The JFR team, with our beautiful menorah lit for the final night of Hanukkah.

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Recognizing a Lerner Fellow

Larry Grimes and his wife.

At the dinner we also honored 2010 Lerner Fellow Larry Grimes, who was awarded the Robert I. Goldman award for exceptional dedication to Holocaust education.  After attending the JFR’s Summer Institute for Teachers and European Study Program this past year, Larry was able to institute a year-long Holocaust honors class at his school, Bayshore Christian School.  Larry’s dedication to educating his students about the Holocaust and his commitment to learning about the subject make him very deserving of the Goldman Award. 

Larry Grimes, giving a speech after receiving the Goldman Award.

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Honoring a Local Philanthropist

Last Tuesday, November 30 the JFR honored Newmark Knight Frank chairman Jeffrey Gural at its annual dinner at the Waldorf=Astoria.  The evening was memorable; with over 750 people in attendance we raised close to 1 million dollars!  The dinner chair was Barry Gosin, Jeff’s business partner, and he spoke about Jeff’s widespread philanthropic actions, and mentioned particularly the good Jeff has done for New York City.  Jeffrey spoke about the courage of righteous rescuers like Wladyslaw Misiuna and the importance of supporting the mission of the JFR. 

Dinner Chair Barry Gosin (left) and Dinner Honoree Jeffrey Gural (right)

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Reuniting a Rescuer and a Survivor

Wladyslaw Misiuna and Sara Marmurek reunited at the JFK airport

The two being honored at the annual dinner.

On Tuesday, November 23, rescuer Wladyslaw Misiuna and Sara Marmurk were reunited at the JFK airport – the two had not seen each other since the end of the war.  This much anticipated reunion was emotional and meaningful for the two as well as those who witnessed it.  Wladyslaw and Sara were then honored at our annual dinner a week later, where Sara Marmurek stated that her reunion with Wladyslaw “has given her life closure.”

Both had the opportunity to speak and express gratitude, adding to the very moving evening.

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Mourning in Birkenau

Remnants of a cremetorium in Birkenau.

Just as we spent one full day in Auschwitz, so too did we spend the entire next day in Birkenau, a camp that functioned differently but was equal in horror to Auschwitz.  We visited Barrack 1, where people lived in filth, with sleeping quarters for many on the dirt ground.  We visited other similar camp structures, where we are meant to imagine how people struggled to live in the most unimaginable living conditions.  We were also able to see the crematoria, many of which were dynamited toward the end of the war in order to destroy evidence of mass murder by this method.  When looking at the ruins of these structures and learning about how the crematoria and central sauna worked, it is very upsetting to realize the intricacy, detail, planning, and intelligence that went into their creation.  These structures are prime examples of how human progress can be used for pure evil.

The birch forest, where Jews selected for murder would await their death. The camp takes its name from these trees.

Another upsetting site for our group was the waiting area in the woods where arrivals from transports deemed unfit for work would await their deaths.  This site was especially important for our teachers who teach the book Night, which talks about the fear of these people who were forced to wait, afraid and uncertain, during the last moments of their lives.  It is also a reminder of the camp’s name, Birkenau, which means birch trees; the Nazis took something beautiful and pure in nature and made it a part of the camp.  The contrast of these trees in the camp, along with knowing that the woods were a waiting area for those who would be gassed impacted our entire group. 

Before leaving Birkenau we stopped at the spot in the road where transports disembarked and Dr. Mengele instantaneously determined the fate of so many.  Instead of helping people, as a doctor should, he pointed people to their deaths. 

The selection point, where prisoners were deemed fit or unfit for labor. Those deemed unfit were sent down this path, where they were then taken to a gas chamber and murdered.

As we turned and left the camp down the long road, we mourned those whose lives were stripped away and who were brutally murdered at this site.

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Trying to make sense of Auschwitz

The main road into Auschwitz.

We began what would be a very long day at Auschwitz.  Upon arrival, Robert Jan van Pelt gave a lecture just outside the camp gate, and I will never be able to look at barbed wire the same way again.  He began with the idea that a camp is “any place surrounded by barbed wire.”  We learned that barbed wire was originally created by a farmer in Illinois, and that it had, in fact, been used during World War I.  Unlike animals who can withstand the barbed wire, humans can be severely injured by barbed wire and it can even inflict death.  Additionally, barbed wire is such a powerful symbol of war and enslavement in the modern age.  With barbed wire, prisoners are exposed and visible to their capturers.  Likewise, the prisoner is able to see the outside world, but he or she is unable to reach it.  Barbed wire is not only a brutal tool of war and imprisonment, it is also a form of cruel psychological torture for those it bounds.

Professor van Pelt, teaching about concentration camps and barbed wire.

Looking at Auschwitz from the outside also forces one to think about the role of concentration camps in war.  The Nazis and Communists believed fervently in the usage of concentration camps, Robert Jan explain to us, as a means of gaining control through torture.  There are many theories of what constitutes a camp.  In Giorgio Agamben’s “What is a Camp?” he claims it is a place where your civil rights are suspended.  In a place like Auschwitz, however, the camp stripped prisoners not only of civil rights but also of basic human rights.  In Hannah Arendt’s “Origins on Totalitarianism,” she defines three tiers of camps, with Auschwitz falling into tier three, the most inhumane, where people become so sick and hungry that they are devoid of their individualism.

Before walking into Auschwitz we learned about the origins of the symbolic gate, with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI,” or “work sets you free.”  Aside from being a form of mockery, we learned that the sign was created by a Polish prisoner.  The “B” in “Arbeit” is upside-down, and the reason for this is unknown; perhaps it was an intentional design, or perhaps it was an act of defiance on behalf of the prisoner.  In December 2009 the sign was stolen and cut into pieces; it was later recovered, but the sign that currently hangs over the gate is a reproduction and not the original.

As our group entered the camp, we could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom entering as visitors, free to leave at will. 

We spent the entire day in Auschwitz.  Our time was very informative and included a guided tour by Pavel Savicki, head of Communication at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, of many of the exhibition barracks and the artifact restoration center.  While we learned and saw so much, it is difficult to write about our experience, as we learned about the unspeakable horrors that occurred inside the camp.  The same can be said of trying to communicate the prisoner experience; no words can truly depict the suffering of prisoners of Auschwitz.

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Touring Jewish Krakow

We drove from Lublin to Krakow, arriving at Krakow very late at night.  We then spent the entire next day touring Krakow.  The first place we visited was Podgorze, where the Jewish ghetto was located and which was and still is the worst section of Krakow and is separated from the rest of the city by the Vistula river.  A memorial now stands at the ghetto collection and deportation site, which is also the site of a terrible massacre.     

The restored cemetery in Krakow.


 We crossed into the main area of Krakow where we visited the still-intact Jewish quarter of the city, known as Kazimierz.  We visited the old Jewish cemetery, which was desecrated by the Nazis but has since been partially restored.  A wall stands in the cemetery made up of broken matzevot that could not be properly restored as burial markers.   

The wall made up of broken gravestones in the Krakow cemetery.


Additionally our group visited the only active synagogue of Krakow, the Remuh Synagogue, which is designed in the modern German style with the pulpit in front.  Our group noted how it differed from the Tykocin synagogue, which is in the Eastern style with the pulpit in the center.  Professor van Pelt explained that because German Jews came to Krakow during the 13th century when the black plague was rampant, there was a strong German influence in the traditions of Krakowian Jews.  We also learned that after the year 1800 Jews who could afford to do so were allowed to move out of the confines of the Jewish quarter into other parts of the city.  This helped our group to understand that Jews had a place in the mosaic of the city of Krakow; they did not exist in a separate realm as they did in other cities across Europe.  

Our group also had the opportunity to visit the Galicia Jewish Museum, where we were given a guided tour by the museum’s Director, Kate Craddy.  The museum’s permanent exhibition is a collection of photographs that document the lives of Jews in the Galicia region of Poland.  The museum and exhibit were conceptualized by the late Chris Schwarz, a photographer determined to show and teach about Jewish life in the region prior to the Holocaust. 

Following this visit our group had some free time in Krakow before we departed for Osweicim, the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz, where we would spend the next four days and nights.

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Moving through Poland: from Warsaw to Majdanek to Krakow

The synagogue in Kazimierz Dolny.

We left the Warsaw area to travel east toward the concentration camp Majdanek, which is right outside of Lublin.  During our journey we stopped at Kazimierz Dolny, a quaint Polish town that is now a popular day-trip destination for Poles and was once home to a sizable Jewish population.  One of the attractions of Kazimierz Dolny is the town synagogue, which is still in tact although no longer functional.  It is only very recently that historic Jewish sites are now of interest in Poland.     

            We continued on toward Lublin, which we learned is actually a very old German city that was German-controlled for a time.  When the German army declared war on Poland in 1939 and began their military campaign to control Europe, they re-conquered Lublin.  They thought that Lublin would be a critical strategic city, or a military “hinge” for conquering areas northeast and southeast of Poland.  For this reason, Majdanek was set up nearby as a concentration camp where prisoners would work to support the German war effort.  Majdanek was one of the first camps to be liberated, and some of its buildings have remained in tact and have been preserved.  This preservation has enabled visitors to develop an idea of what a concentration camp looked like, but there is still no way that we can imagine what life in the camp was actually like, or how horrifying the camp was when it was operational.    

            The grounds itself are chilling; the fact that the camp so closely resembles how it once looked makes it a very upsetting place to visit.  Our group walked into a few of the barracks that now function as exhibits.  One barrack that holds thousands of pairs of prisoners’ shoes was particularly moving.  Tragically this barrack caught fire shortly after our return home, and many of those important shoe-artifacts were destroyed.     

The ashpit at Majdanek.

Majdanek was one of the six death camps, and we know that Jews were put through extreme torture and suffering, and that 75,000 died there.  This fact is reinforced by the camp’s ashpit, which still holds the ashes of former prisoners.  Looking at the ashpit is a disturbing reminder of the thousands of families who were completely wiped out and reduced to nothing but ashes.     

 Our group left Majdanek in silence, unable to speak about the unsettling experience of visiting the camp.

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Tracing the path of the Jews of Tykocin

The restored Tykocin synagogue

Professor Robert Jan van Pelt teaching us about the structure of the Tykocin synagogue. In the background is the central pulpit, a feature of older synagogues in Eastern Europe.

 Our second full day in Poland was an especially moving and emotional day for our group.  We traveled outside of Warsaw to the small village of Tykocin, once home to a few thousand Jews but is now home to none.  The town looks virtually unchanged since the 19th century, and the town’s refurbished (but not functional) synagogue adds to this effect.  We were able to visit the synagogue, which is beautiful and modeled in the old, eastern style of synagogues, with a pulpit in the middle and prayers written on the walls so that those people who could not

A prayer on the wall of the Tykocin synagogue

afford prayer books could read along.  Additionally, we visited the Jewish cemetery in Tykocin, which is almost undistinguishable because most of the gravestones were destroyed and all that remains is an overgrown field.  Professor Robert Jan van Pelt then told us about how all of the Jews in the town were rounded up in the square, with the message that they were being relocated.  There was no way for these Jewish people to know what was to come.  

One of the few remaining gravestones from the Tykocin cemetery

Professor Robert Jan van Pelt then guided us through an experiential exercise, where our group traced the steps of the Tykocin Jews by following their exact path on a silent bus ride to the nearby forest.  We then walked slowly down a path in the lush, green woods to an unknown destination.  At the end of the path we realized there was a mass grave, and we learned the horrifying fate of the Tykocin Jews.  The contrast of the mass grave with the bucolic forest was surreal and disturbing; the Jews of Tykocin were murdered on a similar summer day.  We lit memorial candles for these people, and thought about the generations of Jews whose lineage ended in this spot.   

From the memorial at Treblinka, a stone bearing the name of a village from where murdered prisoners originally came

We then continued to the Treblinka death camp, a place of absolute horror where between 770,000-925,000 people, mostly Jewish, were murdered.  The camp was only operational for a brief time, and operated on a very low budget.  The camp site was destroyed by the Germans in the fall of 1943.  What remains are three symbolic mass graves with jagged stones marked with cities throughout Poland from which Jews were deported and murdered.  These stones are especially significant because in many instances entire Jewish populations from these cities and towns were murdered at Treblinka.  The raw evil and destruction of the Holocaust is made apparent when visiting Treblinka.   

These sobering and overwhelming experiences marked a major turning point in our trip.  Our group took time to reflect on the enormity of life extinguished in a short period of time.   

From the memorial site at Treblinka.

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Honoring the Righteous

Our group with U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein (center.)

JFR Executive Vice President Stanlee Stahl, US Ambassador Lee Feinstein, JFR Senior Program Associate Agnieszka Perzan, rescuer Lucyna Bauer and her husband.

Our Sunday afternoon in Warsaw was dedicated to the righteous rescuers in Warsaw.   The JFR hosted almost 44 rescuers and their guests, as well as Rabbi Michael Schudwich, chief Rabbi of Poland, U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein, and Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner.  The luncheon was very successful; our teachers were able to connect with rescuers on a personal level.  A few teachers have already initiated efforts to “adopt” rescuers for their classes.  It is very important to bring the stories of these righteous people back to our classrooms in the United States so that their acts of incredible humility are not forgotten. 

Teacher Rosie Sansalone Alway with Jadwiga Sliwczynska, the wife of the rescuer Mr. Jerzy Sliwczynski, the former President of the Polish Society of the Righteous.

Teacher Nikki Allen with rescuer Leszek Klewicki, wife Bozena Klewicka, and grandson Tomasz Klewicki.

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Visiting Warsaw

From the Warsaw ghetto uprising memorial; this side shows strength and perseverance.

Most of Warsaw was destroyed during World War II, so the Holocaust sites we visited in Warsaw are remnants or memorials.  Our group visited the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, where the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is currently being built.  While there is little to see of the former ghetto, our group was able to discuss the Warsaw ghetto uprising memorial by Natan Rappaport, which stands across from the museum site and has two very different faces.  The first side we viewed, which most people consider the back of the memorial, conveys a message of despair, and represents the destruction of the Jews and, perhaps, the crushed uprising.  The other side of the memorial, however, emanates a completely different message: that of strength and perseverance.  Although they convey different messages, the two faces of this memorial remind viewers of the double narrative of the Warsaw ghetto.  Amidst the despair of life in the ghetto, and the feeling of helplessness against destruction, the Warsaw ghetto Uprising has become one of the symbols of armed resistance during the Holocaust.

The Zegota memorial.

To the side of the Warsaw ghetto memorial is Zegota memorial, dedicated to that part of the Polish underground which helped Jews during the Holocaust.  Beloved rescuer Irena Sendler was head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, and we remember that it was her efforts and the efforts of Zegota that helped to save Jewish men, women, and children.  The memorial, dedicated in 1946, is “for those who died for dignity of the Jewish nation and for the Polish nation.”  A few days prior to our arrival in Warsaw, Irena Sendler’s grave had been desecrated with antisemitic graffiti.  By the time we visited her grave, at the end of our time in Warsaw, the graffiti had been cleared and sanctity was restored.

We were also able to visit the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, which is a very important site because it is one of the only remaining links to the generations of Jews who lived in the city.  The cemetery, which is very densely packed, was one of the few places where the Jewish community was given land, so the cemetery traditionally served as a central place for Jewish communities throughout Poland.  When walking through this cemetery and looking closely at the matzevot, there is a sense of the rich Jewish life that once was, and that will never be. 

The memorial at Umschlagplatz;  the crack is meant to symbolize the narrow possibility to escape.  We also visited Umschlagplatz, the only place in Warsaw to retain its German name, where some 350,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka.

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Exploring Berlin Further: Memorials, Museums, and Sites

One of the icons from the memorial at Bayerischer Platz

Our second day in Berlin was just as full as our first.  We began our day at Bayerischer Platz, an area in Berlin where Jews were forced to move out of their homes by the Nazis.  We visited this area because it has a very unique memorial to commemorate and lament the draconian laws forced upon Jewish Berliners.  Throughout the area there are small square icon-like pictures that are meant to evoke the children’s game “Memory”, where each icon corresponds to a measure or law forced upon Jews.  This poignant memorial is a constant reminder of the restricted life of Jews in Nazi Germany, and each icon represents freedoms taken away from Jews.  We were fortunate enough to be able to purchase the books that explain all of the icons, and our teachers are hoping to develop a classroom activity using these signs.

The corresponding law on the back of the icon; the law stated that "At Bayerischer Platz, Jews may sit only on yellow marked park benches."

We left for Brandenburg Gate, the iconic symbol of Berlin where Robert Jan van Pelt gave a brilliant lecture about the gate’s place in German history.  Throughout time the gate has taken on many different meanings.  Professor van Pelt peeled back the layers of history of the gate for us, and we were able to see how closely the tangible gate is intertwined with the intangible idea of the German Spirit.  Brandenburg Gate was even a symbol of German Nationalism before Germany became a unified state.  The Nazis also perceived the gate as a symbol of German Nationalism, and when they won the January 30, 1933 election they marched through Brandenburg Gate as a way to reinforce the Nazi party as the backbone of German strength and power.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

We then had some free time to look at the gate and reflect on Professor van Pelt’s lecture, which illuminated for our group so many facets of modern German history.

 Following this we went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a museum that chronicles the history of German Jews from their arrival in Germany in the late 9th century through the modern age.  The museum’s architecture, designed by Daniel Libeskind, seeks to tell the story of the German Jewish experience. 

Our group then departed Germany on a train to Poland, where the second leg of our trip would commence.

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Exploring Berlin and Dining with a Rescuer

The Denkmal, or the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" in Berlin.

Following our visit to the Wannsee House we went to the Denkmal (which means monument in German) or the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”  The memorial, which is less than ten years old, is controversial because it is a very abstract outdoor monument, completely open to the public with no explanation as to how one should interpret the memorial.  The memorial is demarcated by a square area, which consists of concrete stones.  The stones start off small and get progressively larger as one goes deeper into the monument.  The ground inside the monument is uneven, and the feeling you get walking through is that of uneasiness and confusion.  One popular interpretation of the Denkmal is that walking through the monument symbolizes the European Jewish experience: uncertain and unstable. 

Below the Denkmal is an underground museum dedicated to educating about the murder of Jews in Europe.  We met with the Head of Education at the museum who talked to us about the history of the Denkmal from its inception to the addition of the underground museum, which was built to work in conjunction with the Denkmal and was added as a compromise in order to give an explanation of the site.  Our group was given time to walk through the museum, where we viewed the museum’s very stirring exhibitions.  One particularly poignant exhibit highlighted letters written from Holocaust victims to relatives and friends; we learned that many of the authors of these telling documents were later murdered.

The "Neue Synagoge" in Berlin.

After leaving the museum we were able to walk through different parts of Berlin, and were able to see the famous Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue or the Neue Synagoge, recognizable by its golden dome.  It is a gorgeous synagogue, and it is a miracle that the synagogue survived the war.  We learned from Robert Jan van Pelt that the dome of this synagogue never burned.  The famous picture taken of the synagogue during kristallnacht (the November Pogrom), where the synagogue dome appears to be burning, is actually an illusion; it was the building directly behind the synagogue that was aflame.  The survival of this synagogue is attributed to a police officer, who refused to let the synagogue be destroyed on kristallnacht.

We concluded our eventful day by having dinner with rescuer Frieda Adam.  We were able to ask her questions and, with the help of Robert Jan van Pelt’s translating, express our awe of her.  Our group was honored to be in her presence; at 92 she remains a model of courage and humility for all.  Frieda has been supported by the JFR for almost 19 years and throughout the evening she thanked us for the help.  Frieda continues to live in the same apartment building where she hid a Jewish brother and sister for three years.

The JFR Education staff (Kristen Lefebvre, Stanlee Stahl and Larissa Shulman) with rescuer Frieda Adam.

We were also accompanied by Professor Atina Grossmann who lectures at the JFR’s Summer Institute for Teachers and Dr. Kathrin Meyer, Executive Secretary of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.  Both Professor Grossmann and Dr. Meyer were in Berlin and were able to join us for dinner and to meet our teachers.

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Learning about the Memorials of Grunewald Station and Visiting the Wannsee House

The memorial near the entrance of Grunewald Station

We traveled from Buchenwald to Berlin Thursday night, enabling us to have the entire next day in and around this historic city.  We began our day at the Grunewald Rampe, which is the railroad station in Berlin from which Jewish Berliners were deported.  The selection of this station by the Germans is significant.  The Grunewald Station is in a beautiful, upper-class section of Berlin, an area where many Jews once called home.  The station now contains two memorials commemorating the deportation of Jews from the capital. 

The second memorial at Grunewald Station, constructed by the German Railroad Company.

The first memorial is located near the entrance of the station and commemorates the Jews from Berlin who were deported.  The memorial contains sunken-relief silhouettes of figures, which are perhaps meant to depict the disappearance and absence of these people as a result of the transports.  While this memorial is moving, our group found the second memorial to be even more meaningful.  This is because the second memorial, which was constructed by the German Railroad company, is dedicated to the “Jewish citizens of Berlin.”  This phrasing is interesting because these deported Jews are now regarded as former citizens of Berlin.  At the time, however, they were not considered citizens.  The memorial consists of small plaques which line the tracks that give the date, the number of deportees and the destination of each transport that left the station.  These plaques represent a disturbing chronology of the Holocaust as you see the frequency of the transports and the number of deportees increase over time, and then decrease as Berlin became virtually void of Jews.  The fact that the German Railroad Company played such an integral role in the deportation and subsequent murder of so many Jews adds another layer to this memorial, where it can be seen as a form of reparation on the company’s behalf.          

We left Grunewald Station for the House of the Wannsee Conference, which is a museum that educates about the Wannsee Conference, the events leading up to it, and its consequences.  The Wannsee Conference, which took place on January 20, 1942 and was attended by a small group of high-ranking Nazi officials, was the meeting at which the “Final Solution” was officially organized.  During the conference, Nazi officials and agencies determined the logistics and responsibilities for implementing the so-called “Final Solution” of the Jewish “problem,” establishing the SS as the highest German authority on the problem.  Wolf Kaiser, Deputy-Director of the Wannsee House, gave us an in-depth tour of the exhibition, explaining both the history of the house as well as the history of the Wannsee Conference and its significance within the history of the Holocaust.  What was chilling for our group to learn was how the “Final Solution” was conceptualized over time.  The Wannsee Conference was not a single event where the “Final Solution” was first conceptualized, but rather, it was the sum of ideas about murdering the Jews in mass numbers. 

At the Wannsee House, learning from Wolf Kaiser (center). In the glass case is the only remaining copy of the notes from the Wannsee Conference, tangible proof that the conference took place.

After learning about the difficult history of the “Final Solution”, Wolf let us walk around the museum on our own and then took us to the education center to discuss how the Holocaust is taught in Germany.  It was interesting to hear Wolf, who is an important international figure in Holocaust education, talk about some of the obstacles and issues he faces when educating teachers and their students in both Germany and Europe.  Usually these issues have to do with time constraints because teachers can spend only a limited time teaching the subject and are therefore not able to cover the subject in-depth with students.

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Learning about Buchenwald

After our morning visit to Weimar, we spent the afternoon in Buchenwald, which is a mere fifteen minutes outside of Weimar but feels like a separate world.  We learned that the area was once a popular hiking destination for Weimarians, and that Goethe has a special tree on the premises where he wrote one of his most well-known pieces of literature.  Knowing this history made the contrast of Buchenwald and Weimar more shocking.           

Site of the former Buchenwald Zoo

The vast expanse of Buchenwald contains little of the original camp, but the main camp area has been left as an empty field with a few remaining buildings as a way to memorialize what was once there.  We learned first about the administration of the camp, initially headed by the commandant Karl Koch.  Koch was notorious for making conditions for inmates especially humiliating and treacherous.  Koch would force Jewish prisoners to perform Jewish songs and dances, and he instituted a camp band made up of inmates.  There was also a zoo, where the animals were well fed, in full view of the inmates and directly across from the camp crematoria.  These obscene forms of mockery show how Koch’s administration took vestiges of enjoyment from Jewish prisoners’ former lives and used them as a form of torture.  We learned, additionally, that Koch’s wife, Ilsa, was equally evil and would hand-pick good-looking prisoners from transports to work in her private residence.

Koch also instituted a store at Buchenwald, which further demonstrates how ordinary life was completely distorted for prisoners in the camp.  Koch set up a system where inmates could “earn” money and purchase goods that were brought into the camp cheaply but were sold for double what they cost.  This store was the brainchild of Himmler, who was surprised after visiting Buchenwald that there was no incentive for prisoners to work hard.  It is also worth noting that homosexuals were barred from using the Buchenwald store.

After learning about these different facets of the camp, it is evident how Buchenwald became a contorted version of reality.  The camp became its own municipality and although it was modeled on aspects of ordinary life, it served as a horrific alternate universe.  Knowing this allows for a better understanding of Nazi mentality and provides insight into how guards were able to justify their actions inside the camp.

A box of combs from the artifacts center at Buchenwald

Buchenwald has an extensive artifact and restoration center, which we were able to visit because of our contacts.  We saw a number of different personal possessions including combs, bowls, brushes, and toys.  It was very moving to view these objects, which seem to speak volumes on their own about life in the camp. 

 Inscribed on the gates of Buchenwald are the words “JEDEM DAS SEINE.”  This is literally translated as “To each his own,” but it can also mean “Everyone gets what he deserves.” After American forces liberated the camp on April 11, 1945 Buchenwald was converted into a Soviet prisoner camp where former Nazis were inmates.  These words were then turned around and interpreted to mean that the Nazis were getting what they deserved as prisoners of the Soviets. 

We left Buchenwald by walking to the memorial for the camp constructed by the GDR.  This led to a discussion with Robert Jan van Pelt about the role of memorials in providing a proper entrance and conclusion to a memorial site.  The memorial begins as a descent, where seven large steles with engraved depictions of pain and suffering represent the seven years that the National Socialists operated the camp.  The themes on the stones then change to those of perseverance and triumph, and continue until the very bottom of the descent.  The memorial continues with large stones with the names of the home countries of those individuals who were murdered in the camp. 

Sculpture of Soviet workers from the monument at Buchenwald, which was constructed by the GDR.

On the ascent back up, and the climax of the memorial, one initially sees the tower of freedom.  During the climb, however, a sculpture of a group of Soviet workers comes into view, giving the feeling of exuberant victory.   The Soviets, however, did not liberate Buchenwald; American troops did.  Experiencing the walk through this memorial and listening to Professor van Pelt’s insights and interpretation helped us to see the memorial through a different lens.  Though it was not Soviet prisoners of war nor Soviet troops who liberated Buchenwald, that is the message the memorial portrays.  Instead of representing events as they occurred, this monument seems to rewrite history. 

As we walked back to our bus to proceed to our next destination, we had plenty of food for thought.

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Walking through Weimar

In Weimar, statue of Goethe and Schiller

We spent the morning walking through the city of Weimar, the long-time cultural center of Germany.  The 1,111-year-old city is beautiful and has a fascinating history.  Not only was the city home to German cultural figures Goethe and Schiller, but it was also the place of origin for Bauhaus architecture and style.  Our guide, Alexander, took us through the city, showing the homes of Goethe and Schiller and recounting interesting aspects of their public and personal lives while in Weimar.  Our group also saw the first Bauhaus building constructed, which Weimarians criticized as looking like a public toilet! After walking through the charming Goethe Park, Alexander took us to the famous Hotel Elephant, where Napoleon once stayed and politicians now stay.  We also learned that this was Hitler’s hotel of choice when he stayed in Weimar, and we were reminded that when he came to power Hitler was very popular in Weimar. 

Alexander also discussed the history of the Weimar Republic.  After World War I Weimar became an attractive prospect as the capital city of Germany because it seemed safe and far removed from the roiled political parties in Berlin, Munich, and other larger German cities.  The Weimar Republic, as it was known, officially began on August 11, 1919 and lasted until 1933.  The Weimar Republic was stigmatized because during its time Germany endured horrible economic downturn and social angst.  Many Jewish citizens were active in the Weimar government; this, in part, laid the foundation for the antisemitism that spread during the 1920s.  Being in this beautiful city and knowing about the unrest in the days of the Weimar Republic is difficult, and it is sometimes hard to believe that this quaint city was once the symbol of a devastated Germany.

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