TRACING THE HOLOCAUST’S HISTORY
FROM DESPERATION TO INSPIRATION
My travels to Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland fostered my deeper interest in Holocaust studies and humanitarian issues.
Traveling through history made me realize its parallels with present political and social affairs and inspired me to engage in humanitarian projects to promote tolerance, respect, and compassion
The Adventure of a Lifetime
Through extensively researching the Holocaust in the eighth grade for my National History Day project, my fascination with the topic grew. I still had so many questions unanswered. I was curious to dig deeper and deeper.
As an opportunity to travel to Europe in spring of 2016 arose, my family and I decided to dedicate this vacation predominantly to a Holocaust theme. We would be tracing the footsteps of history and stepping on the very grounds of massacre and tragedy.
I begin the trip with a deep desperation to understand how can the world remain silent as these atrocities perpetuated, but I realized that it was merely my misconception. Through this trip I discovered the many inspirational stories of righteous people, neighbors, groups, communities, businesses, and countries who stood up and helped. This motivated me always to speak up when I see things wrong.
April 9th, 2016
Fear and Misconceptions
We landed in Berlin. The thick, aggressive German accent was intimidating and overwhelming. The people appear so clean, so organized, and composed– just as was described through my research. When we finally arrived at our hotel, I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t help but notice the star of David necklace on my neck. I removed it out of fear. I didn’t know what to expect. Our days slowly progressed to heavier material.
Realization Through the Perspective of a Historian
Our tour guide Robert, had a PHD in history and specialized specifically in the Holocaust. We visited the current democratically- transparent preaching Reichstag and took a stroll through the abstract grey maze of oversized concrete blocks spread over an entire city block which was to be the “Berlin Holocaust Memorial.” On our second or third day, my family and I took a half hour drive over to the beautiful Wannsee Villa, where one of the most atrocious and destructive treaties in history was settled– the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. The museum inside of the Villa gives an informative outlook by displaying the original documents created and signed during the Wannsee Conference of 1942 and provided major details about what was discussed and what occurred as a consequence; an audio tape played in the background with voices quoting exactly what was said by the conference members.
No Nazi Sympathizers
Over the next few days, Robert showed us around several World War II museums, railroad stations from which millions of innocent people were deported, and took us to the non visible sight of Hitler’s suicide–his bunker. The German authorities built a parking lot atop this bunker, ensuring no Nazi sympathizers would even consider the thought of enshrining Hitler. On every street corner, where Jews, Gypsies, or persecuted minorities once lived, are brass inlays that state the victims’ name, the camp they were deported to, and their dates of birth and death. On every road was a sculpture or figure that commemorated the Holocaust. It is almost as if the whole city is still begging for forgiveness for actions they never committed themselves. They apologize and take responsibility on behalf of the evil Nazis who forced their fascist ideals on them.
As time in Berlin passed, I came to feel comfortable and greatly respected in the midst of these memorials. Although I can never forgive the Nazis for the crimes they committed against humanity, my impressions about Germany transformed; my respect and credibility for them increased. To this day, I am still so impressed as to how the German government goes about attempting to repair their nation’s mistakes. After spending three days or so in Berlin, we were headed to Prague. On the way however, we took a road trip down to the German-Czech border where we would have a day tour of Terezìn.
TEREZIN & PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC:
April 12, 2016
My research had informed me that Terezìn was a town on the German-Czech border that the Nazis constructed a ghetto and prison camp around. Not only was it a place to abuse innocent victims and later send them to camps, but it was advertised by the media as a resort hotel where Jews and workers would find opportunity and live comfortably, luxuriously, and happily. Obviously, this was not true; it was used as a trick to lure Jews into internment and would soon end most of their lives. At Terezìn, we were met by our tour guide Michaela. She gave us the detailed history the prison camp headquarters and the ghetto. While inside the barracks, she pointed out the hundreds of drawings that were displayed on the musty, yellow walls. These drawings were created by children and teen victims who had no other way to express themselves, but through art. They drew their meager fellow inmates and their vile surroundings; these unique primary source perspectives through art are rare. The images were erie and heartbreaking, and the children’s emotions were conveyed clearly through them. We were then seated in a theater, where the Terezin film commercial was projected. ‘Evil’ does not even describe these immoral actions of trickery and oppression.
INTERVIEWING DITTA KRAUS
The Librarian of Auschwitz
A couple days after arriving in Czechoslovakia and walking through the fairytale that is Prague, our tour guide Michaela introduced us to Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus. At a local café in central Prague, Dita shared her life story with my parents, Michaela, and I. She spoke briefly of her experience of being the secret librarian in the Czech family camp at Auschwitz and elaborated mostly about her life after the war. She told us of her frequent encounters with the infamous Dr. Mengele and the reverberating waves of anxiety she felt as she hid books in her clothing seams. Dita also gifted me a copy of her husband’s memoir, The Painted Wall, that she personally dedicated to me and signed. Dita and Otto were both heavily involved at the children’s barracks– she, the “librarian,” and him, “the instructor.” They married shortly after the war and moved to Israel. Dita said the message she would pass on to the new generation, if anything, would be to ensure the legacy of the Holocaust is never forgotten and education surrounding the significance of the topic is passed on to the new generation so something so catastrophic could never happen again. Dita’s story although heartbreaking, was especially inspiring and moving in ways I’ve never felt. I am so fortunate to have met someone like Dita who could deepen my perspective through her life and points of view.
KRAKOW & AUSCHWITZ, POLAND:
16 April, 2016: Upon arriving to Krakow, my anxiety continued to grow as I knew this would be the most emotionally tolling part of this trip. The sole thought of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau scared me– I didn’t know what to expect. I woke up that morning with a knot in my stomach and struggled to get out of bed. As I began to get dressed, my stress levels transformed into curiosity. I reflected as to what initially motivated me and what the goal of this trip was: I came to learn, to connect the dots of my research, discover new facts, to further explore, and deepen my perspective and worldview. In our hotel lobby, we met Thomas, our tour guide, who would be taking us through the grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. In the hour commute to the town of Oswiecim, Thomas explained his philosophy of the “8 steps of genocide.” He stated that it all begins with a dire national situation combined with hate speech rhetoric and propaganda. As the public becomes brainwashed and fearful, they don’t think twice about what they are hearing, resulting in a lack of resistance and indifference. He discussed the process of systematic degradation of rights that a persecuted group is subjected to and how basic freedoms are stripped over time.
At the halfway mark between Krakow and Auschwitz was a concentration camp memorial site. I do not recall the name of the camp, but it was purely a work camp where thousands of Gypsies, Jews, and homosexuals were subjected to abusive forced labour. Many Jews were saved by Oskar Schindler and his factory, located directly across the street. After a tour through Schindler’s factory and commemorating the victims of this camp, we continued on the route to Auschwitz.
“ARBEIT MACHT FREI” or “WORK SETS YOU FREE”
We started at tour at Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. I immediately spotted the infamous sign that reads “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” or “work sets you free.” These words were intended to trick the prisoners into performing their labour tasks with maximum effort, hoping freedom would be granted if done so. I had seen this banner-type-gate in various photographs, but these words greeting me and thousands and other tourists was one of the most intimidating sensations I’ve ever felt. Chills shivers up my spine as I knew this was not even close to what ruins I would be seeing within the next hour, let alone at Birkenau. Thomas walked with us through the long rows of brick prison barracks and inside some of them were exhibits. One in particular had lifesize pages just listing names of people murdered in Auschwitz; these pages took up almost almost the whole length of one barrack. Another exhibit displayed items stolen from those who arrived at the camp– ranging from original suitcases to shoes, and the most difficult to see: the mountains of hair shaved off of prisoners before setting them to work or exterminating them. In that same room was the pile of Zyklon B cans used in the gas chambers (gas chambers were in use at Birkenau, but the cans were displayed at the Auschwitz I museum). These piles of just material things or remains were not just what they may appear to be: when putting it into context, one can witness the destruction of an entire population just by seeing the mass quantity of just material objects acquired. Most of these “things” were leftovers, as the Nazis stole the prisoners belongings and used them for personal gain. My family and I also placed stones on small memorials in front of 2 specific walls: one that was the site of many suicidal deaths in the camp and the other being the place where prisoners were shamed publicly then shot mercilessly. After paying our respects, we crossed over to the death factory that was Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau.
The only way into this extermination camp during its use was through a single railway. For us tourists, the walk along those wooden tracks to reach what was beyond the watchtower was strenuously long, somber, and extremely melancholic. I peered down at my white shoes that accumulated and kicked up dust, knowing well that seeing the ruins of this place would be one of the most heart wrenching experiences of my life. I looked back up to a notorious brick building towering over me, and before I knew it, I was passing under it’s archway.
The day grew grayer and the clouds grew puffy. The air was crisp and the wind collided harshly with my face. It was miles of nothing. Barley any tourists. Barley any security guards or museum guides. Barley any signage guiding visitors where to go. It seemed almost as if this camp was left in its absolute original conditions; only a memorial was added at the end of the rail line where visitors could place stones and flowers to commemorate the victims of Birkenau. On either side of the track were brick barracks–the same ones that were at Auschwitz I. The concrete bunks still remained and showed how crammed in the prisoners were. Thomas discussed which persecuted minorities stayed in each barrack and explained the systematic process of how the Nazis systematically carried out their “master plan.” Seeing how disgusting the conditions were conveyed the message further of how evil humanity can be. Human beings treating other human beings like animals ready for slaughter; dehumanization isn’t even a plausible word to describe it.
Next came the gas chambers– one out of the six was preserved to its entirety. I refused to go inside: I was already too overwhelmed by what I had been seeing. My parents told me that scratch marks of prisoners were engraved on the cement wall. After this, Thomas took us to the crematorium site where bodies were incinerated–mostly dead, some alive. These ovens were in an underground area aside a memorial specifically for those victims burned at Auschwitz II. I cannot even express the amount of heartbreak and anger I was feeling. Even after having a great depth of knowledge about these events and the details of what occurred from my research, it was appalling and enraging. The rage however, inspired me further to convey a message of promoting tolerance. It motivated me to ensure the voices of the millions murdered at the hands of the Nazis as well as those who survived would never seize to be heard.