Monday, July 18, 2011

Warsaw and Majdanek

We left Germany and headed east to Warsaw via first class seats on a train. Th ride was about six hours, but time went quickly as we could move around and rest in intervals. Our hotel in Warsaw, Le Meridian Bristol Hotel could not be more posh! The hotel is located in wonderful spot not far from Old Town and adjacent to the presidential home (which consists of buildings on both sides of the road). The rooms, service and food were just as lavish as the location, and we soon found ourselves thankful that we have our last two nights of the trip there. Upon entering Warsaw one of our first destinations was exploring Old Town, and I was thrilled to go to the square, find a table and enjoy some lovely Zywick. It was a fabulous day!

During our initial two days in Warsaw we explored sites related to the ghetto, the Uprising in the ghetto, and Jewish/Yiddish life in pre-World War 2 Warsaw. We saw portions of the ghetto wall that remain standing and tried to envision how Vladka (who was apparently about my height but more frail) could scale those walls with such frequency as she went between the ghetto and the Aryan side. We also visited memorials at the ghetto deportation site, Mila 18 where the organizers of the uprising met, and for the ghetto uprising itself. One of our other stops was to the Jewish historical institute which was a building that predates the war and was a part of the large Reform synagogue that as destroyed by the Nazis. As we walked around we talked about how devastated and destroyed Warsaw was--first with the destruction of the ghetto after the uprising there and then the city wide uprising less than a year later. It was truly awesome to see these sights after having read Vladka's book.

We wrapped up our final day in Warsaw with a private Chopin recital in one of the last Polish king's palaces. It was an exquisite performance by an accomplished pianist. We had champagne at intermission and felt like royalty! We keep asking ourselves 'what are we going to do when we have to return to reality after this trip?'

After two fabulous days in Warsaw, we journeyed south to Lublin to visit the concentration camp/killing center of Majdanek. Since I was there just less than three months ago, I knew just how powerful a sight it can be. I tried to mention to my buddies how much it affected me, but there's no real way to prepare a person for it. It was a beautiful and warm Polish day--somewhat contradictory to the mood the sight evokes. Unfortunately, I know how effective going through such a sight can be with teenagers when you give them a bit of an overview but allow them to explore some of the facets on their own and reflect as they go. Since I know how amazing that process can be, I was disappointed that our group's leader and guide seemed set on lecturing for long periods of time at various parts of the camp. I went into the barracks with thousands of shoes, walked to 'my red shoe' (a shoe that has retained it's red coloring and that is located along the back wall), had my emotional breakdown, walked out to sit down, and reflected silently. Quiet, sincere reflection is a must at a site like Majdanek and many of the participants did not fully have that opportunity. I am interested to see how the tour of Auschwitz I and II turn out.

We're currently in Lublin for the afternoon and evening until we drive to the killing center of Belzec tomorrow, and then continue onward to Krakow.

The Camp System: Evolving Meaning  

During our stay in Germany, we left Berlin for a day trip to two camps used in the Nazi's concentration camp system. About two hours north of Berlin, we arrived at the site of Ravensbruck. Here the Nazis established a camp solely for women--over the course of it's use, Ravensbruck held political prisons (primarily) as well as Jews and other targeted groups. Today Ravensbruck contains remnants of the former camp that has been interspersed with various memorials. Something interesting about the camps outside of Berlin is their history following the Second World War when the Soviet Union controlled East Germany. While Bergen-Belsen was controlled by the British (I believe), Ravensbruck and the other camp we visited, Sachsenhaisen, both featured communist era memorials. These memorials often ignored the Jewish victim of the site and focused more so on the evils of rightist Fascists. It has only been the last twenty years with the collapse of the USSR that these sites have begun commemorating in more inclusive ways. 

Ravensbruck was particularly moving for our program director, Elaine Culbertson, whose mother survived a death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck as the Allies narrowed in on German forces. Even though many of the buildings do not remain, the camp's location remains fixed. Elaine was especially struck by the close proximity of the town near the camp. As opposed to other more remote camps, Ravensbruck borders a beautiful lake used by the locals for boating and sailing. From the camp you can quite clearly see into the center of town--the church and other buildings are easy to identify. Elaine's frustration boiled at the lack of action b the townspeople, not just here but in general in occupied territory. Unfortunately work is being done on the camp and their exhibit was not open.

Heading south about 20 miles outside Berlin, we arrived at Sachsenhausen. This camp consisted of a complex system of numerous satellite camps. The site itself evolved from a camp for political opponents of the Nazis to a part of the concentration camp system. The physical size of the camp also increased over time as the Nazis brought different groups of prisoners to the camp. Such prisoners included those of high priority, such as Stalin's son, who perished in the camp system before liberation. The most difficult part of our tour of Sachsenhausen was the medical building/morgue where experiments were conducted. Everyone seemed moved by the sterile white building with a lingering smell. Construction is also going on at Sachsenhausen to more aptly memorialize the site. 

Both Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen were terribly interesting and moving to visit. To me, visiting the camps is the only way to truly grasp the methodological system put in place by the Nazis. The ground feels hallowed and sacred when I stand at the site of such mechanized destruction and devastation of a people. But our journeys to camp sites are not done. We will visit three of the Nazi's killing centers: Majdanek, Belzec, and Aushwitz-Birkenau. As fast paced and jammed packed as this trip has been, I count my fortune to bear witness at such sites throughout Germany and Poland. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Exploring the Epicenter of Destruction

Once we recovered from a lengthy travel to Germany, we were ready to explore authentic sites for the first time. We traveled from Hannover to Bergen-Belsen, which evolved from a prisoner of war camp and an exchange camp for Jews, to a concentration camp housing Jews from 'neutral' countries and occupied territories, and finally to a displaced persons camp after the war. At Bergen-Belsen we were treated to a tour of their new museum before the facility opened to the public. At this time, our guide, Martin explained some of the unique features or the camp as well as the design of the museum and various memorials there.

The main portion of our time at Bergen-Belsen was spent in four smaller groups exploring the site with various experts. The panel of experts was introduced by the director of historical memorials of Lower Saxony. I ended up with Martin once again as his presentation and emphasis were on images and how to use them in a variety of ways with students. Martin took us to a smaller conference room to have us examine five or so images all connected to the history of Belsen. He asked us to surmise about the images with no additional information. We discussed the images and guessed at what was going on and who was photographed. Then Martin gave use folders containing two levels of information that he uses with students. The first piece of information for each photograph gave context to the images by explaining what was happening in the photo and the time period of Bergen. The last information Martin gives to students allows them to dig deeper into the people, event and period of the photo. Martin's exercise was wonderful and truly increased our knowledge of the history of Belsen. Based on his layered activity, I'm going to create a new activity for teaching the camp system that contains images from various aspects of five or six 'sample' camps--I'm hopeful that by digging deeper they will find greater insights into camp life and the system.

Our time at Bergen-Belsen was wonderful and none of us wanted to see it come to an end. We begrudgingly entered the bus for a four hour ride to the German capital. Unfortunately, the lengthy ride was extended into a six hour ride by a truck accident that backed up the highway to a veritable stalemate. The bus finally pulled up to the Hotel Berlin, Berlin at 10pm and we were treated to dinner in boxed format. Dinner was not all that appetizing but our soon discovered combination of beer and wifi was glorious!

Berlin's rich history quickly became apparent as we spent Wednesday exploring a few key aspects of the city. We began with a drive down Tiergartenstrasse past lavish embassies to the marker for the T4 program, which was responsible for the murder of German citizens (particularly children) who were deemed mentally or physically unfit by the standards of the Third Reich. We then headed to the Topography of Terror exhibit which resides at the former headquarters of the SS, SA, SD, and Gestapo. The exhibit featured excellent information on the perpetuators, various victim groups (particularly German political opponents) tortured and targeted by the Nazi machine, and the aftermath of the Holocaust for the perpetrators and Germany as a whole. The site also contains a stretch of the Berlin Wall which enhances the complexity of the history of Berlin.

After lunch we ventured to two memorials related to Nazi terror: the Memorial to the Homosexuals (who faced a specific terror due to Nazi pro-natalist policies) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has a fabulous exhibit under the actual memorial. The memorials are both distinct and interesting to view as they conjure a variety of emotions. The memorial to Germany's homosexuals appears gender neutral but a window reveals two men kissing to draw attention to the more pervasive persecution of gay men. The memorial to murdered Jews of Europe contains overs two thousands, for a lack of a better term, blocks of varying heights. You can get lost among them and disoriented as the ground undulates in various portions of the memorial.

We then ventured to the Jewish museum of Berlin where the architecture may overwhelm the visitor the to point where the artifacts become less significant. Thankfully we had a guided tour through much of this museum or we would have been completely confused in places. The most notable aspects of this site were the various abstract pieces and locations designed to make you uncomfortable and reflective. The museum is an important fixture in Berlin, but we didn't have a tremendous amount of time to explore it.

Another day in Berlin means another day of exploring sites related to the Holocaust. We began the second day with a trip to the Olympic Stadium and Tower. It gave us a fabulous view of the city and the surrounding region. With the stadium playing such an important role in the Nazi propaganda machine, it was really powerful to view the Olympic venue. After the tower, we traveled outside the city center to Wannsee Villa. The villa was the site of a strategic meeting between Nazi bureaucrats over how to organize and proceed forward with the final solution and the murder of European Jewry. Cristof was our guide through the villa and did a fabulous presentation on photographs. He was also able to explain the purpose and role of the conference in a context that differs from hollywood's view through Conspiracy. It was completely surreal to sit in the room where these members of the Nazi party met to plan for the fate of millions of people.

The bus took us back into the city to go explore the Jewish sights of Berlin. Many aspects of Jewish culture have been excised, but our guide did an excellent job telling us about Jewish life as we walked through the city. The most moving part of the day was seeing the museum dedicated to Otto Weidt and his brush factory, which through his efforts he was able to save some of his blind workers from the horrors of Nazi persecution. Otto was truly a wonderful man who cared deeply for his workers and went to great length to save them. 

Once our official tour was over, a few of us brave souls decided to walk from the hotel to Postdam square and then Checkpoint Charlie. It seemed relatively close on the map but ended up being a solid twenty minute stroll. We had beautiful weather and sunset to provide us with a lovely backdrop for our walk. Along the way we found souvenirs and yummy beer. Cynthia posted on my wall that I should try the Berliner raspberry wheat beer. I found it at the house of 100 beers, and it was glorious! 

On Friday we ventured to two concentration camps: Ravensbruck and Sauchenhausen. More to come on those. Tomorrow we leave for an early train to Warsaw. Will update again when I have wifi in Poland. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bucket List Items

The beautiful Land of Israel was truly an amazing place. During our last few days, we ventured to Jerusalem's historic Old City and out to the Judean desert and the Dead Sea. The final few days were filled with remarkable once in a life time activities--as many of us noted we were crossing off bucket list items each day!

Before we toured the Old City, we wrapped up our time at Yad Vashem with a lecture from renowned Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer who so succinctly explored some of the more controversial aspects of Holocaust studies. Dr. Bauer's lecture was a perfect way to end our time at Yad Vashem. We had a bit more time to explore the campus, so a few of us went off in search of the two art museums--one with works created during the Holocaust by the victims and the other with works by survivors. Both exhibits were wonderful, and the works of victims really solidified my desire to use artwork differently in my forthcoming Holocaust classes.

As we ventured toward the Old City, our bus driver Benny navigated us around crowds of Muslims leaving afternoon prayers and we headed to Zion gate of the Old City. Located by the gate are the supposed site of King David's tomb. Unfortunately, at this point on Friday the tomb was closed. As we entered the Old City, we dodged cars (it's unbelievable that there are even cars in Old City) and came into the Armenian quarter. Our guide explained to us that the Old City which is less than a square mile, is broken into four quarters: Armenian, Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters. We quickly found ourselves in the Jewish quarter which has buildings comparably newer than the other quarters. In addition to stores and businesses, hundreds of thousands of people are squeezed into this walled city. Our tour led us to the remnants of the Western Wall of the temple (which is now a mosque) also known as the wailing wall. Here we were able to partake in the act of leaving a wish or prayer in the cracks of the wall. As our guide explained, the notes all receive a proper Jewish burial and a considered sacred--it was an unbelievable experience to leave a note in the wall and walk backwards thinking about my wish. Check on the bucket list! After the wall, we traveled through the tight streets of the Muslim quarter and followed many of the points along the route of Jesus's final path before the crucifixion. We ended our your in the Christian quarter at the site of the Holy Sepulcher--a site where various Christian denominations vie for rights. While we were there we saw Franciscan monks perform prayers and rituals. The Old City is unlike anywhere else in the world--groups with great animosity toward one another live side by side in some of the tightest quarters of the world,. Within an hour walk, you can experience four distinct culture all within the walled city.

Our final full day in Jerusalem began with a ride through the Judean desert to the historic fortress of Masada. King Herrod commissioned the fortress and used it as a place of refuge until the Romans conquered the site in 70 CE. You could walk up the snake path to the fortress ruins, but thankfully we took the fancy cable car that drops you off at the top. Even at 8 AM the desert heat was oppressive and about 90 degrees. Masada provided us with amazing views of the surrounding mountains, the Dead sea, and Jordan beyond it. After many of the gang purchased lovely Ahava products, we journeyed to the Dead Sea--where the products originate from!

My buddies (Branda, Megan, Dougie, Zuleika and Jessica) and I got our swimming trunks on and prepared for our jaunt in the mineral filled water. We noticed a contraption off to the side of the area where we entered the water but didn't realize it's significance until our delicate feet started hurting from the salt crystals. We're sure the other tourists were laughing at the silly Americans who were startled to find out how much that salt could hurt. Once we were out a little ways we realized how buoyant the water made us and we all started floating. Branda served as our photographer at first and snapped some great shots of the rest of us standing while floating in the water--such a crazy sensation! After some persuading we were able convince Branda to come in and float with the rest of us. We stayed in the cleansing water for about 20 minutes which was just long enough. We had a buffet lunch a the hotel on the sea, and then drove north to the natural oasis of En Gedi.

When stories tell of people wandering the desert and coming upon an oasis, En Gedi is a perfect example! Benny dropped us off at the gates to this natural reserve, and our tour guide told us it would be a short hike to the natural springs. He even called it a "child's path"... Well it certainly started off fine but with over 100 degree temperatures and climbing uphill a bit, we were all exhausted when we reached the springs and waterfall. Thankfully the water was delightful and refreshing, and the waterfall was the much needed shower I'd been craving! Branda again played photo documenter while Jessica, Dougie, Megan, and I waded in. Branda captured some fabulous moments and used her skills to capture herself along with us in some shots. What a wonderful way to round out our time in Jerusalem! We finished the evening with one more meal on the Mamilla's rooftop restaurant.

On Sunday morning, we left Jerusalem for the museum of Massuah. This museum was designed for students to not only gain insight through study of content but also through application and creation base on knowledge gained, Massuah's key exhibit features the testimony of the Eichmann trial, which is regarded as opening up dialogue about the Holocaust among survivors, particularly in Israel. The testimony was amazing, but the most amazing part of our time at Massuah was getting to meet Shomlo Perl, who's story is captured in the book and film Europa, Europa. Mr. Perl disguised himself as a member of the Hitler Youth and survived the war as part of the HJ. 

From Massuah we drove to our hotel in Tel Aviv for a six hour stop over before our journey to Germany. The Crowne Plaza hotel was amazing and served as a nice resting place for us. Unfortunately, the rest only lasted so long when we boarded a bus for the airport at 1 in the morning. Despite a lengthy day of travel to Frankfurt and then Hannover Germany, the second country of our trip has treated us well so far! 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Remembering at Yad Vashem

The Mamilla Hotel in the heart of Jerusalem is our home during our stay in this wonderful city. To say that this hotel is modern would be a vast understatement! The hotel has brought together old with new in a terribly fascinating way--many of the stone walls of the hotel's main areas are original to the location. At the same time, the hotel has a terribly unique design in it's common areas and even within it's rooms. We were told that usually guests receive a guided tour to go over the room's features. This makes sense after you enter the space that does sort of look like a hotel room, but with a twist. Within the traditional design, the Mamilla has created bathrooms that are partitioned by seemingly clear glass from the rest of the quarters; however, you discover that a simple flick of the switch creates an opaque glass in place of the see-through version. The Mamilla is certainly starting us off on a high note!

Our first morning in Jerusalem began with a lavish spread of foods in the hotel's first floor restaurant. There were more choices than I could imagine, but with a relatively sensitive stomach, I limited myself to only a few items. After breakfast and coffee, a few of us Internet addicts went out in search of wifi--to our great delight, this ancient city is filled with 21st century people who also need their connectivity. So, wifi hasn't been that hard to come by (so far).

To start our exploration of Israel, we headed for Yad Vashem the largest museum and memorial site dedicated to the Holocaust and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry. Rather than a singular building, Yad Vashem is much more of a complex. With this design it serves a multitude of purposes--artifact-filled museum, hall of remembrance, memorial to the children, memorial to the deported, path of the righteous among the nations, art museums, video centers, learning centers, a library, archives, and an educational institution. Yad Vashem appears more like a beautifully designed college campus at first glance.

Our acquaintance with the the site, began in the main exhibit, which much like other Holocaust museums was designed with very purposeful techniques in mind. Cold stone walls contain you in a very defined space, you can see the exist from the entrance but your path is blocked, flooring changes particularly in the ghetto section where stones and train track from the Warsaw ghetto have been laid, images/video/and sound floods the senses as you move throughout the space, and finally when you reach the daylight of the exist you find yourself overlooking the outskirts of Jerusalem. Within the museum, I was struck by the use of artwork from victims and the varied ways people made art in such trying circumstances. Based on the artwork alone, you can tell how vast Yad Vashem's collections must truly be! From a teaching perspective, I hope to use the artwork to juxtapose with my lessons on culture during Weimar and Nazi identification of degenerate art. Hopefully, students will see the varied works as expressions of resistance by those forced into ghettos, camps, hiding, and overall, inhumane conditions.

With our time limited, many of us hustled around the "campus" to see its various memorials. The warm sun and clear blue skies added dimensions to our walk as it was not only hotter than the indoor locations, but the bright sun also served as an interesting hopeful reminder as we viewed memorials to those lost. Also during are time at Yad Vashem, we had mini lectures from a woman connected to their education center (whose name I did not catch) and our trip's Stephen Feinberg. Both of these were very intriguing, especially discussion of the museum's mission and goals. Fortunately, our time at Yad Vashem will continue for a few more hours as we will have another lecture and be able to explore some of the other wonderful aspects of the site.

Upon returning to the hotel, many of us gathered our energy and headed out to experience more of Jerusalem. After navigating the kosher restrictions at lunch, we should have been prepared to find the same requirements elsewhere, but when a hostess asked us "meat" or "dairy" we were sent into a discussion on just what exactly did we want! With a great spot at an outdoor restaurant, we were able to people watch and just take in the city. We again had the fortune to have dinner on the rooftop with the most amazing views of Jerusalem, in particular the Old City. This was the perfect way to wrap up a full day in one of the world's most historically rich places!

Arriving in Jerusalem

Our long day to Israel began in Washington, DC with a half day at the USHMM. We listened to a presentation by one of the museum's curators, Susie Snyder, who discussed various forms of resistance that can be found throughout the museum's permanent exhibit. After the excellent presentation, we had free time until we needed to meet the group at 1:15 in L'Enfante's lobby to leave for Dulles International. Douglas and I took advantage of this time to have lunch at one of my favorite museum cafeteria's at the American Indian museum. We shared a delicious flat bread taco, and then went up to the 4th floor to see what the museum had on the Cherokee. Since Douglas was raised on a Cherokee reservation in Western North Carolina, he actually recognized some of the people featured in the exhibit. Unfortunately, we did not have more time to look at the fabulous museum, so we headed to meet the group.

Thankfully the Dulles' check in and security moved extremely quickly, and we made it to our gate with plenty of time. The flight to Frankfurt went by rather quickly as I was able to sleep at least a bit during the eight hours. Luftansa took care of us and fed us quite well, and somehow the eight hours went by without too much boredom! We hustled off the plane in Germany, and made our way from one terminal to another after shlepping our bags for quite some distance. We made our way through tight security as we neared our gate for our final leg to Israel. After each of us received a thorough pat down from German security guards, we were prepared for the flight to Tel Aviv!

This leg was just over three hours long, and thankfully I, as well as many others, we able to sleep a bit on this flight. We arrived in Tel Aviv in the afternoon at around 3pm. Customs took a bit of time as it was a busy place, and we finally managed to head out of Tel Aviv for Jerusalem about 4 in the afternoon. Our drive took us from sea level around Tel Aviv through the rolling hills and mountains in Jerusalem. As we entered this vastly historic and holy city, we were taken aback by the architecture and buildings around us. Words do not really sum up of perception of the city! This was especially true after we sat down for dinner Wednesday evening on the roof of our very swanky and new hotel. The hotel's rooftop restaurant had absolutely marvelous views of Jerusalem, and the weather was simply outstanding! In addition to the fabulous setting, we were served an absolutely scrumptious meal of many courses served family style.

With a cappuccino in some of our systems, we were set to head out and explore downtown Jerusalem. Since our hotel had such a fabulous location, we easily able to get to the bustling parts  or town. Near the pedestrian walk, a small group of us decided to get a drink and soak up the wonderful night. After this lovely time, we headed back for a much needed night's sleep

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Beginning: Washington

Upon arrival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., I met up with Douglas from North Carolina. We were so thrilled to see each other and begin our journey! Dougie "Fresh" and I traveled to the L'Enfante Hotel via a cab (thankfully the cabbie did not hit any pedestrians). Our excitement for our trip grew exponentially as we entered the hotel, found out our rooms were not ready, and quickly discovered that several other participants were waiting in the lobby. We shared names and stories with one another, and it was already very clear what amazing group of people we were going to spend the next three weeks with.

After chatting in the hotel with more arriving participants, it was time to head to the USHMM museum for our orientation meeting. The 27 participants introduced ourselves as did our leaders Stephen Feinberg and Elaine Culbertson. Stephen and Elaine are accomplished teachers and Holocaust educators who have been affiliated with USHMM for decades. They have been running this trip for many years and have prepared for us an extensive schedule for the next three weeks. With their orientation, we quickly knew that Stephen and Elaine run a tight ship, but have created a truly wonderful itinerary for us!

For dinner, we ate at the hotel and had the honor of listening to Holocaust survivor, Henry Greenbaum. Henry told his story, and we were enthralled by his journey of survival. As just an example, Henry was shot in the head while trying to escape a concentration camp with his sister. Thankfully the bullet grazed him and his cousin tended to his wound, which kept him out Nazi clutches as they searched for those who attempted escape. Henry's story was compelling and beautifully told.

Even though it was such a long day, a few of us decided to enjoy a few adult beverages after dinner. We had a wonderful time chatting and getting to know each other better! Many of us slept quite well on that first night!

On Monday morning, we celebrated the fourth of July at the USHMM. On our way to the museum, we saw all of the preparations for the 4th around the Mall. Security was extra tight at the museum, so after some confusion, we entered the museum and began our first full day. In the morning we discussed artifacts and their importance in teaching about historical events--particularly the Holocaust. We were instructed to find a few artifacts per floor of the permanent exhibit that we could utilize in our classrooms. This assignment was really helpful for me since I've been to the USHMM at least a dozen times. With this direction, I looked at the objects in a different lens than usual.

As we made our way through the museum, I found a number of useful artifacts. Many of them are ones we read about or already look at in Holocaust and Human Behavior, but thinking about them differently encouraged me to think about structuring units in new ways. When we were done with the permanent exhibit, we stopped briefly for lunch, and returned to go through the State of Deception propaganda exhibit as well as Daniel's Story. In the afternoon, the group met to discuss our exploration of the museum and discuss the artifacts we found. After an interesting and intellectually stimulating conversation, we headed back to L'Enfante Hotel to prepare for dinner. At dinner we were again fortunate enough to have survivors speak to us. This time it was Roman Kent and his wife who were gracious enough to share their stories with us. Both of them had amazing stories, and according to Roman, his wife very rarely speaks about her story so we considered ourselves a privileged group.

After dinner, we ventured out into DC to explore places to watch their firework display. Dougie and I decided to stay near the hotel and walked just down the street to watch. We had a nice view of the Washington monument and saw the fireworks pretty well from our vantage point. It was very cool to be in DC for the nation's birthday!

Next up is our long day as we travel from Washington, DC to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt, Germany. Hopefully we all get their safely with our luggage!