Solidarity/Stutthof

Today could definitely be described as a whirlwind of emotions. We began our day by visiting the European Solidarity museum, which has been by far my favorite museum of this whole trip. It was very creative and impactful all in one. Upon entering the museum, I was immediately struck in awe with how courageous all the individuals were in participating in this movement, especially under the communist rule. As I was walking through the museum, they had put pictures up of individuals who had been arrested, and I noticed a few women which really stuck me, because the narrative at the being parts made it seem as the majority of individuals who took part in it were men. Thanks to reading Shana Penn though, I know that women played a crucial part in the Solidarity movement and it’s success.

Contrary to the idea that one may hold of these women being feminist, is just not true, at least these Polish women do not  identify as feminists, but Shana Penn argues in her book that they were feminists. My eyes were really open to why this may be in our discussion today after viewing the many different halls within the museum. We discussed how Poland’s history is probably the reason why the majority of Polish women would not want to be identified in this way. They could see it as an attachment to socialism and out of the norms for a Polish Catholic women. Penn does say though that these amazing women took part for just that fact, they were Polish Catholic women. This is in part to the “Match Polka” or Polish mother which is seen as the maternal figure for Poland. She represents sacrifice and love for her family no matter what. When the male figures of the Solidarity movement were arrested and thrown into jail, these women stepped up for their families and continued the movement. After reading this and discussing how impactful the women were in the Solidarity movement, I believe that they should have more of a presence within the museum.

After visiting the museum, we loaded the bus and headed to Stutthof, a Nazi German concentration camp which later became an extermination camp. This is the first camp that we have visited that is almost fully intact from World War II. It is hard to find the words to say what I was feeling while walking through, because it was a whirlwind of emotions seeing the living conditions, crematory, gas chamber, and reading about life during these times. We began our tour by walking through the women’s barracks which were horrific. They had a display of blankets on the floor out and our guide told us that the barracks were not fully finished at the time of arrival, so the first women at Stutthof had to sleep on the floors even during the harsh winter months when some wouldn’t wake up the next day.

Upon moving along the various barracks, we reached the washroom were our guide told us about the various different kinds of suicides that would take place at the camp. This was almost unbearable for me to hear. It is just so heartbreaking to me, because these individuals, human beings saw that as the only way out, but in that kind of environment, it is understandable. It is hard to imagine how they felt on a day to day basis. A common theme thats sticks with me, but was very present in my mind today is how can an individual treat another human in such a way. I think that this is a thought most people have when visiting these camps, and I will forever think about it.

Towards the end of the tour we went into a building that held the crematory, and we saw the ashes and bones found after the liberation of the camp. This was such a moving experience seeing this, and being  in the presence of people who were unlawfully killed in Stuthoff. Overall Stuthoff has been the most devastating to me out of the camps that we have visited. I saw a quote on a informational board that is still ringing in my head, “100,000 people came to this camp and 65,000 were never free again.”

-Gabi Hancock

Solidarity

Today we visited the European Solidarity museum. It was very informational, and what stuck out to me was the lack of women mentioned. Which from prior reading I know is not the full story. Women played a big role in the Solidarity movement. In the book Solidarity’s Secret, Shana Penn discusses the pivotal role of women in the Solidarity movement. She argues that women had an important role especially when male leaders were in prison. She explains through her writings how women used gender roles to their advantage. This includes hiding secret documents in their laundry machine where the police wouldn’t think to look because why would a man use a washer. They also would hide these documents under their clothing to make it appear as if they were pregnant so they wouldn’t be searched.

I’m surprised that there is a vast minority of people that do not self-identify as feminists. Which I find shocking because Poles idolize American freedom and feminism was crucial for changes made for women in the work place and the home. In our discussion today we reflected on why many Poles do not self identify as feminists. One reason being that feminism is equated to the communist era and that is considered to be anti-Polish. Penn argues that one of the motivating factors for women during the Solidarity movement was the Matka Polka, because she represents sacrifice. Essentially you do what you have to do for your family and that is what these women were aiming for. They didn’t see themselves as feminists even though personally I would identify them as feminists seeing as they did what they could with what they have as women in a time of oppression. It’s disappointing to see the lack of representation of women in the Solidarity museum, because they were a key component to why the Solidarity movement succeeded.

-Lillian F.

Memorial Sites

During our time here in Poland, we have seen several sights of Jewish death. Each have been different, but linked through the fear of World War II and the Holocaust. Visiting the camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Treblinka each evoked different responses that I was not entirely prepared for. This trip has been the first experience I have had about Treblinka or pogrom sites. Visiting Treblinka was much more surreal than Auschwitz, and I think it’s because there’s absolutely nothing left. You enter a large clearing in the forest with nothing other than memorial stones. There are no fence remnants, no building foundations, no guard towers like in Auschwitz. There is nothing physical to remind you that one million people died there other than what has been left after the fact. Having the physical remnants of Auschwitz and Birkenau made it more real, I think; easier to process. Visiting pogrom sites and Treblinka where there is nothing left but memorials was much scarier. I would love to think that a Holocaust event could not happen again, but without those markers there would be nothing showing us of the hatred and violence that people are capable of.

At Treblinka there were not even train track ties left, only concrete slabs placed there to represent the old track that existed. I started to wonder after that visit: how many tracks exist today that would have transported Jews to their death? Are there any? If there are, have we passed by them on our travels? It can be easy to dismiss these murders and the mass-hatred as something left in the past, but seeing that these locations are part of an otherwise normal place in the world help to make it more real, more available. I can understand how Poles and Europeans in general can have a hard time talking about the Holocaust: there are reminders everywhere, should you choose to look for them. The more we learn about the politics of modern Poland, and the psychological aspects of the past, I begin to realize how hard it would be to have to constantly be reminded of these events. If an individual had antisemitic beliefs, I can understand the feelings of competitive victimhood, feeling like only Jews are being memorialized. As with most things, the more we learn, the grayer the whole topic becomes. Michal Bilewicz jokingly mentioned to us that by the time we leave Poland, we won’t have really learned anything at all because of how complicated this all is.

Spencer L

Treblinka versus Auschwitz-Birkenau

As I reflect on the past couple of days, the first thing that comes to mind is Treblinka. Dr. Wright has reminded us time and time again to think about the narrative that is being shown to us at each place we visit throughout our journey. Thinking back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, before we went I remember reading that it is now the best-preserved and best-documented former Nazi concentration-extermination camps. A majority of the camps architecture remains relatively intact and include artifacts, such as original documents, hair that was shaved from their heads, and plundered victims property. Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum bids an opportunity to see buildings, execution and imprisonment sites, and thousands of objects that had been preserved. The visual aids substantially assist the visitor to conceptualize and recreate a historical time when Auschwitz was active.

In contrast to this, I find myself standing in a field full of 17 thousand stones of varying sizes that symbolize Jewish headstones. There is a small exhibition with details on the activities of the camps as well as a model of how the death camp was set-up. But the real value comes from wandering around the site of the old camps. It was a beautiful, very warm, day when we visited and the peacefulness and quiet of a place where unspeakable horrors took place was disarming. You see where the mass graves were found and a very simple but tasteful area commemorating the railway and the platform pays homage to the hundreds of thousands who died at the death camp here. You are essentially left there to lead your own mind to imagine and conceptualize events by yourself. Rather than at Auschwitz as you are guided and given a multitude of visual aids to help you create a narrative that they feed into.

Finally, these commemorative sites do not only commemorate events. Rather they connect the past to the present, by giving history a physical place. They represent the strain between remembrance and conspiracy that arise as nations make effort to situate tragedies like the Holocaust within their national narratives. And, most importantly, they aid individuals to situate such events within their own narratives.

-Lillian F.

Auschwitz / Auschwitz II – Birkenau

It has now been two weeks since we visited in the infamous death camp of Auschwitz. Much has happened between then and now, but I feel that I can finally get my thoughts down coherently about the experience. Having learned generally about Auschwitz and the horrors committed there in high school, I was somewhat mentally prepared for the visit. However, I was completely unprepared for the areas that the tour guides ask you not to photograph. I did not know that there is a room with a case filled with thousands of pounds of human hair. I was unaware that there is a basement in one of the buildings with multiple kinds of jail cells aimed at different kinds of torture for their inmates. I did not know that walking into a gas chamber was part of the tour. These experiences were not something that I could prepare for, and it has taken me these two weeks to fully decompress. What made it harder was how perfect of a day we had. There was sunshine, a nice breeze; It was very confusing to be in such a place during such a nice day.

I do not know much, if anything, about my family’s history other than generally having European roots, so seeing Yad Vashem’s Book of Names was more than a little shocking. In Yad Vashem’s sponsored building they have a large book about twenty feet long and about three feet tall filled with four million names of victims of the Holocaust. On one of the pages, there were hundreds of victims with the last name Laufman, a potentially old spelling of my last name, Laughman. Thinking that I may have had distant relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust is a hard realization from someone who has no knowledge of any Jewish history. Since visiting the camp I have spent the last two weeks wondering about these people. Were they at all related to my great grandparents? How common of a name could it be? Is it fair for them to stand out more to me than other names in the book? I suppose that overall I just don’t know how to feel other than sad, but I think that is part of the experience.

Spencer L

Pogroms

While on the way to Gdansk, I find myself contemplating the sites we visited yesterday. We visited several memorial sites where pogroms happened in the Northeast part of Poland. Prior to this trip, I had little knowledge of violence against the Jews other than the ghetto liquidations and the horrors of the extermination and concentration camps. One particular site especially left me thinking, that was Jedwabne. There are conflicting witness reports and research done that question whether the Nazi’s were the perpetrators or were the Poles complicit in the act. Previously, the memorial stone only mentioned the Nazi’s and how they were the ones that murdered the Jews in the pogrom. Recently, the stone was changed just to remember those who were murdered, but no blame was placed on the stone. This is due to research that confirmed that Poles were not innocent in this atrocity. However, it is a really complicated situation. The poles did not have agency, they truly could not make their own decisions in some cases.

This situation really makes me wonder, how can a victim do these horrendous things to another victim? Did those who committed this act want to save themselves from the Nazi’s or was it an act based on deeply rooted antisemitism? The Poles were victims of the Nazi’s and so were the Jews. So, I have a hard time answering the questions in my head. Partly, I believe that the Nazi’s wanted to create a divide between different victims. They did this in the camps by making prisoners functionary in discipline and rewarding this behavior and by having Jewish police officers in the ghetto. During this time people were put into impossible situations and it is definitely hard to understand.

-Allison

Righteous Among the Nations and Pogroms

This past week has been absolutely amazing and extremely enlightening. Some highlights were getting to tour the presidential palace, speaking with a righteous among the nations, and visiting sites of pogroms.

Before getting into more heavy topics I want to talk about visiting the presidential palace. Getting the chance to visit the presidential palace in Poland was absolutely fantastic and fascinating! It was definitely one of my favorite experiences so far and it brought me so much joy to be there; my political science heart was ready to burst! What made that experience even better was meeting with Pani Irena Senderska-Rzońca. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience to hear her story and to think that she was as brave as she was at such a young age is truly admirable and something all should strive for. To think that soon all of the survivors and rescuers will soon not be around is greatly saddening. Knowing this also makes me that much more greatful for this experience and makes it feel like a personal responsibility to share these stories.

Visiting the sites of the pogroms was difficult as one could imagine. Seeing the sites in person was enlightening, because it sheds light on the antisemitic beliefs that are still present, not just in Poland, but around the world. Our readings have discussed the reasoning behind these actions and it can be difficult to try to see perspective of the perpetrators. As horrifying as the pogroms were, it is Being made clear why they happened and how something like them could happen again anywhere. The situational pressures were so intense it’s hard to imagine. It’s my hope that we can all be a bit more like Pani Irena and learn from history.

~Rachel