The Holocaust in History and Living Memory

This summer, 27 students and 5 staff members from the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) and 2 students from the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) will embark on a life-changing journey as they travel to Germany and Poland to participate in a 14 day field study to learn about the Holocaust. Throughout the field study, students and staff will contribute to this blog. Please check back regularly for updates.

Tuesday July 2, 2019 • A Visit With Max Eisen

Today, program participants had the opportunity to meet and learn from Mr. Max Eisen. Max's memoir, By Chance Alone: A Remarkable Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz, is one of the core texts in The Holocaust in History and Living Memory program. The students were eager to meet Max and they listened attentively as he spoke about his life before the Holocaust, his experiences in Auschwitz, and his life now. It was a moving experience for all.

Sunday July 7, 2019 • Berlin - Arrival + Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Ninad

On the first day of our trip, after an exhausting two flights, we began our educational tour. Today, the main site that we visited was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

When we first arrived, all we could see was concrete, in the form of blocks. We were expecting to be told what all these structures meant, but instead, we were asked to walk through the memorial and to look around and give our interpretation. This was an interesting activity as it took different levels of thinking and creativity to come up with different theories about what the memorial meant. Naturally, everyone came up with different ideas. My theory was that the tall, intimidating structures were meant to make you feel overwhelmed and hopeless, just as the prisoners in the camps felt. Another theory I heard someone say was that each of the blocks was meant to represent someone who was in a camp. All of them were there for the same reason; because the Nazis didn’t like them, similar to how all the blocks were cement and grey. However, Every one of those prisoners was different and had a different story, and to represent this, each of the blocks was a different size, and some were slightly tilted instead of straight up. After we all had a chance to speculate, we were told the real meaning: there was no specific meaning! The designer, Peter Eisenman, didn’t reveal a set guideline of what it meant, as it was left up to the eye of whoever was seeing it to make their own interpretation. This intrigued me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was very smart because that means everyone can interpret it differently and still be right.

The second part of the Memorial was an actual exhibition was underneath the cement memorial. Unfortunately, we only had an hour to view the entire exhibit, and half of that time was spent in the line. This part of the memorial was less artistic, and was meant to be an actually informative experience. There were different rooms, and they all honoured the a victim in a different way, whether by telling the story of their families, or narrating their story themselves. It was a very sad experience, as the atrocities committed were made very clear, and as you read the words of a twelve year old writing to her relatives telling them she was going to die tomorrow, you realize how much our lives differ. This was a very good tour, and I would do it again if we had more time.

Monday July 8, 2019 • Berlin - Walking Tour, Jewish Museum Berlin, and Bebelplatz

Tour of Berlin

Today our local guide Ben took us on a tour of Berlin. We started at the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art exhibition painted on a 1.3km remnant of the Berlin Wall. Many photographs were taken! From there we continued to many well-known places in Berlin including Museum Island, the Reichstag, and the Brandenburg Gate. It was a great introduction to the city.

At the Reichstag

At the Brandenburg Gate

Jewish Museum Berlin by Natalie

Today we visited the Jewish Museum Berlin where we learned about the symbolism of the museum's architecture. The lower level of the building contains exhibits on three axes: the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity. At the end of the Axis of Exile is the Garden of Exile. One thing I noticed about The Garden of Exile is that the ground is unbalanced and slanted. The Garden of Exile includes 49 large concrete structures each containing an olive tree. 48 of the structures contain soil from Berlin and 1 contains soil from Israel.

Inside the Jewish Museum there is a space that includes the “Fallen Leaves” exhibit designed by Menashe Kadishman. It is made up of metal faces on the floor, each having a different expression and face size. Stepping on these faces felt morally wrong since the sound people walking reminded us of the voices of kids crying and yelling. A quote that was said during the tour was that “One can create life.” This means that you need to have new experiences, to take action against things that are not right, and to be aware of your surroundings.

The Garden of Exile

Fallen Leaves

Bebelplatz by Chris

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead a prayer service at the historical Berlin square Bebelplatz. There is so much to learn from this site, where university students burned books on May 10th, 1933.

I think the quote by Heinrich Heine, “those who burn books, will in the end burn people.” is very relevant to the Bebelplatz, as it is inscribed as part of the memorial. It also served as the theme of my prayer service.

Knowledge is a great thing and I believe that one should never stop learning. It struck me as sad to stand in the place where hundreds of books and ideas were burned. Being on the location of this horrible event really helped me to understand that night better. As I stood by the memorial for the burnt books, I thought about that night in 1933: a massive pile of burning paper, a frenzied mob, Joseph Goebbels giving a speech from a makeshift platform, and students running forward and throwing more books into the flames. Most significant of all for me is the billowing smoke that rises and disappears into the sky taking all the knowledge and wisdom with it.

The picture to the left is of the memorial. It is a underground chamber filled with empty bookshelves.

Tuesday July 9, 2019 • Berlin - Track 17, House of the Wannsee Conference, and Topography of Terror

Track 17 by Chloe

Hey everyone, Chloe here! This is my first time writing a blog, so to all who are following our blog on Twitter or the YCDSB website, I hope that this blog will do justice to the experience and emotions experienced at this site today!

Just a bit of background information to those reading, Track 17 was a station from which the Jews and other groups were deported to ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust. When our group first arrived at the platform, it honestly didn’t look like much to me. Just an abandoned train track surrounded by swaying trees in the wind. When we were given some time alone to reflect and look around, I began to walk along the track and noticed that the memorial was eerily quiet - no one was around but us. Somehow the empty space made me feel lonely and lost. Standing at the very beginning of where the tracks began and looking off into where the track extended into a seemingly endless tunnel of darkness (due to the coverage provided by the trees) made me reflect on how the Jews may have felt when they were ushered into these trains - the fear and terror that they must have felt as they clung to their loved ones headed into the unknown.

As I explored the area further, I noticed there were dates, numbers, and names of different places on each metal plate that made up the waiting area of the platform where people would have stood. Through closer observation, I realized that these were the dates on which people were taken to ghettos or concentration camps, and the numbers represented the number of Jews who were deported. There were also signs of another group who had been at this location at some point in time, not long ago. They had left slips of paper on some of the metal plates that included the name of a victim along with their age and the camp they had been sent to. I was shocked at the wide range of ages on these slips - they ranged from the age of two months to at least 90 years old! This showed that the Nazis did not care about the ages or genders of the people they sent to the camps. I wondered at this point where their sense of humanity was.

There were also candles and rocks placed on the edge of the platform. As I got closer, I saw a wreath of dried flowers had been placed underneath a plaque was written in German. It warmed my heart to see that people still visited this memorial and kept the thoughts of the Jews who died in their hearts.

As we exited the platform and walked down a hill, there was an artistic representation of the Holocaust in the form of several carvings in a rock wall. The rock was separated in half by a giant crack, with the left side having lines pointing left and vice versa with the right side. These lines can be seen as a representation of fate - with the crevice or the crack representing the moment Hitler came into power. The carving of the human-like figures may represent Jews that appear to be falling, perhaps the process of dying in slow-motion. To me, the depth of the carvings represents the depths of the fear and terror that the Jewish people felt while being persecuted by the Nazis.

Overall, being able to see the memorial and bear witness to the Nazis' atrocious acts towards the Jewish people and other religious and ethnic groups, I was able to re-evaluate my morals and reflect deeply upon the life that I have. This experience has made me grateful to be born in a multicultural society - where everyone is regarded as equals.

The message I want to share with the followers of our program blog is the importance of speaking out whenever an injustice occurs - to stand up for what is right and to educate ourselves with the knowledge of the past. Only by righting the wrongs our ancestors have committed and further educating ourselves regarding the consequences of hatred and prejudice can we improve ourselves as people and as a society.

Topography of Terror by Valerie

One of the sites we visited today was the Topography of Terror, a documentation centre built on the site of the Gestapo and SS officers’ former headquarters. We got the chance to have a self-guided tour. The focus of the exhibition is to identify the perpetrators behind the crimes that were committed in Europe as well as the central institutions of the SS guards and police in the Third Reich. The viewer is guided by visuals with clarifications underneath explaining the context of the images. There are also quotes related to the topics. One photo that really struck me was a picture that showed the corpse of prisoners after they were shot dead for attempting to escape. This struck me because I felt that it was inhumane that the Nazis used the phrase "shot dead" to hide the truth that the officers were deliberately murdering prisoners, maybe even staging the murders as escape attempts.

During our group reflection, we discussed how the ideologies between Hitler and Himmler or SS guards were different than the ones we believe in today. We can see the contrast by analysing the quotes that were recorded during their speeches and how it is unacceptable if we said similar things in today’s day and age.

As I was touring the exhibition a few topics caught my eye that made me think and reflect. One topic I came across was the phrase “Protective Custody”, which originally meant that people worked together to protect an individual who might be harmed or targeted. I learned that the Nazis twisted the meaning behind this phrase and instead brought men into protective custody for the “protection of the people and the State.” The Nazis misrepresented the truth and twisted words around to persuade people that being under the government’s protective custody was a good thing.

Another topic that is discussed in the exhibition is the public shaming that the Nazis did to victims. Some victims had to wear signs in public, or have their hair shaved, and many Germans came out into the street and watched the shaming happen. I believe that some may watch it for their own entertainment but I believe that some may also watch just to avoid being accused of collaborating with others.

The message I want to share about the Topography of Terror is to understand how events are connected. We can learn from this history in order to prevent the same event from happening again.

Wednesday July 10, 2019 • Berlin - Ravensbrück + Berlin Memorials

Ravensbrück by Adrienne

"I see trees, of green, red roses too, clouds of white...." These lyrics from Louis Armstrong's famous song, “What a Wonderful World” oddly described what I first viewed when I set foot into the former women's concentration camp of Ravensbrück. One would not expect to see so much life within this place which is known for the murders of 20 000 people. Although there were spots of green, the colour gray could be seen everywhere. This gray highly contrasted against the beautiful blue lake and the multicoloured buildings of the town which was across the lake from this former concentration camp. Another thing I witnessed were the roads that were paved with stone bricks. Our educator for the excursion, Angie, told us that the prisoners were forced to lay down these bricks. After hearing this fact, I felt very uncomfortable as many people died as a result of this strenuous labour. Also, while we were in front of the former camp administration building, our group noticed that houses for the male SS guards were on a hill, higher than the residences of their female counterparts. Angie explained that this use of architecture showed that the males were considered superior compared to the female SS guards who were deemed inferior. As a result of the female guards being called inferior, they wanted to prove themselves worthy and become harsher on prisoners than the male guards. We learned that some female SS guards were trained at Ravensbrück and were then transferred to Auschwitz.

Once we got into the compound, the first thing I noticed were the black rocks on the ground. Secondly, I noticed how vast the area was. The scenery screamed despair. Once again, I felt uncomfortable walking among the black rocks because I realized that I was walking where thousands of victims had walked before they were killed. In the distance, however, there was a pathway with trees along the side. This green was the only colour other than gray and black I saw. People asked if the trees were original and indeed they were. Angie answered, "Yes, they are original. Whenever I ask my groups what trees symbolize, they all say 'life'. If the trees could speak, they would be the silent witnesses."

Travelling to Ravensbrück I not only felt an overwhelming wave of emotions but I have also learned of new things. Being a female myself, I found it particularly hard to cope with the fact that thousands of women were arrested, tortured, and ultimately murdered. I learned that along with this abuse came sexual exploitation. I found this disturbing and horrible as these girls were already forced to perform hard labour and were fed nothing.

In one part of the exhibit, Angie told us that men were held in a small separate camp at Ravensbrück. I found this interesting because I had always been told that the camp was only for females.

Learning stories and passing them on is a crucial part of our course. Before walking into the camp, I wondered if we were going to be told any stories. I quickly had my answer when we walked into the first building. Angie told us numerous stories which included prisoners attempting to keep morale up by making cards and a recipe book, and stories of how people were sent to these camps, such as a German girl, Anna, who was sent to Ravensbrück simply because she loved a Polish man.

The overall message I would like to share with others is the overall lesson of our program: To share stories of what happened in the past to prevent them from happening again and from being forgotten. This message is extremely vital because if we do not spread our knowledge of what happened in the past, it will be forgotten and will happen again in the future. Just as Max Eisen continues to tell his story, we must also share our experience of visiting these former concentration camps and tell the stories we have learned.

In the area where the barracks stood

Looking across the lake from Ravensbrück

Ravensbrück by Daniela

Today our group visited Ravenbrück Memorial Museum, the site of a former concentration camp in Germany that was used exclusively for women. The moment I stepped inside, it is not about what I saw, but more about what I felt. At Ravenbrück, so many women were brutally tortured, experimented on and used for forced labour. Many did not survive, but many did, and it is their stories that I had read prior to our visit that echoed in my ears as I walked along the grounds. These women were imprisoned because of their race, their political opinion, their beliefs, their religion, their disability, or because they were deemed inferior. I am a sixteen-year-old girl, how many sixteen-year-olds suffered or died on the grounds of Ravenbrück?

The moment that I stood looking around me was surreal. People can read stories, autobiographies, and watch documentaries, but being in a building where these terrors happened affects visitors profoundly. I was aware there were female SS guards, but I was not aware of how treacherous and heartless these guards were to other women. Did they not feel guilty? Did they not feel empathy? Seeing a young child torn from their mother, did they not think of heart-wrenching pain?

A message to anyone who is considering taking a trip similar to the field study of “The Holocaust in History and Living Memory” program: it is not for the faint of heart, but if you are able to visit this place, it will make you stronger and feel much more empowered knowing that many women survived and shared their journey which in itself teaches us the true human spirit, that no SS Guard, no camps or no experiments can take away. Reading about the concentration camps like Ravenbrück was looking at a painted picture, but visiting and breathing the air, my feet on the same ground and my hands touching the same walls as these women, I can feel their pain, their perseverance, and their spirit. I am a witness.

Flowers and Memorial Candles in the Crematorium at Ravensbrück

Thursday July 11, 2019 • Warsaw - Tour of the Former Warsaw Ghetto

Tour of the Former Warsaw Ghetto by Paige

Today our group visited the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto. As a group we saw a remnant of the wall that marked the boundary of the ghetto. I was able to see the confined space and the walls that confined its inhabitants. I was able to understand the struggle that occurred in the Ghetto through stories being shared. For example our tour guide, Renata, shared a story about how children crawled under the wall and smuggled food back inside because they were the only people small enough to get out. This story helped us to obtain a deeper understanding of the horrible conditions that the Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto were forced to live in.

During this tour I discovered many new things, such as the revolution run by the Jews. Even after being forced to live in tight quarters the Jews never gave up hope, once again relating to the theme of man's will to live. The Jews decided that if they were going to die, they were going to die on their own will. Mila 18 commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is now the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization. I also developed an understanding about Umschlagplatz, the railway station where the Jews were loaded onto trains that would bring them to their deaths at Treblinka. On the Umschlagplatz memorial, common first names are listed, rather than the actual names of the victims. I learned that this is due to the fact that there were no records identifying the victims, so in an attempt to commemorate those who lost their lives, common names were used due to represent the names of the victims.

The message I want to share about my learning is to remember to be grateful for what you have and to cherish your life. People tend to take everyday things such as food, water and shelter for granted. The Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto were forced to pack up and move out of their homes. They had very little water and food, and many died of starvation within the ghetto walls. We must remember them.

A remnant of the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto

Umschlagplatz Memorial

Memorial at Mila 18

Friday July 12, 2019 • Warsaw - Majdanek

Majdanek by Andrew

Visiting the State Museum at Majdanek, the site of the former concentration camp, was an experience that helped us visualize and further understand the events that happened during the Holocaust. Before visiting Majdanek, I felt very curious and wanted to learn more about the living conditions that innocent people had to endure, especially after visiting Ravensbrück. I was also nervous about exploring a site where the brutal mass murder of thousands of men, women, and children took place.

After seeing the buildings and barracks at Majdanek in person, I felt small, weak, and helpless to do anything about what had happened. The background information and stories shared by our guide caught my attention. If I hadn’t learned about a reckless, wicked man named Anton Thumann, I wouldn’t know about yet another cruel way that prisoners were carelessly killed - by being strangled with a rope and dragged by a motorcycle. As Suren Konstantynowicz Barutczew, a prisoner of Majdanek, said, “Every Majdanek prisoner had the entire hierarchy of masters over him, each of whom decided, to a lesser or greater extent, not only about their existence, but also about their life.” Prisoners were tortured and dehumanized. Instead of responding with their name to the question, “Who are you?”, prisoners had to state their prisoner numbers in German.

Prisoners at Majdanek were pushed to their limits. They were forced to complete heavy labour every single day and some of that labour required them to build long brick roads that were often made of stolen Jewish gravestones. It must have been truly heartbreaking for those who recognized the names on the scattered pieces of stone. Furthermore, prisoners were treated with little to no regard for their dignity.

Upon learning that corpses were cut open and searched for valuable possessions such as gold teeth and jewelry, I was shocked and disgusted by the Nazi officers’ willingness to do such a disrespectful task just to get ahold of material possessions. I was also astonished by the sheer size of the mound of ashes in the mausoleum. It was very difficult for me to comprehend how many people, who were once normal human beings that ate, slept, cried, and laughed, now lay there.

When hearing about the stories of injustice and cruelty that the prisoners at Majdanek faced, we should be focusing on what we can do to prevent these things from happening again. Remembering all those who have died, reflecting on our own thoughts, sharing our opinions with others, and bearing witness to the Holocaust are effective starting points, however, we must also be aware of the major issues occurring in our current society. The rise of artificial intelligence, extreme ideologies, and the use of censorship and influence by governments and organizations are potential threats to our future. Therefore, we must continue to work towards building a safer, more inclusive society.

Shoes belonging to the victims of Operation Reinhardt

Barrack at Majdanek

Majdanek: The Past Can Never Be Forgotten by Bree

Hi everyone! My name is Bree and I will be writing one of the blog entries for July 12th. Today we were taken to the State Museum a Majdanek, the site of a former concentration and death camp located outside of Lublin, Poland. When I caught my first glimpse of Majdanek, I immediately felt intimidated by the sheer vastness of the open space. The camp seemed to stretch out until it was abruptly cut off by the city. Once I saw the barracks, my memory flooded with the lessons we had been taught about the atrocities that occurred at Majdanek.

Our tour began at the Monument Gate. This massive concrete structure is symbolic of the entrance to hell and hell is what prisoners at Majdanek experienced daily. As I looked up at the gate, I felt intimidated by its size and I was unsure about what I was about to witness. The feeling of uneasiness followed me throughout the day, especially when I saw the area where the SS officers lived. This area was outside of the fence and looked nicer than the other buildings. I felt sickened that the Nazis had excellent living conditions, while people only a few metres away, were dying in gas chambers.

As I thought more about the cruelty that was demonstrated here, I realized that the Nazi techniques were meant to dehumanize the prisoners, making them lose all hope of survival. I stood in the place where prisoners were selected when they first arrived, to determine if they could work. If a prisoner was unable to work they would be sent to the gas chambers, without a second thought. I could not believe that I was standing in the same place they once stood, where the decision about their life or death was made, where their hair cut off and uniforms assigned.

Today I learned the importance of never becoming desensitized to the killing of people. Every pair of shoes at Majdanek has a story, and these stories can never be forgotten. I was absolutely shocked when I saw the large pile of ashes in the Mausoleum. This helped me to visualize and comprehend the tragedy, not just thinking about the Holocaust in numbers. It is imperative to understand that the numbers you hear represent real people with individual stories. If every individual showed empathy to others, then people receiving the help would be grateful and more likely to help when others are in need. This creates a cycle that promotes empathetic behaviour and makes people aware of global events. I pledge to help when people are in need. I know that by doing this, others will likely return the favour. I hope all of you will do the same.

Looking across Majdanek

Shoes belonging to the victims of Operation Reinhart