Entries from blogs tagged with “Holocaust”

Remembrance, Reconciliation and Respect

From the organizations involved in the seminar, the cities of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) and Krakow, I saw many evidences of the ongoing process of moving from remembrance to reconciliation to respect for life that ends genocide and mass atrocity. In Oswiecim, Fred Schwartz, founder of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation led the restoration of the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. It was used during the war as a munitions warehouse.

Along with the restoration was the development of The Auschwitz Jewish Museum and Education Center. Through the center's exhibitions and programs students, scholars, and visitors from around the world learn of the richness of pre-war Jewish life in Oswiecim and build awareness of the dangers of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance. A large outdoor mural and artwork from local Polish children depicting their idea of Judaism is featured in the museum.

The Old Synagogue in Krakow built in the 16th century along side the 14th century walls was destroyed by the Germans but has been rebuilt and serves as a museum and memorial to people who were killed at that site.

Much of our seminar was held at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, a catholic institution in Oswiecim. Founded in 1992 by the Archbishop Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, the bishops of Europe, and representatives of Jewish organizations, the Centre hosts educational programs, seminars, exhibits and lodging for thousands of visitors each year. The Centre’s sign, a sun rising from barbwire is to me, reflective of their mission, which is to contribute to “creating mutual respect, reconciliation, and peace in the world.”

      Wisdom is the ultimate good
      It flows from knowledge
      When moral passion is added, it leads to the search for truth
      Knowledge is physical
      Truth is metaphysical

by Fred Schwartz, Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation

Headstones were often removed from cemeteries and used for walkways, roads, and walls. This is the site of a unmarked graves. It is a place of meditation in Krakow.

Headstones were often removed from cemeteries and used for walkways, roads, and walls. This is the site of a unmarked graves. It is a place of meditation in Krakow. by Michelle Heller

The Old Synagoue located in the Jewish Quarter was built in the 16th century alongside the city's 14th century walls. Destroyed during the war it was rebuilt and features a museum and a memorial to those who were killed at that site.

The Old Synagoue located in the Jewish Quarter was built in the 16th century alongside the city's 14th century walls. Destroyed during the war it was rebuilt and features a museum and a memorial to those who were killed at that site. by Michelle Heller


Destruction of the Polish Intelligentsia

In the past two days we visited Collegium Maius Jagiellonian University which dates to the 1400s and is one of the oldest universities in the world. Copernicus was a student. We also saw three memorials, one for the Katyn Polish army officers killed in the Katyn Forrest Massacre; a memorial to the many professors killed during the war and a memorial at the site of the former Plaszow Concentration Camp. Our guide gave us the following background:

Our guide reminded that of the 6 million killed 2,200,000 were Poles. When German Forces invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Army launched an attack from the east. In the Katyn Forest, Soviets killed 7,000 to 8,000 Polish Army officers and began a systematic destruction of the Polish “Intelligentsia”. Many of the officers were well educated and included teachers, doctors, judges and other educated professionals who were military reservists. Nazis also targeted for elimination: community leaders, government officials, judges and school teachers. At the War’s end the Poles had lost 45% of their doctors, 57% of all attorneys, 40% of its university professors and almost all of their journalists. Young men and women were forced to work in Germany and Polish children who looked Aryan were taken away from their parents and placed in German families. About 100,000 Polish citizens perished in Auschwitz.

Polish children were forbidden from acquiring education beyond the elementary level so that a new generation of Polish leaders could not arise in the future. In a May, 1940, memo Heinrich Himmler’s stated that it was his goal to limit the education of Poles to a 4th grade education and all they need learn was “simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. I do not think that reading is desirable.” Our guide said the Polish people had clandestine education classes as best they could in the circumstances.

Plaskow was a labor camp that kept approximately 20,000 – 25,000 prisoners at a time. It had been a site of two Jewish cemeteries prior to being selected as a labor camp site. Nothing exists of the camp as the Nazis had enough time to destroy all evidence including bodies and ashes. In 1964, a massive granite memorial was erected which reads, “In homage to martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide in the years 1941-1945.” Our guide said the monument represented the “broken hearts of all the people who suffered in the camps.”


To save a life is to save the world

Today we visited Schindler's Factory and the Jewish Quarter. Oscar Schindler, a German businessman, saw an business opportunity in war torn Poland. He opened an enamelware factory in Krakow and employed Jewish workers from the nearby ghetto. He became close to his workers and was horrified at the Nazi brutality to the Jews. Schindler took a great deal of personal risk to protect his workers, ultimately saving approximately 1,100 - 1,200 Jews. In one instance, a group of women in his employ were mistakenly put on a train to Auschwitz. Although the movie, "Schindler's List", directed by Steven Spielberg, has Schindler going to rescue them in actuality he sent his assistant. Nonetheless, they were taken back to the factory and were part of the numbers who survived. In October 1944, after the SS transferred the Jews to Plaszow Concentation camp in Krakow. He obtained authorization to relocate his plant to Brnenec in Moravia. One of his assistants drew several versions of a list of up to 1,200 Jewish prisoners needed to work in the new factory. These lists came to be known collectively as “Schindler's List.” There are more than 7,000 descendants of the "Schindler Jews."

Outside the factory is the following sign with a quote from the Talmud. I think the story and quote are appropriate for a discussion on prevention and intervention in genocide and mass atrocity.

More about the empty chair memorial The memorial to the Jews of the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow was inaugurated on 8 December 2005. Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak included 33 steel and cast iron chairs in the square and 37 smaller chairs standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops. The theme of empty chairs has also been used at the Oklahoma City Monument at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building blast site to reflect "absence." Near the square stands the Krakow ghetto pharmacy owned by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish pharmacist who owned the Eagle Pharmacy in Krakow. The German occupation authorities allowed the pharmacy to function, despite ghetto conditions.

(I also have an interesting story on the pharmacy..... another example of how we can make a difference in the lives of others.)



We prepare to leave Oswiecim and head to Krakow. This city has such a rich history dating back to the 1500's but it is remembered for one of the worst atrocities in world history. In an effort to be remembered as a site of remembrance and reconciliation this memorial was designed by Professor Dr. H.C. Jozef Szajna, former prisoner No. 18729 of KL Auschwitz and KL Buckenwalk No. 41408.

The memorial, titled Opening, has the following inscription:

Professor Josef Szajna's work symbolizes the transition from the times when fundamental human values were in contempt to the times when human dignity is respected based on tolerance, trust, love, love of neighbour, and the idea of reconcilation.

Oswiecim, City of Peace, June 14, 2010


The slippery slope to genocide

In each of the events of genocide and mass atrocity that we have studied there were early warning signs. During the seminar we discussed the eight stages to genocide. Early identification and intervention before killing begins is key in changing the trajectory.

Stages include: classifying people; using symbols to identify groups; dehumanizing a group such as calling Tutsis "cockroaches;" organizting mobs, or militias to harm the group; polarizing the society so it is "them" against "us;" making preparations such as drawing up hit lists; extermination of groups of people; and finally denial.

Why do murderers get away with their crimes with impunity? In Nurenburg only the bigwigs were tried, no Hutu has yet been tried in Rwanda and Tutsi gang members have also never been tried. Hitler reminded his followers that no one remembered the Armenian genocide.

The U.N. recently called for nations to adopt a "responsbility to protect." At this time 86 countries are considered vulnerable for genocide ( www.genocidewatch.org). Considering the moral, poltical, economic, and military considerations involved what do we do?


Background on the camps

I was especially affected by the expanse of the Auschwitz Birkenau camps .......more than 400 acres plus factories and other sites. Our photos cannot capture the breadth and depth of the site. Here's a bit of background and more photos.

The Auschwitz complex was an extermination camp, a labor camp, a transit camp and a concentration camp. Auschwitz I was the main camp; it was a concentration camp opened in June 1940, barracks of a former Polish Army garrison. Auschwitz II was the death camp where over a million prisoners, mainly Jews, were killed, mostly in gas chambers. Auschwitz III was a work camp where prisoners worked in the factories of the I.G. Farben company, along side civilian workers who were not prisoners.

The United Nations officially changed the name to Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945). This change was made at the request of the government of Poland so that people will know that Poland had nothing to do with setting up the camps or running them.


Images of Auschwitz and Birkenau

Photos from our tour of the Auschwitz Birkenau Camps. The name of the town Oswiecim was changed to Auschwitz when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. The first prisoners were 728 Poles. Auschwiz was important because of its central location and railway junction. The average number of prisoners fluctuated between 13,000 - 16,000 people reaching 20,000 at one stage. Auschwitz was the biggest Nazi concentration camp for Poles and prisoners from other countries and became the biggest center for the mass extermination of European Jews. Approximately 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz (approximately 6 million total during the Holocaust.) Birkenau can be considered the largest cemetery in the world (2011, Auschwitz Berkinau State Museum).


Auschwitz Bikenau - Touring the Death Camp

Today was significant and emotional. We were given a tour of the Birkenau (Auschwitz) death camp. We entered through the railway gate where cattle cars carried deportees to the selection platform. Our Polish tour guide began his narrative by showing us the prisoner barracks that housed 400 men. The buildings were horse stables complete with iron rings to tie horses. At the top of the wall there was a space for air. Two stoves one at each end provided heat. Bunk beds were three tiers and were covered with straw. Two or more men were provided with one thin blanket. Five to six men slept in one bunk. Toilets were held in another building where prisoners were ushered in 50 to 60 at time two times a day. We returned to the rail platform where the selection was made. Those who were considered capable of work were kept at the camp. Children, women with children, the elderly and disabled were selected to go directly to the gas chamber, often killed in less than an hour after arrival. We were then taken to the women and children’s side of the camp. These facilities were made of brick but not much better than the men’s wooden building. Pregnant women were killed immediately or the baby was drowned immediately after birth.
We continued to the gas chambers and crematoriums two of which had been blown up by the SS as the Russians approached. Gas chambers could hold about 1,500 people. Depending on weather conditions it could take 20 minutes to an hour for the gas to kill all the victims. The burning of bodies took much longer however and in back of the buildings were pools of water where the ashes were dumped. We then walked to the processing building where the prisoners were disrobed, shaved of all their body hair, sprayed with disinfectant, and issued striped uniforms and clogged shoes. At the end of these rooms there was a large display of personal family photographs of the victims showing the victims of Auschwitz before their daily lives were so violently changed. Their belongings: clothes, jewelry, photos and other items of value were taken from the prisoners and stored in several buildings. The Germans called this area “Canada” because Poles considered it the land of plenty. We saw the remains of the first two gas chambers and crematoriums four and five. Four was blown up by the Sondercommandos prisoners who cleared and burned the bodies from the gas chambers. Again there were pools for ashes. Our guide remarked that we were standing in the world’s largest cemetery containing the ashes of about one and a half million people. After lunch we returned to Auschwitz I and began a case study to investigate the Allies decision in 1944 to not bomb the camp despite information which would have cease, if even temporarily stopped the killing. This evening we had a reflection meeting and the students spoke openly about their reaction and emotions to the tour and class. Needless to say they were disturbed and upset but motivated to do their part in genocide prevention.


Photos of Auschwitz I

Photos of Auschwitz I


Auschwitz Birkenau

The seminar began with a discussion of the origin of the word "genocide" coined by a young Polish Attorney, Ralphel Lempkin who found it "most curious" that one man could murder another and be punished, but a nation could kill its citizens and not be held accountable as in the Armenian killing by the Turks.

Later the Germans invaded Poland and Lemkin, a Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, petitioned the UN for an international convention to declare the killing of a group a crime of genocide. This afternoon we toured Auschwtz I — a former Polish Army installation the Nazis turned first into a Concentration Camp. The entrance ad the iron sign reads "Arbeit Mach Frei" ....Work Makes You Free. We saw some gruesome and sad exhibits (A ton of women's hair, mounds of children's shoes, eye glasses, suit cases, shaving brushes and razors) all reminders of the six million killed during the Holocaust, approximately 1.4 million at Auschwitz alone.

It became more depressing, with punishment cells where several prisoners were forced to stand in a small space all night. Outside was the infamous "Black Wall" where individuals and families were one by one shot in the back of the head by a Gestapo officer after a mock "trial." We also walked into the first of five gas chamber/crematoriums where Russian Soldiers were used to test Zyclon B gas and the gallows.

Our last session was by two US National Holocaust Memorial Museum staff who presented a case study of a German Army battali Weon, three company commanders who were ordered to kill civilian Jews. The first killed the Jews in his sector, the second said he wanted orders in writing and the third refused following German Army commandments which protected civilians and was never punished. The study shows that the Army was involved in killing Jews — not just the SS — and that a soldier could act morally and refuse to kill innocent civilians and not be punished.

Tomorrow more discussion and a tour of the death camp Auschwitz II Birkenau. Wednesday we will examine the profile of perpetrators... how ordinary people become killers.


Arrived in Oswiecim

After many delays, cancelled flights and no sleep we arrived in Poland today. Our destination is Oswiecim, a small town about an hour outside of Krakow. Prior to WWII, Polish rulers welcomed Jews to help the economic growth of the country. Poland became unofficially known as the Jewish heartland because of the large population of Jewish residents. Over half the population of Oswiechim was Jewish, approximately 14,000. Today there are no Jews in Oswiecim.


Leaving for Poland

Armed with good walking shoes and "How to Speak Polish in a Day" we leave for Krakow, Poland with twenty students from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and three instructors. We will link up with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation staff and its faculty. The Institute is based in New York and the instructors come from non governmental and government agencies across the globe. Our purpose is to learn about the identification, prevention and means to intervene in cases of genocide and mass atrocities anywhere in the world.