My name is Biak Cin Thang and I go to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I am from Burma and majoring in Theology with a focus on perspectives of different religions around the world. In the previous semester, I took “Introduction of Judaism” and we focused on the Holocaust. That’s one of the reasons I came on this trip. The trip has been full of memorable moments. Today was a day that I won’t forget.
It was our last day of our trip. We began with a short walk and took the city bus to the Holocaust Museum in Vilnius. On the way, we stopped in front of the wall which is across from the bus stop. The wall was built from tombstones taken from the Jewish cemetery. How? After the war, the Soviet Union took them and used them to build that wall. Today, the names, dates, and words on the tombstones are erased. No one knows whose names were on them and no one would realize the significance of that wall.
We continued our journey to the museum. There are two young men from Austria who volunteer and lead tours. According to them, there were no extermination camps in Lithuania, but only places where people were murdered by shooting. More than 200,000 Jews and other people were murdered, including children, ill people, and elders. Before the Germans came to Lithuania, the Lithuanian began killing Lithuania Jews for no reason. They even killed their neighbors and friends. When I heard about this, I was shocked because I can’t even imagine why such a horrible thing can happen. In addition, there is a picture on the wall of the museum; the picture is of the family of Shay Pilnik. Dr. Pilnik, the Executive Director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) in Milwaukee, joined us on the the trip. He was with us today and told us that his grandfather was killed by his Lithuanian neighbor. It was sad to hear the story.
We got in the bus and went to Paneriai Memorial. In this place 100,000 people were shot, over 70,000 were Jewish. The natural setting of the memorial is so beautiful and calm. However, it feels lonely because the Germans and Soviet Union turned the beautiful natural place into one of the horrible and darkest places in history. Now, there are only memorials. We saw the memorial to 70,000 Vilnius Jews who were murdered and burnt by the Nazis executioners and their accomplices. There was another memorial to 1,000 Jews from a small camp who were all killed in one day. There are also big pits which were used to burn bodies of the victims because the Germans wanted to cover up their crime.
Even though the Germans burnt the bodies of innocent people, they are still alive in my heart. Visiting these places helps me to keep the memory alive and to educate other people on what happened.
– Biak Cin Thang, UW-Milwaukee
Today, we are near the end of our journey through Poland and Lithuania. We have visited many of the death camps, like Auschwitz, Belzec, and Majdanek. We have seen the evidence of unspeakable crimes toward Jews. But today is a little different. We leave our hotel in Vilnius on foot and make our way to the first destination of this day, the Choral synagogue. The Choral synagogue was one of over 100 synagogues that existed in Vilnius before the war, but today this is the only active one. This has been the same story in every city we have visited. There were only two active synagogues in Krakow, one in Warsaw and none in Lublin.
After being let through the security gate and having the men put on kippahs, we were welcomed into the synagogue by the rabbi. When I asked the rabbi if they have a minyan, he proudly said “yes we have a minyan!” This was not the case in other synagogues we visited, where there is a struggle to find enough people to have a time of prayer.
We went up into the gallery and viewed photographs of wooden synagogues from the countryside of Lithuania that survived the war. Almost all of them were boarded up and in very bad shape. Most of the wooden synagogue buildings were destroyed by the Germans or Soviets. The Choral synagogue is truly one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The architecture of the building is unique, with galleries surrounding the interior space.
After our brief stop at the Choral synagogue, we continued our walking tour of the old town of Vilnius. Deep inside the Jewish ghetto, We stopped at the house of Jacob Gens, the leader of the Ghetto, and heard more horrific stories of the Holocaust. In Lithuania, Jews were taken by truck outside the city into the woods and shot. The Germans and their Lithuanian accomplices murdered over 95% of the Jews of Lithuania in this manner.
We continued our old town walk past many beautiful churches and public buildings until we came to the location of the greatest synagogue of Vilnius. Miraculously, this great synagogue survived the war. It was destroyed in the second Holocaust when the Soviets tried to stamp out all religion. Now, an ugly kindergarten building sits on that site. Off to the side stands a sculpture of one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, the Vilna Gaon.
The great synagogue of Vilnius is gone, but we have seen many synagogue buildings survive the war to be closed up or turned into museums. They are now being used as in a variety of ways, such as an Orthodox Church, a tea shop, or even a beer bar and restaurant where the original paintings with writing in Hebrew are on the walls. All of these bear witness to Jewish life before the war. The people who went there to pray and to study the Torah are gone, but you can feel the energy from these old synagogues. I wish I had more time to try and learn the stories behind them.
At the end of the day, we met with Simon Gurevich, the head of the Jewish community in Vilnius. He told us about Jewish life today in Vilnius. He talked about how younger people seem to have a growing interest in Judaism, but he also described the struggles in the second Holocaust with Soviet persecution. In a country that once had over 200,000 Jews, only 5,000 remain and around 3,000 live in Vilnius, once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. I am hopeful for Jewish life in Vilnius. I am hopeful after the horrific crimes of the past that these synagogue buildings will once again be needed.
– Mike Cangiamilla
My name is Christopher Gauger. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 2017 with a major in History and a minor in Geography. This trip has been an amazing experience and an emotional roller-coaster, and it has been extremely eye-opening.
On June 2, we spent much of the day in Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania and a popular tourist destination. The city is also home to a fortress complex that was built by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. The fortress was intended to defend the city against a German invasion. But one of its forts would attain a far more ghastly reputation. The Ninth Fort, located on the north side of Kaunas, was used by both the Soviet and Nazi regimes to carry out mass murder and oppression during the 20th century. When the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Lithuania in 1940, the NKVD used the fort to imprison, torture, and execute political prisoners. But the worst horrors were yet to come. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Lithuania was quickly overrun by the Nazis, who took control of the Ninth Fort and transformed it into a killing site. Tens of thousands of Jews from throughout Europe were sent to the Ninth Fort to be murdered in mass shootings as part of the Holocaust. Even after the Soviets retook Lithuania, the fort continued to be used as a site for repression by the post-war Soviet government. Today, the Ninth Fort has been transformed into a museum dedicated to its history both as a military fortress and as a site of oppression under both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. A dramatic monument to the Jewish victims of the Nazis now stands outside the fort.
The Ninth Fort shows that the Holocaust was not just limited to the extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek or Belzec. Not all of the Jewish men, women, and children who were murdered were gassed and cremated. Many of the victims died outside the death camps, in mass shootings carried out in places like the Ninth Fort. And yet these shooting sites have attracted much less attention from the public than the death camps.
But the Ninth Fort fails to present the full history of the massacres that occurred there. Its museum neglects to mention the fact that ethnic Lithuanians participated in the Holocaust in Lithuania; they helped the Nazis carry out the mass killings of Jews. The museum portrays Lithuanians in an entirely sympathetic light. It claims that all of the atrocities committed in Lithuania during the 20th century were perpetrated by either the German Nazis or the Soviet Communists. The museum has an exhibit called “Lithuanians, The Saviours of the Jews” that discusses in detail how Lithuanians helped save Jews during the Holocaust. While it is important to acknowledge these rescue efforts, it is also important to recognize that not all people choose to be heroes, and that some people choose to be villains.
The Ninth Fort and the experiences of Lithuanians in the Holocaust and other 20th century atrocities demonstrate a clear example of how victims can simultaneously be victimizers. Lithuanians, as a nation, suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis. And yet some Lithuanians willingly assisted the Nazis in murdering Jews. We must realize that history is not black-and-white, and we cannot truly learn from the past if we are willing to ignore or erase the parts we dislike.
Not all of our visit to Kaunas was dominated by such depressing topics as mass killing. During the afternoon, we visited the local Japanese consulate, where we learned about the story of Chiune Sugihara. He was a diplomat from Imperial Japan who was stationed at the consulate in Kaunas during World War II. Sugihara decided to save the lives of Jews by issuing them visas so they could travel to Japan, and from Japan they could travel to other safe havens around the world. Through his courageous efforts, Sugihara saved the lives of 6,000 Jews (five times the number saved by Oskar Schindler), despite considerable risk to his life, his family, and his career.
I was emotionally moved by Sugihara’s story, and I was filled with inspiration and hope for humanity. His story – and the stories of other heroic men and women who saved innocent people from the Holocaust – shows that in the face of overwhelming evil and seemingly impossible odds, good can prevail. Some people may choose to be villains, but others will choose to be heroes.
– Christopher Gauger, UW-Oshkosh
My name is William Reardon and I am a student at UW Oshkosh, majoring in history. Yesterday, we were supposed to be in Vilnius around early afternoon, but our flight was cancelled. We could not get on another one until the next day, so we decided to take a bus instead. We found a very nice express bus that took about 7 hours to make the trip. We arrived in Vilnius around midnight, so I want to write about a few of the trip’s highlights.
Our group arrived in Krakow on the 21st of May and met our city tour guide Lukas and Jacek who was our tour guide for the duration of our stay in Poland. We viewed our first concentration camp that later became a death camp, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau. This was the first time that we were actually faced with a true meaning and location of the Holocaust. Everyone’s emotions were seen that day, and it was tough to hold mine back. It is a place meant for that sorrow and grief, with the murder and abuse that was carried out there.
The second part of the trip through Poland started in Lublin. During our five-hour ride to Lublin, we stopped at site where thousands were murdered outside of Tarnow. As it was pointed out to us, the day we stopped and visited the cemetery, the weather was very beautiful. It is hard to imagine that such a thing could have happened on such a day. We also visited the death camps of Majdanek and Belzec. Majdanek sits right outside of Lublin city limits. We were taken by surprise by the location of this camp within the vicinity to the city. The camp is extremely well preserved because of a surprise Soviet counter-attack in December of 1944. The memorial at Majdanek was unbelievably moving, the mound of ashes of the victims shows the true gravity of the Holocaust and the deadly effectiveness of the extermination. Behind the memorial there was the partially excavated trenches where the aktion “Harvest Festival” was carried out by the Nazis in 1942, on which 18,000 were killed on the deadliest day at the camp. After Majdanek, we went to Belzec death camp. The camp no longer stands there due to the Germans completely destroying it after Operation Reinhard. The memorial is where the camp once stood. To be honest there are no words to describe the memorial; one must see and experience the emotions for yourself. The Contemplation Room at the Belzec Museum gives you the sense of what a gas chamber would be like in a sense; there is no noise or anything, just utter silence, death if you want to think of it that way.
Our final part of the journey through Poland ended in Warsaw. The city was utterly and totally destroyed by the fighting during 1944 and 1945. Only a handful of buildings survived the war. Our guide Tomasz took us through the Polin Museum on the first day there. The museum covered the whole history of Polish Jews. After that we were shown around the city and saw remnants of the few buildings that survived, including part of the ghetto wall that was pocked with bullet holes from the fighting in 1944. We got to experience the beautiful side of Poland, the scenery, food, and some entertainment from street performers. But, throughout our stay in Poland, we also came face to face with the deadly truth of the Holocaust and saw the places where endless crimes were committed.
– William Reardon, UW-Oshoksh
My name is Laura Markley and I am a Secondary Education major in Broadfield Social Science with a minor in history. My experience here will be incredibly beneficial for my future classroom and students by being able to provide a first-hand account of the sites of the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania.
Our journey for today was to visit the city of Łódź and all that it entails in relation to the Holocaust. Being that today was the religious holiday, Corpus Christi, everything except some restaurants and gas stations were closed. We were not able to stop at any museums in Łódź, but visited the open sites that we could see. Upon our arrival in Łódź, we went straight to the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish cemetery is over 120 years old with the first grave being established in 1892. It is also one of the largest Jewish cemeteries with over 180,000 tombs or graves. We ventured into the funeral house where bodies were prepared before burial. The building itself was large with a main area in which the family members would be able to say their final goodbyes and two preparation rooms on each side, one for the women and one for the men. We were able to go into the male preparation room. A single table lay in the room along with a washing device. The funeral building was provided by the Dobrzynkick family.
From here, we made our way towards the cemetery. Before we entered the gate, we stopped at a memorial just to the right of the entrance. The memorial was dedicated to all of the innocent Jewish men, women and children whose lives were taken so abruptly by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945. My heart goes out to all of those who suffered. We made our way through the gate and into the cemetery. Beautiful tombs and graves were placed throughout the grounds. It is hard to say that something so devastating was beautiful, but it is a way to show respect to those we have lost. Our tour guide, Tomasc, took us to some of the graves of the wealthy textile owners from Łódź. The Poznanski textile company was the largest in Łódź, employing some 25,000 workers. The family built a beautiful, enormous “palace” as Tomasc called it, in which the owner Izrael and his wife had their tombs. Part of the Jewish tradition is to be buried under the ground, not above in a tomb. While walking through the cemetery, I couldn’t help but think how untidy the grounds were kept. Weeds and plants were growing all around, some three feet high. As I was thinking that, Tomasc shared that oftentimes families will not tend to the graves because it is believed that once they are buried, they are under the care of God. When hearing that, I felt comforted. It is not simply lowering the body into the grave, but providing a place of solitude in which they will be united with God. We stopped at the site of the “Pole Gettowe,” the ghetto field. Łódź was the location of a large Jewish ghetto during World War II. Thousands upon thousands of people died there, as many as 100 people per day. As part of the Jewish religion, those who pass on must be buried that same day. With the number of innocent people dying each day, proper graves were not made. Instead, they created nearly identical graves for those who passed in quick numbers. The ghetto field holds 43,527 ghetto victims during the years of 1940-1944. Many were executed or brutally slain, while others died from disease or starvation. It was a tragic sight to see, knowing how many people had suffered in this ghetto. Our group began back towards the entrance to make way for the next stop. At the gate was a group of Jewish people from Israel who were all singing. It was rather impactful to see them there to honor and respect the members of their faith. Tomasc said that many Jewish residents of Israel have family or relatives who are buried in this cemetery. I cannot imagine how powerful it must be for a member of the Jewish faith to see first-hand these sites and to have possibly had relations to those who perished in this devastating time in history.
After leaving the cemetery, our next stop was the Radegast train station in Łódź. From this train station, people in the ghetto were sent to the extermination camps. Over 145,000 people from the ghetto were sent to different extermination camps. Above the entryway at the memorial says “Thou shall not kill,” a sad, but powerful reminder. We walked to the physical station in which several railcars were on display. One of the railcars had a warning sign displayed on it saying “For safety reasons, no more than a maximum of 20 persons in the car.” It was rather ironic to display that to people because, as Tomasc said “the Germans would fill these cars with 70-100 people.” How? How is it possible that 70-100 people could fit in this tiny railcar and we were getting cramped with 17 people? I think that that was the point of the sign. To show to us the severity and extreme conditions that people from the ghetto endured to their unforeseen deaths. While all of us were standing next to the cars on the platform, our tour leader Tomasc shared a personal and dark story with us:
“After the Warsaw Uprising, my family and I were sent [from Warsaw after the uprising] to different parts of Poland in a railcar similar to this. Out of my family of eleven, only three of us made it. We were not Jewish. We rode on the train for two and a half days to all over and we got to a tunnel were the railcar stopped. The car began to fill with smoke fumes that had carbon monoxide in them…This happened for four to six minutes and then it stopped. All to scare us…”
I was silent, we all were. I did not know what to say or how to react. We had been with Tomasc for three days already, and none of us knew that he had endured part of this devastating time. Someone had asked Tomasc how old he was when this happened. His response was “I do not remember… I know that I am older than 50 but feel as if I am 40,” a slight chuckle as he said the last part of his comment. Again, we were shocked. But then I thought, maybe this is a way to repress the memories or, maybe he does not know his actual age. Given the time period, it is not unlikely. I was standing not three feet away from someone who was physically there in the railcar, someone who had lost members of his family due to terrible people. You cannot prepare yourself for something like that. The sites and museums are all powerful and impactful, but to hear the first-hand account of someone who was not Jewish, but still experienced similar events is indescribable.
The rest of our morning was spent visiting memorial sites like the Polish Children’s Camp Memorial and the Righteous among the Nations Memorial. There are not enough words to describe the feeling you get when you see these kinds of places. We made our last trip to the main walking street, Piotrkowska where we walked around and stopped to eat Jewish/Polish cuisine. While a lighter day in terms of sites or museums seen, it was a heavy day with stories and facts about those who were part of this terrible time in history. My heart again goes out to all those who were involved in this event.
– Laura Markley, UW-Oshkosh