I am one of only fifty Jewish students at my Catholic University. At first it was very difficult being away from my family on all of the holidays, and feeling like I didn’t have a community to celebrate with. Fortunately, I have met some amazing people and have been introduced to outstanding organizations in the Milwaukee Jewish community that have welcomed me with open arms and have made me feel like I have a home away from home. I started getting involved in the Jewish Student Union at my university my freshman year, which at the time did not have a large outreach or presence on campus. Although there are not a lot of Jewish students at my school, I found that there are many people who love to learn about different faiths and cultures. I found that educating others about my Jewish faith was a true passion of mine, and I became an advocate for interfaith and intercultural programming.
This year I started as an intern at the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC), which is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. I came in under the assumption that the organization was one that was run by Jews and that its programming and outreach was marketed for Jews. I soon learned that the staff is very diverse and comes from many different backgrounds, and that the educational programming is in fact focused on all members of the community, especially those who do not have any background knowledge on the Holocaust. This realization resonated with me, as I have been an advocate for interfaith and intercultural educational programming intended for a diverse group of people. At one of HERC’s most highly attended annual events, the Kristallnacht Commemoration, I was truly impressed and inspired by the twelve faith leaders from different Milwaukee communities and the local students who shared their prayers, poems, and artwork in remembrance of a day of violence and intolerance in order to take a stand against racism and bigotry. This event and all of the work I have done with the Holocaust Education Resource Center has given me hope that through education and kindness between diverse communities, we can live in a society that is more tolerant and understanding, and one that celebrates both our similarities and our differences.
– Anna Goldstein, Marquette University
In the wake of his passing this past Saturday, we honor the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel. Holocaust survivor and author, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, husband and father, Elie Wiesel brought a voice to the horrors of the Holocaust and championed the remembrance of all those who perished. Though Wiesel penned many books on the Holocaust and humanity, his first book Night which recounts his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, continues to be used to teach about the Holocaust in classrooms today. He also founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity which engages youth in discussions about the importance of tolerance and humanity around the globe. We thank Elie Wiesel for his precious contribution to Holocaust remembrance and education, and we strive to continue his life’s work.
Hello! My name is Kaila Klawes and I will be a senior at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this coming fall. I am pursuing a degree in Social Work with a minor in Psychology. History is something I have always been interested in, especially regarding the Holocaust. When I learned about this trip, I was excited and thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about this important and tragic time in history, first hand.
Today we visited the Ponary Forest near Vilna. It was hard to imagine anything horrible happening in this place because it was so peaceful and beautiful, yet many people perished here. Next, we went to the Ninth Fort where we learned some of the history of Kaunas and what life was like for prisoners who were kept there. Overall, today was very somber, but I am glad I had the opportunity to experience these places and learn about the horrendous acts that occurred here so that I can pass my knowledge on to others. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Kaila Klawes, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Hello, my Name is Nora Leigh. I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a history major. I was very happy to see this study abroad trip being offered because I have always liked learning about the Holocaust in history class. Also, to be able to visit the places I only just learned about from a book is an amazing experience for me.
I will be telling you about our first day in Vilnius, Lithuania. We visited the Old and New towns of Vilnius and learned about the Jewish people who lived in these two places before and after the war. We also visited “Pace Cathedral” which has amazing architecture inside that was sculpted in plaster. Next we went to Vilnius castle or Gedminas Castle. This castle was ruined by bombs from WWII. However one of four towers is remaining and we were able to climb up to the top of it and see a panoramic view of Vilnius. It was an amazing opportunity to see this beautiful town.
This trip has been an amazing experience for me and opened my eyes to many new experiences as well as opportunities to share my travels with all of you and my family, friends, and community. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Nora Leigh, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Hello, my name is Rachel Bogatay. I’m currently attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a Secondary Education Major. My main areas of focus are Psychology, History, and Sociology. This trip has been very educational and I intend to use as much of my experience to reach students as I can.
Today our group got to visit the office of the Forum for Dialogue. There we met a woman named Olga who guided us through the organizations efforts to educate Junior high and High school students about their specific town’s Jewish history and how it’s connected with the Holocaust. At the end of the 4 day event, the students are given a task of guiding anyone they choose around their town. One girl even coordinated with a group from Israel to have them flown out to Poland so they could share different cultural and historical experiences. It was a very powerful presentation that specifically stuck out to me since I want to be a High school teacher.
After that meeting, we moved on to the Polin Museum. This museum is dedicated to the 1000 year history of Polish Jews. Not only was this a very educational experience, it was also extremely fun. They had different prompts that would guide us through books and a traditional Jewish town. I can’t wait to go back and see it all again! View the trip’s photo album here.
– Rachel Bogatay, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Hello. My name is William Wasielewski and I am a History major at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. I’m also minoring in Geography and Political Science. The Holocaust and its effects on the world have interested me since I was a child, but particularly since we interrupted our normal school schedule in 7th grade to spend a few hours of each day, over the course of a week, learning about the Holocaust. I firmly believe its importance cannot be understated, as it shows both what hate and racism in the modern world can do and demonstrates the resilience that can be found in the human spirit. I am also on this trip as a 3rd-generation Polish-American who has family roots in Warsaw and I have always wanted to return to my motherland.
Today we visited the many memorials and plaques dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto as well as other peripherals of the Jewish community which once existed in Warsaw. Warsaw wasn’t like the other cities we visited (Lublin and Kraków). Its Jewish community was only around 140 years old when WWII started. However, it was booming. At the start of the war, the only city in the world with a larger Jewish population was NYC. This can be exemplified by the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw which is still standing; it has over 220,000 people buried there, most of them from before 1945.
One of the biggest takeaways of our trip to the areas of the former ghetto today was that even if a time of such despair there were still heroes. There were multiple statues of Janus Korczak who was the director of the children’s orphanage in the ghetto. When the Nazi’s came and said they were going to send the kids to the east for a better life (a euphemism for the extermination camp Treblinka), Janus refused to let them take the kids by themselves. Instead, he willfully accompanied the children to their death in Treblinka, comforting them the entire time. To willfully go to your death to ease the pain of others truly shows the heroism of some of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.
One final note about many of the memorials we saw today around Warsaw is that many of them shared a similar theme. These memorials, such as the one at Umschlagplatz (where the Jews of the ghetto were shipped off to Treblinka) contain a very large open space in the monument. This is to signify hope. Even in the darkest hour of humanity, it’s important to have hope. Before I came on this trip I didn’t understand how people could have survived the Holocaust or how they could hold on to any hope. I’m not sure if I understand any better now but I do know now how important it was to those who survived and how important it is today. View the trip’s photo album here.
– William Wasielewski, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Hello from Warsaw, Poland! My name is Andrew C. Smith and I am a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where I earned a degree in History. Growing up, I have been surrounded by Polish influence. I lived in a town called Sobieski and went to school in the neighboring district of Pulaski (which annually hosts one of the nation’s largest polka festivals: Polka Days). I decided to take this trip because of my Polish background, but also because I have always been intrigued by the Holocaust.
This morning we left our previous hostel in Lublin and boarded a train to Warsaw. The train ride to Warsaw was a great opportunity for us to see the countryside of Poland; which looked a lot like the landscape of Wisconsin .When we reached our destination, we met our new tour guide, Thomas. Right away, Thomas connected with our group. Born in Warsaw in 1930, Thomas and his parents were the only three out of an eleven-person family to survive World War II. He loves this city and it was evident through his words as we began our tour. We first explored Warsaw’s Old Town. One of our first stops was at the Holy Cross Church. This church was not only significant to the city of Warsaw, but for Thomas too. Inside the church is the resting spot to famous Polish pianist, Frederick Chopin. And to Thomas, this is where his parents got married and he got baptized. Throughout the city there are benches dedicated to Chopin and when a button is clicked, music is played.
From here we walked to the Saxonian King’s Square. Established in the 1700s, this Square of great size and consisted of many arches and columns. However, after World War II, only three arches remain. Having defeated the Russian army, the Square was renamed to Pilsudski Square after military leader Jozef Pilsudski. Today under the remaining arches is an eternal flame guarded by Polish soldiers. The eternal flame is in memory of all those who have died fighting for Poland.
We continued into Warsaw’s New Town. Here we saw a church that served as a hospital during the German bombings. Nuns raised a Red Cross flag above the church and provided shelter and aid for those that needed it. Unfortunately, the Germans eventually bombed the church killing many inside. Throughout the New Town, and parts of the Old Town, there were statues of bears. Thomas explained that these bears were brown bears and they represent protection. The weather was very inconsistent today and we experienced a small patch of rain. As the rain dropped down, the streets became vacant. We took shelter in a church and waited for the clouds to pass. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Andrew C. Smith, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Hello! My name is Luke Peter and I’m a senior at UW Oshkosh, graduating in the fall. I’m majoring in geography, although history is also an interest of mine. I’ve been fascinated with WWII history for awhile now and have always wondered why something as horrifying as the Holocaust could happen to people who aren’t that much different from myself. Being a geography major, culture and places have always been a focus of my studies, which have covered other genocides in history around the world, yet none as terrible as the Holocaust.
Today we took a tour around Lublin, visiting places that were once part of a thriving Jewish community. 43,000 Jews once lived in Lublin and now there are none. Zero. Completely erased from a place they had inhabited for hundreds of years. Our amazing tour guide, Magda, made many good points about the Jewish/Polish relationship here. Even looking at old pictures of the different parts of old town, it is evident that even before the war the relationship with Jews was strained. There was a clear divide between the city which explains why there is no Jewish population here today. As days go by, the world forgets what happened here and that is unacceptable. Magda explained that they have a program here called Project 43,000. It’s a perfect way to remember the people that were unjustly persecuted and have since been forgotten. The plan is to find relatives and other people who might have known these people and find more information about them. Although it could take many, many years to complete, I think it is a great start to remembering these people. I for one will not forget the pictures, places, and the people I’ve met and learned about in Lublin. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Luke Peter, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Hello! My name is Emily Marie Colon and I am a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. I am majoring in History with a minor in Journalism. I have always loved history, and studying the Holocaust has always been one of my favorite topics to study. I find it incredibly interesting and am someone who thinks that it is important to study history so that it does not repeat itself. I believe that education is power and the more I know, the more I can help educate others.
As a young girl I always dreamed about what it would be like to visit a former concentration or death camp and how I would feel and react being there. I never imagined that a young girl who grew up in Milwaukee would get the opportunity to go. When I first heard about this trip I did not even know that we would be visiting a concentration camp, but I knew that I had to go because it was an opportunity to learn more about Eastern Europe and the Holocaust first hand. When I found out that we were going not only to Auschwitz-Birkenau but also Majdanek, I knew I made the right choice and could not wait for this opportunity to arrive.
Today we visited Majdanek and I still can’t believe that I was actually there. Visiting a concentration camp for me was a surreal feeling. I actually felt more emotional at Majdanek than I did at Auschwitz and I can’t really explain why. Though most people think of Auschwitz when they think of a Nazi death camp, they need to realize it was not the only one and that many people perished at the other camps as well. The fact that Majdanek is still almost completely intact is both impressive and shocking. We literally got to walk in the gas chambers and got to see the crematoria which was an experience in itself. We also saw a bunker full of shoes as well as a bunker that showed their living conditions. They also have a semi-recently built mausoleum filled with ashes found at Majdanek. It does not matter how many pictures you see or how much you study and read about a concentration camp or the Holocaust nothing compares to standing and taking in the place where it all happened.
It was definitely an emotional experience, but I am not sure what emotions I am feeling as a result; I will need some time to process the day. One thing I do is that it was a once in a lifetime experience that I will remember and share for the rest of my life. The number of visitors to Majdanek is much smaller than Auschwitz and that is a shame; both are very important places in history and both should be remembered. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have visited here and for the chance to be able to leave, when so many who came here did not have that option.
Today we also had the wonderful opportunity to visit another death camp: Belzec. It is not a place that many people visit so it was a unique opportunity. It was definitely an interesting experience. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Emily Marie Colon, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
My name is Tori Raymond and I am a history major at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Studying Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are my passions and my primary areas of study. Today, we went to Majdanek death camp.It was personally very emotional. I felt a real connection to the past. We learned about the way the guards treated those who were imprisoned and how sadistic they were. It was eye-opening and sobering. After that, we went to the the Belzec memorial and museum. They had a replica of a gas chamber and it was chillingly quiet and calm inside. We went in one-by-one and were able to feel a little bit of the past. View the trip’s photo album here.
– Tori Raymond, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh