My name is Lucas Meixner. I study at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I am a double major in Human Services and History. Today on our trip, we started at the Forum for Dialogue, which is a non-profit organization that has been around for about 20 years. They educate students from small Polish towns whose prewar populations were a majority Jewish. They teach the students about their own home towns and inspire them to be activists in order to restore Jewish memories within their community.
We then went to Holy Cross Church where the legendary composer Frederic Chopin’s heart is buried. We also toured the University of Warsaw, and we got to look at the historic gate and library. We then went to the Warsaw Uprising museum. The building was the first power plant to supply power for the city tram system. The museum was very interesting and I learned a lot from the experience. We also got to see the Presidential Palace, called Belweder, which means beautiful view in Italian.
Overall today was very interesting, especially the Forum for Dialogue. I think in America, we only learned about Auschwitz and maybe Dachau but nothing really more. After going to the meeting at Forum for Dialogue, it really spurred my thoughts on how we can teach the next generation about the Holocaust. The speaker talked about how the people they teach become the living memory of those who died in the Holocaust. I think our trip has the same meaning deep down. We have to teach others about what happened in Poland and about the Holocaust.
– Lucas Meixner, UW-Oshkosh
My name is Brandon. When I decided to participate on this journey I initially had only background knowledge of the Holocaust. The desire for more information, as well as first-hand experience led me to Poland.
Early in the morning of May 29, our tour group stopped to gaze at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. It is a tremendous spire that reaches into the sky. Built in the post-war era, its history is that of Poland’s: bloody. Under the orders of Joseph Stalin, the people of Poland were forced to construct the palace in the same likeness of the Seven Sisters of Moscow. The process of construction devastated the city of Warsaw and cost numerous lives. Today it stands as a reminder of Poland’s post-war history. A history that would have been lost had the Nazis succeeded in the Holocaust.
Around mid-day we encountered a fragment of Warsaw’s past: a 10 foot high brick wall. Dotting the area around the wall were a number of memorials left by previous visitors. This was the ghetto wall that was created by the Nazis in order to concentrate Jews in a single section of Warsaw. Jews were unable to leave the ghetto when the wall went up. This was a result of Nazi Germany’s desire for a racially pure Europe. The memorials near the wall were left by people from all over the world. Their presence has proven Nazism incorrect.
In order to better understand the events of the Holocaust, one must understand the nature of people. This is one of the many lessons that I have taken away from this experience. If the Nazis had succeeded, we would not have the Europe we see today: accepting, living, and happy. That is something the Nazis never achieved.
– Brandon Dunn, UW-Oshkosh
My name is Marjorie Peterson and I attend the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I am pursuing a double major in Psychology and Criminal Justice, with a minor in Sociology. I was very excited to attend this trip to learn more about the Holocaust and to be able to bring my knowledge acquired abroad home with me. Further, I want to educate others on the history of Jews as well as the actions and aftermath of the Holocaust.
Today, we departed Lublin at 8 A.M. for a three hour bus ride to Warsaw. After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, we set foot to the Polin Museum which is located inside the former Ghetto established by the Germans during World War II. This museum is dedicated to the History of the Polish Jews. Before we walked into the museum, our tour guide told us a little bit about the architecture of the museum. The outside is created in a wave format, representing waves of the Red Sea. Stepping into the museum, the ceiling is laid out in a way to depict the gaps in the 1,000 year history of the Polish Jews. After grabbing a bite to eat in the cafe, we walked through the museum in small groups. Throughout the museum, 1,000 years of Polish Jewish History is shown in different exhibits which can be lead by a tour guide or by carrying around a portable speaker with different number sets for each exhibit. This was a very educational experience, with interactive exhibits, photographs, auditory descriptions as well as writings throughout the museum.
Next, we took a look at the Monument of Ghetto Heroes, or Monument of Martyrs, which is situated right in front of the Polin Museum. This monument symbolizes the heroes of the ghetto who fought for dignity and humanity in a battle they knew they couldn’t win. Stones are laid on the monument, a Jewish tradition, to represent protection of the corpses and that they must not be damaged.
After learning more about the Monument of Ghetto Heroes, we walked down Memory Line which starts at the Polin Museum. Walking throughout some parts of Warsaw, you see memorial stones written in Polish and Hebrew to remember martyrs of the Holocaust. During one of the stops, a stone was dedicated to Szmul Zygielbojm who committed suicide to try to get the attention of the allied powers. While in London, he wrote Parliament a letter about the desecration of Jews in Poland. Behind this dedication stone, there is a mural symbolizing people burning in fire. White lines are shown to symbolize flames. A quote by Szmul Zygielbojm expresses his alliance with the victims of the Holocaust, “I can not be silent and can not live when the remnants of the Jewish people die in Poland, of which I am a representative”.
Lastly, we visited the old Warsaw train station, where Jews boarded the trains to the Nazi extermination camps from 1942-1943. This is now a memorial to commemorate the victims, and is carved with all the first names of the lives lost in the camp from the old station.
Throughout the day it was made shown that multiple individuals made a tremendous impact for the history of Warsaw in their efforts to bring light to the kind of brutality Jewish citizens were enduring. Overall, I was very happy to have visited these sites today because of the amount of education it provided on the Holocaust and the victims. I am excited to learn more about the history of Warsaw throughout the next couple of days!
– Marjorie Peterson, UW-Oshkosh
On our third day in Lublin, we left later than usual and arrived at a former yeshiva that is now transformed into a hotel. According to Magda, our guide, this building was built relatively recently in the 1930s. What was particularly interesting about the history of the synagogue was that it was built for the Hasidic Jews, one of the many sects of Judaism. What makes Hasidic Judaism different is that they believe in the need for joy in worship; that they believe that in order to get closer to God, they will dance and sing during their prayers. The yeshiva sadly had a short life because during the German occupation of Poland starting in 1939, the yeshiva was transformed into an office and hospital facility for the Germans. Only the balcony of the building inside the synagogue main worship room remains. Today the synagogue is no longer in continuous use because there are not enough Jews left in Lublin to maintain the synagogue.
This seemed to have been the particular theme for our day: Jewish life in Lublin has been radically transformed as the result of the Nazi occupation and the near destruction of Poland’s Jews. In addition to the synagogue we visited in the morning, we were shown the old Lublin Jewish cemetery which dates back to the 16th century. It is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Lublin. Once again, Magda explained to us that this is was another consequence of the Holocaust in Lublin. I am reminded of what was said the other day: the Holocaust wasn’t some far off event that affected people far away, the Holocaust could be felt by all Jews living in Poland under Nazi occupation. There are not a lot of Jewish tombstones left at the old cemetery because the Nazis had looted the cemetery and used the old tombstones as parts of the road at Majdanek concentration camp. We could see bullet holes and desecrated Jewish tombstones all over the cemetery. The grave desecration in my view was another aspect of the Holocaust that was one of the many horrific aspects of the genocide. It was not enough to kill Jews, the tormentors had to destroy every aspect of Jewish life. We learned today that there were over 100 synagogues and around one-third of Lublin was Jewish. Today, there are very few Jews left in the city. Almost all Jews in Lublin were deported to Belzec and other extermination centers. Today there are very few aspects of Jewish life left.
There is at least a glimmer of hope for Lublin, as we learned that at least one Jewish synagogue was spared from the war and Nazi occupation. We were shown a private Jewish synagogue where an elderly Jewish woman gave us a tour. It was not destroyed by the Nazis and remained in its original form. That fact alone made me feel hopeful for the future of the Jewish community in Poland, but also sad for the Jews of Lublin. Jewish life in Lublin has almost practically gone. I could feel the stark difference between Krakow and Lublin’s experience based on how the war went for both cities. Krakow was largely spared but Lublin endured an enormous amount of destruction and it is evident because of the Soviet era apartments that dot the city. I was glad to hear that Hasidic Jews from around the world, from Israel, the United States, and Brazil still gather there for numerous religious events. It is still a place of prayer. That fact alone has given me hope that perhaps one day, there could be a renaissance for Jews in Lublin and slowly but surely Jewish life could return one day. However, I felt an emptiness and an abandoned feeling throughout the day. The scars of the Holocaust are never truly forgotten because even if the genocide is over, the life of society is no longer the same.
– Eddie Huth
My name is Alexandria Oemig. I am a student at UW Oshkosh and am majoring in Psychology. This trip has already been full of such powerful and memorable moments, but today will be a day I won’t soon forget.
We began our day with a bus ride towards the Majdanek camp. On the way, we stopped at a former railway station that served as a deportation point. Approximately 29,000 Jews were deported from the Lublin area to the Belzec death camp. Today, the station is no longer in use, and in its place is a lovely memorial. It was striking how close to the main road it was. It makes sense, because it was a major railway station, but it still surprises me how the atrocities happened out in the open. The camps themselves were a bit further out of the way, but still fairly close to town, too.
We got back in the bus and continued on to Majdanek. While Majdanek wasn’t exclusively an extermination center, it was one of the most lethal concentration camps. It is also one of the camps that is the best preserved. We walked through the gas chambers, stained with blue from oxidized Zyklon B. We passed the barracks and looked at the exhibitions. Toward the end, we went through the crematorium, which was particularly moving. The sterility and cold efficiency was evident and poignant. After seeing the ovens, we walked up to the memorial monument. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than a mention of ashes under the dome. Walking up the steps and seeing the pile of ash (mixed with soil) took my breath away. It was terrible and moving and horrifying. The idea of thousands upon thousands of people having their lives erased, reduced to nothing but ash, is truly heartbreaking.
We had some time to decompress on the bus ride to the Belzec memorial, which was good, because Belzec was even more overwhelming and powerful than I could have imagined. Belzec was an extermination center. Over 500,000 people came through its gates. Two are known to have survived. Two. When the Nazis left Belzec, they completely demolished everything; leveled it to the ground and built a farm on top of it. Now, instead of it being completely erased from memory, an incredible memorial stands on the site. It’s hard to describe it exactly, but every artistic aspect of the memorial was intentional and well thought out. We walked into the memorial, to the Wailing Wall portion, and up and around to the museum section. There was a very engaging exhibition with many multimedia exhibits. But the most powerful part was the Contemplation Room. It was a concrete room the size of one of the gas chambers with only two dim lights. It was cold and dark. Absolutely haunting. I walked the length of the room and back towards the door. On my way out, it occurred to me: I get to leave. I get to walk out of this awful place. So many people did not.
Throughout the Belzec memorial, a verse from the book of Job (16:18) was featured. It spoke to me as a plea from the victims: “Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry!” We cannot cover over the atrocities of the Holocaust, we cannot bury their cries for justice, and we must heed their warnings so it never happens again.
– Alexandria Oemig, UW-Oshkosh