Sunday, April 19, 2015
This morning after breakfast we said goodbye to Shalmi, presented him with our individual thank you letters and took our final group picture.
Today we spent the day with our guide, Paulina, walking and learning the history of Krakow and the Wawel Castle district. Our first stop was at the foot of the Castle, to see the fire-breathing Krakow dragon and learn how it came to be the symbol of the city. Paulina also told us that unlike Warsaw and most other Polish cities, Krakow had not been destroyed by the German army in their war to occupy Poland, because the Nazis had decided to make Krakow their headquarters. Most buildings in Krakow, therefore, are the original buildings.
We saw the Royal Palace and the statue of Pope John Paul II that stands outside Wawel Cathedral. Also outside the cathedral, Paulina pointed out an odd assortment of massive bones that are chained to the wall above the door. While some claim these to be the bones of the Wawel Dragon, they are believed to be a blue whale, woolly mammoth, and rhinoceros, or all three. Paulina told us it is believed they have magical properties, and are credited with protecting the city from destruction during centuries of Polish partition and during WWII when Krakow was not damaged, while almost every other major city in Poland was decimated. She said that it is believed that when the bones fall, it will be the end of the world.
From here, we walked back to the square, which was all set up as the end point for a marathon being run today, and enjoyed an afternoon that included lunch and shopping for souvenirs from beautiful, hospitable Krakow, before heading back to the hotel to prepare for our final dinner this evening.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
We met our guide, Wojciech, who would take us through Auschwitz I which now serves as the museum. Wojciech had been our guide before and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students, both in asking and in answering questions, so we were very pleased. We started under the iconic sigh: Arbeit Macht Frei. There, he gave us the history of the camp. Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town. It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945.
As we stood outside the gate we could see several of the 28 brick buildings which made up the camp. The living conditions in the camp were severe ---hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment--- so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months.
In Block 4 we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see later in the day, in Birkenau, which showed the three phases of its operation. First, there was the disrobing room where people undressed. The second phase was where two Zyklon B pellets were dropped through the vents in the roof, which with water, created a deadly hydrogen cyanide. The total time necessary to kill all 1500 people in the gas chamber was twenty minutes. The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando, to remove the bodies and burn them in the underground crematorium. The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3 months.
In Block 5 were exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’: belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation. Separate rooms containing shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, baby clothes, and other items which had been packed in the labeled suitcases they packed. These provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as some insight into what they might have thought was their destination. A large room with a wall-to-wall display case of more than 4,000 pounds of human hair was especially moving. The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.
In Block 7 we could see the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Lining the walls of the halls were photographs of the prisoners, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death. Here we could see what we had been told at the beginning, that the average life expectancy of a prisoner was 2-3 months because of the harsh conditions.
In Block 11, which served as the prison for the camp we saw three types of punishment cells: dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time. Punishment might be 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage. Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence. After viewing the execution wall between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot, we stopped to see in Block 27, an exhibit created by Yad Vashem which opened last year. Wojciech told us that many nations such as Netherlands, and Hungary had created special exhibits in various block barracks. This one, created by Yad Vashem, was highlighted with an exhibit called the Book of Names. In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of thousands of pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp. There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes in 1947. The gallows was used once --- for his execution. We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp.
After a brief bag lunch on the bus as it was bitterly cold, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shami spent two hours showing us the death camp. He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here. It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners. Next Shalmi spoke of the importance of “The Ramp” where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die. He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled their testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp. He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”
Our last stop was the Auschwitz Jewish Center which has a museum, synagogue and education center and presents Jewish life in the town of Oswiecim before and after the Holocaust. Before heading back to the hotel, we also enjoyed some hot chocolate and coffee to warm up from the day in their adjoining Café Bergson, which is located in the home of the last surviving Jew in the town, a Mr. Kluger, who died a few years ago.
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As I brush my fingers against the stained pages
4 million names flickering through the ages
And there I read "Khan"
I am not Jewish
I was never told to be Jewish
But there lay 16 Khans
Is there even a bond
I stand there in shame
In the book of names
When inside Birkenau, Mr. Barmore told a story about a guard seeing a little boy standing alone calling out for his mother that was no where in sight. The guard walked down and saw a young woman and grabbed her and screamed at her but she denied the fact he was her son but when they approach him, he ran to her arms screaming "Mommy." The woman said "Please I'm only 19 years old, I want to live." This story made me think about all the other families that had to make the same decisions.
As I walked through Birkenau and heard stories of the tragedies that occurred it became clear ones perspective of events can be easily abandoned to aid one's life. Birkenau embodies events of misery and in order to retain life and survive individuals took vastly different courses of action. Some were forced to abandon their innocence to retain life and some were forced to blur the line of innocence to cherish life.
It is hard to imagine that the tragedies of the Holocaust happened right where I stood in Auschwitz and Birkenau, but as Mr. Barmore told us the stories of the people he had met, and we looked at the places where they occurred it felt completely real. Every place that we saw today made me have different emotions and places like the room of human hair made me realize how real this truly was and how many victims there were.
Being at Auschwitz was so powerful, for one of the first times in my life I was completely speechless. Seeing the horrible living conditions these human beings just like us had to live through was a moving experience and just showed that some things just cannot be taught through a textbook. The most painful thing in my opinion that I saw today was seeing the mug shots of these innocent prisoners faces which were all bruised up and expressionless from the cruel torture the camp caused to these prisoners.
Today was certainly one of the most influential days of the trip. I was immediately struck by the barbed wire that surrounded the camp, it was hard to imagine what the Jews were confined to even thro
Going through Auschwitz was a surreal experience. I thought that I would go there and cry. But everything seemed so unreal to me. During some parts of it I felt as if I was in a dream. I have been reading stories about Auschwitz since I was little and to actually be there was amazing. The story when Mr. Barmore said the girl told her mom to die hit me hard. The girl forever has to live with the guilt of her mom only wanting to save her. Throughout the day that was the only story I could actually picture happening. All through this trip I have been able to picture situations, but today I could not even imagine what was happening there during World War II. It was hard to see a place where such cruel things happened to such innocent people.
Being at Auschwitz and Birkenau was so powerful. I cannot fully articulate what I saw today, but I think the thing that struck me the most was when Mr. Barmore said "the main part of the story is when there's no story." The survivors we hear from today are the minority and I think today that really began to sink in.
As soon as I stepped into Auschwitz, the atmosphere changed. It was suddenly colder, darker, and gloomier when I entered. It was difficult to not picture the tragedy that had happened there. It felt like I was living both in the present and the past. It felt so real like if I were living it. Before visiting Auschwitz, all this history just felt like words on a page but seeing it and being there made the whole thing solid and undeniable. This day will stay with me forever.
Rose says... In both Auschwitz and Birkenau it took information and my imagination to even begin to understand the past of these places. Seeing the room full of women's hair, the last physical part of them that still remains was surreal. Mr. Barmore told about a man who stopped traffic to let the train to Auschwitz through and felt that he had no part in the killing, but he did, they all did. We believe that we are past this part of our history and this cruelty but in what ways have we changed? How are we so different that this could never happen again?
As a student who has studied the Holocaust I can say that this trip has truly amazed me. Walking through Auschwitz I understood more clearly what all of the testimonies, diaries and textbooks are stating when they describe the scenery as well as emotions they saw and felt. It's hard to imagine what these people had to go through while inmates in the camps. When I approached the entrance gate I saw what thousand and thousand of innocent people saw and that was a certain beginning of terror.
Today is a day that I will never forget. Walking through “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate in front of Auschwitz, I suddenly felt as if I was looking at a photograph in class. I wondered what thoughts were running through their minds when they arrived. Did they know what was about to happen? As we proceeded through the camp, things became more unreal. The women’s hair, the children’s shoes, and the thousands of suitcases, left me speechless. I will take the experiences of today with me forever.
Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau today was both fascinating and heartbreaking. It was amazing to actually see the camps I've studied about in school and read about in books because it's one thing to hear about it but when you see it in person it makes it more serial. Two things that really made me emotional was the display of the hair from the women that were in the camp and the children's shoes. I think that those two things hit me hard because the women had their heads shaved upon arrival and to me that's such a traumatic event. These women had no one idea what their fate was or what they were going to be doing in this camp and right away they were stripped of their clothing and they had their heads shaved. The large pile of children's shoes broke my heart because they were so tiny and the fact that those children's lives ended so soon and tragically was really hard for me to handle.
When Mr. Barmore was telling the story about the son who survived after his mom pushed him on the ground, I felt a rush of emotions and imagined the guilt the son has to face for the rest of his life after saying to his mom and sister "I hope you die!". Ironically, his mom and sister were really going to die and she pushed him away for him to survive. After Mr. Barmore finished explaining the story, I teared up because this mom is exactly the same kind of parent my mom is. My mom would do anything and everything for my brother and I to have the best life possible. Therefore, my mom would do the exact same thing in order for me to survive. Furthermore, I truly feel I grasped the idea of decisions people had to make during the Holocaust in order for their children or loved ones to survive. I will never forget Mr. Barmore's stories about these people and remember them to honor their choices.
Walking through and seeing the exhibitions in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the word I thought of most was "vast." it was an indescribable feeling to stand on The Ramp. No matter where you looked, all you could see was the camp and it was heartbreaking to realize that this is what the prisoners saw and what they probably felt was just the feeling of no escape and no freedom.
Today was so emotional especially seeing the names of the 4 million people that were killed due to the Holocaust. It struck me so hard when I found the names of my ancestors because many of them were killed during it and seeing their names was all too real. Another factor that I could not get over is that we were walking where the victims walked nearly 70 years ago but we were the lucky ones because we were able to walk out when millions did not. Seeing the ruins of the barracks and the gas chambers made me sick to my stomach because the Nazis had the audacity to try to destroy the camps when they realized they were going to lose the war. The fact that they wanted to destroy any evidence of their horrific crimes is disgusting because it amplifies the idea of them being cowards and not wanting to face the reality of their actions. Today was both emotionally and physically challenging and one that I will never forget because I was able to connect emotionally by going and learning further about Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After visiting all the camps today, it really made a huge effect on me. The items of those who lost their lives were stored to be looked at and photographed. Several feet of hair of the women whose lives were taken were put on display too. The most interesting part of today was the story we were told where the mother pushes away the son continuously while he chases after her, but only later does he realize she was pushing him away to save his life.
Today's visit was to Auschwitz was emotionally. Mr. Barmore told us stories of personal testimonies of those who went through the transportation. Hearing the stories made me feel fully connected. Having younger siblings I'm very protective of them and to hear how many children were killed was painful to hear. Today was an emotional visit.
Friday, April 17, 2015
This morning we were so happy to have our regular local guide, Paulina, who had been ill yesterday, join us. Our day began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz. Shalmi gave us the history of why large numbers of Jews came to Poland in the 16th century when they were invited by the aristocracy. Jews came here and formed communities called shtetls in the rural, mostly unpopulated areas. Jews provided capital for the seeds that needed to be planted, and also had a monopoly on the sale of vodka and this became a very lucrative enterprise. Jews became the tools of the nobility, who didn't like them, but needed them. However, this put the Jews in a precarious position with the local serfs, who were Catholic. Shalmi reminded us that Jews were outside of Christian law [ex lex] and therefore received their protection from the king who regarded them as his property.
As the Middle Ages progressed, Jews came to this area in huge numbers. For Jews, Poland was a land of opportunity. Unlike the Jews in Berlin and Prague, the Jews here did not assimilate; they acculturated. In Germany the Jews wanted to be German, but in Poland it was different. By the 20th century, most Jews here spoke Polish. They took on and enjoyed the culture but did not seek to take on the identity as Poles. This had much to do with the Polish-Jewish relations at the time. By 1919, this caused problems with Poles who wanted to be identified by their nationality, and did not see Jews as a part of their nation, but as outsiders. By 1939 in Poland, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles have a very strained relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews, who represent 10% of the population. Because so many Jews lived in the heart of big cities, their presence wass felt more by the non-Jewish residents.
Our first stop in the Jewish Quarter was the Stara Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407. Shalmi told us how, when the king wanted Jews to come and manage his properties, Jews could not come alone, but needed to live in communities. A Jew, for example, cannot pray alone, but ten men, a minion, are needed for prayer. Jews also required a rabbi, a kosher butcher, etc. This was all essential for the Jews because of their ‘open account with God’ that Shalmi had spoken of earlier. As an exiled people, they needed to balance the practical [their existence in the real world amidst Christians] with the spiritual [their need to continue to abide by God’s commandments in order to have God forgive them and return them to their homeland in Jerusalem]. This meant Jews were ambivalent about their two roles.
Inside the synagogue Shalmi pointed out the various parts of the synagogue that we were becoming familiar with, explained the difference between the menorah and the hanukkiyya, taught us that the Sabbath was the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. The Sabbath represents the difference between the sacred and the secular, those two worlds in which Jews lived, and told us how the havdalah [meaning ‘differentiating’] were used to close the Sabbath. Shalmi also told us about some of the practices of Hasidism, such as the method of teaching a young boy to read beginning at the age of three, by putting honey on a letter of the alphabet and then saying the sound so that the child connects learning to something positive and sweet and the importance and rationale in the Jewish community behind arranged marriages.
From here we crossed the square to visit the Remu Synagogue, also known as the New Synagogue because it was built in 1650, which is currently under extensive renovation. Outside we walked through the Jewish cemetery, where Jews were given land to bury their dead. We had seen one other cemetery located next to the synagogue in Prague (the Pinkas Synagogue) and Shalmi reminded us that this was unusual. Jews would never place a cemetery close to the synagogue unless there was no alternative. However, since Christians told the Jews where they could live and where they could have land, this was the property allotted to them to bury their dead. Shalmi shared several stories about individuals buried in this cemete
We next visited the Tempel Synagogue, a reform Jewish synagogue built in the 1860’s which has Moorish designs on the ceiling and is quite ornate, reminiscent of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague. Hasidic Jews did not like this synagogue which incorporated elements of Christian churches such as the pews aligned and facing front and the fact that the day of prayer was changed to Saturday. The Hasidic Jews said of the building, that it was not a synagogue but a temple, for Gentiles. The word ‘temple’ therefore, used to describe a synagogue, was originally a pejorative word referring to non-traditional Jewish synagogues. Inside the synagogue was a klezmer concert and we were able to enjoy the music for a short while.
On our way to lunch, we stopped briefly to get a sense of the Jewish market.
Our bus drove us across the Vistula river to the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, where the Nazis forced the Jews to move. The Krakow Ghetto was a sleeping ghetto, where the Jews slept at night, and worked in factories outside the ghetto during the day. The Jews ran this ghetto, and in contrast to the Warsaw ghetto which had an uprising, the Krakow Jews were determined to do nothing to provoke the Nazis to do anything worse. As Shalmi said, the leadership stressed that nothing should be done to affront or confront the Nazis. The ghetto residents built the walls surrounding it in such a decorative way, showing their resilience and belief that this ghetto would be a new protected area, where they would be able to ride out the war. We saw both of the remaining remnants of this wall during our drive to our next stop.
In front of the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, Apteka Pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle), we looked out over the open memorial, with chairs, that represent the furniture that the Jews carried over the bridge into these cramped quarters, where 17,000 people crowded into 320 houses. Shalmi told us the inspirational story of Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz whose diary documents ghetto life.
Inside the museum there is an exhibition about the Krakow ghetto and the role of Tadeusz Pankiewicz. Visitors can open drawers, look into cabinets, browse through binders with quotes from his diary, smell substances in the numerous jars of chemicals, and search for information in a multimedia center.
Here Shalmi explains that Plaszow Camp, located only 5 miles from here, was built by the people from the Krakow Ghetto who believed they would survive the war because they were building a labor camp. They even built a barrack for children there, so they believed that their families would remain intact. However, on March 13, 1943, all Jews from the ghetto were supposed to report to the square at 7:00 a.m. Once there, all children under age 14 were told to line up separately. Their parents were told that they would come to Plaszow the next day. Pankiewicz chronicles in his diary that some saw this as a bad sign and rushed to the pharmacy to purchase one of two drugs. One of the drugs was Valerium--a drug that put their babies to sleep, so that parents could smuggle their babies into the Plaszow camp inside of suitcases. Shalmi told us that 12 children are known to have been smuggled into Plaszow in this manner. The second drug requested by many Jews was Cyanide, for suicide. At 1:00 p.m., the Nazis ordered those not in the children's line to start marching from the ghetto to Plaszow. They left behind what they were unable to carry. The following day, their children were taken away and shot. Two days later, some parents found out when they were forced to sort the children's clothing, and found the clothing of their own children.
We stopped briefly at Oscar Schindler's factory, a recently opened part of the Jewish Museum of Krakow, so that we could see the gate to the factory, which is still the original.
Our final stop of the day was Plaszow labor camp where Shalmi explained the geographic set up of the camp and its function. We stood at the site which was the hill of executions where Ukrainian commando units would carry out the executions. Shalmi explained the history of the camp over its two years of existence and described how a transport of 10,000 Hungarian women from Auschwitz in May of 1944 who came to Plaszow wearing striped uniforms, with shaved heads and numbers tattooed on their arms, was how the Jews of Plaszow finally learned what had been happening in Auschwitz, not far away.
We headed back to the hotel where the students were able to participate in a Google Hangout before getting ready for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Krakow, Scandale.
Please go to our YouTube Channel and watch our videos from the past days. Slow wifi on the road caused the delay.