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bizzarroworld screenshot NBC Learn came to town and filmed in my classroom in late April. We were learning about some pretty heavy stuff, the liberation of the camps, in this case Dachau.

 

From the producer:

“Our site is accessed by thousands of teachers and students…. [for use as] on-line curriculum for middle school students on World War II.”

“I owe a debt to you and your students for your help on the video… By allowing us to film in the class and setting it up for us, you and your students provided a context that was so essential to tell Rich’s difficult story.”

Click here for the video, “Richard Marowitz, a Liberation Story.” It’s pretty well done and the kids did a great job.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 13. Our last day in this beautiful, revitalized city of Krakow. And like the city, the Jewish community is also trying to revitalize. There is even a Jewish Cultural Festival coming up in Krakow. Our non-Jewish young Polish guides here have certainly been passionate about not letting the past die, as were our German historians encountered on our trip. Gusia takes us to the Jewish Community Center, and Jakub gives us a guided tour in the new Jewish Heritage Museum. He reaches 12,000 schoolchildren, doing outreach, and works with others to resurrect desecrated Jewish cemeteries. As he puts it, it is Polish heritage as well as Jewish heritage. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was the center of European Jewish life.  In fact, at the end of the 18th century, 75% of the world’s Jews lived in the former Galicia,  once part of Poland, Ukraine and the Austria-Hungarian empire. Still, in most places in Poland there is nothing left of what was. Out of what was once millions, today only between 12,000 and 14,000 Jews call Poland home. Let’s not forget that after the war, Jewish survivors were not exactly welcomed back by their neighbors with open arms. And the Communist regime conducted its own purges of Jews as well.

All the more reason to embrace the work of Gusia and Jakub and other dedicated Poles.

Jewish Community Center, Krakow

Jewish Community Center, Krakow.

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letter from AR at Belzec July 2013

July 14. Bus ride is long, from Krakow to Belzec (pronounced “Bel-zich”) Memorial site. Five hours. Imagine what it was like traveling in a packed railcar.   Well, we can’t.

I carry a letter with me written by my friend, survivor Ariela, who, like many friends is supporting me in my travel here. It has been in my pocket for weeks. Ariela was 11 when she was liberated with her aunt on the train near Magdeburg, from Bergen Belsen. She too had been in the prison at Montelupich in Krakow.

A little girl.

In a political prison.

 

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

Ariela R. at the time of her liberation. Age 11. April 1945. Photograph by liberator George C. Gross.

 

So, I am kind of quiet as we approach the memorial site. Ariela’s mother, only 36, both of her grandmothers, her grandfather and two aunts were murdered here in 1942. Her father, other grandfather, and uncle were murdered in Auschwitz, where we were two days ago.

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Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million. Unreal.

From the USHMM:

“In November 1941, SS and police authorities in Lublin District began construction of a killing center on the site of the former Belzec labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections and proximity to significant Jewish populations in the Lvov, Krakow, and Lublin districts of the Generalgouvernement. The facility was finished in the late winter of 1942 as part of what later would be called Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. Belzec began operations on March 17, 1942.”

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

Belzec Memorial site. There was no memorial for nearly 60 years.

“Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars, with 80 to 100 people crowded into each car, arrived at the Belzec railway station. Twenty freight cars at a time were brought into the camp. Arriving Jews were ordered to disembark. German SS and police personnel announced that the Jewish deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables.”

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“Initially, men were separated from women and children, though in later months, as transport arrivals became more chaotic due to increased awareness of the victims of what would happen, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries could not always implement this segregation. The Jews were forced to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started an engine located outside the building housing the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was funneled into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with deportees in the next 20 freight cars. “

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942. USHMM.

“Groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners were forced to sort the victims’ possessions and clean out freight cars for the next deportation. Camp staff periodically murdered these forced laborers, and replaced them with newly arrived prisoners. In October 1942, German SS and police personnel, using groups of Jewish prisoners, began to exhume the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. By late spring 1943, the camp was dismantled. During June 1943, the remaining Jewish prisoners were either shot in Belzec or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed. After Belzec was dismantled, the Germans plowed over the site. Soviet forces overran the region in July 1944.”-USHMM

Belzec.

Belzec.

Open air ovens. Rail track. Machine. Bone fragments. Powder.

 

End of the Belzec extermination camp, c 1944.  USHMM

End of the Belzec killing center, c 1944. USHMM

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

The women in our group enter the memorial for a private ceremony. The seven men walk the perimeter, near the hillside. The memorial project leaders were told that during the Operation Reinhard actions, some of the locals would picnic on the hillside behind us as transports pulled in to discharge the terrified and doomed victims.

They would watch.

After the German attempt to destroy the site and hide the evidence of a half a million  gassed and cremated, the site would be rifled for gold, pockmarked with shovel pits by the local population.

Surely those Jews had gold with them, when they were killed.

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When Ariela came here in 1993, it had reverted to forested hillside.

I unfold the letter and step out into the volcanic type rocks imported here to build the memorial. I am setting up my own memorial.

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Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

Matt Rozell at Belzec, 2013. Photo by Alan Bush.

 

Belzec.

Belzec.

After the touring of the memorial (though “touring” is the wrong word, perhaps “witnessing” is the right one), I am lost in thought.  I had kept the letter to myself. Alan asks, gently,  if he may see it. It gets passed around in the back of the bus on our way to the hotel in Lublin. After what we have seen today, I think it makes an important impact on all.

Later, Alan sends his photograph of me placing the letter on the memorial, to Ariela. She is touched and writes back:

I want to thank you with all my heart for what you did for me, by taking my letter and putting it on the ground where my mother’s bones are spread. When I saw the picture, I cried. It is already 71 years but my heart still has feeling, for all my family. My father asked in his last letter from jail that I should pray for him, and believe me that I do.

Ariela went on to marry and have a wonderful family. Her beloved husband, another survivor, passed a short time ago.

***

Yes, it was another tough day, but somehow I feel like we are making a difference by coming here. I come with no agenda other than to see what happened, though obviously I too feel a personal stake in it all.

*

Sometimes, when I’m working on the woodpile or resting on the tailgate of my truck, I wonder why I was chosen to connect Holocaust survivors with their “angels”. Like this little girl with her liberators. And from there, to journey back in time to uncover what happened here.

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol "Red" Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our "reunion".

Ariela meets her liberator, tank commander Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.

I suppose I could have just let things be.

But I couldn’t leave things alone.

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. "You gave me my second life," Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors. Jason McKibben Glens Falls Post Star

Holocaust survivor Ariela Rojek, right, was 11 years old in 1945 when she and 2,500 other concentration camp prisoners aboard a train near Magdeburg, Germany, were liberated by American forces including 1st Lt. Frank Towers, left with his son Frank Towers Jr., center. “You gave me my second life,” Rojek told Towers Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, at Hudson Falls High School during an event reuniting soldiers and survivors.
Photo by Jason McKibben, Glens Falls Post Star

It certainly seems that one thing builds upon another for a reason, and though we may not know that reason, it is there. Our actions reverberate across borders and through time.

It’s true.

So I’m here to make another special connection.

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Maybe from little girl to mother.

So no one forgets.

 

 

Kisses for Grandma.

Kisses for Grandma.

 

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues.

 

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~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 13. By now it’s probable that you have seen the film Schindler’s List. Today we visited his enamelware factory, now a museum.  Part of the film was shot here.

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Here is a look at some of the things inside:

Schindler factory. Stairwell leading to office.

Schindler factory. Stairwell leading to office.

 

Schindler factory. Oscar Schindler's office.

Schindler factory. Oskar Schindler’s office. His desk, chair, wall map.

Schindler factory. Alan Bush photo.

Schindler factory. Alan Bush photo.

 

Gusia moves us on to some of the other exhibits, explaining life in Krakow pre-war as well as life during the occupation. By 1943, when the ghetto in Krakow was liquidated, 21,000 Germans lived here.

One of the exhibits is on the Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison where people would be interrogated and tortured. When I see the sign, my heart skips a beat. I KNOW people who have been locked up here. So it is not ancient history, and here it is before my very eyes:

Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison in Krakow.

Montelupich Prison, the Gestapo prison in Krakow.

 

Montelupich Prison.

Montelupich Prison.

Our survivor Gina continues her story from the previous post:

One day in November I left my family with the purpose of finding work outside the ghetto with the idea of returning later to take them with me.
I left at 10 o’clock at night. I was accompanied by a young Pole who took me to Lemberg, where we arrived on the evening of the next day at ten o’clock. I had to stay over for a night in a farm while the young Pole went to see what possibilities there were for me. He came back next day at seven o’clock in the morning and he informed me that other Jews having obtained Aryan papers were in the district and they were trying to do something for me.
These people had obtained responsible posts in several factories as Aryans, and they helped me as much as they could. I got a job in a German office as typist. Nobody knew that I was a Jewess. After a few days the owner of the factory told me he wanted to court me as he liked my looks, and I had to run away from him.
I had to change my papers and my name so that he couldn’t find me. I altered my papers and I said that I was married. I then took up work in another factory where I could work without being disturbed.
One night I was sitting at home. I heard somebody knock at the door. It was the German police. I was asked for my papers, I showed them to them. And after examining them they told me I was a Jewess. I was asked to accompany them to the Gestapo. I refused to go saying that I preferred to die on the spot rather than go to the Gestapo. We talked for one hour and I was obliged to accompany them. In the street they took away from me all my valuables, my watch, my money and told me to leave Lemberg immediately. I was left alone in a solitary street. I couldn’t find a bed for the night. I had to change again my papers. I was tired out. I wanted to commit suicide. Next day I found a new home and I had many new troubles.
Coming in one day I was told by the land-lady that the policemen looked for me during the day. I left the house and I went to the place where I received the correspondence from my mother, in which she was telling that we had received foreign naturalization papers which would allow us to go to Palestine. I packed my things and returned home immediately.
When I returned home my mother was in one ghetto and my sister in the other. I had to hide in a cellar because if the German discovered that i had false Aryan papers I could be shot. I kept in hiding in this place for about two months.
Being now of foreign nationality we had to present ourselves regularly to the Gestapo. At one day they informed us that we would be sent to Palestine to be exchanged with German prisoners. On the next day the German police came at our house at 3 o’clock in the night and told us to pack up our things and go to the station. They told us we would go directly to Palestine.
Instead of Palestine they carried us in a prison in the town of Krakow; we were conducted in one of the prison cells where there were already 26 persons. It was a very dark place. We were very depressed and disappointed. We knew already what the Germans were capable of but it was new sadism on their part. The only food they give us was a tiny piece of bread and watery soup. At night we slept on the floor and we heard people crying because they were being beaten. We heard also a good deal of firing. We had always the impression that they will come to take us.
Then they informed us that we were interned and that we should have to wait. We waited and waited. In the day time we could observe how they were making sadistic gymnastics with the people. This made a very bad impression on us.

Gina was later sent to Bergen Belsen, where more trials awaited, and was liberated on April 13th, 1945 by the Americans who came across the evacuation transport near Farsleben, Germany.

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If you have watched Schindler’s List, you may be familiar with the scene of the liquidation of the ghetto in March, 1943, in accordance with Operation Reinhard. From the USHMM:

The SS and police planned the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto for mid-March 1943, in accordance with the Himmler’s order in October 1942 to complete the murder of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement, incarcerating those few whose labor was still required in forced-labor camps.

On March 13-14, 1943, the SS and police carried out the operation, shooting some 2,000 Jews in the ghetto. The SS transferred another 2,000 Jews — those capable of work and the surviving members of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police force  — to the Plaszow forced-labor camp, and the rest of the Jews, approximately 3,000, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center in two transports, arriving on March 13 and March 16. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp authorities selected 549 persons from the two transports (499 men and 50 women) to be registered as prisoners and murdered the others, approximately 2,450, in the gas chambers.”

 

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

 

Memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

Memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

 

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

Liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

 

Belzec Site memorial.

Belzec Site memorial.

So now it’s time to reflect again on where this all fits into the big picture.

Humans want resolution, closure, whatever you want to call it. Oskar Schindler was a complex man who made a difference.  But he was one of the very few, and in reality there are no happy endings to this story.

Important lessons, yes. Happy endings, no.

Tomorrow we head to Belzec.

 

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

***************************

July 12.

After a very intense day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after people in our own tiny group found the names of their murdered families in the Book of Life, we had a debriefing session at the hotel. The consensus is that for one to simply have the will to live, in a place where life was not valued, is an act of defiance and resistance. For one person to care for another under such circumstances, where one is not even considered a person, is extraordinary.

People did these unspeakable acts to other people. But the “monster” myth is just that.  I suppose it is one way of coping with the unthinkable. Let the perpetrators off the hook in a sense, labeling them “monsters”, not humans capable of deeply evil deeds,  and move on. Don’t you think it kind of absolves them of something? They are not human, after all,  so what does one expect of them?

Others may choose not to think about  such things at all. I certainly do not blame them. But to me, to not think about it is to forget, and to forget is as good as saying that it did not happen. But you can’t just talk about the history, the chronology. To really try to understand, one has to know the stories of the individuals who were here. To make it real, and the same goes for all history.

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1.4 million people visit here every year. That too presents its own set of challenges.

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July 13.

We are back with our guide Gusia. She is taking us to the Krakow Ghetto area, which will include the Oscar Schindler factory, now a museum.

According to his autobiography, “The Pianist” director and child survivor Roman Polanski recalled as a young child, his initial feeling in the Krakow ghetto here was  that “if only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong, the Germans would realize that it all was a gigantic misunderstanding.”

If only.

Assembly point, memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

Assembly point, memorial, Krakow Ghetto.

 

Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter. Gusia.

Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter. Gusia.

 

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

Tempel Synagogue, interior. Restored. Used a stable by Germans. Krakow.

Tempel Synagogue, interior. Restored. Used a stable by Germans. Krakow.

 

Now I have a story to tell, and this is where it begins, in Krakow, in 1939.

An internet search led a manuscript collector to my site. A five page typewritten document, written on the stationary and letterhead of the Nazi camp commandant at Hilersleben following the liberation of the Farsleben train in April 1945, traces the autobiographical journey of the Jewish girl from Krakow and the horrors, and miracles, that befell her. And yes, we did identify positively the author, who was still alive when the dots were connected.

 

page-1-compactI begin the story of my sad experiences in this terrible war as follows:

The First of [September] 1939. The war broke out. It was a terrible day for all people of Poland. After several days of battle the first German troops occupied Cracow. It was a fatal moment in my life. I was eighteen years old.

Until this day I did not know the meaning of fear, I was never afraid. I was standing near the window in my own room and looking down, my face was pale and tears were flowing down on my cheeks. I felt that now is the beginning of a new, bad life.

Krakow was to be one of the only cities not destroyed by the Germans, as it would become the seat of their “General Government” for the administration of the Occupied Territories in the East. It was, of course, to be “Judenrein”.

Just the second day of the German occupation all buildings were covered with orders and instructions. Everything was forbidden, we did not know what to do. All Jews of Poland were obliged to give up their foreign money and gold. After several days all Jews were obliged to leave their nice lodgings and move in the ugliest rooms of the town. After two weeks took place registration from people to work from 16-60.

Every day the German soldiers took people from the street to clean the town. All Jews were obliged to wear signs. In December was a search of all Jewish dwellings. The SS men took gold, money, and silver. Every man and every woman were compelled to take off all their underclothing. They searched very exactly. In the meantime they took away the nice furniture and nice clothing. All the goods of Jewish  shops were taken away and carried to Germany.

The population was disarmed and by November, 1939, the intellectuals all arrested. From the USHMM:

“Like elsewhere in the Generalgouvernement, the German occupation authorities required Jews in Krakow city and the surrounding areas to report for forced labor (October 1939), form a Jewish Council (November 1939) identify themselves by means of a white armband with a blue Star of David to be worn on the outer clothing (December 1939), register their property (January 1940-March 1940), and to be concentrated in ghettos (September 1940-March 1941).”

Gina was sent to the nearby Tarnow Ghetto the following August:

In the meantime they took all the intellectual people such as physicians, lawyers, engineers and sent them to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Two weeks afterwards the families of these people received advice telling them about their fathers’, brothers’, and sisters’ deaths. Every day they took new people and sent away. Every day was a searching conducted in another house. We suffered and suffered without interruption.
We changed our dwellings. The winter approached. Now we had new sorrow. We had no wood, no coal. We were frozen the whole winter. We caught a cold very often.
1941
With the beginning of the year 1941 began the great tragedy of our nation. One day we heard a firing in the street. What happened? Nobody knew. Everyone was afraid to look through the window. After some hours i went down and the streets were full of blood. I went to search for my sister. Where is she? Perhaps dead. At last she returned home. I was happy she was alive. When she entered the room I couldn’t recognize her, she looked pale and full of fear. She couldn’t speak and did not want to describe what she had seen.
Every few days this story repeated itself.
On the 10 of June everybody from 12-60 was obliged to register at the working office. The German ordered that every one working with them should be allowed to remain at his place. The people were very irritated. The all streets were full of poor people hurrying to find work.
I was a teacher as I mentioned before. What could I do now? Where to look for work? What could I do with my mother and grandmother? They were not able to do anything. What I felt in this day was impossible to describe.
At last I found work in a factory. My luck was that my sister had found work, too, and we were able to help our family.

1942

A NEW AKTION
The night of the 10 of June. Nobody was sleeping in the whole town. The Jewish office registered the whole night under the control of the SS groups. They were obliged to make a list of people who were unable to work.
Five o’clock in the morning…. I was with my sister in the room. The mother and grand-mother were hidden in our attic. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door. At the doors were standing two SS men with revolvers in their hands.
The first asked “Why have you not answered at once?”
I couldn’t answer.
After a moment he asked “Where is your family?”
“Nobody is at home” I answered.
The SS man: “Where is your mother hidden? If you will not tell me at once I will shoot you.”
I repeated harshly “I don’t know.”
He got very angry and told me once more: “I will shoot you both at once.”
We had known their methods very well, and we were ready every minute.
He searched in our dwelling but he couldn’t find my mother. After several minutes they went away.
On this day perhaps 20 men visited our houses and every one of them wanted to take my mother but nobody could find her. On this day they killed in the streets 10,000 people and 15,000 were sent away to  Belzec. From this village nobody returned.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site. Half a million.

This action lasted 8 days with two interruptions. During the free-time the grave diggers were obliged to bury the dead people.

Martin Spett, who was also liberated with Gina by the Americans at Farsleben on April 13, 1945, was 14 and recalls:

We heard the columns of Jews under German, German escort at night. It was going constantly. They were passing our house because this was already on the outskirts of the city, the cemetery, and they were marching them to the woods behind the city. And as we found out later they they were all shot over there. During the day I looked out through the shingles. My father said I shouldn’t look but, anyway, I was a kid, I was curious. And the roof was overlooking the cemetery and wagons with bodies, dead bodies, were coming in. Groups, they were bringing in groups of Jewish people that had to dig ditches, and the bodies dumped in, and after those Jews that dug the ditches, they were shot also and pushed, by another group that came in after them, into those ditches, and lime was poured over, over the bodies, and the next group covered up those ditches and dug other ditches. They brought in [pause] they brought in [pause] pregnant women, and they didn’t use any bullets. They used bayonets [pause]. The screams of the mothers that their children, they, they tore the children out of their arms [pause]. And the screams of the children I still hear. (USHMM)

Gina continues:

Now the whole people were forced to move in one place, where they made a “ghetto”. After three months was a new action. In the meantime the SS men leaders killed everyday several persons. One of them couldn’t eat without shooting before. Before every meal he wanted to see blood.

SELECTION

On the 15 of September was a beginning of a new action. Every one of us received a sign on his work-card. There were two kinds of signs: 1) The first meant to live, 2) the second meant to die. I and my sister received signs to live. Our mother was hidden in a cellar.
On the 16 of September at 6 o’clock in the morning I was standing and waiting. I waited, for what? What could I expect? I was standing on a great square and the Nazi SS police started to make a selection of all old persons and children, putting them apart, whilst all young and valid persons were also put in a separate place.
Subsequently the children and old persons were shot before our eyes.
Now they took from the remaining young persons every tenth person standing in the turn and shot them too. I was lucky enough to be the eighth person and was thus saved from death from a pure  coincidence.
I had no news from my mother whom I had left hidden in the cellar of my house. I was anxious lest my mother should be brought on the square and shot. We had to wait standing on the square until 7 o’clock in the evening without getting any food, closely guarded by Nazi barbarian soldiers. At 7 o’clock in the evening they brought in mothers having small babies and shot all the babies in the presence of their mothers. At 9 o’clock in the evening they allowed us to go home, where I had a great joy to find my family alive. It was a miracle.
After these scenes had taken place all Jews had to leave their homes and go to new lodgings in the ghetto, where they had to be all concentrated. A barbed wire had to be put around the ghetto and no Jew was allowed to come out of this place. So our martyrdom continued: every day being sadder than the foregoing.
After two months of this ghetto life a new action took place, as a result of which 13 thousand people were murdered and 2 thousand people remained on in the ghetto. It was a miracle that the members of my family remained alive. After this took place, the German declared that no Jew would be allowed to remain alive, and I then decided to take up Aryan papers. One day in November I left my family with the purpose of finding work outside the ghetto with the idea of returning later to take them with me.

Gina as photogrpahed by her liberator George C. Gross, Sat. morning, April 14th, 1945. Farsleben, Germany.

Gina as photographed by her liberator George C. Gross, Sat. morning, April 14th, 1945. Farsleben, Germany.

Gina would survive, as would Martin, and I will continue her story as I visit the sites associated with her in the next post.

From the USHMM:

“The Germans decided to destroy the Tarnow ghetto in September 1943. The surviving 10,000 Jews were deported, 7,000 of them to Auschwitz and 3,000 to the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. In late 1943, Tarnow was declared “free of Jews” (Judenrein). By the end of the war, the overwhelming majority of Tarnow Jews had been murdered by the Germans. Although some 700 Jews returned to the city after liberation, virtually all of them soon left to escape local antisemitism.”

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site.

Belzec, Poland. Half a million people murdered on this site.

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

 

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July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.

There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.

 

Vastness

Vastness

The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews. USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

The Walk.

Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.

Selected.

Selected.

The Walk.

The Walk.

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It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what they do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting.  And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.

I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”

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We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.

 

E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.

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At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.

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“A Warning to Humanity.”

We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.

 

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At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.

For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.

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To Life.

To Life.

To Life.

 

 

 

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

 

****************************

July 12.

So the day that many of us approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

 

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM.

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s.The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.

On to the tour.

 

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

 

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

 

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

 

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

Book of Life. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

Girls and boys. Shorn, beaten, and photographed.

 

 

This is the Core.

This is the Core.

 

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

 

~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

****************************

July 11.

At the lull in Prague while waiting for our transport to the train station for our journey East into Poland, I had a conversation with one of our tour leaders, Stephen F.

It seems to me that our study seminar, which is taking us to these authentic sites and involves intense discussions in the evening after emotionally charged days, is not necessarily just about how to teach the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, but also about teaching one how to think, how to look at things differently. But if you are not grounded and well versed in these multifaceted events and happenings, you are not doing anyone who is in your charge any favors. So that is what we are doing on this trip. He grabbed my arm, and said, emphatically, yes, yes, YOU GET IT. Encountering the events at the very sites where they unfolded. And then thinking about them. Very hard.

At one point after dinner, our other tour leader, Elaine C., wanted to know how we were going to incorporate various aspects of what we were studying into our teaching. This is the constant theme. These teachers are definitely NOT on vacation. I was not afraid to answer with a firm “I don’t have any idea”.  I don’t think many of us did, but it sure was one more thing to think about.

Because I am still trying to make sense of this parade of unfathomables. I discuss with roommate Tim B. in the evenings. We bounce these things off each other. We are all in this together.

There are right ways, and certainly wrong ways, for a teacher to approach the subject in the classroom. Incorporating narrative should be a no brainer. Testimony is crucial to making the history visceral. We talk about these issues. But in a real sense we ourselves are traveling back in time. We ourselves are also becoming some sort of witnesses, to the greatest crime in the history of the earth, and the watershed event for all humanity. And this carries some pretty heavy responsibilities, as one of my readers recently wrote me.

In my previous post on Ravensbruck, I had typed that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was in 1944, when I knew it was in 1943. The Polish uprising against the German occupiers was in 1944, when the Red Army approached on the opposite side of the river. He let me have it:

you wrote: <<after the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1944…>>
it is not so long,Only 70 years passed and I must read with horrors
compromising errors, even from someone who write so extesively….
71 passed and some well intentioned man made error in the publication read by so many people. What will happened in the next 29 years ? One hundred year will be passed , when only some 200 Warsaw young Jews from Warsaw ghetto population of 50 000 decided to fight.
How many errors, will be commited , How many distorsion of History be made by good people.
So many words for so little mistakes. Why make aproblem with 1944 ?
But for me who survived those two Warsaw uprising one in 1943 and one in 1944 , is not a small matter. Those Warsaw Jews fighted with no hope.The Soviet front long way.
The WarsawPoles fighted, beacouse enormous Soviet army was acros the river Wisla who divided Warsaw it self….
I made many orthographic and taping errors.
Please look at the facts , and not at the spealing mistakes.

Now believe me, I hear from a lot of folks, some of whom are out to do battle with me for silly reasons. But he was certainly in the right, and I could not agree with him more! It is a BIG deal! The date DOES matter (though nowhere in the post was I specifically confusing the 1943  Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with the Warsaw Uprising of the following year). Of course I wrote him back, and corrected my oversight. Teaching history DOES matter- and my mantra has always been that as teachers, first and foremost, we have an obligation to lay it out correctly. And so now we are on way to Poland, and of course Warsaw, but first, to Krakow.

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Night train to the East.

Speeding along the tracks. Night train to the East. Hours of clacking and swaying. A little unsettling.

 

We arrive in Krakow, Poland, in the morning. The German Army arrived on Sept. 6, 1939.

The castle on the Vistula.

The Castle on the Vistula.

 

Krakow is a lovely and vibrant little city of 850,000, currently in revival after the fall of communism 20 years ago. Wawel Castle in the heart of the town on the Vistula River became the seat of the German General Government for the administration of the  Polish Occupied Territories under Hans Frank. The guy’s name sends shivers down my spine. After the war and after his trial at Nuremburg he was executed. His son, Nicholas Frank, lectures widely to high school students in Germany and elsewhere.

Resurgence in Kracow. Lovely.

Resurgence in Krakow. Lovely.

 

St. Mary's Basilica, Kracow. Seat of the Archbishop. Pope John Paul II's home church.

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow. Seat of the Archbishop. Pope John Paul II’s home church.

 

St. Mary's Basilica, Kracow. During the occupation.

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow. During the occupation.

Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter.

Old Town, in the Jewish Quarter, before the Old Synagogue.

We tour Kazimierz, the Old Town, and the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish presence was strong from the 13th century.Our knowledgeable guide Gusia takes us to the oldest synagogue in Poland. It survives following the liquidation of the ghetto because the Germans use some of the buildings, for example, as stables.

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh.

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh.

 

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

Restored Jewish Cemetery. Remuh. Wall constructed with gravestones destroyed by the Nazis.

 

Tempel Synagogue

Tempel Synagogue

 

Tempel Synagogue, interior.

Tempel Synagogue, interior. Germans used it as a stable.

 

 

St Mary's Square, with fellow travelers Scott and Tim.

St Mary’s Square, with fellow travelers Scott and Tim.

We will be here for a couple days. Rest up tonight. For tomorrow, the tour continues. The day that many of us approach with a bit of apprehension will be finally here. We heading to Auschwitz, 50 miles to the west south west.

 

 

 

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