Archive for October, 2013

Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

Holocaust Survivor Clara Rudnick in her home, Photo Erica Miller 8/31/10

I gave my first talk last night after returning this summer from an intensive 3 week European study tour. Arriving early to prepare and set up, I looked up and in walked Siobhan, a former student, and her mom, followed a little while by an older woman I was surprised and delighted to see- Mrs. Rudnick, or Clara. She gave me a hug and took off her coat and told me that she had taken a cab to the site of the lecture, and, oh, could I please give her a ride home? I was delighted.

During the lecture I recognized her before the audience, and thanked her for coming out. She told the audience how proud she was to live in the “North Country” of upstate New York. Heck, she’s lived here since 1949, a dozen years before I was born! She was moved to tears, as was Siobhan, who gave her a hug.

During the talk, she nodded her head in agreement to many of my points. Afterwards, she pulled out a piece of paper, a short statement that she had written, explaining that she had been meaning to call me.  You see, she was not the only traveler to Europe this summer. While I was in Poland touring Holocaust related sites, Mrs. Rudnick had returned to Lithuania of her youth.

Not an easy thing, given that

a. Clara is 89 years old;

b. Clara is a Holocaust survivor;

c. Clara lost most of her family to the SS Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators.

She and her late husband Abe were two of only 7000 survivors of the 70,000 Jews of Vilna. I was familiar with a lot of the history, but to understand more of what she had gone through, I looked up the following at the USHMM website:

The Lithuanians carried out violent riots against the Jews both shortly before and immediately after the arrival of German forces. In June and July 1941, detachments of German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), together with Lithuanian auxiliaries, began murdering the Jews of Lithuania. By the end of August 1941, most Jews in rural Lithuania had been shot. By November 1941, the Germans also massacred most of the Jews who had been concentrated in ghettos in the larger cities. The surviving 40,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai, and Svencionys ghettos, and in various labor camps in Lithuania. Living conditions were miserable, with severe food shortages, outbreaks of disease, and overcrowding.

In 1943, the Germans destroyed the Vilna and Svencionys ghettos, and converted the Kovno and Siauliai ghettos into concentration camps. Some 15,000 Lithuanian Jews were deported to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia. About 5,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps in Poland, where they were murdered. Shortly before withdrawing from Lithuania in the fall of 1944, the Germans deported about 10,000 Jews from Kovno and Siauliai to concentration camps in Germany.

Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania in the summer of 1944. In the previous three years, the Germans had murdered about 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews, one of the highest victim rates in Europe.

Clara was anxious to speak to me. She told me of her trip with her son. Together they returned to Svinsyan, where her parents, two sisters and two brothers lived. To one of my students, a few years back, she told the following story:

On June 21st, 1941, the Nazis came into my town, I lived with my mother and father, two brother and two sisters. In July 4th, they took my oldest brother and burned him alive, with 90 other Jewish teenagers in my town. In the early part of August they came in and took my twin brother, along with another 100 teenagers and dug a big hole and buried them alive. In September they took the whole town about 8,000 people and brought then to where we held our flea markets- this was both of my sisters and my mother- out into the woods where they lined them up and shot them and left them there. This is where my father and I escaped- he knew a lot of men- and we went to farm to farm and hid out until the Nazis would come, and we would leave because if they caught us they would kill us and the people we were staying with, because they were harboring  fugitives.

At the town’s museum, she stopped to ask where the memorial of the murder site, Poligon, could be found. Clara said that they  told her that they did not know where it was, though half the town’s population, many of the families having lived their since the 1300s, had been murdered there.

At the hotel in Vilna she inquired how she could get to Ponary, and was simply told “there is nothing there”. Google Ponary. 110000 relevant results. 70,000 Jews were shot to death there by the Germans and Lithuanians.

Taking the English speaking bus tour of the Old City of Vilna, the guide described the Philharmonic Hall but did not tell the tourists that this was the entrance to the Vilna Ghetto, where she had been imprisoned until being deported to a slave labor camp and later to a concentration camp. When Clara asked why the guide did not mention this, the guide said that she “did not know.”

Maybe the guide was young and was not taught this history in school. Or maybe it was not important enough to be part of the official program. 90 to 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. To one lady on the bus, and her son, it was important. In Clara’s words, “In just three days, I learned that Lithuania has not faced it history of the destruction of its 250,000 Jews”.

Clara is happy that I am keeping the memory alive. She put on her coat and climbed up into my pickup truck without assistance. She chatted all the way home as I tried to navigate to her house in the dark. She thanked me over and over. Not at all. Thank you for coming into my life and making me, and my students, a part of yours.

Here is an informative article which reveals exactly what Clara wanted me to know. Responsibility is not big on the list of Lithuania’s priorities.

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DSC01140One of the things that came up in my talk last night was the question of what does one do in the classroom to use the Holocaust as a jumping point to address current world or national issues. In other words, what is the purpose of teaching the Holocaust?

Another question that always comes up, and came up last night as well, is how can people deny that the Holocaust ever took place?

These are very good questions and ones that I have wrestled with for some time, myself. I guess in formulating my response, I would have to consider my experiences, and relate one to the other.

1. When you really, really study and think about the Holocaust, as I have, the more it becomes clear that the subject is so expansive, there is so much that you do not know. I consider myself fairly well informed and educated on the subject, but as I stated in a previous post, KNOWLEDGE is not the same as UNDERSTANDING. So I guess I will defer to the survivor I know, asked the same question by a student, after giving his testimony to young people: “There will be always be those who deny or minimize the extent of the Holocaust. How can one even begin to understand the magnitude of the crime?”

It IS quite unbelievable, in a sense.

Which begs the question: How could the enormity of this watershed event, the greatest crime committed in the history of the world, happen?

The answer, simple but again in a general sense, too true. Mass ignorance is not an excuse. People knew.

In reality, few people gave a damn. Political leaders had more important priorities. Ordinary people went about their business.

2. Now the extrapolation*. Today in many schools the Holocaust is simplistically packaged up and sold to promote the cause du jour, whatever it may be, from bullying in the schoolyard to consequences of gun control. We boil down the causes to bullying gone wild, or handing over our guns, saying “See? This is what happens”.

Here is the eye opener for many educators out there.

The cause of the Holocaust was not a simple issue of “intolerance”.

Jewish and gentile communities lived side by side and interacted for hundreds of years. Men, women, and little children were not “bullied” to death. They were murdered on an industrial scale.

3. The only lesson I will promote in the classroom is to outline the enormity of the complexity, to go beyond just advocating “tolerance” and “diversity training” to make an attempt of a systematic examination of the abrogation of personal moral responsibility in the face of  an agenda that was made quite clear from the outset.

So what does this look like? Let’s take a quick look.

a. Mein Kampf was published in 1925. And Hitler never killed a single person in anger by his own hand. There is a reason why, in touring our national Holocaust museum, you will find few references in the exhibits to Hitler alone.

b. Mass murder didn’t just “happen”. There were a lot of logistical problems that had to be overcome. Statisticians, bankers, businessmen, engineers and  architects, mechanics and clerks sold the tabulating machines, arranged the train schedules, drew up the gas chambers, tested the crematoria, installed the hardware, and pushed the paper that meant life or death. Teachers taught lessons handed down by the state, doctors and nurses learned how to kill. Lawyers and judges perverted the notion of justice. Town cops and public servants with families back home were drafted into extermination brigades and became murderers of women and children. The few who refused to pull the trigger were not punished severely.

As I was packing up to leave, a doctor friend who attended my talk stopped me and told me that what I was doing was important, if only as a reminder, I suppose. She stated that in a recent public information event on the Affordable Care Act, someone rose and exclaimed with passion that the those without health insurance should be allowed to die. All around her, the statement was greeted with an outpouring of applause.

I’ll refrain from analogies-but, what, then, was it that she took away from the lecture?

Maybe it was the point that there are no simple explanations or lessons, that that there were no monsters, that to label a perpetrator as a monster is to strip him/her of our common link- humanity- which perversely, somehow absolves him, the nonhuman, of responsibility.

Maybe we are not so far removed, after all.

As I was leaving, in a quiet tone, she said:

The veneer is very thin.”

*If you are an educator looking for more guidance, here is a  a short video I made for the teaching of the Holocaust, according to USHMM guidelines.

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A Backwards Journey into the Holocaust

Matthew Rozell, a history teacher at Hudson Falls High School whose project has reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, will speak at a gathering of the NYS Archeological Association, Adirondack Chapter, on Friday evening, October 18, 2013.

Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names, Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit, based in part on Rozell's work.

Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names, Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit, based in part on Rozell’s work.

Mr. Rozell has been recognized as ABC World News Person of the Week, the Organization of American Historians Tachau Teacher of the Year, and the NYS DAR American History Teacher of the Year. He is also the recipient of the Washington County Historical Society Cronkite Award, the Glen at Hiland Meadows President’s Award, and most recently, the NSDAR Medal of Education Award and the SUNY Geneseo Alumni Association Educator of the Year Award for 2013.

Rozell will take his listeners on a lecture and photo tour to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends, beginning with their liberation and traveling backwards in time.  His three week odyssey was made with 23 other educators this past summer and was funded by the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program,  the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Holocaust survivors, and many other supporters and friends. Rozell is having an article published in a prominent Holocaust education journal this spring.

The program begins promptly at 7:30pm at the Rogers Island Visitors Center, 11 Rogers Island Drive, Fort Edward New York, and is free to the public.

Belzec, Poland. Letter from a survivor to me, the site where she lost her mother. Nearly 70 years later I would have the honor of introducing her to her own liberators.

Belzec, Poland. Letter from a survivor to me, the site where she lost her mother. Nearly 70 years later I would have the honor of introducing her to her own liberators.

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Traveling compadres Tim, Scott, and Alan in front of our hotel next to the Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, summer 2013.

Traveling compadres Tim, Scott, and Alan in front of our hotel next to the Presidential Palace, Warsaw, Poland, summer 2013. Out for a nightcap and to discuss our shared day.

I am stealing another post from my friend Scott. We traveled together for three weeks this summer on our roller coaster Holocaust tour, and he continued on. Here is a great post with great pictures. Wish I was there with you buddy, but you make it come alive for me and my readers. Great pics, too. Learned a lot. Safe travels. MR


WWII – The Nazis

01 Tuesday Oct 2013

During the 11 day tour of WWI and WWII, we stopped at some important and significant locations to Hitler and the Nazis.  I think it is important to look into the history and development of the Nazis if we want to further understand how this much hate can manifest in a  major government.  If you have been following the news out of Greece and their political party known as Golden Dawn (whose symbol resembles the swastika), I don’t think we are that far away from this still happening.

One stop that marked Hitler’s rise was the site of his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.  Hitler tried to rally some fellow drinkers from a beer hall in Munich to overthrow the Bavaria State Government.  It failed.  Here is the room he gathered supporters:



This was a great place to be.  However, if you took a moment to think about what happened here, you had to pause.  I think this is a great example of resilience, though, to see people using this space for good things today.

We also stopped in Nuremberg and visited Zeppelin Field – the site of the large Nazi rallies of the late 1930′s you have seen in documentaries and films.  In the 1970′s, the German government passed a law forbidding the destruction of important Nazi buildings.  However, seeing Zeppelin Field it is clear that they are not doing much to preserve these sites.



The podium you see down there is the one Hitler stood on.  You can see this area has become a parking lot and it is also the route of a road race so you can see the racetrack walls on the right.  The field in front of you, blocked by trees, is where Nazi’s rallied.  Here is a close up of the sides:Image

Here is the podium straight on:Image



When I was up there on the podium, I turned around and imagined Hitler walking through the doors behind the podium to the place I was standing – it was a little creepy.  Image

I am impressed and disgusted by the amount of energy and money and resources and humanity spent on this hateful man and his message.  But this field was full of people who supported him.  In the museum nearby, there are videos of older German ladies who recall as young children all the excitement when Hitler came to town.  They told of going home and getting ladders so they could see him when his parade passed by.  And they told the camera this – years later mind you – with smiles on their faces and laughter in their voices.  I did not sense a bit of shame of their role (though they WERE children) in what Germany did during WWII and leading up to.  This was a something that stuck with me.

The Museum I talk about was in the largest building the Nazis were building in Nuremberg.  It was never finished, but the building remains:



To give you a better idea of its size, here is what it looks like inside – that is a motorcoach full sized bus below:



Again, you can kind of see the disrepair this building is in.  It does house a pretty good museum on the history of Nazism and its place in Nuremberg history, but most of the building is crumbling.

Another place we went to was what we call The Eagle’s Nest up in the German Alps overlooking Austria.  This house was a gift to Hitler by the Nazi Party on his 50th Birthday.  We took our bus to the bottom of the mountain is sits upon and then had to take another bus, driven by special drivers to near the top.  This is how we saw the house at this point:ImageImage

Notice the tunnel in the picture above – this was the way to the elevator:Image


From here, we took an elevator up to the house.  The same elevator Hitler took.  Again – creepy.  It felt though like most people here were doing the touristy thing – like we were – rather than once again comprehending the historical significance of this man and this movement.  I couldn’t wait to get off the elevator.

At the house, it was beautiful.  It was much smaller than I had imagined.



Here are some pics from inside.  They turned the living room area into a restaurant now:ImageImage

Here is the signature fireplace:



Hitler must have stood right here on days like this (which was pretty cold up here in the mountains) warming his hands.  I had to get out of here  – so I went outside and enjoyed some spectacular views.  Notice the fresh snow on the surrounding mountaintops:


But no matter how impressive the view was, the reason for this place never escaped my mind.  When we got back down to the bottom of the mountain, we went through some Nazi bunkers that were built here as well:



Inside were these tunnels and rooms:



In one room, they made into a memorial for Holocaust victims and names were being read 24/7.  Here is the room and the walls which were covered in graffiti I think encouraged by the museum people:



And this leads us to the details of the Nazi atrocities.  If you have been reading my blog, I have been to 8 or 9 concentration camps already.  I went to another one on this tour – the first camp – known as Dachau.  Here is the train platform and the main building the Jews (and political prisoners, POWs, etc.) went through:Image

The now all too familiar “Work will set you free” sign”



The fence and guard towers:



The area where victims were gathered each day:



The main lane with the barracks outlines and bunks inside:



The gas chamber:



The old crematorium:



When that wasn’t enough, the new crematorium:





You all know what happened here and the horrible thing the Nazis did.  If you want to know more, read my first 12 or so blogs.

There are some symbols of remembrance here, like this sculpture:



And this synagogue:



But this is a horrible place.  My group, many of whom had never been to a camp, where visibly shaken and moved.  That is why it was good that we visited the Court House that housed the Nuremberg Trials after WWII and saw the punishment of those responsible for this.

Here are the gates to the court house:



This is a functioning court house today and the court room that housed the trial is still being used as well.  Here is a pic of what the outside looked like after WWII:Image

The court room today:



Luckily we were there on a Saturday, so we could sit in here all we wanted.  They had little video monitors that you could use to watch parts of the trials.  It was great to sit there and watch, through logic and reason and rules and respect, these Nazis get convicted.  I could have watched this all day.  I could have watched this for a week.  I think I will have to watch the movies again when I get home, but this made me happy being here.

Finally, we visited a German cemetery:Image

Notice the markers in the ground – they represent two Nazis for two German soldiers were in every hole.  Standing there, I could not bring myself to forgive these people.  I almost felt like they did not deserve this burial and respect.  Just then, out of the fog, came our friends – reminding us of the message from the bridge that perhaps it was time to heal.




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