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Archive for July, 2014

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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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July 10. Life goes on. But stop and wonder.

Now the tour continues to Terezin, or Theresienstadt. Forty miles north west of Prague and originally built in the late 18th century as a fortification and garrison town by Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. I will be at the site where the “Train Near Magdeburg” was destined to arrive-but never did, thanks to the US Army. But why there?

Terezin. Garrison town and later ghetto, and Small Fortress, later prison.

Terezin. Garrison town and later ghetto, and Small Fortress, later prison.

In the closing days of the war, as the Reich collapsed in the East, and began to be rolled up in the West, Theresienstadt was the destination of the three transports hastily evacuated from Bergen Belsen. As stated earlier, only one train made it there, but we have never heard of what happened to the occupants. It is known that as thousands of prisoners from other camps flooded into  Theresienstadt in the last month or so of the war, typhus and other epidemics broke out .

First we toured the Small Fortress, later the prison.

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Small Fortress in background.

Small Fortress in background.

 

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Inside the Small Fortress.

Inside the Small Fortress.

 

Inside the Small Fortress. That horrible sign again.

Inside the Small Fortress. That horrible sign again.

 

terezin gate

 

Inside the Small Fortress. The place is crumbling.

Inside the Small Fortress. The place is crumbling.

 

Inside the Small Fortress. Prison. No the two toned wall color is not on purpose. Evidence of recent floods. Note also cell doors.

Inside the Small Fortress. Prison. No, the two toned wall color is not on purpose. Evidence of recent floods. Note also cell doors.

 

Inside the Small Fortress. Gavrilo Princip, whose shots ushered in WW!, died here in Cell 1 in 1918.

Inside the Small Fortress. Gavrilo Princip, whose shots ushered in WWI, died here in Cell 1 in 1918.

 

Inside the Small Fortress. Barracks where many succumbed. Again note high water mark.

Inside the Small Fortress. Barracks where many succumbed. Again note high water mark.

 

Outside the Small Fortress.

Outside the Small Fortress.

And now, we move onto the former garrison town which became the ghetto.

Ghetto at Theresienstadt.

Ghetto at Theresienstadt.

From the USHMM:

“The Theresienstadt “camp-ghetto” existed for three and a half years, between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945. During its existence, Theresienstadt served three purposes:

1) First, Theresienstadt served as a transit camp for Czech Jews whom the Germans deported to killing centers, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps in German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltic States.

2) Second, it was a ghetto-labor camp to which the SS deported and then incarcerated certain categories of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, based on their age, disability as a result of past military service, or domestic celebrity in the arts and other cultural life. To mislead about or conceal the physical annihilation of the Jews deported from the Greater German Reich, the Nazi regime employed the general fiction, primarily inside Germany, that the deported Jews would be deployed at productive labor in the East. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used Theresienstadt to hide the nature of the deportations.

3) Third, Theresienstadt served as a holding pen for Jews in the above-mentioned groups. It was expected that that poor conditions there would hasten the deaths of many deportees, until the SS and police could deport the survivors to killing centers in the East.”

Dutch Jews in the Theresienstadt

Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe were deported here between 1942 and 1945. Most were shipped East to their deaths, though many also died in the wretched conditions here, so crematoria were established.

And let’s not forget the famous “Red Cross” visit and propaganda show: “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City”:

“Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their “resettlement to the east,” where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.

Ghetto at Theresienstadt.

Ghetto at Theresienstadt.

Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified.” Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944.”

Smiling children during the propaganda visit. Most were sent on to their deaths afterwards. USHMM.

Smiling children during the propaganda visit. Most were sent on to their deaths afterwards. USHMM.

Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt. 90 percent were murdered.

 

Crematoria building and burials, memorial.

Crematoria building and burials, memorial.

 

On May 5th, the Fuhrer dead nearly a week, the Soviets approaching, the guards left. On may 8th, the last day of the War, the Red Army arrived.

We light candles. So we wind up our day, like all visits, with a group prayer for the dead and with solitary reflection for the living. We quietly make our way back to Prague, where life goes on.

People hurry about their business on the streets.

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But step lightly, lest your stride be interrupted, so that you must pause and look down. Then you may see the brass “stumble stone” embedded in the sidewalk with the engraving noting the former occupant of the dwelling here was deported to his/her death.

Prague. Stumble stone. Which is not stone at all, but will make you wonder.

Prague. Stumble stone. Which is not stone at all, but will make you wonder.

Life goes on. But stop and wonder.

What was, what is, and what might have been.

 

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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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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July 8 and 9. Day began with packing- we are leaving Berlin for Prague at midday. This morning we went to Tiergartenstrasse 4, for the exhibit, discussed in a previous post. After a stop at the US Embassy we went to the Holocaust memorial for the Roma and Sinti, in the shadow of the Reichstag.

Holocaust memorial for the Roma and Sinti. Berlin.

Holocaust memorial for the Roma and Sinti. Berlin.

Holocaust memorial for the Roma and Sinti. Berlin.

Holocaust memorial for the Roma and Sinti. Berlin.

In the reflection of the sign above, you can see the slabs representing destroyed communities through Europe.

At the train station, we begin our journey to the south, the Czech Republic. The train meanders past Magdeburg again, and alongside the Elbe River, passes through the Sudetenland.

Sudetenland by Alan Bush.

Sudetenland by Alan Bush.

Sudetenland, shortly after the sell out at the Munich Conference in 1938.

Sudetenland, shortly after the sell out at the Munich Conference in 1938. Some excited. Some not.

Then we reach Prague, have a tour of the city.

Prague.

Prague.

 

 

Adolf Hitler reviews troops at Prague castle

Hitler was here on March 15, 1939, and the flags came out after full annexation.

Review in Prague.

Review in Prague. During the war.

 

Prague by Alan Bush.

Prague by Alan Bush.

The was one of the last cities liberated by the Allies-the Red Army- and it is important to note that it was relatively unscathed by bombing during the war. However, there is a lot of Holocaust history to be encountered. But first, to the Jewish synagogues, and burial grounds, that attested to the hundreds year old vibrant presence.

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We were not here long enough to do extensive touring, but it is a beautiful city and highly recommended for any would-be European traveler. There are some fascinating tours and here is an interesting article on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, in his capacity as the “Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia”, whom we met in a previous post at the Wannsee Villa. I would have like to have toured that site.

Now the tour continues to Terezin, or Theresienstadt. I will be at the site where the “Train Near Magdeburg” was destined to arrive-but never did, thanks to the US Army. But why there? We will see.

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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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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We followed our visit to Ravensbruck with a visit to Sachsenhausen, though Sachsenhausen was known earlier by the name of the nearby town as Oranienburg,  the model SS camp built between 1936 and 1938, an SS military training facility. Here also was the headquarters for the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, the closest to the center of power, about 40 km outside Berlin.

Classroom at Sachenhausen.

Classroom at Sachsenhausen.

 

Our historian/guide at Sachsenhausen, Martin S.

Our historian/guide at Sachsenhausen, Martin S.

We have another passionate young German historian-Martin S. In March 1933, Oranienburg became one of the first KZ-Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp. Due to its proximity to the capital of the Reich, local political opponents were held here. As a simple matter of natural progression, the Gestapo would also shoot political prisoners here in the “shooting pit.”

The shooting pit at Sachsenhausen.

The shooting pit at Sachsenhausen.

After the invasion of the USSR, Sachsenhausen was used to murder Soviet POWs as well. In the infamous”neck shot facility”, over 10,000 were murdered in ten weeks in 1941.

Shooting barracks at Sachsenhausen, for Soviet POWs.

Shooting barracks at Sachsenhausen, for Soviet POWs.

 

Here, crematoria were developed, and vast shipments of stolen property from the East were later unloaded and warehoused. A brick factory was opened, making bricks for “GERMANIA” to be used in the new Reich construction in Berlin. Life expectancy there was six to eight weeks.

Here, also, scientists and engineers tested gassing vans and facilities. Doctors experimented on live subjects. Always testing. And as we know, major corporations had their hands in it as well, profiting from the slave labor that left the camp each day and were paraded through the surrounding community.

After 1936, authorities toned down the visibility/profile of the camp, due to the sinister application of state policy. But again, nearly 200,000 persons passed through the camp gates. Is it hiding in plain sight?

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Or do we, as neighbors, simply turn away?

And, nearly eighty years on, why do American educators spend a good chunk of their “vacation” absorbing such new knowledge?

The persons on this trip know why.

 

 

 

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Ravensbruck.

Ravensbruck.

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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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We have visited a lot of sites in Germany since Bergen Belsen-in Berlin, the Wannsee Villa, where preliminary plans for the “Final Solution ” were signed off on after a one day conference, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of the city, the Reichsbahn train platform, Track 17, where the Jews of Berlin were deported almost everyday for nearly two and a half years. We also visited Ravensbruck and Sachenhausen.

Ravensbruck.

Ravensbruck.

Ravensbruck is a couple of hours north of Berlin, in the former East Germany. It is notable for many reasons, probably first that it was a camp for women, and also a training faculty for SS camp guards-3500 women guards were trained here, and about 500 were in service. 130,000 women prisoners passed through here, and towards the end of the war, another 20,000 men.  No barracks are standing today, the houses for the SS leadership remain just outside the camp wall, where they lived with their families. Each day the camp gates would open and thousands of prisoners would stream out into the community for their slave labor assignments. Kind of hard to hide it from the kids. I suppose the attitude was that it was difficult, distasteful work, but the kids had to realized that it had to be done for the wonderful world that they were creating for the children’s future.

Immediately after the war the barracks were dismantled and given to refugees who had fled the Eastern

Matthias H our guide. Photo by Alan Bush.

Matthias H our guide. Photo by Alan Bush.

Reich as it collapsed. Some are still used as houses today. The SS women guard barracks is used as a youth hostel education center today. They have a program where survivors interact with the kids for about 4 days, and sleep here at night. Our guide is the historian Matthias H. at the Gedenkstatte (Memorial). He appears to be in his early 40s and is passionate and knowledgeable, as are all of the German historians I have met thus far. Here are some of his observations that strike me the most:

In his opinion, the majority of Germans supported the master race theory. What disturbs him today is that in his opinion, few Germans today seem conscious of this. It is a very complex topic. The historians talk about the mass crimes, and in Matthias’ words, they work on thin ice. The responses range from some people wanted to know more- after all, many of them learned nothing about it from their teachers, many of whom were bystanders or even perpetrators. Some quietly deny the extent-but I have found that as you study it, you learn how vast and almost unbelievable it is in scope. Others, are tired of the topic- “yes, it happened, so what, enough…”

For Matthias, herein lies the greatest danger. It is important to have the past in front of you- NOT in the back of one’s mind, as one moves forward. The lesson may be simply how to “behave” , not just for Germans but for everyone.

Ravensbruck. Prisoners' gate on left, SS on right.

Ravensbruck. Prisoners’ gate on left, SS on right.

He walks us through the main camp entrance, where thousands of prisoners would pass everyday, explaining that for years he would avoid the single door entrance that the SS guards used-until one day a survivor he was leading on a tour walked through it, to symbolize her victory at this place.

He notes a few additional stories. Survivors corroborate that when new SS female guard recruits would come for training, initially they do not know how to deal with the new job. Industries wanting slave labor must send their own guard recruits, too.  They are not kind, but they do not seem possessed with the will to carry out this abhorrent work. Former prisoners would say that always within about two weeks new staff would have overcome the “cognitive dissonance” that would allow them to do their job without compassion. They become “hardened” and “get over it”.

Book of Names. Faces.

Book of Names. Faces.

Ravensbruck was built for 3000 prisoners. At its height it held 35,000. 30,000 were killed here. In the beginning the SS does  NOT want women with children in the camp. But as more and more territory is overrun, the camp swells. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, there are hundreds of pregnant women. Some are forced to abort; as numbers well, women give birth and the babies are taken to a “hospital” where they slowly starve to death. The crematorium works nonstop. Ash piles are created and dumped into the nearby lake as the Russians close in. When the camp is overrun by the Red Army, 2000 women and 2000 men, mostly too infirm to be death marched out of the camp, are found, but not before the Germans had installed a small operating gas chamber, where 5000 Hungarian women were murdered in 1944.

I think that the following story resonated the most with me as an educator of young people.

The butcher’s son delivered fresh cuts of meat nearly daily to the SS mess hall, which still stands. Late in life, the old man tells Matthias of his feeling as a young teen-going through the camp gates to deliver the meat, seeing the emaciated and foul smelling prisoners, and believing fully all he has been taught- that these people are indeed subhuman, vermin to be eliminated. It’s true. Just look at them. Just smell them. Disgusting. Everyday it is the same. They even march through the town to the labor sites. Best to keep a distance from them.

It’s the same until one cold morning when a new transport of women arrive-stripped naked, healthy, humiliated, shivering, crying, shocked, trying to cover themselves in the plaza. Now it is his turn for a shock. These are not subhuman, but girls his age and older, in distress.

And they are naked. He has probably never even seen his mother or sister undressed before. And it is at this moment that he realizes that his teachers and the adults in his life are wrong- that what he is witnessing is a crime. And now perhaps sixty years later he unburdens himself.

Finally, a survivor, Annika, recounts that the Scandinavian Red Cross appeared in the weeks before liberation and in the presence of these new people, the women stroke their hair (as it is growing in again after being shorn off) trying to make themselves presentable. As she is evacuated over the Danish border, something strange happens. People are crying at her miserable condition. At every stop, they crowd around tearfully, and want to help… What is this? Traveling through the towns in Germany, she recounts, no one cried. No one helped. To date, says Matthias, no former German perpetrator has shown remorse for his/her wartime behavior.

The bystanders probably included most of the victims’ neighbors and acquaintances, and certainly most of the townspeople where the crimes were perpetrated,  of thinking age.

Prisoners on a death march from Dachau move towards the south along the Noerdliche Muenchner street in Gruenwald. German civilians secretly photographed several death marches from the Dachau concentration camp as the prisoners moved slowly through the Bavarian towns of Gruenwald, Wolfratshausen, and Herbertshausen. Few civilians gave aid to the prisoners on the death marches. Germany, April 29, 1945.  — KZ Gedenkstaette Dachau. USHMM

Prisoners on a death march from Dachau move towards the south along the Noerdliche Muenchner street in Gruenwald. German civilians secretly photographed several death marches from the Dachau concentration camp as the prisoners moved slowly through the Bavarian towns of Gruenwald, Wolfratshausen, and Herbertshausen. Few civilians gave aid to the prisoners on the death marches. Germany, April 29, 1945. — KZ Gedenkstaette Dachau. USHMM

But they all knew.

That for me is one of the axioms that will come out on this trip. But, suspending judgment- we were not there ourselves and placed in that position-we have a lot to think about.

But we must think about this too-Hitler never murdered anyone by himself.

The lake at Ravensbruck, where ashes were dumped.

The lake at Ravensbruck, where ashes were dumped.

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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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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Track 17. All aboard. Now.

Track 17. All aboard. Now.

Our state of the art bus brings us to a place seemingly on the edge of nowhere in Berlin. There is no train station that we can see. Just tracks that end abruptly and loading platforms, one spur of rails below, but no train.

The you notice the stepping grates.

You look down:

Oct. 18, 1941. 1251 Jews. Destination: Lodz Ghetto.

Oct. 18, 1941. 1251 Jews. Destination: Lodz Ghetto.

What does this mean? On that day, the first of the mass deportations from Berlin, 1251 people were rounded up and sent to board the trains of the Reichsbahn. “The police and SS had assembled the people for this transport in a collection camp for Jews, which was located in the synagogue in Levetzowstraße in Berlin’s Moabit district. They then chased most of the men, women and children to Grunewald by foot. Until March 1945, about 180 further transports from Berlin to the ghettos followed; from August 1942, transports were also directly headed for extermination camps.” (Source: Gleis 17 Memorial – Berlin Grunewald)

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“At first, the special trains consisted of passenger cars, yet from 1942 on, the Reichsbahn increasingly began using cattle cars for the deportations.”

 

Now, tell me, who is going to pay for all of this? After all, there is a war on. Well, who do you think?

“The conveyance of the Jews was billed to the Jewish community: 4 pfennigs were charged per kilometer for adults and 2 pfennigs for children above the age of four.”  The Jewish community of Berlin is essentially forced to buy tickets to its annihilation.

March 27th, 1945. The last transport out of Berlin. Theresienstadt is the only destination. Note that for later.

March 27th, 1945. The last transport out of Berlin. Theresienstadt is the only destination. Note that for later.

As we prepare to board the bus to our final stop for today, July 6, I pause by myself. It is a beautiful  summer day. A breeze ripples gently, the trees reclaiming the site shimmer and whisper.  And then the whistle blows. Nearby, an unseen train is passing, the click on the tracks steadily growing louder, then trailing off slowly in the wind.

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No, you cannot be forgotten.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Heart of Berlin.

 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Heart of Berlin.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Heart of Berlin.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

 

It is not a maze, but you feel you are lost. The walking surface is uneven. Which way do you turn? Where are you going? Now go below, into the subground museum/memorial.

Letting the images tell the story now.

Deportation. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Deportation. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

 

And just where do these photographs come from?

 

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Deportation. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Deportation. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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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. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

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“Einsatzkommando 12b of  Einsatzgruppe D kills Jewish women and children in a pit, Dubossary,  Moldova/Transnistria, 14 Sept. 1941.” Imperial War Museum.

“Einsatzkommando 12b of Einsatzgruppe D kills Jewish women and children in a pit, Dubossary, Moldova/Transnistria, 14 Sept. 1941.” Imperial War Museum.

A photograph for you to see. I tend to stay away from displaying more graphic images on this blog, but a year ago on this day I was confronted with it, and many others, at the Wannsee Villa outside of Berlin, where the intentionality of the planning of the Holocaust hits you square in the face, as the photograph on the wall above does.

And it is worth noting the date. Eleven weeks after the start of Operation Barbarossa. You see, now that the Soviet Union has been invaded, there are millions more Jews in the path of the genocidal war machine. The Holocaust here was carried out by soldiers with bullets. Entire villages and districts. Over 1.5 million victims. The dirty work gets done, but given the headaches and the bottlenecks, “there has to be a better way”.

Wannsee Villa, July 6, 2013.

Wannsee Villa, July 6, 2013.

Which brings us to this lovely site. At the Villa outside of Berlin, on 20 January 1942, 15 German military and government heads meet for a day to discuss the Jewish problem in euphemisms. As scholars have noted, the Wannsee Conference was not called to decide the fate of European Jews, but to clarify all points regarding their demise.

From the USHMM: “The “Final Solution” was the code name for the systematic, deliberate, physical annihilation of the European Jews. At some still undetermined time in 1941, Hitler authorized this European-wide scheme for mass murder.”

 

The display where the "table" around which discussions were held at the villa.

The display where the “table” around which discussions were held at the villa.

“At the time of the Wannsee Conference, most participants were already aware that the National Socialist regime had engaged in mass murder of Jews and other civilians in the German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union and in Serbia. Some had learned of the actions of the Einsatzgruppen and other police and military units, which were already slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews in the German-occupied Soviet Union. Others were aware that units of the German Army and the SS and police were killing Jews in Serbia. None of the officials present at the meeting objected to the Final Solution policy that SS General Reinhard Heydrich announced.”

A number's man, Heydrich was.

A number’s man, Heydrich was.

“Heydrich indicated that approximately 11,000,000 Jews in Europe would fall under the provisions of the “Final Solution.” In this figure, he included not only Jews residing in Axis-controlled Europe, but also the Jewish populations of the United Kingdom, and the neutral nations (Switzerland, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, and European Turkey).

Heydrich announced that “during the course of the Final Solution, the Jews will be deployed under appropriate supervision at a suitable form of labor deployment in the East. In large labor columns, separated by gender, able-bodied Jews will be brought to those regions to build roads, whereby a large number will doubtlessly be lost through natural reduction. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the elements most capable of resistance. They must be dealt with appropriately, since, representing the fruit of natural selection, they are to be regarded as the core of a new Jewish revival.” (my emphasis)

Nice place to plan and coordinate mass murder of millions.

Nice place to plan and coordinate mass murder of millions.

For a good short essay on the conference, click here. For the actual meeting minutes, click here.

Now we are off to Track 17 in Berlin, to be followed by a visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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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. For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

Berlin. We arrived here late in the evening on the 5th from Hannover by rail, and set up headquarters in the Marriott Berlin, which is very nice, for a few days. On the 6th we ventured out by our tour bus to several places of note. Below I will show you the photos I took, and the World War II era context, and help you connect the dots.

The Reichstag.

The Reichstag.

The Reichstag with its transparent dome, so citizens today can literally look down and see what their legislators are up to. Hmmmm.

The Reichstag in 1945.

The Reichstag in 1945.

Brandenburg Gate.

Brandenburg Gate. Tourists.

Brandenburg Gate, 1945. Tourists. Of the Soviet persuasion.

Brandenburg Gate, 1945. Tourists. Of the Soviet persuasion.

162Above is the stadium built for the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Still in use today.

stadium 1936Inside during the Games in 1936. Kinda makes you think a lot about how Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. Don’t forget, no one is forcing these good citizens to make the salute. Exhibit A: The power of nationalism, and charisma.

Olympic Stadium from the tower.

Olympic Stadium from the tower.

i know that guy...

I know that guy…and so much for painting with too broad a brush.

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reviewing stands outside the stadium proper.

reviewing stands outside the stadium proper.

 

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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.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

Bergen Belsen on July 5, 2013.

Bergen Belsen on July 5, 2013.

“Belsen! I think they had been in Belsen.”

On July 5, 2013, we are on our way from the hotel in nearly Celle to this destination. Our first concentration camp of the tour.

Trying to remember the name of the concentration camp, the elderly gentleman exclaimed these words as he animated his story from the rocking chair across from me. I was in his daughter’s house on a brilliant July day, twelve summers before. It seems like a lifetime ago. But if I had not taken the time to go there and sit down with him, you would not be reading any of this.

People, mostly news media, get the story wrong all the time.  I had not invited the veteran to class because I had had his grandson. It was a series of coincidences that changed so many lives, but then again, I am sure there are no coincidences.

Is it a coincidence that I am making my first trip to Belsen on the day that he is being laid to rest in his hometown back in New York state? Or that by 8pm I will be traveling on the same spur of tracks toward Magdeburg, on which the Sherman light tank he was commanding sixty-eight springs ago came to the train with 2500 Jewish victims of the Holocaust onboard?

I was picking my young children up from daycare. I knew Tim, the other father there at the same time, picking up his young son. I had his older son in class at the time. Tim knew I liked to talk to World War II veterans, and he invited me to come over and speak to his father in law, a retired NYS Supreme Court justice, who was coming up to stay for the summer. So I took him up on it. What a great man, funny too. We conversed on tape for nearly two hours, and I was about to turn the camera off, and his daughter, Tim’s wife Elizabeth, spoke up:

Daughter: Did you mention the train at all? That was kind of interesting.
CW: No, I didn’t tell him about the train.
MR: What was that?
CW: Well, late in the war, again a nice, beautiful April day… we were shooting like crazy across the top of Germany and Major Benjamin of the 743rd was kind of out ahead scouting a little bit… he came back to the battalion and he pulled my tank and George Gross’s tank [fellow tank commander] out. He told us to go with him. So we did.
We came to a place where there was a long train of boxcars. … I can remember pulling up alongside the train of boxcars, Gross and I, and Major Benjamin. As it turned out, it was a train full of concentration camp victims, prisoners, who were being transported from one of their camps…Belsen!  I think they had been in Belsen, on their way to another camp…
So there they were. All of these people, men, women, children, jam-packed in those boxcars, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And there they were! So, now they knew they were free, they were liberated. That was a nice, nice thing. I was there for a while that afternoon. You know, you got to feed these people. Give them water. They are in bad shape. Major Benjamin took some pictures, and George Gross took some pictures too…

 Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names,  Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit.

Bernd Horstmann, Custodian of the Book of Names, Matthew Rozell, History Teacher, July 5, 2013. Bergen Belsen, Evacuation transports exhibit.

Twelve years later and here I am. I know some of the historians who work here-they have been to America to meet me- and I am going to see an exhibit that in fact incorporates some of the fruits of my labors. To date, we have reunited over 240 persons who were on that transport with the soldiers who liberated them. And I found the photographs that tell the story so well, photos that through the generosity of the soldiers who shared them with me, are now also in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, our national institution.

In brief context: 120,000 prisoners passed through Bergen Belsen, and not all of them Jewish. 52,000 died here, perhaps 30,000 of them were Jewish. Belsen actually began as a POW camp- 20,000 Russians died here in the winter of 1941-42. In 1943, Himmler (the head of the SS) ordered that an exchange camp be set up for Jews who might possess foreign certificates or visas to emigrate, perhaps to use to bargain for German families interned abroad. 14,000 people went through the exchange camp. In November, 1944, thousands of women, and some children, arrived from Auschwitz, to be “housed” near the exchange camp, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. What they received, in their miserable condition, were 18 oversized old tents which promptly blew down during a winter storm shortly after their arrival. With the arrival also of brutal SS administrators and guards, conditions deteriorated rapidly as the winter of 1944-45 turned into spring.

The camp system began collapsing with the advance of the Red Army in the east and the British and Americans in the West. By the time the British arrived on April 15th at the camp gates, over 50,000 prisoners were suffering from extreme malnutrition, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Nearly ten thousand corpses lay about as the crematorium had long since broken down. Anne and Margot were dead, as the first Yanks crossed the Rhine River at the end of March. Hundreds died on the day of liberation. A true scene of horror.

Shortly before the liberation, between April 6 and 9, 1945, 6700 men, women, and children from the exchange camp passed through the camp gates and marched several kilometers to the railhead that many had arrived at months or years earlier. Three train transports of cattle cars and shabby passenger cars were prepared and loaded. Some people were executed for attempting to steal sugar beets at the railhead .
The transports would be headed for the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which at the time was far enough from advancing Allied lines and indeed would prove to be the last camp liberated on the last day of the war (I will trace that route later in our journey). Only one train made it there. The other two were liberated, one by the Americans at Farsleben near Magdeburg, and the other by the Russians near Tröbitz.
The first train left Bergen-Belsen on 6 April 1945 and travelled for six days before coming to a stop near the village of Farsleben. It was this transport that the soldiers I interviewed came upon on Friday, April 13, 1945.

I promised no weighty tomes, but maybe it is too late. After an introduction to the history of the site, we  watch the silent movies shot by the British beginning the second day after the liberation. Perhaps you’ve seen the photos or the films.  If you see a photo of a soldier wearing a mask, maneuvering a bulldozer to push corpses into an open pit, that was Bergen Belsen. Just over a month later, the British commander ordered the lice infested, typhus ridden barracks put to the torch. So today, to some visitors, there is nothing here, just inviting walkways with interpretive signage and some markers. Woods, and open fields.

Matthew Rozell and the ruins at Belsen, 7-5-2013. Jerrilyn Miller photo.

Matthew Rozell and the ruins at Belsen, 7-5-2013. Jerrilyn Miller photo.

But on closer inspection, we see the outlines of the past in the ruins. We walk to barracks ten of the exchange camp. You can see the outline at the woodline. Some of the foundation stones are marked with the names of those who passed through them. We retrace the steps from the barracks to the latrine, now many meters away off a footpath in the enveloping woods. Nature reclaims. Out of the corner of my eye, down the long narrow strip mowed to infinity where a fenceline once ran, I see a large deer guide out of the woods, pause and look my way, and vanish just as soon as it appeared. Is it obscene to find in this place now a feeling of inner peace, to find beauty in the stillness of a grey afternoon? Maybe so.

DSC00490Back out to the camp. The solemn monuments marking the mass graves. 1000 Tote. One thousand dead. 2500 Tote. Two thousand five hundred dead. And on and on, elevated mass graves. On to the commemoration room.

Candles are lit, stones are placed, the prayers are recited in Hebrew and English, led by Pauline, the only other New Yorker on the trip with me. We are all moved.

Now I think of Carrol Walsh, the tank commander who led me to this story, the liberator who did not want to be called a hero, or even a liberator. His own memorial service is today, half a world away, but I am here in this place to remember him as well. It is altogether fitting and proper. And I am sure that cosmically, it is also something destined to be.

This evening we depart from Hannover to Berlin. It is pretty crazy and unsettling at the Friday evening platform. 27 people have to run for the train, as the track has changed, with hundreds of others. Our original seats are taken, so we have to find other due to a mixup. But we do not lose anyone, and as I settle in next to a kind stranger, made welcome, I notice our station stops along the way- Brunswick. Magdeburg.

This was not planned, either. We are roughly following the route of the train, and the 30th Infantry Division in 1945. What take us 35 minutes to cover, takes 6 nights and 7 days in April 1945.

We tripped the wires of the cosmos. Today was the culmination of something incredible I am still trying to figure it all out- but this trip is helping me to place in proper context the elements of the greatest crime in the history of the world. As we leave this place of obscene beauty and peace, I think of  the I think of  the survivor’s words:

Remember Me.

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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.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

Memorial Site, Hadamar. July 4, 2013.

Memorial Site, Hadamar. July 4, 2013.

Independence Day and I am on a bus to Hadamar, home of the start of the T-4 program in the heart of Hesse country in Germany.

I’ll let the sign speak for me for a moment. My notes tell me that I wrote that doctors and nurses did the killing. Starving, Injecting, and Gassing. No cases of doctors or nurses who refused. So much for that Hippocratic Oath.

Huge “peer pressure” for families to have their disabled children institutionalized. Spend state dollars instead on the healthy. “Useless Eater” propaganda, posters.

Hadamar.

Hadamar.

T-4 program is not the Holocaust but intersects. How else do you figure out how to build efficient gas chambers? Engineers who build Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and start the mobile van gas chambers at Chelmno get ideas here.

We are here and there are still patients who are served here. We are not allowed into the bowels of the place, where you can still see the early gas chambers. A group of German school kids is there instead, as we do not have the proper appointment set up. Just as well, by all means, get the kids down there.

Instead we hike up to the mass grave at the top of the hill behind the facility.

 

Mass grave at Hadamar.

Mass grave at Hadamar.

"Compassionate orderly prepares to get rid of useless eater."

“Compassionate orderly prepares to get rid of useless eater.”

A year later, I suppose I should be outside preparing to shoot off fireworks or something. Instead I am thinking about how our own educational system is moving away from prioritizing study like this and focusing instead on test taking, data driving, goal orienting. Soul crushing, mindnumbing, paper pushing bullshit.

So I’ll think of these good doctors and nurses, damn good test takers, mind you,  and leave you with this:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should

Anna.

Anna.

witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

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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.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me. Not weighty tomes, but maybe a picture and a note from the diary.

040So here is Frankfurt. We arrived at 5am local time after a transatlantic flight. Before we even hit our hotel properly we were off on the tour. The old girl goes back a ways. For the last eight hundred years or so, there was a significant  Jewish population, decimated by the occasional pogrom but somehow bouncing back. That is until Kristallnacht, when the largest synagogues were burned to the ground. In 1933, 30,000 Jews lived in Frankfurt; in 1945, only 600 remained (you can read more here).

 

The Memorial to the Frankfurt Jews was a testament to the tens of thousands denounced and deported, by date and destination, to their deaths by their neighbors and the Nazi regime.

Memorial to the Frankfurt Jews. July 3 2013

Memorial to the Frankfurt Jews. July 3 2013

Each metal bump out has a person’s name. Shortly afterwards, we drove past the Frank House, from which the Frank family made their way to “safety” in the Netherlands, a path followed by many. You know the rest of the story. Anne Frank. We’ll connect more dots later on the tour.

 

I suppose there is a lot more to Frankfurt but we are not here long, though I do sneak out of the hotel several times to explore, solo and with like minded companions. As this trip begins, so does the wondering. You know, just the night before I heard testimony

Matt Rozell and Henry Greenbaum, Washington, DC, July 1, 2013

Matt Rozell and Henry Greenbaum, Washington, DC, July 1, 2013

of survivor Henry Greenbaum and had dinner with him and the group. He is part of the family on Geddy Lee’s mother’s side, Polish survivors who made their way to North America after the war. If you are not quite sure who Geddy Lee is, he is the bass player and vocalist for one of the most talented power trios on Earth. And he is playing Frankfurt. His mother and father met in a work camp in Poland, then Auschwitz.  His dad was liberated by the Americans at Dachau, his mom by the British at Belsen, where we are heading soon. And they returned for the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1995, at the invitation of the Germans, with hundreds of others, walking the ground, healing some wounds.

“Dankeschön, Frankfurt!” he happily exclaims several times during the show here. How much do we read into that? Nothing, I suppose.  Though there is something magnificent about Geddy’s roots, the family history, and Rush coming to Frankfurt and just nailing it. The German fans, the lovers of the band, of the music, of Geddy… It literally brings a happy tear to my eye.

And of course the eternal question-what else did the world lose, because of the Holocaust? Unfathomable.

But here is a taste.

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