Posts Tagged ‘Elaine Culbertson’

My friend Elaine wrote this. She just returned for the umteenth time taking dedicated Holocaust educators to learn from some very heavy authentic sites in Europe.

The daughter of survivors, Elaine is special person, known by many, who guided me to the places that she writes so hauntingly about. The day we went to Belzec, the men were grouped apart from the women for the first time, nearing the end of a very emotional trip. I remember being confused about it at the time, but Elaine needed to share with the beautiful girls on our trip. I get it now. A year later, I was still processing, and wrote a related post way below. It literally took that long. I still am processing, which is a part of her essay, below. Though I don’t pretend to equate my experience with any other human being’s, I think it is a universal truth that it’s never over.

Thank you Elaine. Matt

By Elaine Culbertson

In the winter my book club read a book called This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. It’s about the aftermath of the Civil War, particularly about death and dying and the business and customs that sprung up as a result of so many deaths.

At the time I was reading it, I never made the connection that struck me today. Here it is: after the Civil War, a new industry of mourning developed. Families searched for their loved ones on battlefields and in mortuaries; they paid for bodies to be shipped across many state lines (hence the idea of refrigerating the body and more stringent embalming practices were instituted); they saved relics of loved ones including hair and made jewelry from it; they placed markers in places far away from their home burial plots; they placed notices in newspapers hoping to find information about missing combatants; they held ceremonies for people they could not find, establishing markers all over the then US to the Civil War dead. Both sides, North and South, were engaged in this, but the Northerners, being the victors, had the upper hand and could dishonor the dead bodies of the Southerners and claim that they were missing when in fact they had used mass graves, in some cases, to dispose of the dead. The book fascinated me for its scholarship, its directness, and its beautiful writing, but I did not know why it resonated as it did.

Humans need to remember and honor their dead. The mourning period has no defined end, especially when there is no closure. Those distraught family members who could not establish a real burial spot lived with the hope/dread that the dead might not really be gone or that the suffering was not over. Believing that they are dead but not knowing of their fate is an interminable condition of anxiety. Going to Auschwitz and Belzec, one day after another, was like the extended funeral I have been living my entire life. I never knew any of them them but they have loomed large in my life. To be named after them, to be told I look like them, to hear stories about them, and yet not to have the ability to end the mourning period, or perhaps abbreviate it and pack it away for a while, is the legacy of survivors and their offspring.

Even as I write this I find myself moved to tears thinking about those lonely places. While cemeteries are supposed to be peaceful, those places are restless and painful, hardly consoling. I don’t mean the bustling barracks at Auschwitz, but the quiet windy Birkenau where we were pelted with hail. I mean the scorched earth of Belzec where nothing can grow. No matter how many kaddishes are said there, it will never be enough. There aren’t enough stones to commemorate those who died in either place, and although I stood in front of my grandmother’s name, I don’t have a sense of being able to say a true goodbye. I can walk away, but I can never leave.


Elaine is a former high school English teacher and school administrator. She is the Chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, and the director of the The Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, an intensive three-week living and learning experience in Germany, Poland and Israel for U.S. secondary school teachers who are committed to teaching about the Holocaust and Jewish resistance. Visit their website at www.hajrtp.org, especially if you are a teacher interested growing in this life-changing experience.


Matt’s 2013 Belzec experience the day Elaine took him and the group there.

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues. Belzec.

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