Study-Travel: “Poland: World War II and the Holocaust”
Lauren Cote & Edward Morneau
On July 23, 2014, two thoughtful and good-natured professors of considerable scholarship from Salem State took an interesting mix of graduate and undergraduate English and History students and lifelong learners abroad to Poland to explore the themes of “Poland: World War II and the Holocaust.” I was one of those students and I can say that the experience was profound. We arrived with great curiosity and left with a greater sense of the urgency of memory, an historical motif that has become central in honoring such an experience. Professors Stephenie Young (English) and Christopher Mauriello (History) created an itinerary rich in the history of this period and compelling in the exploration of the transcendent themes of remembrance, scholarship, ethnicity, place, and the rule of order.
For many of us who had never been to Poland, the visits to Auschwitz and Majdanek made less abstract the horrors of the Holocaust. Auschwitz is universally emblematic of the Holocaust and attracts visitors from all over the world. Consequently, its manicured avenues and restored barracks require constant upkeep and make it more of a “tourist” monument to the immense suffering that happened there. More instructive of concentration camp degradation is Auschwitz II—Birkenau—the largest of the camps, where tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Soviet POWs and many people from other nations perished. Walking through the barracks where prisoners were housed, and seeing the artifacts of abuse, death, the crematoria, and the mountains of shoes and shorn hair, made palpable the suffering of the innocent in ways mere photos and film cannot.
Majdanek, a forced-labor and eventual death camp in Lublin, was an even more powerful experience. With a large Jewish population, Majdanek was one of the camps targeted in the Wannsee Conference as a site for the “Final Solution”—Hitler’s overarching plans to exterminate European Jewry. Over 360,000 victims from 28 countries and 54 nationalities died or were murdered there, 120,000 of them Jews. For many of us visiting Majdanek, standing on the ground where many of the ashes of those unfortunate souls who were buried in haste and without lamentation, then disinterred, the scale and horror of genocide rendered us speechless. The “Mausoleum of Ashes,” designed by Wictor Tolkin in 1969, serves as a memorial graveyard of nameless, but not forgotten men, women and children slaughtered and incinerated by the Nazis.
Walking through what was left of the Krakow and the Warsaw Ghettos had the odd, dislocating effect of giving a sense of how the atrocities began in ordinary, familiar neighborhoods. Visiting museums and institutions of Jewish history, and participating in workshops facilitated by well-informed university and museum scholars, gave even greater context to our visit. The Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow provided us visually striking exhibits that we could explore at our own paces. We also had the opportunity to visit the Collegium Maius at Jagiellonian University, whose edifice dates back to the 1400s, and whose alumni include Nicolas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. In one of the University’s modern buildings, a pair of graduate students provided us with some Polish perspective on Auschwitz, the Holocaust and on life in modern Krakow.
We also delighted in the vibrant bohemian culture of Krakow (which Hitler would deem as degenerate), and the resurgence of Warsaw as a world-class ‘peoples’ city. Both cities are testaments to the indomitable spirit of the Polish people in their collective desire to reclaim hope in the face of such historical despair.