Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Visit from Rabbi Kevin Hale

In November, Rabbi Kevin Hale – a Café Oshpitzin “Kickstarter” from Massachusetts and a Sofer (Torah and sacred scroll scribe) – began to write a mezuzah scroll for Café Oshpitzin. A mezuzah is a sacred parchment inscribed by hand with two portions of Torah; it is hung on the doorpost of a Jewish house or building.

We believe this is the first mezuzah written in Oświęcim in more than 70 years. Rabbi Hale, who reached out to us after discovering our Kickstarter campaign, told us he was headed to Oświęcim on a retreat and that he intended to write a kosher mezuzah scroll while here. He very kindly offered that scroll to us for the Café. We are honored by Rabbi Hale’s gift.

Volunteer Profile: Michael Holzmannhofer, 2013-2014

Michael Holzmannhofer during the October PSA in the newly-opened Shoah exhibit at Auschwitz. Photo by Dara Bramson.

Hometown: Wels, Austria

What attracted you to the AJC? 
I have always been very interested in World War II and the Holocaust. I realized that my experience at the AJC would allow me to understand the history of 1939 to 1945 in Europe in a deeper way. Therefore, I had to learn about Judaism in general, and the Jewish history of Oświęcim, which was the beginning of a very deep interest into Jewish life, rituals, and culture. Since I began my volunteer service, I recognized that guiding groups and learning about Jewish history at such a unique place fits me perfectly. 

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience? 
I love to work with people. Guiding groups through our museum and teaching them about the history of this town is great. For me, it’s also quite interesting to ask students in my age group what they already know about Judaism and motivate them to reflect on their experience at the AJC and visiting the camps. 

How has volunteering here affected you? 
Since I’ve been at the AJC, my communication skills have improved. Now I can speak in front of 40 people without any fear. My English is improving day by day, which I will definitely need for the second half of my service through the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service at the American Jewish Committee in New York City. Secondly, I have learned so much about Jewish life in Oświęcim through the exhibitions at the AJC, and I am also learning so much about the history of the town by simply living here. 

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know? 
The AJC is a wonderful, welcoming place, which is – from my point of view – necessary if you want to understand what Oświęcim is and was.

My Contribution to Never Again

2012 ASAP Participant

The United States Naval Academy sends more than 1,200 first year midshipmen (plebes) to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) each year as part of a professional development program called the Genocide Awareness Program. On September 18, I coordinated bringing more than 40 upper-class Naval Academy midshipmen to the USHMM to be trained in how to lead discussions and reflections for the plebes. The discussions we led focused on the importance of ethical leadership within the context of both the military and society. This activity was an overwhelming success, with excellent feedback from museum curators. Since then, each group is filled almost to capacity every time a session takes place.

What motivated me to coordinate this event with the gracious USHMM staff and the Naval Academy Character Development Office was the idea of Never Again. This call for change frequently echoes in my mind when I reflect on everything I learned during the 2012 American Service Academies Program – starting in DC at the USHMM, to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Poland. I was particularly compelled to contribute to this broader discussion after the August 2013 tragedies in Syria. As I read updates from citizens in terrible conditions and looked at horrific pictures of chemical weapon attacks, I thought, “What can I, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, do?”

At first I felt helpless, but that was a temporary reaction to an event with unknown and tangible reverberations. The tragedies in Syria seemed worlds away if I turned off my computer and avoided viral images. But I did not want to remove myself; I chose to take action by working as a liaison between the Naval Academy and the Holocaust Museum. My hope is to continue the dialogue of Never Again between my peers and scholars. We can continue to learn from history by creating dialogue and acquiring knowledge applicable to contemporary issues, working towards Never Again together and as individuals.

How Poland is Remembering the Past

Caroline Cormier, 2013 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow

A slender grey-haired man with a bright smile met our group in a sunny room at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim. He introduced himself as Father Manfred Deselears – a German, Catholic priest who moved to Oświęcim in 1990 to assist in using the lessons from the Holocaust to transform relationships in the present. In telling us about his work, Father Deselears said something that has weighed heavily on my mind since returning from Poland last summer. Sitting up straight in his chair, he leaned forward and told us matter-of-factly that to understand the Holocaust is to understand what Auschwitz itself is a symbol of. According to Father Deselears, “Auschwitz symbolizes the fundamental destruction of relationships between individuals and people and communities the world over.” What we need to do, he continued, is begin working toward truly healing these relationships – not simply glossing over them or forgetting the past.

“If we do not confront memory in a real way, it will continue to haunt us and limit the kinds of relationships we can have in the future,” he said. In this context, the role of memorialization and educational programming create important spaces – where people, with all of their wounds and scars, are welcome to engage in dialogue with one another while maintaining their respective identities. Father Deselears’ call to begin listening to each other in a more productive manner has a clear presence outside of Oświęcim and the former Nazi death camp that stands at the town’s outskirts. In fact, a desire to engage in meaningful dialogue about life before, during, and after the Holocaust is present in numerous facets of Polish society today.

Time and time again, my experience in Poland this summer revealed the many reasons why Poland cannot and should not be solely defined by its past. 

While we cannot deny the atrocities that took place on Polish soil during the Holocaust, there is a need to move forward and continue the healing process. Of course, this process is not an easy task: it requires Poles today to have the courage to delve into their country’s past, as victims and perpetrators, in order to cope with the devastating void that the destruction left behind. Already, this process has set into motion a meaningful engagement with their own responsibility for memory itself. I was especially intrigued by efforts to commemorate the past, which have been established at the local level. Without a doubt, there is substantial evidence that the healing process in Poland is well underway. As a result of this process, the Holocaust has been memorialized in many different forums by a wide array of individuals throughout contemporary Poland.

I had visited Poland in 2008 on another educational program focused on visiting Holocaust sites. Returning to Poland in 2012 as an AJC Fellow, my understanding of the country’s past changed considerably. Our group was fortunate to meet community leaders, local activists, and representatives from non-profit/non-governmental organizations who have taken on the responsibility of educating current and future generations about Poland’s history. We had the opportunity to engage with non-Jewish Poles who have been working to preserve the remnants of pre-war Jewish life in their communities. In Krakow, we participated in the Jewish Culture Festival, developed in 1988 by a non-Jewish Pole. The Festival educates people about Jewish history and culture – both past and present. Thousands of Poles attend the festival annually, engaging in educational workshops or simply attending the much-anticipated concert finale. In my opinion, this festival, in spite of the oft-made argument that it may not be a valid representation of Jewish culture, serves as an important nexus between the representation of Jewish life in pre-war Poland and the renewal of Jewish life in Poland in recent years. The festival provides a forum for anyone interested to engage with the past and present.

There are smaller-scale commemoration ventures taking place that are also worth mentioning here. In Będzin, we met with Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko of the Cukerman’s Gate Foundation – an enthusiastic young couple who have taken an avid interest in their community’s history. In seeking to preserve the remnants of pre-war Jewish life in their city, they have fought to preserve a former shul and Beit Midrash in the city. They also developed a number of public commemoration projects, which they have worked to incorporate into the city landscape. The work of the Jakoweńko duo is only one example of many non-Jewish Poles committed to protecting and preserving Jewish heritage sites and memory in Poland.

Even small communities throughout Poland are working to restore or preserve the synagogues remaining in their communities – by turning them into community centers, museums, or simply leaving them to stand as memorials in a semi-destroyed state. During my time as an AJC Fellow, I had the opportunity to visit many of these communities. These efforts all show that Poles are engaging with the Jewish past of their country in a meaningful way. While there is no way to restore the lives that were lost during the Holocaust, these efforts demonstrate progress towards real change in Poland and beyond. The memory-work taking place does not always provide easy, clear-cut solutions to understanding the Holocaust. Instead, the ongoing memory-work stands as an acknowledgement that the healing process that comes in the wake of genocidal violence requires a kind of patience and commitment that will endure for generations to come.

Without question, my experience in Poland this past summer was eye-opening. My time spent as an AJC Fellow provided the knowledge and experience necessary to begin contributing to a larger conversation about how to think differently about contemporary life in Poland in relation to the Holocaust. Seeing the country in a different light than during my first visit in 2008 allowed me to recognize the dangers of presenting a single-sided story about Poland’s past and, more importantly, it showed me that history isn’t simply about the past. It is a continuum that requires constant (re)construction and (re)negotiation – processes that are both challenging and evolving. While there certainly is a lot more to be done in Poland, it seems that there is movement in the right direction in generating an environment where the past is accounted for and the future is re-imagined.

Caroline Cormier is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation project focuses on the politics of Holocaust memory in postwar Germany. Caroline holds a M.A. in Geography and Urban Planning from the University of Toronto, as well as a B.A. (Honours) degree in Political Science and Global Development Studies from Queen's University.

Parallel Acts of Complicity and Resistance

Mike Poliec, 2012 Jaffa and Larry Feldman Fellow 

Like many citizens whose countries were invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II, Polish civilians responded to occupation in two main ways: by collaborating or resisting. In the case of the latter, rescue operations, whether initiated by organizations or individuals, involved heroic endeavors and immense personal risk. In Poland, contrary to other German-occupied countries where fines or imprisonment were the consequences for assisting Jews, Poles risked death for themselves and their families. Nevertheless, acts of Polish heroism did happen.

Many Polish Jews who were in hiding during the war were able to do so because of the help of local Polish people. Emanuel Ringelblum, the renowned historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, was saved twice by the Polish underground. Writer and activist Jan Dobraczynski, the head of the Warsaw Department of Social Welfare, managed to save around five hundred Jewish children by placing them in Polish convents. There are countless other cases in which Jewish individuals or groups were aided by gentile Poles. Local clergy, laymen, women, children, and entire families, were executed or murdered in Nazi concentration camps for helping Jews.

On the continuum of involvement, resistance is opposite from collaboration. Providing aid to those in need was a matter of personal choice and responsibility, which reflected the bystander’s movement on this continuum. According to Yad Vashem, 6,394 Poles (the highest number in any one country) have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations for their involvement in rescuing Jews during World War II. These individuals embraced highly ethical, non-collaborationist behavior. No one was required to be a hero, yet people made decisions that were nothing less than heroic. Many Righteous interviews reflect humble individuals who did not aspire to be honored. I chose to explore the topic of resistance versus complicity in the Polish context because it converges with my doctoral research trajectory.

I seek to complement the existing knowledge on Romanian civilian complicity by examining questions and conceptual categories to understand how bystanders turned into perpetrators and made the extermination of Jews possible. Exploring and understanding the phenomenon of resistance and the behavior of rescuers in Poland complements my understanding of the situation in Romania and contributes valuable context for my own research.

Mike Poliec is a third year graduate student in Holocaust History at Clark University's Strassler Center for Holocaust History and Genocide Studies. In his doctoral research he is reconstructing the profile of civilian accomplices in the Romanian context and the circumstances in which they chose to get involved in the persecution or murder of Jews.


Sandra Keil, PSA Alumni Fall 2013 

This image illustrates the feeling I had when I saw Auschwitz I for the first time. It is a paradox: the life of the trees and the green meadows are worlds away from the terror that happened behind the barbed wire fence. We visited in October, the peak of striking fall leaves. Before our visit, I could not imagine Auschwitz as anything but grey and drab, but natural beauty unavoidably colored it. A brown rabbit ran and jumped through the destroyed barracks in Birkenau, his freedom and wildness in contrast with the state of the people who were confined there. The picture I took represents the inner struggle I had when I was walking through Auschwitz, and the reflection I took with me when I went back home. 

Sandra Keil is a Master’s student in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. She is currently writing her thesis about Arab Israelis in the Israeli army. She was born in Berlin and is a member of a socialist movement, called the Falcons, which holds seminars, trips and group meetings with kids and teenagers on sexism, racism and anti-Semitism, among other topics.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visits the AJC

This week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the Auschwitz Jewish Center and our Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue. Following his visit, he said:

“I am honored to visit this synagogue and learn about Jewish life in Poland before the cataclysm of the Holocaust. I am especially impressed to see the staying power of Jewish tradition and the rebirth of Jewish life. Coming at the end of a deeply moving visit to the Nazi death camp, I leave Auschwitz saddened but also with … hope, determination to build this world of equality, human dignity and peace.”

Secretary General Ban’s visit has been noted in the world press, including stories from The Washington Post and Haaretz.

This was the first visit by a UN Secretary General to the Center. He toured the synagogue with Center Educator Maciek Zabierowski and learned about our torah with Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, the rabbi of Katowice and Upper Silesia. We were proud to host Secretary General Ban and honored by his thoughtful words.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Volunteer Profile: Shlomi Shaked, 2013

May 2013 PSA on a tour of the AJC with Shlomi Shaked. Photo by Dara Bramson.
Hometown: Holon, Israel

What attracted you to the AJC? 
This was not my first time at the AJC, so I already knew the place and how beautiful and important it is. During my military service in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], my mother, who was born in Oświęcim, suggested that I come to the AJC and be a volunteer. After I was released from the army I decided to make her suggestion a reality. Moreover, I believe that by coming back to Oświęcim, my family’s historical home, and giving tours in the museum and synagogue, my family history is coming full circle: my grandfather, Solomon Kuperman, who I am named after, was the rabbi of the synagogue after WWII until 1955. 

What did you enjoy most about your volunteer experience? 
The best part of volunteering at the AJC is that I meet people from all over the world, from different backgrounds, and religions. It is really interesting to discuss the history of Oświęcim and hear other people’s stories. For many people coming to the AJC, it is their first “Jewish” experience – they learn so much about the Jewish history of Oświęcim and a lot about Judaism in general. I can only hope that with this new knowledge people will understand cultural and religious differences, whether about Jews or other groups, and help to make this world more accepting. 

How has volunteering here affected you? 
Volunteering at the AJC helped me improve my communication with new people. Guiding tours let me express myself openly in front of people, and of course I had the opportunity to make many new friends. During these five months, I experienced and learned so many things, including new information about my own religion, Judaism; I also became familiar with other cultures and daily life abroad. Now I understand how much work should be done in order to make this world less racist, and I deeply believe that volunteering at the AJC was the first step towards this goal. 

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know? 
The AJC is a place that will continue developing and be a place where individuals can experience new and amazing things. The AJC is one big family, which welcomes everyone.

AJC Volunteers (L-R) Shlomi Shaked (Israel), Glib Pronskikh (Ukraine),
Johannes Fe (Germany), Dominik Reiterer (Austria)

Listening to Silence

Holly Robertson, 2012 AJC Fellow 

I found myself in a peaceful field full of purple, yellow, and white flowers; countless orange butterflies; and wild raspberries. Yet knowledge of the space’s past darkened my observations and I felt guilty for finding such a place so beautiful. The Nazi-killing center Treblinka once occupied this very field. Where lupines dotted the terrain, 700,000 to 800,000 Jews were murdered between July 1942 and November 1943. Vasily Grossman, a Soviet-Jewish journalist, described Treblinka in July 1944 as follows:

The earth is throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers. It does not want to keep secrets. And the objects are climbing out from the earth, from its un-healing wounds.” 

Today, 17,000 stone slabs of varying dimensions jut from the earth memorializing the dead; 700 of them bear the names of towns where Jews who perished at Treblinka once lived. When I saw the earth pushing up those stones, I thought of Grossman. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of voices lost and wounds unhealed in the very place I walked. Knowledge of the dead juxtaposed with the beautiful surroundings of the living forests and flowered meadows was unnerving.

Treblinka has remained an empty space since the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of its history. It was this noticeable absence—an empty field symbolically connected to the absence of an entire people—which moved me. It forced me to grapple with how space affects our perceptions of history, memory, and mourning. Recently, thousands of miles away from Treblinka, I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. One line in particular resonated with me: “You have to listen to [silence], and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes—sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen then. But you have to.” The silence of Treblinka is the pain of the world crying. It hurts to listen. But we have to.

Holly Robertson is a Master's candidate at Georgetown University in Global, International, and Comparative History, where she focuses on 20th century Polish history, Polish-Jewish relations, ethnic minorities, and the Holocaust. Her current research traces the interactions between ethnic Muslims and Jews living as neighbors in the Polish borderlands before, during, and after the Holocaust. Holly is a research assistant in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and will be interning for the Office of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova at the U.S. State Department in the fall.

A perspective from Bulgaria

Gergana Karadhova, 2011 AJC PSA participant

Meet my student Todor.
He is fourteen. Likes football. Smart but lazy.
2/3 of the time Todor is bored at school.
1/3 of the time he has a test and thus – no choice.
When Todor is bored he draws swastikas on the school desks.
Strings of dark ink splatters, each an inch-long.
Todor assigns no special meaning to the Nazi symbol. He has heard of Hitler, knows what happened during the Holocaust, and has been told well over a million times that this is punishable. School rules strictly forbid drawing on desks.

Todor is one of my students. But also one of thousands.

In Bulgaria, the history curriculum is structured so that World War II and the Holocaust come up for the first and only time in 10th grade. This means that students are 16 or 17 when they finally get to read the one page about the Holocaust in their textbook. By that time most kids have seen a movie, read a book, or heard from others about the Jews. Yet the delay of formal education on the topic leads to ambiguity of historically accurate information. In countries with growing ethnic conflicts, especially those with Roma minorities, swastikas are turning into a symbol of distrust towards all things established, the state and the system. The anti-Semitic meaning is ignored because in these parts of the world “Jewish” is an increasingly abstract term; so few Jews live here. In Bulgaria, over 90% of Bulgarian Jews left for Israel after 1948.

It is not only the poorly educated and “kids with problems” who search for ways to express their distrust towards the establishment. There is a connection between ethnic intolerance, Holocaust education, and anti-social behavior. Is it Todor’s fault that for 14 years, Bulgaria’s schools haven’t found the “necessary number of class periods” to teach him about the Holocaust?

Gergana Karadhova took part in the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad in May 2011 while studying in Potsdam, Germany. In her current work as a teacher in her native Sofia, she strives to foster awareness in her students about the importance of tolerance.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Life Festival Oświęcim 2013

The Center is proud to once again be a partner of the Oświęcim Life Festival, which will take place June 26-29 and will be headlined by Sting. The Auschwitz Jewish Center and the Roma Association will be responsible for the festival’s educational component. More information can be found here.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation Dinner

The Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation Dinner will honor Howard Gordon, co-creator and producer of Homeland, winner of the 2012 Emmy and Golden Globe awards for best television drama. The dinner will also feature special guests from the United States Service Academies. For further info, please contact Erica Marcus at

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Construction Discoveries

Since construction began at the AJC, several artifacts have been discovered on the property. Below is a postcard sent on July 17, 1935 by Georges Levinsky from Paris to Mendel Hoenig in Oświęcim. Please visit the AJC Facebook page for ongoing updates and other discoveries during the construction process.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cafe Oshpitzin: Remember the Past, Feed the Future

We did it! A funded Kickstarter campaign to create Café Oshpitzin – in Oświęcim’s last Jewish home – a vegetarian café that celebrates local food, culture, art, and dialogue. Contributions can still be made here. Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Day in the Life of the AJC

In addition to annual AJC programs, the Center is bustling with activities throughout the year. Here’s a snapshot of an average spring day by AJC Educator Maciek Zabierowski. 

10:00 a.m. The Education Center is filled with Polish high school students who are participating in the What was Oshpitzin? workshop on pre-war Jewish life in Oświęcim. The students are learning about the town’s pre-war Jewish residents by analyzing historical photographs and documents and then presenting this material to their peers. The workshop ends at the New Life exhibition, which tells stories of Holocaust survivors from Oświęcim who immigrated to Israel after the war. The students complete the morning portion of the program before visiting the former camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

11:00 a.m. Several Polish and international groups are touring the Jewish Museum and Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue. AJC volunteers Dominik, Gleb and, Johannes lead the tours, explaining the little-known story of the town’s local Jewish community dating back to the mid 1500s and teaching about Jewish life. Afternoon Several individual visitors have completed self-guided tours of the AJC. 

3:00 p.m. The What was Oshpitzin? workshop resumes in the Education Center with an anti-discrimination training. Students are connecting their knowledge about Auschwitz and the Holocaust with the modern day challenges of anti-Semitism, romophobia, homophobia, and other examples of intolerance. After the group watches the documentary Blue Eyed about diversity and discrimination, they discuss the power of individuals and what it means to stand up to persecution. Evening After the workshops, AJC staff and volunteers clean up, eat, and relax in preparation for evening activities. Throughout the year, the AJC hosts various cultural events for the local community including book launches, film previews, and discussions with special guests.

6:00 p.m. Several volunteers and local high school students meet in the library for the Language Discussion Club, started by Dominik, Gleb, and Johannes. The group, which meets weekly, discusses various topics including food, travel, and history. In January, AJC Coordinator Dara Bramson came from Kraków to lead a session.

Alumni Profile: Jason David, U.S. Naval Academy, ASAP 2012

Why did you apply to the American Service Academies Program? 
My academic pathway (biology) doesn't allow for much exploration of the deeper questions of the human condition, so this was an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise have. 

What surprised you most about the experience? 
I was surprised by the depth of discussions we had during the experience. I can honestly say I've never had such deep, intelligent conversations before. It felt less like a college trip, and more like some sort of retreat for budding philosophers. 

How did the program affect you personally and/or professionally? 
Personally, it restored my faith in the future leadership of this country. We were thinking critically. Critical thinking is easy to conceptualize, but it's so hard to actually execute. The conversations we had, the exploration of topics like genocide, morality, human nature, what makes a human being human… it showed that there exists among us many who can still contemplate the broader ethical issues. 

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the program, Poland, and/or the AJC? 
Go into the program with an open mind. Be prepared to meet all sorts of people, and more than anything else, don't be afraid to express your ideas. Growth though discussion can't occur when everyone is stifling their ideas with conventional thought. How will you integrate knowledge from the program into your role as a cadet? I feel that it's about bringing a new attitude to the table. It's about applying the concepts we tackled in the program to everyday life. The knowledge and history we learned was all very interesting and useful, but I feel like the attitudes we cultivated during the trip are what we'll really use in the years to come.

From Accusation to Acceptance: A Shabbat in Oświęcim

Shelby Weltz, 2012 AJC Fellow

I stood in the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s small synagogue, staring at the two Shabbat candles set before me. I was hesitant to proceed. Sure, I knew the blessings and ritual, but the idea of praying in a place like Oświęcim felt more than unnatural; it felt wrong.

The mitzvah of hadlakat nerot, or the commandment to light the Shabbat candles, occupies an important place in my life, not only because it’s a mitzvah reserved for women, but because watching my Grandma light the Shabbat candles is still one of my most poignant childhood memories. Standing by her side, I recall scanning her face as it glowed in the candlelight just before she covered it with her hands while reciting the prayer. Growing up, I noticed that she would do more than pray beneath her hands; she would cry. Eventually, I learned that my Grandmother survived Auschwitz II-Birkenau and spent the rest of her life crying over those family members who did not.

 The wave of hesitation I felt prior to candle lighting was representative of a broader discomfort I felt spending Shabbat in Oświęcim, a place that I regarded not merely as a physical space, but as the personification of evil and the embodiment of dehumanization. To me, Oświęcim was responsible for the murder of my ancestry and was, subsequently, an “entity” that I would forever put on trial.

Thus, it still surprises me until this day that our Shabbat, which began with such caution and aversion ultimately ended in transformation and acceptance.

The hesitancy I felt prior to reciting the Kiddush that Friday night contrasted greatly with the qualms that preceded my candle lighting. Whereas the latter emerged from an unwillingness to engage spiritually with my surroundings, the former was the result of a speechlessness incited by an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. After returning from lighting my Shabbat candles, I found my peers – a cohort comprising graduate students of various backgrounds – sitting around a beautifully set table, waiting for me to return to help lead them in welcoming in the Shabbat. A group who had been strangers only three weeks prior was interested, eager, and appreciative enough of my ritual observance to insist on celebrating Shabbat in Oświęcim. This group who watched my struggle with religious commitment for those three weeks assumed that same commitment for themselves. I was stunned. Taking my place at the head of the table, I looked around at a group who made me realize that location has nothing to do with one’s spiritual lifeline; faith in humanity does.

With grapes in hand as an improvised substitute for Kiddush wine, I choked over the words of the Kiddush prayer, holding back the tears of gratitude that had formed in my throat. Ironically, I had experienced my most meaningful Shabbat in a place where I was certain Judaism or spirituality could not exist. Suddenly, it was possible for Oświęcim to embody beauty and more importantly, to embody nothing at all. In my eyes, Oświęcim became merely a place, slowly ceasing to personify the perpetrator it had always been.

Shelby Weltz is currently pursuing her M.A. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa after completing her B.S. at NYU, having double majored in Applied Psychology and Sociology. As an undergraduate, Shelby conducted research that fused her two academic interests - the psychological effects of the Holocaust and post traumatic growth. She is currently completing a masters thesis exploring collective memory construction in the context of Jewish American youth trips to Poland. Next fall, Shelby will begin a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, where she hopes to integrate her Holocaust Studies background into her future work as a clinician.

Confrontation, Healing, and Memory: Perpetrator-Victim Conversations after Genocide

Michelle Sigiel, 2012 AJC Fellow

During the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program, I had the pleasure of listening to participants in both interfaith dialogue, and dialogue between descendants of perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. Our group met with Uwe and Gabi van Seltmann, who described confronting their family histories as grandchildren of perpetrators and victims. This session brought up the issues of confrontation, healing, and memory after the Holocaust. By confronting the past, this couple sought to better understand the “other.” The more I listened, the more I thought of dialogue and restorative justice sessions (gacaca) held among survivors of the Rwandan genocide, where members from the perpetrator and victim groups sought to confront one another in the aftermath of a devastating genocide. Although the particular circumstances of each of these cases differ, they also bear striking similarities, such as the relationship between dialogue, healing, and memory.

In the case of the van Seltmanns, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with their divergent family histories in Poland. Uwe’s grandfather was in the SS in Poland during the war, while Gabi descended from Holocaust survivors. They struggled to confront this history together. In the discussion session, Uwe, originally from Austria, described how he began the process of confronting his feelings of guilt by traveling to Poland and studying the SS. This attempt to better understand their histories forced the van Seltmanns to confront not only the past, but each other as descendants of perpetrators and victims, thereby allowing them a more refined sensitivity and understanding toward each other’s experiences as members of those groups.

The themes of confrontation, healing, and memory also appear in conversations between Rwandans after the 1994 genocide, which took the lives of nearly 1 in 8 Rwandans in a population of 8 million. Rwandans were murdered in the hundreds-of-thousands by militias known as the Interhamwe. While the perpetrator-victim dichotomy is sometimes reduced to Hutu versus Tutsi, the reality was more complex. Radio propaganda called upon Rwandan Hutus to “kill the Tutsi cockroaches” and Hutus who were considered sympathetic or related to Tutsis were also targeted. Ethnic identification of the Tutsis as a separate racial group began in the colonial period, and continued after Rwanda became independent of the European powers in the middle of the 20th century.

Confrontation and healing through dialogue became an important part of justice in Rwanda—perhaps partially because the topographical memory of the crimes lingered. Bullet holes and slashes from the genocide scarred the sides of schools, churches, and houses. The physicality of the crime was preserved in technical schools converted into memorials, where the bones of thousands of murdered schoolchildren were set on display. These physical remains of the violence left an imprint on the already scarred society. In an effort to free up the court system for those involved in planning and orchestrating the genocide, the Rwandan government re-introduced an older form of traditional courts called the gacaca. These village-green courts sought reconciliation and closure for victims of the genocide. The gacaca courts utilized the process of “truth-telling” or the notion of coming clean and admitting to one’s crimes.

The concept behind gacaca sought communal repair, and emphasized how the accused one’s actions harmed the community and individuals within it. 

The accused, if determined to be guilty by a council of village elders, would have to perform community service, usually in the form of rebuilding schools or other damaged communal structures. This system could be very traumatic for victims and sometimes shameful for the family of perpetrators. Sometimes, confrontation caused healing, and other times more trauma—the process was wholly complex.

These cases illustrate that although the possibility of healing exists in confrontation and dialogue, it does not always manifest itself positively. The failures of gacaca are many, and include negative results in the realm of closure and healing. The van Seltmanns acknowledged that dialogue has to be desired by both parties, otherwise it will not work. This humble approach is necessary for dialogue, confrontation, and healing after genocide.

Michelle Sigiel graduated from Keene State College in 2010 with three Bachelor’s degrees in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, European History, and Political Science. She was the President and founder of Zeta Chi Rho, Honor Society for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the President of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club from 2008-2010. She is a two-time recipient of the F. Burton Nelson Award for Holocaust Studies, and received the Susan J. Herman Leadership Award for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness. Michelle is currently a Master’s student in history at the University of Vermont, writing her thesis on the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Jewish Community Vienna) from 1938-1942.

Thoughts from within Schindler's Factory

Zachary Albert, 2012 AJC Fellow

As a 2012 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow and (at the time) soon-to-be Museum professional, I relished the opportunities to visit the many Polish museums dedicated to World War II. One museum in particular, located in the former Oskar Schindler Factory, peaked my interest by forcing me to ask the question: “What role, if any, does reality or authenticity need to play in constructing a museum experience?”

As I understand them, museums do not simply present objects, they transmit a message. A related history is always a mediated history, though this doesn’t negate authenticity. In museums, exhibits need relationships – with the curator as well as with the visitor – in order to speak. In this sense, any museum provides a trace of its makers: its founders, curators, and educators, for example. For me, The Museum of the Nazi Occupation of Kraków housed within the former Schindler Factory tells the story from a Polish perspective, focusing specifically on the local experience interpreted by local professionals.

First, it is important to note that Oskar Schindler and the 1,100 Jews he saved are not the central players in this museum. This comes as a surprise to many. While the setting is within this historical haven, the narrative is of Kraków during Nazi occupation. It is designed to allow the visitor to experience Polish life from the cobblestone streets of 1940s occupied Kraków through the Soviet liberation in 1945. On “the streets of Kraków,” a visitor must navigate between floor-to-ceiling Nazi flags, and liberation is depicted metaphorically as a dark tunnel with an unstable floor. The museum uses these visuals to guide visitors through an “experience.” In stark white rooms and dimly lit spaces, the Museum’s architecture alone tells its story. The images of swastikas at eye-level and on floor tiles, and the uneven rubber floor of the liberation exhibit force one to interact with the museum’s narrative. A visitor “feels” and “experiences” this history. The most fascinating aspect is that interactive and visual elements of pre-war life in Poland are re-created in a museum in contemporary Poland. Reality is substituted for a directed experience. This implies that a constructed space can become more accessible than a location in situ. 

For a foreigner visiting the Holocaust memorials and museums of Poland, this dissonance disrupts any positive role authenticity could have played in the Museum experience. Yet, the question remains, “Is authenticity even necessary when telling an emotionally based story?” For The Museum of the Nazi Occupation of Kraków, I think the answer is no. In this museum visitors encounter a Polish sense memory of wartime Kraków: a memory that focuses on the sensation of oppression, and in a museum setting, a memory that relies on production over artifacts to elicit a history of domination. Yet, the visitor comes away with an intense understanding of Nazi-occupied Kraków regardless of the exhibit’s “authenticity.” At Schindler’s Factory, constructed emotional cues are the method conveying the lessons of the museum. Created space layered over physical location allows this museum to shape emotion in such a way that it may remember the past while depicting the present.

Zachary Albert is currently the Education and Public Engagement Coordinator for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He received his B.A. in religious studies from Rhodes College. As an undergraduate, he was a four-year Bonner Scholar and an inductee into the College's Hall of Fame. In 2008, he traveled to Ostrava, Czech Republic to volunteer with the local Jewish community and restore pre-WWII cemeteries that were desecrated by the Nazis. He received his M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 2012. He focuses on the study of Holocaust narratives and memory in memorials, monuments, and museums. Zachary was a 2013 Council of American Jewish Museums Conference Fellow.


Evan Alberhasky, 2012 AJC PSA Alumni

Photo: Museum display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum & Memorial; Photo and text by Evan Alberhasky.
When I finally sat down and browsed through the 150+ pictures I took during the Program for Students Abroad, I was struck by the composition, albeit unintentional, of this image. The starkness of the shoes speaks for itself – quantity, the immenseness and enormity of the Holocaust in sheer numbers. Yet what caught my attention were the blurred people in front of the shoes, which remain a central, focused background. I was instantly struck by the juxtaposition between the two elements: The shoes represent the Holocaust as a defined, historical event, an epoch that retains its place in history, and one which we can only hope will never occur again. The blurred individuals are indicative of moving time, acting as a gateway between the past, the present, and the future, one in which we as humans are all connected to. The shoes are representative of the permanence of the Shoah while the moving figures are symbols of our ephemeral and temporary existence.

Evan Alberhasky is a Visiting Graduate Student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying Jewish Studies and Hebrew. He received a Master’s degree from Kean University in Holocaust and Genocide Studies after receiving his Bachelor’s in History from Indiana.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Activities Report

Please feel free to download the PDF of our 2012 Activities Report here.