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.