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.