Monday, August 18, 2014

Volunteer Profile: Emily Herlyn, 2013-2014

Photo: AJC Intern Emily Herlyn giving a tour of the AJC to a PSA cohort.
Hometown: Freiburg, Germany

What attracted you to the AJC? 
In Germany it is very common to take a gap year after high school. There are many organizations that offer one-year volunteer programs in and out of the country. The one I chose to work for is called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). ARSP works with people and countries that suffered under the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The AJC caught my interest because of its focus on a very different aspect of history than Oświęcim is most commonly known for. It does not primarily concentrate on the atrocities committed against the Jews during the Second World War, but rather focuses on their life and religion. As religion is one of my main interests, I also saw working at the AJC as a valuable opportunity to learn more about Jewish life and Judaism.

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience?
My favorite part about my work as a volunteer is learning and teaching. I really enjoy giving tours aboutthe vibrant Jewish life of Oświęcim before the Holocaust, and teaching non-Jewish groups about Judaism, the synagogue and its artifacts. I’ve met really interesting people, had many fascinating conversations and learned so much during my year here! Not to neglect, of course, the great coffee we now have at the new Café Bergson.

How has volunteering here affected you? 
Volunteering at the AJC has affected me in many different ways. This is my first year living away from home andin a different country.This has taught me how to stand on my own two feet, to make my own decisions and given me an opportunity to develop as an individual. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it has allowed me to make a significant realization. One thing became very clear to me: As a German, the topic of the Holocaust has been a big part of my education, and the question of guilt is discussed frequently. This question has accompanied me throughout my year as a volunteer and during this time I have concluded that it should not be a question of guilt, but a question of responsibility. As my generation is too young to be blamed for the crimes our forefathers committed over 70 years ago, I don’t think we should feel guilty, nor is there any benefit to be had from this. What I do think though, is that we have a responsibility to learn and teach about that part of our country’s history, despite how unpleasant and painful it may be. We should never forget what cruelties mankind is capable of and should do everything we can to prevent history from repeating itself. Lastly, on a more personal note, I have found that I really enjoy giving tours and working with people of different age groups. This has made me happy and confident in my choice of studying to become a teacher of English and Religious studies.

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know? 
Today there is not one Jewish inhabitant left in the town of Oświęcim. The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, which is part of the AJC, is the only remaining active synagogue in the area. This gives Jewish visitors the possibility to come together for prayers. The synagogue also has another important purpose. Many groups – mainly German school groups – come here with very little knowledge about Jewish life and Judaism in general. They visit the concentration and death camps, where they learn about the death of a people, without knowing anything about their life. For many of them, coming to the AJC provides them with their first opportunity to see a synagogue from the inside and hear anything about Judaism. In my opinion, this is a very important part of the AJC because learning about people’s lives, more so than deaths, provides the necessary context. Understanding, or at least trying to do so, is the first and most important step towards peace.

Reflections on Poland: Memory and its Place

Ximena Goecke, 2013 AJC Fellow

From the moment I arrived in Kraków, I enjoyed exploring Polish cities, food, nature, history, and culture. Yet the country’s vast greenness was the most striking thing to me. Before that, Poland for me was gray pavement, stones, railways, snow, and dangerous woods. This green Poland was charming and generous. It was difficult to imagine shadows while I felt the sun in my eyes.
Polin, known in Jewish legend as a country in which to rest and flourish, was easy to embrace.
This warm feeling, a mixture of curiosity and fraternity, was challenged by historical memories in almost every corner. Nowhere else as in Poland can one be constantly confronted by a constant presence of the absent. Jewish people lived in these places and built a robust culture, then were destroyed so swiftly during Nazi rule. We visited so many visible traces of the past during the fellowship. From time to time I paused, seeing behind the contemporary scenes to historical images passing through my mind. As I walked through town after town, I saw scenes from the history of those streets. I imagined towns that were once places for living, not meant to be sites of mourning or tourism in for these purposes.

We visited many small synagogues in towns and villages, some still supported by families and institutions as spaces for encounter and prayer. It became much easier to comprehend the deeply rooted Jewish history in Poland seeing its traces up close. Walking around the formerly Jewish spaces in today’s Polish cities, I recognized their features and felt surrounded by history, fragments of a lost culture and rich history. I struggled to reconcile the simultaneous connection and emptiness I felt.

The windowless, roofless synagogue in Działoszyce was once home to a thriving community. The lonely bimah in Tarnów, surrounded by chains in a commemorative square, was once was a beautiful synagogue. I couldn’t forget the words of survivor David Feuerstein, who said that when he visited his hometown Chęciny in 2001, everything looked familiar, the same as it was in the 1930s. He felt transported back to his childhood and could almost picture his father walking to the synagogue on those streets.

Authors who have explored memory issues have emphasized the role of framing memories, anchoring them to territorial and social contexts. I witnessed the importance of this during my time as an AJC Fellow, as we encountered institutions and individuals who use these spaces to connect to that shared memory today. My hope is that through these institutions of memory, we can work to ensure that younger generations will utilize these lessons for good.

Ximena Goecke is a historian and professor at UDLA in Santiago, Chile. She has just finished her Magister in Gender and Culture Studies at Universidad de Chile, and is currently developing an educational project related to the Holocaust. She is currently a fellow of Women Mobilizing Memory (2013-2015), and works with the Citizenship, Justice and Rights research group at Universidad de Valparaíso and in the Body and Emotions research nucleus at Universidad de Chile.

The Personal Side of Genocide

Kirril Shields, 2013 AJC Fellow

There came a moment during our fellowship when open displays of emotion swept through the group. I expected this emotion in places such as the camps, and while sites like Treblinka caused open sadness, the occasion that made the strongest impression on me took place in Kraków.

Forming a circle at the Jewish Community Centre, the group sat with Uwe von Seltmann and his wife, Gabi. Uwe and Gabi spoke for about an hour about their personal and familial histories. In particular, they discussed their relationship and its ties to the past: Uwe’s grandfather was a former SS officer, and Gabi’s Jewish family members were murdered at Auschwitz. Up until this moment in the trip the group had heard much about the victims of the Holocaust, and we had been privileged with first-hand survivor accounts. Yet Uwe’s tale was different, for here was his grandfather’s story of perpetration, and with it we were to witness the effects it had had on his family.

I sympathized with Uwe, who lives with this dire past, a man who loves his Jewish wife and respects the Jewish community into which he has been adopted. Uwe was visibly upset when revealing his family history; he had made it his quest to educate others about the dangers of anti-Semitism. In snippets throughout Uwe’s speech, though, there appeared to be statements that defended his grandfather, subtle yet quite potent sentences that I found as interesting as his narrative of woe. In one instance Uwe painted his grandfather as a relatable and likeable individual, much like Uwe himself, thereby suggesting the grandfather was a victim of his own time and place.

At the conclusion of our session in Krakow, I asked Uwe if he noticed aspects of his grandfather in himself. Though the two had never met, over the years Uwe had grown aware of links tying him to his paternal forbear: both trained as journalists, both were highly educated, and both men preferred to work in cafés rather than in the confines of an office. Without directly saying so, Uwe inferred that the man who sat talking to us could have, given differing circumstances, worn the SS uniform, only in this instance we were witnessing a man affected by this past rather than a man who aided in the creation of a particular history.

From there our group explored how our traditional ideas of the perpetrator slowly unravelled. We stopped assuming the individuals were diabolic. It was too easy and one-dimensional to depict them that way. Instead, we started wondering if the perpetrators could have been people with whom we could have built rapport and friendship, in another time and in different circumstances. This was a complex conundrum, and one that mimicked in its complexity many of the situations and readings of history encountered during the fellowship.

Uwe's comment, suggesting some similarities and connections between him and his grandfather, became a topic of debate among the group at a later reflection. We had to wonder if Uwe was asking us to empathize with a former SS man, and moreover, if we could.

This display of empathy would have been remarkably easy, for relating to a man who may have spoken, smiled, winked, and chuckled as did Uwe, was for all of us an easy and understandable reaction. Of course we felt for the man. And yet the problem with this situation was that it was all too easy to feel empathy. In contrast, when trying to conceive of the killings committed by the SS-Obersturmfürer, or the killings for which he was responsible, that remains impossible.

Dominick LaCapra refers to the Holocaust and actions that culminated in the Holocaust as “limit events.” I interpret “limit” to mean the limit of human intellect and/or the limits of imagination in attempting to understand and/or relate to these experiences. For example, it is impossible for me to even come close to picturing, let alone feeling, what it must have been like to be a part of, or have been responsible for, the events of the Holocaust. These huge “limit-events” are beyond the scope of my experience, as are the depravities that occurred in Auschwitz. I had hoped that the shock of seeing the sites in which the crimes were committed would bring forth enlightenment, as if I would be able, in that instance, to understand. While my historical knowledge increased, attempts at such an understanding only marginally grew.

Uwe's grandfather died in 1945, yet Uwe is the one who bears the guilt for the grievances committed. That is why, I believe, Uwe’s words evoked such visible emotion, for it is Uwe’s generation who carry the burden of these perpetrations. It is Uwe, now living in a society that wishes to expose such crimes and acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past, who feels a moral obligation to stress the likeness of the perpetrators to the everyday individual. To do so, he needs to openly expose the crimes, while also ensuring that his audience understands that these were not the makings of an individual possessed. And by doing so, as shown in the response to Uwe’s talk, we come to acknowledge that the average individual of very normal societal stature has in them the ability to cause suffering that continues to haunt throughout the decades.

Kirril Shields recently completed his PhD at the University of Queensland, Australia. His thesis examined the shifting and changing attitudes towards the period of the Third Reich as noted over many generations in Australian society. This year Kirril was awarded a Fellowship to the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization, and he is currently the 2014 Alfred Midgley Scholar at the University of Queensland.

The Complexity of Commemoration

Laura Pearce, 2013 AJC Fellow
“It’s not ‘lest we forget,’ it’s ‘lest we remember.’ That’s what all this is about—the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”                                                                                                                               -Tom Irwin, The History Boys
The film adaptation of the Broadway play The History Boys, about a group of unconventional teachers and their students, forces the audience to question the purpose of commemoration and memorialization within contemporary society. The above quote is from a scene in which the class is discussing a British World War I memorial during which the teacher, Mr. Irwin, tells his class that without monuments to the dead, the British might remember that collectively their country was as eager for World War I as anyone else. Instead, he suggests they can use their memorials and monuments as a way to focus their memory on the death and destruction of the war, and ignore their complicity in allowing it to happen. The event itself is remembered and memorialized so that the details and potentially difficult truths surround it can be forgotten.

In thinking about the memorialization of Holocaust memory I encountered during the Fellows Program, I was reminded once again of the use of memorials to shape memory and of commemorating to forget. This idea is not specific to Poland or even Europe at large; I would apply this same idea of commemoration through forgetting and shaping memory to examples of Holocaust memorialization in the United States as well. But as I toured Poland as an AJC Fellow, I noticed this same pattern: commemoration projects were admirable, yet certain sites glorified or commemorated some aspects of these years while ignoring or obscuring others.

Commemoration and memorialization produced under Communist rule immediately appears to seek to shape memory. These monuments vilify the “Hitlerites” and mourn the victims. On the site of the Płaszów concentration camp in Kraków, the original memorial erected in the 1960s merely states: “In tribute to martyrs murdered by the Hitlerite genociders, 1943-1945.” Similarly, in the tiny town of Szydłów, the Communist-era memorial reads: “In tribute to those who fought, died, and were murdered, 1939-1945.” There is no mention of who these “martyrs” were or the reason for their victimization. These Communist-era memorialization examples commemorate the dead, but obscure their identities as Poles, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Based on these Communist-era portrayals, these individuals were simply opponents of Fascism.

Another example of this is the immense Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, built in 1948, which reads simply: “The Nation of Israel to the Martyrs and Saints.” The monument image is striking: strong, male resistance fighters, and a token woman with child in the background. Sculpted so that they leap out of the monument, these figures are clearly meant to inspire awe and reverence with their determination to resist even in the face of certain death. This image is juxtaposed with the image on the reverse of the monument: an image of victims headed to their death. These individuals, rather than being glorified and carved out of the stone itself, are diminished in importance by being carved into it. They are not the fighters and they do not resist but instead walk mournfully to their deaths.

In stark contrast to the Communist-era memorials, and I think often in response to them, many memorials constructed since the fall of Communism do indicate why victims were murdered: because they were Jews. In attempting to highlight the fact that Jews were systematically victimized, these memorials hide the existence—whether intentionally or unintentionally—of other victim groups. They consistently ignore or trivialize the fact that while the Jews were the primary target of the Nazis, there were also millions of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. We visited a few sites memorializing non-Jewish victims, like the deportation square and cemetery in Łódz. Yet for the most part, many contemporary memorials are not so different from their Communist-era counterparts: they tell part, but not all of the story.

The nature of memorialization is limiting: monuments and plaques can only ever tell part of the story. Complexities and controversies are not easily illustrated through monument iconography and minimal text. As an aspiring museum professional I am in favor of museums to fill this gap. Yet not all museums achieve this; even the notable United States Holocaust Memorial Museum glorifies American liberation and downplays American policies that left victims of Nazism with no refuge. In a number of museums we visited in Poland, the memory of the Holocaust and the pre-war contribution of Polish Jews is commemorated, while conveniently omitting less savory aspects of the history of Jews in Poland.

Dąbrowa Tarnowska, for instance, has a museum within a former synagogue, which is impressive even when compared to former synagogues in Kraków that likely have many more visitors. While it highlighted the interconnected lives of Polish Jews and gentiles in the city and surrounding area throughout its history, the exhibition neglects to discuss the two pogroms against the area’s Jews that took place around the time of the First World War.

While not all museums are capable of incorporating all of the complexity of a given event, they do serve an important purpose in the field of memorialization. While engaging with these spaces as an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow, I examined how institutions can tell the same story differently.
To me, successful examples of commemoration do not obscure or forget details and unpleasant truths, but instead present a whole story, including its complexities.
Laura Pearce is an aspiring museum professional who recently completed a Master’s Degree in Public History at Loyola University Chicago. After receiving her undergraduate degree in history from DePauw University in 2010, Laura taught with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta. She has interned at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. In graduate school, she participated in oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and conducted interviews with the children of survivors. Currently, Laura is working with the Chicago Cultural Alliance to create a digital archive and with the Legion of Young Polish Women to create an online exhibit to commemorate their 75th Anniversary.

The Survivor and the Photograph: Surrealism and Humanity in Poland

Beth Healey, 2013 Jaffa & Larry Feldman Fellow

As a graduate student who studies Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, I have spent the better part of the past decade as a student, studying the Holocaust through books and other documents, in American cities and classrooms. As I embark upon my dissertation, one of my greatest fears is that amongst all the reading and research, I will lose sight of the fact that the history I study was real life for other people. Other people personally experienced the events that I only read about from afar, both geographically and temporally. Visiting Poland with the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program was so important to me because it was an opportunity to ensure that I do not risk reducing the Holocaust to an academic abstraction and that I remain mindful of the Holocaust as a real-life experience for its victims.

Two particular experiences in Poland – the conversation with Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz and an encounter with a photograph from the Emanuel Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat archive – brought me closer to my goal while simultaneously challenging my conception of what life was like under the Nazis.

During the course of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program, we had the privilege of meeting Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Zofia Posmysz. Rather than telling us her life story or giving us a narrative of her wartime experiences, Zofia simply wanted to answer whatever questions we had for her. Towards the end of our conversation, Zofia told us she understood we would be visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in the upcoming days, and said,
“When you go to Birkenau, remember that I was there, too.”
She spoke this in a quiet way, not insistently, but almost wistfully, softly asking us to remember her. I have heard many survivors tell their stories, but it is this comment of Zofia’s that has resonated with me in a way unlike any other Holocaust survival story I have heard.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was an entirely surreal experience, in ways both somewhat expected and utterly unexpected. Walking through the grounds, Zofia’s words, echoing through my head, were the one aspect of this otherwise entirely surreal experience that remained real for me and provided something to hold on to. Visiting Auschwitz I, in particular, was a very strange experience for me in ways I did not anticipate. Auschwitz seemed almost fake, for lack of a better word, despite the fact that the campgrounds were laid out before me to see with my own eyes. Somehow, the history seemed less tangible at Auschwitz than it does when I read, study, and teach about the Holocaust, half a world and decades away from the events in questions.

In many ways, visiting Auschwitz was like watching a movie based on a book – the character and the stories are familiar, but it is just different from the world you imagined while reading. Over the two days we toured Auschwitz I and Birkenau, Zofia’s request kept coming back to me, reverberating – “When you go to Birkenau, remember that I was there, too.” Remember that Zofia was there, along with so many others like her. It was through Zofia that Auschwitz the place became accessible for me, and I was able to connect with the victim experience of the Holocaust, in some small way.

Although I did not expect Auschwitz to seem so fake, my experience with Zofia and at Auschwitz was the sort of experience I hoped to find in Poland, one that emphasized the individual humanity of the victims. However, my ideas about humanity, victimization, and life under the Nazis were challenged by an encounter with a photograph from the Emanuel Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat archive at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. I was reminded that the humanity of the victims encompassed not only suffering and death, but happiness and life as well.

The photo that caught my eye was an outdoor shot of a street scene in the Warsaw Ghetto, showing a large crowd of people, presumably going about their daily lives. There is a young woman in the middle of the crowd, looking directly towards the camera, with a big smile on her face. She looks happy, excited, and even joyful. I do not know who this woman was, or what was going on that day, but this photo reminded me that even in the ghettoes, life continued. There were occasions for happiness. From an intellectual standpoint, this was not much of a revelation. I knew that Jewish life went on in the ghettoes, I have discussed this with my students, and I have seen photos of concerts, weddings, and other such events in the ghettoes. Yet, none of those photos made the same impression on me as the beaming young woman in this one – maybe because this was a candid moment rather than a posed photograph.

Moreover, when studying the young woman in the center of this photo, I did not see the same sense of fateful foreboding that sometimes – often – accompanies such pictures. I know nothing about this woman or what happened to her, but it is likely that the Nazis murdered her. Yet, looking at the photograph, I saw an evidently happy young woman as she was at that moment in time. She reminded me that Holocaust victims were also individuals with complex lives and rich histories. Despite the circumstances of their deaths, their lives were more than the Holocaust, and death should not eclipse life. Yes, the victims endured horrors that I can only imagine, hurting in ways I have never experienced, but humanity extends beyond just the experience of pain.

Often, Holocaust scholarship and teaching includes pre-war Jewish life in order to underscore the scale of the loss and enormity of Nazi crimes, giving Jewish history a sense of predetermined pathos, rather than considering Jewish history as its own story and worthy of studying in its own right. While understandable, I wonder if this use of Jewish history might also obscure the humanity and dignity of Holocaust victims in the same way as focusing exclusively on the manner of their deaths at the expense of their lives. Particularly as much of my own work as a historian involves reading witness statements and testimonies of horrifying events, it is critical that I retain a sense of these individuals as real people, with the full spectrum of human emotion. Like Zofia, the men and women I focus on in my dissertation “were there, too,” and like the young woman in the photograph, their lives were far more than what the Nazis sought to make of them.

Beth Healey is a PhD candidate in the History department at Northwestern University. She earned a BA in History from Providence College, an MA in History from Boston College, and worked for non-profit educational organization Facing History and Ourselves in Brookline, MA. Under the supervision of Professor Peter Hayes, Beth is currently working on her dissertation about the Royal Warrant trials of Nazi war criminals in British-occupied Germany. She was named the 2013 Jaffa and Larry Feldman Fellow by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and has presented her work in Chicago, Los Angeles, Rome, Munich, and London.

Linguistic Memory

Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo, May 2014 AJC PSA Alum 

During my very meaningful experience as a participant of the AJC Program for Students Abroad, I felt that personal reflection would provide me with more enriching souvenirs than photos. This photograph, however, is a most significant exception. It depicts one of the many memorial tablets, each of them in a different European language, which are present at the Auschwitz-Birkenau monument.
This Judeo-Spanish-written cenotaph particularly attracted my attention because it was, unlike the tablets written in more common languages, empty of flowers or any other offering left by visitors. 
As a Spaniard, I drew an analogy between the bare Judeo-Spanish memorial tablet and the fact that Sephardic language and culture are today virtually extinct, due, in part, to the Holocaust, but also to centuries of persecution in Spain. Laying a little stone on that unadorned tombstone, following the Jewish tradition, was my way of commemorating this immeasurable and irretrievable human loss, as well as paying tribute to those lives not lived.

 Pedro Correa Martín-Arroyo is currently a research intern at the NIOD Institute for War, Genocide and Holocaust studies in Amsterdam (The Netherlands). His previous research involved British propaganda in Spain during World War II and the myth of General Franco as ‘Saviour of the Jews’. Starting in October 2014, he will begin a PhD in International History at the London School of Economic (LSE) under the supervision of Professor Paul Preston, which will focus on Jewish refugees and rescue operations in Spain and Portugal during the Holocaust.