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.