Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Artifact Spotlight: Libanon Nuta

This is the title page of the religious pamphlet “Libanon Nuta” by Rabbi Natan Landau, which is part of the AJC’s collection. It was published in 1901 in Podgórze, near Kraków, and details the subject of ritual purity. Natan Landau, whose family was part of the local rabbinic dynasty, was president of the rabbinic court in Oświęcim. The stamp of Rabbi Leser Landau (1869-1938), his son, appears on the page. Leser held the prestigious post of Deputy Chief Rabbi of Oświęcim for 21 years. The artifact was obtained from the Oświęcim branch of the State Archive in Katowice. Learn more about the Libanon Nuta here.

Volunteer Profile: Paul Martin Sautner, 2015

Hometown: Vienna, Austria

What attracted you to the AJC? A few years ago, I developed an interest in Middle Eastern cultures and languages. I became fascinated by the thousands of years of traditions, rituals, and the rich cultural history. When I learned about the AJC, I was drawn to the opportunity to teach and learn about Judaism and Jewish culture, not only the Shoah. The AJC offered me the opportunity I was looking for.

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience? I learn the most interesting things from questions from groups I guide that I don’t know the answer to. I also really enjoy visits from Israeli groups: last week, for example, we had a group of young Israelis. One of them told us that one of his ancestors lived in Oświęcim and showed us his great-grandfather in one of the pictures at the AJC.

How has volunteering affected you? 
I certainly have become more reliable and responsible here. Also, I feel more confident and comfortable speaking in front of groups. I have learned to express my thoughts more clearly and efficiently. Working here, I am learning about Judaism and Polish culture in an engaging, less abstract manner.

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know? When I was still in Austria, preparing to come to Poland, I told people that I was going to Oświęcim to work there for a year. I did not meet a single person who knew what Oświęcim was, and when I clarified, people assumed it would be a depressing experience. Life in Oświęcim, however, is not depressing at all. It is a beautiful, dynamic town. People must know that the focus of the AJC is not on death and destruction, but rather on life.

Alumni Profile: Captain Stefanie Culp, 2008 ASAP

What inspired you to apply to the American Service Academies Program?
I first visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in middle school and was surprised, more accurately stunned, by the experience. I remember being amazed that children just like me had endured such a horrific experience. Even at that age and with limited knowledge of the Holocaust, it was apparent to me that one could not gain a comprehensive understanding of its events by studying a textbook or taking a class. When the opportunity arose to apply for the American Service Academies Program, I applied for the breadth of educational and interpersonal experiences it promised.

What surprised you most about the experience? Although I applied to the program for the experience, I underestimated the breadth of the experience in its entirety. I expected considerable academic requirements and the whirlwind tour of D.C., New York City, and Poland. I was not prepared for the rush of emotions brought forth by these experiences, including meetings with individuals profoundly impacted by the Holocaust. I will never forget the scope of reactions displayed by my fellow ASAP participants while visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau: there was disbelief, shock, fear, anger, and deep sadness. It was amazing that a group of individuals with similar training, values, ethics, and career choices could be affected so differently. It led me to understand that we could not only display varying emotions, but also respond in vastly different ways to the same stimulus. It was a foundational experience that impacted my understanding of the importance of instilling core values, particularly integrity, in all military members.

How did the ASAP impact you after you completed the program? Based upon my newfound respect for the core value of integrity, I began to look at my commitment to military service a bit differently. I had sworn to protect my country at any cost, to include making the ultimate sacrifice. What I had not fully considered was that it could and should mean disobeying orders that are detrimental to the values and rights upon which our nation is founded. I no longer identified with the young children who endured this horrific event, but the young officers who were tasked with carrying out such horrific actions. I realized I must continue to develop my personal integrity to prepare for taking a stand for what is right and for enabling Airmen around me to do the same. My experiences in the ASAP are an always-present reminder that military members and society at large must always strive and sacrifice for what is right.

Stefanie Culp graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2009. She attended pilot training in Columbus, Mississippi and then was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord flying the C-17 from 2011-2014. Stefanie is currently stationed at Joint Base McGuire Dix-Lakehurst, NJ where she is a C-17 Instructor Pilot and an Operations Group Executive Officer. She lives in Philadelphia, close to her hometown of Chestertown, Maryland.

New Łódź Jewish Cemetery

Todd Hennessy, 2015 AJC Faculty Fellow

The New Łódź Jewish Cemetery, established in 1892, is the largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe. More than 180,000 graves and 65,000 tombstones, ohels (structures built over graves), and mausoleums occupy the cemetery located on Zmienna Street, south of the Radogoszcz train station.

During the Nazi occupation, the cemetery became part of the eastern section of the enclosed ghetto. Between 1940 and 1944, approximately 43,000 burials took place in a part of the cemetery that became known as the “Pole Gettowe" or Ghetto Field. The cemetery was also the site of many mass executions of Jews, Roma, and non-Jewish Poles.

Upon entering the Beit Tahara (funeral home) within the cemetery, I was instantly met with a sense of warmth; not temperature, but comfort. The angles, colors, symbols, textures of this humble room illustrate its importance in the preparation for a Jewish burial. There was also a silence to the room that conveyed its purity, its strength.

After a few moments I began to realize just how many victims of the Holocaust that were not granted this ritual carried out with dignity and respect. The traditional washing (rechitzah), ritual purification (taharah), and dressing (halbashah) of the deceased, the prayers and readings from Torah, The Law of Onen, and the practice of Shemira, all of which were lost.

We all too often focus on the total number of victims of the Holocaust and the manner in which they were murdered. What is sometimes lost, though, is the focus on the manner in which these victims lived; from birth to burial within a culture of beliefs, customs, and traditions.

Todd Hennessy is an educator with The Colorado Holocaust Educators in Denver, CO. For fifteen years Todd taught middle and high school social studies for two public school districts in Colorado. He currently teaches the Holocaust curriculum for the Temple Sinai Religious School in Denver, and is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Regional Education Corps Member and Museum Teacher Fellow. When Todd is not teaching, he is a career firefighter / EMT with the South Metro Rescue Authority in Centennial, CO.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Artifact Spotlight: Dictionary

This handwritten Polish-Hebrew dictionary belonged to Ester Posner, who most likely was a member of a Zionist youth group during the interwar period. One of the aims of the Zionist movement was to promote the use of Modern Hebrew among Jews. The dictionary was found in a house near the Market Square in Oświęcim and donated by Mirosław Iżyczek. Click here to learn more about Jewish history of Oświęcim during the interwar period.

Volunteer Profile: Stefan Hemerka, 2015

Hometown: Vienna

What attracted you to the AJC?
I found it extremely interesting that not many people know there is a town next to Auschwitz. I barely knew the region and I wanted to learn about the history. As an Austrian, I found that this aspect of European history was not taught to us enough, especially that Jews were a major part of Polish culture.

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience?
The word “fun” may not be used often with such a volunteer work, but the different groups that come are engaging and make the experience meaningful. The most valuable part of the experience is our teamwork; teamwork will always make the experience more fun and worthwhile. The best part is the work that I am doing: leading tours, meeting new people, and learning everyday.

How has volunteering affected you?
Working at the AJC has helped me mature personally and professionally. I’ve learned to adapt to changes and people. I feel more responsible and know how to face challenges more efficiently than I had before this experience.

What is one thing you'd like others to know about the AJC or think people don't know?
First, I always want people to know that even though the name is the Auschwitz Jewish Center, the center is not in Auschwitz, but in Oświęcim. Even though it is a small place, we have a lot to offer like a functioning synagogue, an exhibition with a rich history about Jews in the town, an educational center, and of course, Café Bergson, which has become an important meeting place for the community.

Alumni Profile: Captain David G. Krueger, 2007 ASAP

What inspired you to apply to the American Services Academies Program?
My interest in the American Service Academies Program started during my junior year at West Point, when I began preparing for my upcoming thesis on the Armenian Genocide. My thesis advisor, Dr. David Frey, emphasized nationalism and ethnicity as concepts fundamental to understanding the genocides of the twentieth-century, with the Holocaust as one of the most powerful case studies. He encouraged me to compete for the program to devote my time and efforts exclusively to the topic and gain depth and perspective. It also provided the opportunity to work alongside students from other Services and countries while traveling abroad, outside the routine of the Academy.

How did the ASAP impact you after you completed the program?
The program had immediate impacts on my development as a cadet, but I continue to see its influence in my growth as an officer to this day. Moral maturity can’t be achieved in a summer, but the perspective gained there provided powerful context for defining my own core values. I expect any graduate of the program would agree that they are now much more vigilant and intolerant of behaviors and systems that drive individuals and organizations towards discrimination. It also encouraged a more global sense of responsibility, to stay invested in events that may not have an immediate or obvious impact on me personally or on the United States.

What surprised you most about the experience?
One of the most surprising and enriching parts of the experience was the depth of cultural context it provided. The Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Auschwitz Jewish Center thoroughly address the tragedy of the Holocaust, but emphasize the preservation and understanding of Jewish history and culture as a central tenet of their mission. Atrocities and discrimination are dishearteningly common and inseparable themes of history, but using them to define a group denies them agency and distracts from their contributions to society.

What is your fondest memory of the ASAP?
Whenever anyone asks me the most enjoyable part my trip, I don’t hesitate to say Kraków. The city is beautiful, historic, and modern. There is no shortage of culture or entertainment and I encourage anyone who has limited time in Europe to devote some of it to Kraków.

Captain David G. Krueger participated in the American Service Academies Program in 2007 and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2008. He is currently stationed at Fort Eustis, VA with his wife Christine, who is also a Captain in the Army. His next assignment is to begin graduate school this fall, studying History at Harvard University, followed by an assignment to teach Military History at West Point in 2017.

Bobowa's Jews

Waitman Wade Beorn, 2008 AJC Fellow

In 1939, the town of Bobowa had a population of approximately 700. During the Holocaust, it served as a concentration point for Jews from smaller villages in the surrounding countryside, including 60 Jews from Oświęcim. During the course of the war, many Jews were sent to work in labor camps in the area. The ghetto was liquidated on August 14, 1942, and the remaining Jewish inhabitants of Bobowa were murdered in a nearby forest. I took this photograph at the Jewish cemetery overlooking the town. There was something unsettling about the combination of the picturesque location, the intact gravestones, and the overgrown condition of the cemetery. Like those of many Jewish sites in Poland, this photograph evokes both the sense of loss of Jewish life and culture due to the Holocaust and physical reminders of the communities that remain.

Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn is the Director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, VA. He received his PhD in History from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in 2011 and is a 2000 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and scholarships, and has published several books. Recently he was honored with the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize for best first book from Harvard Press. He is currently preparing a major project on the Janowska concentration camp outside of Lviv, Ukraine.

Moved by Wooden Synagogues

Evan Alberhasky, 2014 AJC Fellow
The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” aptly conveys how I felt upon viewing the replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue, which now stands as a centerpiece of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Wooden synagogue construction was common during the sixteenth to eighteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which today is part of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. European Jews were afforded peace and prosperity, a chance to continue their traditional ways of life. A flourishing trade economy and religious tolerance made the area a haven for Jews fleeing persecution from Western Europe. Due to the abundance, and therefore, inexpensive nature of wood in the area, it was a matter of course that the most significant building in the Jewish community—the synagogue—would be built of wood.

These synagogues—whether in Jedwabne, Gwoździec, or Jurbarkas, Lithuania—were typically constructed with fairly unadorned exteriors concealing the grandeur and religious iconography that lie within. Carvings and magnificent paintings adorned the domes and vaulted ceilings. The decorative manifestations simultaneously reflected both traditional Jewish folk art and the birth of a new unique style that reflected the freedom Jewish craftsmen were given in the area. In the Gwoździec Synagogue, zodiac signs and animal symbols were reflected in fantastic hues of blue and red, similar to those found in recently excavated Galilean temples from late antiquity. The bima stood as the centerpiece of every wooden synagogue: this highly crafted art piece would face the ark where the Torah, the elemental text of Judaism, was stored. Wooden synagogues of the Commonwealth period were a ubiquitous feature of the countryside, then a crossroad between east and west, where modernity was just starting to peek out of the traditional shtetl life.

The extraordinary phenomenon of wooden synagogues represented a high point in artistic Jewish creation, yet Nazis destroyed the vast majority of these impressive wooden structures during the Holocaust. In a sweeping blitz, Nazi forces obliterated architectural wonders. Fortunately, during the interwar period, a group from the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw, cognizant of the historical importance and artistic value of wooden synagogue construction, had been commissioned with the task of documenting the then-extensive network of wooden synagogues in the region. While much of their documentation was destroyed during World War II, enough remained intact for Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka to finish the work. In 1957, Wooden Synagogues was published in Polish and two years later, in English. Their book became a testament to the splendor and loss of wooden synagogues.

Fast forward several decades into the new millennium. A renewed interest in wooden synagogue construction took flight thanks to the dedication and efforts of Rick and Laura Brown, founders of non-profit Handshouse Studio, which facilitates hands-on community service projects. In the summer of 2011 and 2012, a workshop was created with the explicit goal of replicating the seventeenth-century Gwoździec Synagogue roof and painted ceiling. Twelve workshops, eight Polish cities, 58 professionals and over 300 students later, the roof was reconstructed and moved into the central wing of POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Chief curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett led our group through the exhibition, explaining the museum development and the intricacies of the stunning synagogue.

As you walk into the museum, a façade of modern glass gives way to an undulating wavelike entryway. To the right, the apex of the pointed wooden roof peaks out through the floor, an engineering feat suspended by multiple steel cables, a mixture of metal and wood, past and present. Our tour took place in July 2014 while the exhibition was still under construction before the September 2014 opening, but the roof and bima had already been lowered into their final resting place.

Our journey around Poland had already shown us the various states of synagogues in the country. Preservation and renovation were concepts we often reflected on, examining how they could be uplifting or even detrimental to the surrounding community. Some structures, such as the 1852 Działoszyce synagogue, remain a skeletal shell of the past; the 16th century Remuh Synagogue in Kraków is one of many renovated and used for worship. What we saw in the Gwoździec Synagogue replica was something different: a unique piece of history that not only reflected the glorious past of the 1,000 year presence of Jews in Poland, but also an educational tool connecting the past, present, and future.

To be sure that this historic structure and its relationship to the past would be remembered, a documentary team recorded the entire process of reconstruction, from start to finish—one tree, one saw, one nail, and one paintbrush at a time. The group of students and professionals utilized only the techniques and methods that would have been available during the period in which the original synagogue was constructed. The international premier of Raise the Roof took place at the 2015 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. I sat in the theater, watching the film slowly develop with snippets of the colorful roof shown here and there; I reflected on how it felt to see the structure as an AJC Fellow in Poland. I felt a small sense of electricity go up my spine each time a new colored piece would come into focus. I was transported back to my fellowship and the time I spent in Poland. I was carried away to a time of my ancestors.

The colors of the Gwoździec Synagogue roof may slowly fade from my mind as time progresses, but this memory will not. The roof and the museum represent a new age, one in which the idea of Poland as a Jewish cemetery no longer holds supremacy. The museum in Warsaw where the roof rests is one more layer on top of a presence that exists as much in the past as it does in the future. A roof has been raised once again—physically, emotionally, existentially. Let us hope that this time around, it will not ever come down.

Originally from southern Kentucky, Evan works for ORT America in Atlanta as the region’s Development Associate. He previously worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for four years and has a working knowledge of Hebrew and Russian. Evan holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a second M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University, and a B.A. in History from Indiana University. Evan and his wife Marina are members of Temple Emanu-El in Dunwoody where they also teach Sunday school.

Jewish Sites in Poland as Transnational Spaces

Nicole Freeman, 2014 AJC Fellow

While visiting Jewish cemeteries and memorials in Poland last summer, I reflected upon the sites I had previously seen in Germany. What are their differences and similarities? How have Germany and Poland comparatively come to terms with their difficult pasts? My own academic research on twentieth-century Germany and Poland has been greatly influenced by the most recent “transnational turn” within the history discipline. Transnational history focuses on the movements of peoples, ideas, goods, and technologies across nations. In fact, historians now look beyond national boundaries to study global themes and processes in a larger context. Transnational history allows for scholars to challenge the traditional framework of the nation state, expose its limitations, and problematize nationalist histories. Historians, like Michael Meng, have recently studied Jewish synagogues and cemeteries as transnational spaces in Germany and Poland.

Meng’s book, Shattered Spaces, focuses on the destruction and preservation of Jewish sites and property after the Holocaust in Germany and Poland. He uses the cities of Berlin, Warsaw, Potsdam, Essen, and Wrocław as case studies in order to show parallel histories and shared memoires across national boundaries. Both Germany and Poland’s approaches to Jewish ruins evolved greatly over a 60-year period. Meng argues that local officials in Germany and Poland “made deliberate choices about what to rebuild and preserve from the rubble of the war.” This conscious selection helped reshape postwar German and Polish national identities. With small or no remaining Jewish populations, Jewish sites represented a past that neither nation wanted to confront in the immediate postwar decades. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal allowed Germans and Poles to build new, modern capitals and “erase these reminders of the past rather than mourn the catastrophe behind their shattered condition.” However, there was a general shift from destruction to preservation in the 1970s and 1980s. National politicians, tourists, and international Jewish leaders brought attention to Jewish ruins and sought to reconstruct the Jewish past.

During the AJC fellowship, we visited many of these preserved and reconstructed spaces of Jewish history in Poland. The Jewish cemetery, Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw are just a few of the sites in Poland that represent Jewish memory, nostalgia, tension, melancholy, and mourning. Meng refers to these kinds of reconstructed and newly built Jewish sites as spaces of “redemptive cosmopolitanism.” The commemorative sites represented the missing multi-ethnic nature of German and Polish democratic societies.

By comparing these Jewish sites of memory and mourning, we are able to address larger questions regarding the legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary Germany and Poland. Today’s historians are using transnational methodologies in order to bring these two countries into dialogue with each other. Moving away from national narratives allows for historians to draw connections between multiple countries and bring new perspectives to old questions.

Nicole Freeman is a PhD student at the Ohio State University who specializes in twentieth-century German and gender history. In 2012, she graduated summa cum laude from Salem State University with a BA in History and received her Massachusetts Initial Educator License in History and the Social Sciences. Nicole’s honors thesis explored the experiences of Jewish children rescued by the Kindertransport who lived with English foster families during the Second World War. Prior to staring graduate school at Ohio State, she interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In Search of Authenticity

Helen Rubinstein, 2014 AJC Jaffa and Larry Feldman Fellow

The first thing I do when I get to Auschwitz is put on sunscreen.

Then I take out my notebook and write, The first thing I do when I get to Auschwitz is put on sunscreen. Because being here makes us scrutinize ourselves; being here makes us worry. Are we mourning appropriately? Are we responding and reacting in the way that we should? Should I not wear the dress with horizontal stripes, should I avoid any dress with bright colors? Once thought, these questions are hard to un­-think, and so I am here in my brownest most ordinary dress, a dress I will from now on think of as my Auschwitz dress even if, when I return to the memorial on other days—because, right, this is not Auschwitz but the Auschwitz­-Birkenau Memorial and Museum—I will feel okay wearing brighter dresses.

In the past weeks, we AJC Fellows have been debating the ethics of selfies at Auschwitz and photos under the iconic Arbeit Macht Frei sign. That the sign is no longer the original but a replica erected after a 2009 robbery only makes visitors’ photos underneath its awning more specious and confusing. See, I needed to record that I was putting on sunscreen not only because sunscreen falls into the same sunny category as bright dresses, but because sunscreen is a summer thing, a vacation thing, and a tourist thing. And the reconstructed Arbeit Macht Frei sign—the way the replica stands in for the original, the simulation for the real—only magnifies my concern that the Auschwitz­-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is, like sunscreen, a summer thing, a vacation thing, and a tourist thing. I’m afraid that, in its attempt to provide evidence of the horrors of its history, the memorial that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site may have shed some of what makes its past feel immediate, authentic, and true.

Our guide, Paweł, begins our tour by telling us that this is an authentic site—I write down his words. He says, “Every brick tells a story.” What he means, I know, is that everything here has been maintained, conserved, or reconstructed to as­-near­-perfectly-­as-­possible match the original. There’s an obvious reason for this: the site must stand as evidence to counter the ranks of Holocaust deniers. But the instant Paweł calls the site authentic, I feel myself grow doubtful, not only because I am mindful that authenticity is an impossible ideal, but because I don’t even know how the site can be authentic. It can’t replicate the moment the memorial is presuming to preserve: nothing that is happening on­site now was happening on­site between 1940 and 1945. And how can the site be authentic when its iconic gate, barbed wire, execution wall, and HALT! signs are all reconstructions?

Our AJC Fellows group has spent much of the trip discussing the ethos of museums: their design choices, their occasional contrivances, the narratives implied in the arrangement of artifacts and interpretive material, and the various ways in which museums attempt to authentically—that is, ethically, and with as little propaganda as possible—represent the past. Here, too, such questions are pertinent, even if Paweł will suggest that the Auschwitz­-Birkenau State Museum is not only a museum but also a kind of cemetery. Inside one former barracks, near photos of the 1944 transport of Hungarian Jews, a bronze sign reads baldly: “Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.” It’s a quotation from Hans Frank, meant to provide context and educate, but its loud and prominent position on the wall gives me a chill. Elsewhere, a sign reading MATERIAL PROOF OF CRIMES makes me equally uncomfortable, for how it directs the reader’s attention not to these crimes’ victims—whose hair, shoes, and possessions constitute “proof”—but to the crimes’ unnamed perpetrators.

Authenticity is a word Paweł keeps returning to. New exhibits, he says, will be without multimedia, without fireworks, meant only to explain the authenticity of the site. He tells us about the three-­year project of barracks preservation, the attempts to conserve historical damage, how replicas of straw mattresses, and even ceiling pipes, are marked by newness, so as to distinguish themselves from nearby originals—designed so that the viewer can see the old in the context of refurbished details meant only to fill in the blanks. He explains that, aside from an Auschwitz I gas chamber reconstructed after the war, the gas chambers alone have not been conserved, that to conserve them would be an ethical problem, and that the fingernail scratches we find inside were most likely left behind by tourists, not prisoners. Original fingernail scratches would have faded. But new fingernail scratches that pretend to be old—new fingernail scratches that are scars of disrespect—these can’t be painted over, either.

This is maybe the essence of the problem: that while Auschwitz attempts to maintain the traces of what it used to be, it is also something new. It is a place where people use selfie sticks, a place where we sit in auditorium seating for lectures in buildings that are former blocks. We understand the visitors’ fingernail scratches to violate some code of behavior, but we’re not sure exactly what that code might be, because we’re not sure exactly what this place is. This is a museum, and a memorial, a cemetery, and a site of former atrocity. This is the most visited museum in all of Poland precisely because it is an authentic site. Here, we walk paths that prisoners have walked—it’s an immersion exhibit, in a way. But we don’t want it to be like the drippy brick tunnels inside the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising or the gravelly mock­ghettos at the Schindler Factory Museum in Kraków. The problem with these exhibits lies in the word mock: in the act of imitation, and especially as they imitate places and events we remember with gravity, these reconstructions can come off as belittling and cheap. In its attempts at self­-preservation, the Auschwitz­-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, too, risks becoming what Robert Jan van Pelt calls “a reconstruction on an original site,” “a place that constantly needs to be rebuilt in order to remain a ruin.”

Because people visit Auschwitz with the assumption that the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, barbed wire, execution wall, and gas chamber wall in Auschwitz I are original, their newness is pointed out during regular tours, we’re told. But I’m most bothered by the HALT! signs we find along the fencing, with their skulls and crossbones. These are obviously reconstructions, but in a place where the smell of sunscreen wafts through the air, they can look like decorations in a theme park’s thrill ride. At other museums, we’ve discussed the difference between immersion and spectatorship, between standing on gravel meant to replicate the environment of a ghetto and looking at photos of the same ghetto through a peephole on a wall. The first method risks disrespect, the second too much distance. Here, though, we are standing in the site of atrocity at the same time that we’re seeing it from afar. We don’t want to imitate prisoners’ experience (as I might seem to be doing if I wore stripes: almost as rude as scratching my fingernails into a wall), but neither do we want to distance ourselves too much (as I might if I wore bright colors).

The problem reminds me of two towns we visited earlier on our trip. In Chmielnik, at the site of the shtetl’s former great synagogue, there now stands a synagogue re-creation complete with a modern glass bima and a multimedia exhibit about the area’s Jewish history. In nearby Działoszyce, at the site of the shtetl’s former great synagogue, stands the same great synagogue, fenced in but now roofless and subject to pigeons and rain. Neither site feels authentic to its history: in Chmielnik, the reconstructed synagogue feels too flashy, despite the obvious earnestness of the attempt to honor the past; and in Działoszyce, the empty hole at the great synagogue’s height is a reminder less of what was than what is. But at Auschwitz, the attempt is to strike a balance between these two modes of representation. And I’m not sure it’s possible to do both, to be at once original and redone.

The problem is that time prohibits authenticity: time makes it impossible to be faithful to any moment in the past. Months after my visit, a cousin from my parents’ generation will ask about my trip and tell me how, when she visited Auschwitz, she refused to pay an entrance fee because, she told the guard, “You killed my whole family here and now you expect me to pay to see it?” She’s conflating two very different yous—the you of the camp guards and the you of the memorial’s guardians—but I can see why. Here, past and present coexist, and the way they coexist is uncomfortable. The memorial’s attempt at authenticity is impossible for precisely this reason. There’s nothing wrong with preservation, conservation, or replication, except that it will never be exactly right.

Helen Rubinstein is the Provost's Postgraduate Visiting Writer in nonfiction at the University of Iowa, where she is at work on two books, one of which draws on research from her AJC trip. Her essays and stories have been published in The Paris Review Daily, Slice Magazine, Witness, The New York Times, and elsewhere, and her work has been honored in The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. She holds M.F.A. degrees from the University of Iowa and Brooklyn College, and a B.A. in literature from Yale.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Artifact Spotlight: Stamps

Rubber stamps of the Jewish Religious Congregation in Oświęcim, 1946-1949.
Gift of Rachel Jakimowski, former President of Oświęim Society in Israel. 
The Communist regime in Poland intended to control all religious organizations; it renamed Jewish communities “Jewish Religious Assemblies” and later “Jewish Religious Congregations.” These original stamps date back to the Communist era, reading: Jewish Religious Congregation of Oświęcim. It was, and is, required for various organizations such as religious institutions and businesses to use these stamps in official letters, correspondence, and internal use. In the immediate post-war years, the Jewish Religious Congregation of Oświęcim was led by Chaim Wolnerman. Services were held in the only surviving house of prayer, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, which is now part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

Volunteer Profile: Gesine Reichel, 2014-2015

Hometown: Brandenburg, Germany

What attracted you to the AJC? 
I am especially interested in history and politics and I like to teach people, so the AJC is the perfect place for me. Guiding tours and workshops, I teach people about the Jewish history of Oświęcim. By doing this, I can transmit the message of tolerance. This gives me the opportunity to learn so much about history, Judaism, education, and Poland while I improve my language skills in English, Polish, and French. And of course I enjoy the good atmosphere and coffee in Café Bergson! 

What are you enjoying most about your volunteer experience? 
Everything! It is pretty difficult to answer this question because I am so in love with this place, but I think most important is the contact with so many interesting, different people and what we share with each other. Not only can I teach new things, most of the time I learn from these people. It is such a great opportunity and I get so much back from the experience. I remember one situation when a group of Jews from America visited; I gave them a short introduction of the Jewish history of the town. They were really happy and grateful for my voluntary service, and they invited me to their prayer in the synagogue. It was a great honor for me to hear them singing and watch their emotional response to this place – this was one of the most touching moments – I cannot even describe what I felt.

How has volunteering here affected you?
It opens new horizons and perspectives for me. It has changed my personality and I learn so much about myself. I still have half a year as a volunteer, so I cannot summarize the entire experience yet. 

What is one thing you’d like others to know about the AJC or think people don’t know? 
The most important point for me is the other view about “Auschwitz.” Yes: Auschwitz is also a town, a city with a big rich Jewish past! Now for me this reality is normal, but before coming here even I did not know about this Jewish history – and that is actually the same situation of most of our visitors. I also like to tell the personal stories, which visitors remember the best: for example, how Marta Świderska, a Christian, saved the picture of herself with her best friend Olga Pressler, who was Jewish. These stories draw a picture in people’s heads so that they understand the Jewish history of the town better. These stories are touching so that people understand how important it is to prevent a second Holocaust.

Alumni Profile: Andrea Howard, 2014 ASAP Alum

What inspired you to apply to the American Services Academies Program? 
During the summer of 2013, I visited the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem during a Birthright trip to Israel. Standing among the stars in the memorial, I had my first memorable experience with the magnitude of the Holocaust’s devastation. However, I felt that until I traveled to Poland, I would not be able to fully comprehend the reality of the camps, gas chambers, and mobile extermination sites, despite the plethora of history books and pictures available. Furthermore, I find Holocaust studies particularly pertinent to military members, especially given the Holocaust’s relative modernity and high military involvement. While the public may utter the words “Never Again,” the responsibility for upholding this promise ultimately falls to people in uniform with the power to back it.

How did the ASAP impact you after you completed the program? 
The ASAP made me much more attuned to and intolerant towards discrimination. As a Jewish American and an Arabic speaker, I find myself increasingly defensive of Muslims in our country and around the world, who unfairly and incessantly face accusatory rhetoric. As a military member, I have taken the pledge to advocate for and educate others about equal rights for same-sex couples. Because the ASAP revealed the diversity of the victims attacked during the Holocaust, I began to see dissimilarities between people as insignificant; everyone should have the right to live freely. I noticed that each case of genocide since the Holocaust escalated from an aversion to diversity. Since ASAP, I have included my firsthand stories while coordinating the Naval Academy’s freshmen training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I have utilized the experience as a framework for reflection during military training, especially as a plebe summer detailer the month after ASAP concluded.

You were recently awarded the highly competitive Marshall Scholarship. Congratulations! Please tell us a bit about the scholarship and what you’ll do with it?
The Marshall Scholarship is a two-year scholarship that aims to provide future leaders of America the opportunity to study in the UK, to help scholars gain an understanding and appreciation of contemporary Britain, and to motivate scholars to act as ambassadors throughout their lives thus strengthening British-American understanding. Approximately 40 Marshall Scholars are selected each year. I intend to pursue a Master’s in Science & Security from King’s College London during my first year, with a focus on nonproliferation studies and their relevance to the Navy submarine community. My second year is yet to be determined.

What are your future aspirations, and how will your international educational experience affect them? 
In May, I will receive my commission as an Ensign in the United States Navy. After graduate school, I will attend Navy Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina, and then I hope to serve aboard a Virginia class fast-attack submarine. I hope to become one of the first women to command a submarine. During my tours on shore, I want to apply my international educational experience by drafting U.S. policy on international nonproliferation and by serving as a military adviser to some of the top-echelons of U.S. executive decision-makers.

Andrea Howard, of Norcross, Georgia, will graduate from the United States Naval Academy in May 2015 and commission as one of the first one hundred women in the United States Navy’s submarine force. At the Naval Academy, Andrea is a double major in Political Science and Arabic. She serves as the Corps Commander of the 115-member Drum & Bugle Corps, sings alto in the Gospel Choir, and coordinates freshmen training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Andrea spent a semester in Oman studying Arabic and Arabian Gulf food security strategies, completing independent research as the Naval Academy’s second Trident Scholar from the Humanities Division in the past decade.

The Tatar mosque in Navahrudak

Holly Robertson Huffnagle, 2012 AJC Fellow 

The Tatar mosque in Navahrudak (Polish: Nowogródek), present-day Belarus, was originally built in 1855. In 1993, the building was renovated and re-established as a mosque by imam Ali Szegidewicz. Photo by Holly R. Huffnagle. 

Before the Holocaust, Jews and Muslims lived in close proximity in the kresy (borderlands) of northeastern Poland. While an abundance of literature exists on Jewish-Christian relations in Poland, no scholarly comparison of the history of coexistence specifically between Jews and Muslims in this territory had been done. I chose to pursue this research, documenting (for the first time) the intimate living situation of these two Abrahamic faith minorities in interwar Poland. In a handful of small villages and even larger towns, they traded together on the market square, Muslims bought their meat from the local Jewish shochet (kosher slaughter), the Jews received fresh vegetables from their Muslim neighbors, and they even celebrated certain religious holidays together. These stories complicate previous arguments of self-imposed minority separateness, which argue that social interactions between Jews and non-Jews were uniformly minimal and superficial.

The ideas for this project initially occurred to me during the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program in 2012. Being a Fellow provided me not only with the necessary background knowledge of Jewish history in Poland, but also with Polish connections who helped facilitate my trip to Warsaw and Białystok to conduct archival research in the summer of 2013. I credit my experience as an AJC Fellow to the successful publication of this project into an article: Peaceful Coexistence?: Jewish and Muslim Neighbors on the Eve of the Holocaust, published by East European Jewish Affairs in January 2015.

Holly Robertson Huffnagle works as an analyst for the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is also a researcher for the Mandel Center of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She received her Masters from Georgetown University in Global, International, and Comparative history focusing on 20th century Poland and Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations before, during, and after the Holocaust.

The Art at Auschwitz

Franziska A. Karpinski, 2014 AJC Fellow 

On the third day of in-depth study visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was not annihilation we learned about, but the opposite: courageous acts of resistance by prisoners of Auschwitz. The resistance we studied was not armed; it was not violent or public. Rather, but no less impressive and powerful, it was a silent resistance aimed at documenting the crimes committed and re-establishing the victims´ humanity and dignity. We visited the art gallery of the memorial, which exhibits works of art produced by inmates both during the operation of Auschwitz and after liberation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the utter and complete destruction of human beings: more than 1.1 million men, women, and children from all over Europe were brutally murdered at Auschwitz. It is one of the most haunting symbols of the Holocaust and the deeply immoral ideology that created it. Today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is one of the largest memorial sites in the world. The vastness of the geographical space on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was built is staggering: an entire space the size of a small city built solely for the purpose mass murder. The crimes perpetrated there were so horrendous, the sense of destruction and despair so all encompassing, it is hard to cope when walking through the site. It is easy to forget that prisoners resisted in various ways.

The artwork produced by inmates during the camp’s existence was produced illegally, which means that those who painted and drew did so with materials that they were not allowed to possess. Pencils, watercolor, ink and feather, coal and other drawing materials used were possessed illegally, under the threat of torture and death. Some were smuggled from SS work stations, where artists created commissioned work for the SS. Other prisoners used whatever materials they could get their hands on to produce their art: small paper scraps, baking paper, the backs of old letters. It is an impressive accomplishment to have created art in such perilous circumstances and amidst everyday destruction.

Art historian Anna Sieradzka, whom we were introduced to that day, led us into one of the blocks on the former campgrounds. We walked down a long corridor and finally entered a large, rectangular room with red floor tiles and whitewashed walls. The air was crisp and cold, a stark contrast to the intense July summer heat that was prevalent outside. As if the difference in temperature signaled the entry into another world, we stepped into room that featured countless art works - paintings, drawings and artifacts. It was a place of creation and construction, not destruction. There, she asked us to describe the paintings and artifacts we saw, attaching as many adjectives and associations to them as we could. We were the only people there, which enabled us to fully concentrate on the art displayed without interruption and many possibilities for deep contemplation, thought, and exchange amongst us.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a place where one would have expected the creation of anything, let alone art, to have happened. But it did. Artwork was made by the inmates – illegally and under constant threat of immediate death when discovered. And there they were: portraits of inmates, many of them produced by Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner at Auschwitz. He made portraits of fellow prisoners, drawings – mostly pencil – on thin, now yellowed, paper. Every now and then, some blue, red, or yellow colors appear in the otherwise grey- and brown-colored drawings. The general lack of bright colors mirrors the desperate situation of the inmates portrayed, at least at first glance. Yet, these portraits do so much more: they are a manifestation of the restoration of dignity, of taking back the humanity that the Nazis cruelly robbed. They are also a means of working against forgetting, against becoming a nameless face among hundreds of thousands, marked with exhaustion and terror, with fear and despair, worn down by the horrendous conditions in Auschwitz, always threatened by death.

Upon arriving in Auschwitz, the deported were systematically deprived of their identity by having their hair shorn off, by being given the same worn-down striped uniforms and wooden shoes or no shoes at all, by having confiscated their personal belongings such as pictures of their loved ones, jewelry, clothes. In the camp, they were forced to do hard slave labor for the SS, they were starved, many times starved to death, defeated by disease, haunted by the horrors of the reality of Auschwitz. Instead of their names, they were assigned numbers, sewn onto their prisoner uniforms, and oftentimes, tattooed on their arms.

Indeed, one can see this process of dehumanization and degradation best exemplified in the official erkennungsdienstliche Photographien (German: fingerprinting and photographs) that the SS took of all new arrivals of prisoners. The photographs show the inmates in their uniforms, without hair, and their camp number in the picture frame; as such, these photographs present a symbol for the complete degradation the Nazis subjected their victims to. By being photographed by the SS, the prisoners were negated the status of a human being, of a feeling and thinking subject with agency, but were made objects at the whim of the Nazis. Last, the Nazis’ de-humanization campaign found its terrible and genocidal culmination in the systemized mass murder through gas and mass shootings. The dead were then further denied a proper burial without a name or a place to commemorate them, but where burnt and buried in anonymous mass graves.

The portraits made illegally by the Auschwitz inmates achieve the opposite of anonymity: They give back human dignity; they restore individual prisoner identity. On the portraits, the prisoner numbers are shown as well, but this time, enabling historians today to attach a name to the portraits. Anna Sieradzka told us that the desire amongst inmates to have an image of themselves was very strong, precisely because it was a means of re-gaining one’s identity. The portraits also document the forced transformation the victims at Auschwitz underwent. Their faces are strained and full of exhaustion and fear. Sieradzka told us that she finds the eyes in the portraits most remarkable – they fully mirror the despair and helplessness of the inmates. They also show a profound sadness and sorrow, which had the deepest impact on me, personally.

The portraits, as Sieradzka explained to us, served three purposes: One was to reinstate human dignity and identity among the prisoners. Second, many considered the acts of both drawing and being drawn as a means of mentally escaping the reality of Auschwitz. Finally, the portraits were made to document the Nazis’ crimes and to document those fallen victim to them. Sieradzka believes that Jaźwiecki made these portraits because he knew they would eventually become important historical documents. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there are more than a hundred of Jaźwiecki’s portraits. During his internment in Auschwitz, Franciszek Jaźwiecki miraculously managed to hide his illegal work in his bed and clothes. He survived Auschwitz, but died soon after liberation, in 1946.

For me, one of the most memorable portraits was that of Mala Zimetbaum, a Polish Jewish woman, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died in 1944. Shortly before her death, she had attempted to escape from Auschwitz with her lover, Edward Galinski. They made it outside of the camp, but were ultimately found by a German patrol and brought back into the camp. Galinski was hanged, and Zimetbaum tried to kill herself, but accounts vary as to whether the SS ultimately killed her. Her portrait is stunning; it is one of the few that do not portray an inmate in prisoner’s uniform, but in formal clothes. She wears a blazer and a bright blue scarf around her neck. Her hair is not shorn off, but long and wavy, of a full brown color and done in a beautiful hair-do; it is the portrait of a beautiful woman. The expression on her face is one of strength, one of resourcefulness, maybe even the faint trace of a smile.

In addition to portraits, the gallery houses many paintings and drawings – often produced post-war – that depict camp conditions such as roll call, forced labor, and the camp orchestra, among other scenes. The pictures, made with different materials, by different painters, at different times, are illustrative of the horrors of Auschwitz: These forceful depictions of everyday life in the camp leave a deep impression on the observer. I remember that at about halfway through our workshop, the entire group went silent, scattered across the room, deeply affected by what was shown.

Another set of pictures includes works that prisoners were forced to make. It is little known that the SS commissioned imprisoned artists to create beautiful art, such as large oil paintings and drawings, mostly of landscapes, animals, and postcards with colorful flowers. The bright colors of these art works are in complete contrast to those made illegally. They cruelly contrast the reality of Auschwitz, where colors and an abundance of nature and life were purposefully eliminated.

The pictures before us on the wall were not only evidence of what happened in Auschwitz, they were a means of remembrance and commemoration of the subjects and artists. What is depicted through everyday life in Auschwitz is evidence of the crimes perpetrated. Who is depicted is a landmark against being forgotten. Together, they present an invaluable expression of the prisoners’ views and voices. The art made by prisoners in Auschwitz is a potent means of upholding human dignity. It is also a testimony to admirable courage and fighting spirit in the face of tragedy.

Franziska A. Karpinski is a PhD student in Modern History at Loughborough University, UK. The title of her thesis is “In Defense of Honor and Masculinity–In-Group Pressure, Violence, and Self-Destruction in the Third Reich´s Elite, 1933-1945.” She has a BA in American Studies and Modern European History from the Free University Berlin (2011), and a Master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam (2012, cum laude). She has spoken at multiple conferences, attended seminars around the world, and co-authored an article titled “Sexual Violence in the Nazi Genocide: Gender, Law, and Ideology”.

A Turn to Narrative

Cheryl Chaffin, 2014 AJC Fellow

Italian chemist, writer, and camp survivor Primo Levi wrote in his “Self-Interview” in 1976, “I returned to Auschwitz in 1965...I didn’t feel anything much when I visited the central camp. The Polish government has transformed it into a kind of national monument.” What does it take to feel the past and to mourn at Auschwitz, I wonder as a visitor, a scholar, an Auschwitz Jewish Center fellow, and a human being horrified at the genocide that transpired here. What does it take to feel in this place and in response to this place and its history when Levi felt nothing upon his return to the camp twenty years after his imprisonment there? In asking this question, I have in a mind a turn to narrative, the definition of which I delineate here in a narrative of my visit to Auschwitz. My own entry into Auschwitz has been through narrative. The reason I had come to Auschwitz, even to Poland, was because of a passion for reading and teaching Levi’s two-part memoir, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, of his ten months in the camp, in particular Buna-Monowitz, a labor sub-camp known also as Auschwitz III. His memories channeled into narrative motivated my desire to apply to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program and to visit the sites about which he wrote, sites that had drastically influenced his life course, his thoughts, and his writing career. He had even admitted, bravely, I thought, that if he had not lived his Auschwitz experience, he probably would have never have written anything. So, it was Levi’s words and his need to write that emerged of his camp experience that I carried with me into Auschwitz, even as I visited a place that I understood has become a tourist site, a memorial drastically changed from the killing and labor camp it was from 1940-1945.

Given my own narrative pull to Poland, I want to explore here how a turn to narrative offers a way to navigate the camp space, both mental and physical. Over my three days at Auschwitz I experienced that the possibility that knowing, hearing, seeing, and imagining individual and community stories of those deported to the camp opens to the visitor space for grieving, feeling, and acknowledging the horror and loss implicit in a visit to these charnel grounds. Levi’s humanity as it emerged in his language and his writing over the years influenced me as a writer, thinker, and scholar to seek out other such narratives during my several day-visits to Auschwitz. In speaking of survival, Levi wrote that he felt his steadfast interest in the human spirit and his determination to “recognize in my companions and myself, men, not things.” So, too, narrative matters because it grounds the visitor in the experience of individual human beings whose memories as reflected in a written account, a sketch, or a photo—convey relationship with others, emotions of hope and fear, and the courage that documentation and reflection requires. Such narratives help visitors to connect to the tenacious continuity of human experience within the camp. Finally, the attuned visitor may discover several small stories, or the possibilities of such stories, in the documentation and artifacts (Levi called these artifacts “relics”) in the exhibits at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a state museum, funded predominantly by the Polish government. It was established in 1946 by former prisoners who wanted to create a memorial at the site. Gradually, the memorial developed into a museum. Under Communism the emphasis on memorialization was on those “martyred” in the Second World War, with less emphasis on the genocide of specifically Jewish prisoners. Since the early 1990s with Poland’s transition to democratic government, there has been exponential growth in the preservation of artifacts, including buildings, as well as in the scope of educational programs and global digital presence of the museum. At peak periods—from April to October—up to 15,000 people visit Auschwitz in a single day. Individuals must visit the camp in tours, between 10-3, with a specially trained guide so that they stay together, learn the history and see particular areas of the camp. Our guide was Paweł Sawicki, a journalist and writer with the Press Office for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. Paweł noted that in visiting the camp “it is individuals who are a problem; people must take tours.” What this means is that individuals sometimes venture into areas not open to the public or under renovation. The emphasis on groups helps to deter individual exploration of Auschwitz. If individuals experience the camp only in groups, they have little space for their own experience of the place. This loss of individual experience constitutes the very reason that stories should constitute a core element shaping the contemporary visitor’s time there. However, due to sheer numbers of visitors, people must move quickly through exhibits housed in the former cellblocks of the Auschwitz I compound.

Keeping a steady pace through narrow hallways that open into crowded exhibit rooms, a summer crowd ahead and behind, the visitor may try to comprehend the enormity of atrocity and the total loss for individuals, particularly for Jewish people, as they arrived to the camp from transport trains. The effect of such absorption is stupefying. Cases of hair, shoes, glasses, prosthetics—extensions of one’s very self and one’s ability to function in the world—form decaying mountains of intimate things that never should have become relics of genocide.

Inherent to the museum’s visitation policy is the notion that how one conducts oneself is important to the maintenance of the place as memorial and one’s experience of it. This is a museum after all. Yet, some fellow visitors’ faces betray horror and disgust. A restless silence periodically befalls us. In the long narrow room with suitcases, hair, and children’s shoes there is a tangible atmosphere of disbelief—in confronting the space and its remains. Right here and now we visitors must confront the evidence that systematic cruelties happened and, how, if at all, we are to respond. Sighs puncture the space, small words between intimates, people who have known one another over time and who can, perhaps without misunderstanding, confess their horror to one another. The sighs seem to surge into one sustained out-breath of injury and mark a particular heaviness of repressed emotion in response to these artifacts.

In the exhibits of Auschwitz I there are placards, dates, numbers, statistics, reports of transports, and historical photos, particularly of a particular Hungarian transport in1944. But the visitor must glimpse these artifacts, rather than linger and invite a potentially emotional response to them. In this space, I sometimes stop to hear Paweł’s voice explain photos, documents, and artifacts. I search for relationships within photographs of transports. These isolated images move me. I gravitate toward particular moments, names, a face, toward evidence of life. A photo of a man, in prison clothes, seemingly well fed, and woman, newly arrived, talking, saying something urgently, some last words, some counsel for survival, an almost passionate moment on the train ramp. What could their relationship be? I may continue to read, imagine, and translate that photo for the remainder of my life.

A boy holding a woman’s hand—his mother?—surrounded by children and women hurrying along, apprehension, exhausted. Those photos will catalyze poems. I will return to them in search of vaporous specificities of personal histories never available to me, never narrated and remembered to anyone, but somehow shared with all of us. Facing those photos from 1944, what stood out to me were instances, vitally important, between people on the ramps as they were driven from trains and corralled and ordered into lines that led towards the gas chambers. I knew that I would later attempt to express those subtle yet vital interactions between people: moments of shared humanity, of fear and love, of existing together in myriad ways, clinging to one another in the face of grave uncertainty, subsumed with hope and desperation and aching need.

“We must be disciplined now,” Paweł tells our group, “in order to get through this tour and see certain things.” We are slow, dragging, lingering over documents and relics. He may lose us in the hallways. We will not have time to finish the tour. Disciplined, orderly. Is this how we visitors are to behave here in Auschwitz? Yes, there are lines, streams of people channeling through halls and stairways. Yet, even as we hurry and attend to our guide, we see so little of the camp. Past the shooting wall, through Block 11, in a line past cells—one of starvation, another of standing, into which four men bent and crawled and stood for days. I rub the Buddha charm at my neck. “How do you do this?” I ask Paweł who is just in front of me. He grimaces. “Do you get used to it? It’s your job.” He hardens himself. “Yes,” he says, always focused on moving us through. We enter the innards of a gas chamber for a minute. We move through. Perhaps moving through is a glimpse, a memory with intention to return to full life, an entry into and surfacing from the historicized grounds of genocide and murder.

Paweł later shares that at Auschwitz “the tour suppresses a need for internal narrative and also prevents emergence of such a narrative.” The museum’s aim, he explains, is not to encourage an emotional experience of the place but to impart historical knowledge of the camps. I resist the idea that one can or should suppress an internal narrative, but upon further reflection imagine the problems germane to a museum space of sobbing and shaking, overtly horrified, grief-stricken, enraged, or overwhelmed people. The priority is to recognize the place and the things within it that point to an historical understanding over and above an all-consuming emotional response to its energies.

At home with books and solitude, a quiet afternoon, a garden at the window, I listen. I turn to songs and voices, writing towards poetry, pleas for forgiveness, for life, full of grief and understanding. In these crucial texts of Auschwitz I return to, to grapple with what Father Manfred Deselaers at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer called the lifelong wound of Auschwitz. In dialogue with the fellow, Fr. Dr. Deselaers said, “The task is to try to understand and to take this wound seriously. It touches us and we think it has to do with us, but what?” Such a lifetime inquiry brings one into an ethical engagement with the place of Auschwitz and the words that remain among humans because of that place. Auschwitz began with the killing of relationship, says the Father. My turn then to narrative, both in visiting the camp and once home, reflects a deep desire to mend relationships across time, place, and event. One such text that nourishes that longing is Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, written twenty years after her repatriation to France. She describes this no-place where she has landed from her native France, transported into some dislocated deep winterscape, “We arrived on a morning in January 1943. The doors of the cattle cars were pushed open, revealing the edge of an icy plain. It was a place from before geography. Where were we? We were to find out—later, at least two months hence; we, that is those of us who were still alive two months later—that this place was called Auschwitz. We couldn’t have given it a name.”

Seventy years later, its name has burned in our consciousness. Of our contemporary relationship with the camp, Paweł says, “We have only the place and words,” neither of which Delbo and her compatriots had upon their arrival. It is words that persist and flourish against the violence and against the forgetting of history. The modest, even minimal, remains of buildings, monuments, exhibits, and words structure humanity’s current relationship with the camp. For example, just 3-5% of all original documents and records in the camp remain. Most were destroyed, some were confiscated by camp liberators, the Russians. The loss of objects through war makes potent the gradual shift to narrative as a means of processing and feeling one’s visit to the camp. Such a shift indicates that this memorial-museum space has begun to relinquish a focus on historical facts and a lingering political ideological narrative (of Communist Poland) that speaks of martyrdom over the uniqueness of individual lives for more personal, narrative-driven guidance through the camp. Such a turn manifests in an exhibit at Birkenau of 2,400 photos found in suitcases and discovered after camp liberation in 1945. It is reflected, too, when in Birkenau on the second day of the tour, Paweł reads to fellows from testimonies he has carefully chosen to allow a feeling for camp conditions and how those who lived and survived here experienced the place. At the edge of a stand of birches, near the crumbling bricks of former gas chamber five he reads to us from Henryk Mandelbaum recounting of his experience as a Sonderkommando. Mandelbaum describes the process of killing within the gas chambers, the extraction of hundreds of bodies and the subsequent cremation of bodies. We are in Birkenau, the death camp, built to house more prisoners and to accommodate a growing number of gas chambers to kill them. Ironically, the vastness of Birkenau (“birch” in German), the spaces between structures and the paths through woods and along marshy waterways, allows more time to think and feel. In the former barracks, many of these buildings currently undergoing restoration, Paweł reads a woman prisoner’s careful logging of the disease, filth, and dying that developed in the female camp quarters.

These readings are somewhat new for our guide. He holds in his hands white sheets of paper of laser jet words. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. Paweł wonders if narrative accounts of the camp help us to understand events from both historical and personal perspectives. Does it add to our sense of the place and what transpired here? He seems tentative, alert to our responses. As I leave the camp, I contemplate what a turn to narrative implies for historians, curators, educators, and press officers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum—those who preserve, present, and offer the memorial-museum and its space to those of us who visit. This turn constitutes a sort of risk. First it signifies that they make narratives essential to the visitor’s tour of the camps, so that narratives hold the rich potential to figure prominently in one’s post-visit recollections of the camps since they constitute a vital element in feeling and knowing the camps as they once were, not simply as historical markers of criminality and genocide, but as terrible and unforgettable spaces wherein people lived, loved, struggled, and died. It is life that must be honored, not en masse but as a unique and idiosyncratic expression of each individual. It matters that the guide feels the same way. That he believes reading a narrative memory is a way of remembering and feeling. It makes the guide, perhaps, as emotionally vulnerable, as human, as are his visitors. His turn to story validates all our stories in this place. This is not just an office, an everyday routine for him; it is a place of words and through him we listen.

Narratives mean that visitors need time and space to listen, to hear, and to respond quietly, as an interior process, to the experiences of others. The importance of visiting the camp resides in feeling the texture of life from the perspective of another human who experienced the camp. The connection to narrative facilitates a particular, yet enlarged, perspective of the camp as once inhabited by individuals. Delbo wrote in her memoir, Auschwitz and After, “Listening to their stories, I took the measure of the incommunicable.” It is the incommunicable that one may hear in Auschwitz. That listening happens in a space that fosters the ability to attend and feel narratives, both documented and silent, of former prisoners. Levi confessed he could feel nothing there, but because he gave me his story I felt something large and moving there, something with which to grapple for my entire life. So it is that narratives affirm our humanness in the exact place that sought to annihilate that humanity.

Cheryl Chaffin teaches English composition, literature, and rhetoric at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California. She is director of the college’s Writing Center. She has an MFA in Writing from Goddard College where she focused on feminist literature of exile and immigration. Cheryl has published poetry as well as personal and academic essays. She recently received her PhD in Humanities from Union Institute and University. Her dissertation project, “Speaking from Memory: Writing and Reading Women’s Political Memoirs,” concerns the role of memoir in directing public attention to injustice and towards activism for change. Specifically, she examines works written by women who have suffered severe limitations to freedom due to social, economic, political, and cultural situations. In 2014 she traveled to Poland as one of ten scholars with the Auschwitz Jewish Fellows Program. Her blog is Speaking from Memory.