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.