Saturday, July 14, 2012

Poland - Auschwitz and Birkenau

Today was a difficult day that can only be described in one word - overwhelming. I went first to Auschwitz and then to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. There are few words to describe how I felt while going through certain parts of the camps. I was a little disappointed to see a large number of people when we got to Auschwitz; it seemed more like a tourist attraction than a former concentration camp.

(In case you didn't know, Auschwitz I was a concentration camp and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was an extermination camp. The famous picture of tracks leading to a large brick building is actually at Birkenau.)

There were a few things that hit me in Auschwitz. First were the suitcases. When I walked into one of the rooms in Number 5, there was an entire wall full of suitcases. Each suitcase had an owner, and most of the owners had put their names and dates on the front of their luggage. The mounds of suitcases reminded me of my group and the fact that we all have suitcases. All we see while traveling are people with suitcases. Our pieces of luggage contain what we think we need, and the same would have held true for these suitcases. Each suitcase had an owner.

The other thing that hit me was the abundance of shoes. In one room, both sides were filled with piles of shoes. To think, each pair of shoes had an owner. Someone chose to wear those shoes over other shoes. Someone chose to purchase those shoes for whatever purposes. These mounds of shoes reminded me that individuals were killed. Entire families were destroyed.

The third thing, the place that had the greatest effect on me, was the children's barrack in Birkenau. There were sketches on the walls that children had been allowed to create. I began thinking about an excerpt from one of our packets we were given at the beginning of the trip - excerpts from I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz by Gisella Perl. She describes making the decision to save pregnant mothers from certain death by destroying their children. In her situation, pregnant women were treated terribly by the SS in the camp. Any woman with a child was automatically sent to the gas chambers. I will not even try to imagine having to make that decision, nor do I encourage you to. Instead, I thought of my sister, who is expecting a child in December. I thought about all of those mothers who loved their children and wanted what was best for them. I thought of all of those children who never got a chance to grow up, to have the experiences that you and I have come to expect. The lives destroyed is unfathomable.

So far on this trip, I have been to Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It irks me when someone refers to a camp or camps as the most important because, while a great number of people might have died in one camp over another, it all depends on one's context. People died everywhere. Each camp is important to someone. That being said, Birkenau was emotionally the most difficult for me to handle.

Teaching-wise, I have started to think about how my teaching and my unit will change next year. There is no doubt some things have to go, and I plan on utilizing more artifacts in the classroom. My colleagues and I have focused so much on presenting the overall history of the Holocaust that we have failed to focus students on the people involved who risked their lives or lost their lives. I am going to develop clear rationales for what I am doing and use more survivor testimony, artifacts, pictures, and documents. I am proud that we include art and the Holocaust in our unit, and I would like to go back to students doing some sort of an inquiry project focusing on one aspect of the Holocaust.

I will leave you with a few pictures from last week. It has been a while since I written an update, and I have been many places. Some of these are focused more on history before and after the Holocaust.
Olympic Stadium - at the top of the Olympic Tower - the Berlin Olympics in 1936  did play a role in how countries viewed Nazi-run Germany. While some journalists, athletes, and spectators saw through the facade, others bought into it.

Wannsee Villa

At the Berlin Wall

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