Reflections on Heritage
My grandmother always told me growing up that souls evolve, that personalities move from generation to generation. It’s a concept called Gilgul, like reincarnation, that’s more prevalent in some parts of Judaism than others. My grandparents are Yiddish, and Gilgul is prominent in Yiddish folklore. I was always told that I was my Grandma Bebe, who passed away shortly before I was born. We both had a flair for the dramatics, apparently.
So as I walked through much of Poland, I couldn’t help but think, have I been here before?
Has some version of me, or my family, walked the streets of Krakow? The Danielowicz? The Katz? The Gingolds? Where in Auschwitz did my ancestors stand? We know so much about my family history, and yet we also know so little.
It sounds odd, but the entire trip was like a memory that I’ve never had, a dream that I can’t quite place. The chicken noodle soup on the first night tasted so much like my mom’s that I was instantly transported back to my tonsillectomy over spring break. The Klezmer music sounded like every wedding and Bar Mitzvah I’ve ever attended. When they played the Hava Nagila, I wanted to get up and dance. Last weekend, I danced the Hava Nagila at my aunt’s wedding and thought back so fondly on our trip.
This trip was such a life changing experience. Not only did I learn so much about history, about the Renaissance and the Holocaust, but I learned a lot about myself. I made incredible friends. Even during the hardest times of the trip, walking around places like Treblinka and Auschwitz and sobbing, I always thought back to how beautiful these places were, and how nature will always reclaim the horrors of humanity.
Perhaps the best example of how incredible this trip was was who I met at Auschwitz. In a place that sees thousands of visitors daily, thousands of miles from home, I ran into my second cousins on my mom’s side.
They live in North Carolina. I live in Georgia. We met for the first time in a courtyard between barracks in the worst place on earth.
They took me out to dinner that night, and it was my first time on my own abroad, navigating public transit and finding practical strangers in a busy square. We sat at a restaurant and talked for hours and hours about how the food reminded us of our Great Grandmother’s, and about our genealogy. We talked about our love of history, and how we were learning so much about our own. We talked about Poland, and how we wished our grandparents and parents were here with us.
It was a surreal evening and a surreal trip. I’ll never forget it.
Also, I ate so much apple cake. That was pretty awesome too.
Zoe Katz ’19
This trip to Poland was far more amazing than I had ever imagined it would be. At the beginning of the semester I was a little anxious to fly all the way to Poland for two weeks, but after going on my Journeys trip to Manchester, I became much more excited. Now, after the trip, I feel like a world traveler and I am anxious to travel once again.
Going into this course, I did not expect to learn or grow as a person as much as I did. I had taken a Holocaust class in high school and in my first semester I had taken Professor Manes’ Middle Ages to the Enlightenment course that touched on the Renaissance. However, I learned more about the Holocaust and the Renaissance in the course than I ever expected to. And for that I am very grateful.
One of the most astonishing parts of this trip was actually seeing these Holocaust sites that we have learned about for years. It is hard to imagine the horrors that happened in these places, especially when you haven’t seen them before. Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Stutthof all had collections of items taken from those who were murdered in those camps. The most haunting of these items were shoes. We saw thousands and thousands of shoes at each of these camps. It’s haunting and horrifying to know that these aren’t even half of the shoes of those murdered but there were so many of them. Including tiny children shoes. Even after seeing these places, and these items, it is still hard to comprehend the scale of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. At Treblinka, I was stunned by the thousands of rocks that stood in the place of the camp. Those rocks signified many things, those who were murdered, the towns of victims, and the permanence of the crimes that were committed there. Although the camp of Treblinka was gone, it was just as haunting as the others through the symbolism and just being in the place of those crimes was life changing. However, being in the other camps and seeing the buildings, was an experience I will never forget. Each of those camps had this feeling of dread and anguish. I will never forget how I felt at those camps. Walking around, the same steps as the prisoners, it was a shocking experience. I wish more people would visit these places and have those feelings so that maybe something so horrifying may not happen again.
I was really glad we walked around the different ghetto sites. Although they were long and sometimes there was incredibly hot weather, it was really interesting and I learned a lot about the ghettos. I feel like the ghettos are not visited as much. I think people, when visiting Holocaust sites, just visit the camps, and so I felt like we were doing a good thing, and paying respect to those who lived in the ghettos. Of course we did that in the camps too, but it felt nice that we weren’t forgetting those who lived in the ghettos.
I fell in love with the buildings and architecture in Poland. Every Cathedral we visited took my breath away, and every castle made me consider becoming a squatter. I loved learning the history of those buildings and it blew my mind that they were older than our country. I bought post cards of course to show people, but they don’t do the cathedrals and palaces justice. They were so marvelous and I am so very thankful we went to those places.
I am so glad I was a part of this journey. It was emotionally draining, and at times I felt so hopeless and I was ready to come home. But even if I knew when applying how I would feel, I would do it again. I don’t regret a thing. I loved the group. I loved Poland. I feel like a different person now. I will be more tolerant of others; their religions, skin color, ethnicity, etc. I will also make sure those I love know it always. I made some friends on this trip that I hope I have forever; these girls and professors were wonderful. I would not have chose anyone else to go with. I learned so much throughout the course and the trip and I am extremely thankful.
Lexie Dill (’20)
It is so hard to put my feelings and thoughts of this trip into words, and I know that it shouldn’t be.
When I left my parents at the airport on the first day of the trip, I was very nervous. I had never been outside of the States for more than a week, so the prospect of being gone for two weeks was overwhelming. I was looking forward to learning more about Poland, but very anxious about the Holocaust sites. I knew that we would be confronting some of the darkest parts of history, I knew that I would cry at some point, but knowing this didn’t make me feel better…I don’t know how to describe what I was feeling exactly, I don’t know if I ever will.
A lot of my beliefs were challenged during this trip, but in a good, thought-provoking way. Before the trip, I used to believe that there was no such thing as an evil person, only a person who committed atrocious crimes. But after everything I saw on the trip, at those camps…I had to change my mind: evil does exist, and I hope that it never becomes powerful enough to create another Holocaust.
I know that I couldn’t have faced some parts of the trip alone, and so I am forever grateful for the support of my classmates and professors. At the end of the hard days, it was wonderful to take comfort in the support of friends (like that night in Lublin with the pizza and facials).
When I came back to the States, I realized that what I had learned and what I had seen had changed me…my rage for Holocaust deniers, for example, has magnified to the point where my hands tremble whenever I think about them. I feel more determined than ever to make sure that the victims of the Holocaust are never, ever forgotten, and that the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi soldiers will never be repeated. I’ve inserted a familiar video below. This is the film that we saw at one of the Holocaust memorial sites. I found it on YouTube, under the title of “Zionist Propaganda Film”. It was uploaded by a Holocaust denier. Seeing the film under that title fills me with unspeakable rage.
I will never forget this experience or the people who were there with me, and I will always treasure the time we spent together, as well as everything I learned about Poland and the history of the country’s Jews.
The picture above is of the street light that remains forever lit in honor of the fallen Jews. This image fills me with hope and determination.
Maura Kiefer ’19
A Reflection on Poland Trip
Just a month ago, my historical research interest on the Holocaust brought me to Poland. Having spent the last three years studying the Holocaust, I thought that I was well prepared for this adventure. The trip to Poland showed me once more how traveling can exceed my expectation about a place.
A trip to Poland is never complete unless there is a trip to concentration camps. I reviewed the maps of the former concentration camps and some photos of the inside structure before visiting. However, what is still left on my mind is my realization how difficult and unrealistic for visitors to completely prepare for the visit and understand what had happened there, simply by walking around the place and reading materials beforehand. Only when I walked into each room, I could truly feel the different temperature of each room, the sound, the space between the beds and barracks, and smelt the gas chambers. I didn’t think of any of these before visiting. Similarly, I could never feel the same way at these camps as those victims did.
I saw the tragic remnants of the death camps, including the barracks, the shower rooms, the guard towers, the chimneys, the suitcases, the shoes, the glasses, and the collection of Zyklon B. We toured from room to room, and finally arrived at the room with the record of all of the names of victims. This encounter was even more poignant for those who have connections with the victims of the Holocaust. Whenever I stood on the land where former concentration camps built, I felt like I reached the past. In that short moment, there is tranquility and stillness. Unlike what I learned about the environment of the concentration camps and ghettos, these camps now are full of green elements. The daisy growing on the land is a stark reminder that we all have a choice to have peace rather than living a life completely out of control. What I read about the history there and what I saw on the site gave me such a contrasting feeling. I saw the unlimited possibilities and uncertainties of life.
The journey to Poland was incredibly meaningful to me. The transformation of Poland is an evidence that life always finds a way.
Qinyu Xu ’17
I want to be honest in this. I wanted to go on this trip for the sake of seeing history myself. I didn’t come, though, expecting to be moved or to feel some deep connection and mourning for what happened. And I didn’t. I really didn’t. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.
Everyone came on this trip for their own reasons. For some, it was a sort of homecoming and making it full circle. For others, it was about seeing the sights and honoring the past.
For me, this trip was about coming to learn a history that I really didn’t know much about. I went through most of my schooling not learning much beyond American and Western European history. Of course I knew about the Holocaust, but I wasn’t really too familiar with Polish history beyond that. I had never once considered putting it on the same level as places like France and Italy.
Even though Poland tends to be overlooked, it is a beautiful and vibrant land. I saw the camps, and I also saw the castles and the art. I walked those streets and talked (however much I could) to the people. I found a country with a long history, some of it amazing, some of it tragic, all of it present.
I think a lot about the reflecting session we had in the basement of the Krakow hotel after visiting Auschwitz. I think a lot about what I said in front of the group, how the back side of Birkenau had all those flowers and trees and grass, how it felt almost like a small piece of paradise to me. For a while, I felt bad about it, and I had wished I hadn’t said it. But now I’m fine with what I said, with how I saw things. I said what I actually felt then, and it’s still how I feel about that field at the back of a massacre ground.
We all had our own reasons for going to Poland, one no more or less valid than the other. There were plenty of times when we didn’t all see eye to eye with each other and when reacted to the history around us differently. I came to Poland to learn the legacy of the land so I could bring it home and share it here. For me, simply learning and remembering history is one of the greatest ways to honor it. Forgetting it is one of the worst things I personally could ever do. I didn’t cry over Poland’s past. I didn’t mourn the history how many others have because I do not see it as mine to mourn. We all had our own ways to reflect on and honor what was around us. For me, just being there, learning the history in all its greatness and tragedy, and simply remembering and sharing it is one of the best ways I could honor and respect the legacy of Poland.
Allyssa Willis ‘19
This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I have had countless questions since coming back from family and friends about how was the trip. I soon discovered how indescribable the experience was. I could give passing information about what I learned or talk about how pretty the country was, but I could never go into depth just how much I felt the trip changed me. It seems typical to talk about how a trip abroad changed you as a person and your perspective on the world. However, no other statement rings truer.
Even whilst in Poland, I felt the effects of going to the camp sites. Little everyday things would pop up and cause me to pause because they brought back memories of different aspects of the concentration camps. For example, while I was in the cloth hall in Krakow, I saw one of the stall vendors having to crawl through a small opening to get in and out of the stall. I was suddenly overwhelmed with memories about the standing cells in Auschwitz I and being told how the prisoners would have had to crawl into the cell. Despite the cloth hall not having anything to do with the Holocaust directly, I could not unsee the vision I had of what the prisoners had to experience at Auschwitz. I am still unable to look at train tracks the same way since coming back. It may seem dramatic, but this trip affected me in ways I never considered. However, no matter how hard it got and no matter how taxing the subject matter was to face head-on, I do not regret going.
The trip luckily gave us opportunities to unpack and process what we experienced on our journey. I am thankful that I felt connected to other members of the group and did not have to face anything alone. I do not know how I would have been able to get through it all without the friends I made on the trip. I will never regret going to Poland and given the opportunity, I would definitely go again. Regardless of how hard it was to get through, I would even visit the camp sites again. Although we spent a semester learning about the Holocaust and were given tours of the sites, I still am unsatisfied with my knowledge. This is by no means a critique of the teachers or of the trip itself, just that I learned so much at the museums and on the tours of the camps but still had to face that a lot of the information about the Holocaust will always feel incomplete. The Nazis made it their duty to erase the individual’s stories of the lives they destroyed. I hate that we are unable to know the exact number of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis and where they came from. I hate that there will always be voices unheard because of evidence being destroyed to cover wrongdoings. Most of all, I hate feeling that we have never truly learned from the past and that this can easily happen again.
Mackenzie Adair (’19)
The days before I left for Poland were some of the busiest and nerve-wrecking days for me. I had to take multiple finals and pack up my whole room in last minute. In fact, I was done with everything an hour before I had to go to the airport. I had no time to sit down and think about my upcoming travels until I was in the car with Lexie, her dad, Kat, and Mackenzie. Then it became surreal to me I was going to Poland.
Before my visit to there, I was both excited and apprehensive. I was excited about the travels, seeing the sites, and the history we read about in the course. However, as a Muslim woman, I was also very much aware of what I could encounter in my travels. I am a US citizen and I have my passport; nevertheless, there was still the fear of something could happen. Thankfully nothing major occurred. However, when I was leaving Warsaw, the TSA there gave me a “special” pat down in front of everyone. It made me feel violated and sad that people have to be that scared of Muslims. In that moment, I felt compelled to say “I mean you no harm” but somehow I kept my mouth shut and let it happen.
Going into this course, I was on the quest of learning more about the Holocaust. I felt like it is part of history that was not discussed enough in high school. I wanted to understand what happened exactly and how the world just stood by and watched as people were being slaughtered. I hoped taking this course and visiting some Holocaust sites will give me the answers I was seeking; however I have more questions than I ever did before. After the trip, I learned so much more about the Holocaust as well as what people are capable of and will do to each other when there are differences.
I cannot help but be aware of what is happening in the world today. Decades after the Holocaust, there are hatred, antisemitism and genocide present everywhere. I feel heartbroken knowing we have not learned from history and continue to mistreat one another. My journey to Poland encouraged me to find ways to help fight against injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
This trip also helped me grow as a person, and it gave me the tools I needed to develop a new perspective on life. I am more open-minded than ever, and I continue to try my utmost best not to judge people no matter how different they are from me. Everyday, I struggle not to lose faith in humanity. I read and watch the news constantly, and I always tear up at the violence that is happening. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and I am more than afraid history will be repeated. However, as long as there are trips like this we will be reminded not to forget and have a chance to make sure that does not happen.
Last summer, in a hotel room in Massachusetts, I told my grandparents– themselves grandchildren of Polish immigrants– about my plan to go on this trip. My grandfather told me about picking blackberries with these immigrant grandparents, about their delight when he asked for water in Polish, the only language with which they were ever truly comfortable. It made me anticipate this trip all the more. I was excited to see the country that they had loved but left behind forever, and it was an odd concept that this country was such a complete stranger to me, like starting a reverse voyage a hundred years later. I never met them, and I wondered if they would recognize this country– if their memories still applied to any physical place or if, like so much of pre-World War II Poland, the place that they loved was gone forever.
A large part of this trip for me was about the strange intersection of beauty, memory, and tragedy that exists wherever you turn in Poland. Looking out of a compartment window on a train felt like being inside of a Wes Anderson movie– all those blues and yellows– but it was always in the back of my mind that out there among the fields were places of unimaginable horror. The thing about the unimaginable, though, is that it happened, and it happened in places that are beautiful and full of memories. The town of Oswiecim has existed for nearly a thousand years, but will always be defined by those few years in the middle of the twentieth century– and to me, that’s alright.
Part of what I liked so much about Poland was its mostly unflinching acknowledgement of its past, even in areas where it may have been considered inconvenient; I was particularly impressed with Krakow’s handling and display of its Jewish history. The sites in Krakow highlighted the the unthinkable tragedy of the Holocaust without necessarily focusing on the Polish victims, which I really appreciated. At the same time, this was a hard balance to strike for me: I know that Polish victims were definite targets both political and ideological, but I also felt that some sites focused on Polish victims over Jewish victims. Initially, too, I was apprehensive about the Renaissance-focused portion of the trip because I felt (correctly) that I didn’t know as much about it as I did the Holocaust, and I like being the person who can raise their hand and answer whatever the tour guide asks, but I learned on this trip that it’s okay not to know and instead just to listen. Trips like these always remind me how history is made up of individual stories, and how when extraordinary things (both positive and negative) happen, it is to ordinary people. Without individual accounts, we would not have the stories of the Renaissance or of the Holocaust– but even though individual lives are inescapably affected by history, the impact that an individual life leaves can itself be profoundly affecting and influential.
Allison Dupuis ’18
Post Reflection on Poland
The two weeks, I spent in Poland was memorable and mind altering. The student who sat in class is totally different than the person who came back. Not only in the difference in my writing but my thought process. However, to really understand it goes deeper than riding an airplane or taking a train, tram, or bus it’s about the history encountered in each city. The moment I landed in Poland and took my first walking tour, I knew that Poland was different than anything I have ever experienced. Polish people as a whole really do care about their history and they take great measures to ensure that past events are always remembered today. This applies with commemoration and preservation of the Jewish culture and history.
Warsaw really showed me the importance and the introduction of the Jewish community entering Poland and their great migration to the place they called the safe haven. From being expelled from every place they called home to finally finding peace and rest in a country that they never thought would betray them to let them flourish, and make the nation grow into the richest culture and economic hub in Europe. Christians and Jews learned to work and live together but always with a thin veil separating them from a “us v them” viewpoint. The government always ensured that both parties were protected but always kept in mind that the other people had their own right and freedoms within the Polish nation. Moreover, in Warsaw was the first time ever, I put my foot on a plot of land that saw much suffering. Treblinka I and II museum, receiving train station, monuments, and remnants of old barracks and homes spaces was dumbfounding. I had never seen as many markers remembering whole towns, countries even. The atmosphere presented in that place was something peaceful but suffocating. Suffocating in the sense that there was so much peace that never existed all those years ago when millions of innocent lives looked for help.
Lublin’s ghetto much like the other ghettos showed me and focused on how well calculated the ghettos were formed. On how various people were just given a deadline by the time they should arrive at their new reserved homes. Even while they were there they experienced the leaving of neighbors to the work fields or even to concentration camps. Krakow’s ghetto, for instance, has chairs facing in various positions. People were waiting to leave in that corresponding direction whether by train or foot. Some were lucky and came back, others did not have that opportunity. With population size decreasing it only enhanced the resizing of the ghetto making the area smaller for remaining residents, which affected all ghettos we visited while there. In addition, they sometimes even divided the ghetto from the professional class and the working class. Moments like this you need the support and companionship from members of your community. Being divided drives the feeling of helplessness even more personal.
Gdansk was one of the final nails in the coffin, visiting the Stutthof camp made my previous thoughts more finalized and real. The injustice targeted here and Auschwitz is beyond haunting and horrible. I think they are things that I will never forget and will carry with me every time I remember all these places. The other places we visited and food we eat will also remain an important part of me. Both parts of the trip have impacted me and will always cherish them in my memories and heart and never forget what I learned while there.
Karla Lopez ’17
To be honest writing this post-trip reflection has been the hardest part about this whole experience. We had so much time to write these follow-up entries about what we saw and learned in Poland and I was just unable to confront any of it for the past month. Every time I went to write about what would happen I would just shut down. I couldn’t look through the pictures, I couldn’t put into words what has happened to me since I’ve been back. It seems like any little thing will remind me of the pain and the terror of what we merely witnessed. I have been shaken, time and again, since coming home. I cannot distance the past from our present. It has instilled within me a steely determination to make a difference and go out and put love into the world. I have decided that I cannot stand idle any longer because I have finally seen firsthand how trusting the goodwill of your country can lead to absolute horror.
I think I have learned to love my neighbor more, to see beauty in every human being. I want to not judge and to grow as a person so that no matter what comes my way I can stand up for what I believe. At the same time my experience in Poland has weakened me. It has made it so that I really can’t look at spoons, or stains, or ash the same way. The smell of wet wood has the power to overcome me. I’m trying to accept that and let it empower me, slowly. The beauty of Poland has helped in that regard. I think of how friendly and funny Polish people are and how quick they were to help us navigate the train schedules and I have hope for us as a race. But I think I finally get what my father has been trying to tell me my whole life, that compassion and loyalty are easily corrupted and that it is very easy for a group to get set on the wrong path.
I’m so grateful that I was able to experience the Holocaust in this way with this group of women. It has completely changed me as a person and, as painful as that might be, I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel like this trip prepared me to open my mind to finding beauty where I didn’t expect it and horror where I never wanted to find it. I have no doubt that what I have learned on this trip will make me a better Scottie, a better woman, and a better human being overall.
Kristell Garcia Rodriguez ’18
My time in Poland has effected me. Since coming back to the states I started a Law Program at University of Houston and at first I talked about my jet lag that I was suffering from through the first days of the program. But just a few days ago I got out of the shower and saw a blue mark on the bathroom wall, just above where my towel was having and my mind went straight to Zyclon B stains. Then the mark turned into a hand on the wall, and I stared at it for quite a while before I could pull myself away from it.
I don’t think I will forget what I have seen on this trip. The beauty of the Renaissance, or the horrors of the Holocaust. I don’t think I want it to either. But I did not think it would be hitting me over a week after I came off the trip. Or that the longer the trip went on the more I felt it. But thinking back on past things I have been through, I don’t think it will truly hit me, or effect me until months later, until I fully allow myself to realize what cites I was at, and what had happened there; to completely connect the dots in my head of the things I have seen to the things I have read.
I don’t want anyone to mistake that I did not understand what had happened while I was there, but I think in my head I tried to distance myself from it, because I did not want to react in front of people I did know know or trust very well.
But there was also a lot of beauty in Poland as well. In the Old City in all the towns we visited. That was where my friends and I usually got dinner and would walk around in the evenings. One night we were shopping in Old Town Warsaw and then got dinner there, and after dinner we decided it was a good idea to get dessert. Everyone in the group got something, but some of us got waffles covered in nutella and whipped cream, and after that night we all became obsessed with finding them again. The trip was balanced really well, and because of the free time I was given, I was able to see the life in the country, as well as the bloody past.
I will forever be grateful of this trip. It was definitely an experience I will never forget.