Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Holocaust Memorialization: A study of how Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic have chosen to memorialize and preserve historical Jewish sites damaged during the Holocaust as well as sites resulting from the Holocaust
I received a grant to spend a week traveling to a variety of Holocaust memorials and old Jewish quarters in central Europe. This grant supplemented the “Holocaust and Genocide” course I took at DIS which included a weekend tour of Hamburg. During the trip we visited the Bullenhuser Damm School subcamp, where 20 Jewish children chosen to participate in Nazi medical experiments were hanged. The school is still in use today as a kindergarten with a memorial and museum designed for kids in the basement where the murders occurred. Our professor also gave a guided tour of the labor camp Neuengamme just outside of the city. I was glad to have my whole class and professor’s insight for my initial experience with these types of sites as they were difficult to see. My professor had come to these sites over 20 times, but was still moved to tears while reading the memorial plaques for the children at Bullenhuser Damn School. I returned to Denmark with conflicting emotions of sadness for those lost, respect for the efforts made by the German people to come to terms with their past, and shock after actually walking through a Nazi camp instead of just reading about it from the safe distance of my home in the US.
After my weekend in Hamburg, I embarked on a weeklong tour thanks to this grant. I began in Berlin where the presence of WWII lingers around nearly every corner. Pictured here is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located over 4.7 acres in the center of Berlin. The design is meant to confuse the visitor as they walk through a series of sloping square pillars of varying heights before visiting a really great museum underneath the concrete where I was able to search camp records for members of my own family.
I then took a bus to Prague where I visited the Old Jewish Quarter which the Nazi’s left largely untouched with the intention to turn it into a museum of an extinct race. The day pass allowed access to several beautiful old temples. My favorite was the Spanish Synagogue filled with deep jewel tones and gold trim. After spending most of my time in Europe touring churches, it was refreshing to see the intricate geometric designs and a completely different style for a place of worship (unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures). My museum day pass also granted me access to the Old Jewish Cemetery pictured here which dates back to 1439 and has had earth added to it in order to allow for multiple layers.
Finally my trip brought me to Poland. I began in Krakow where the Jewish quarter was not as well maintained by the city as the quarter in Prague but was under renovation and archaeological investigation. Each year this Jewish Kazimierz district hosts a popular Jewish Culture Festival which has helped to revitalize the Jewish spirit in the city. I took a walking tour of Jewish sites including Oskar Schindler’s factory and where the former Jewish ghetto was located in a district located over a bridge away from Kazimierz. There is a monument of empty chairs in a square at the former ghetto’s edge to commemorate those lost during the Holocaust. After some more wandering I found a substantial piece of the ghetto wall still standing nicely integrated as a barrier to a new playground.
From Krakow I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz was jammed packed with tourists wearing headsets to tune into their guide while they hastened to stay with their group. The site was not what I had expected, though the buildings still stood it felt too much like a museum with everything laid out for the visitor to experience in a designated order and manner. Birkenau struck me more for its sheer vastness. Here we were allowed to leave our tour guide and walk among the rubble at our own pace. Towards the back of the camp near the gas chambers was a large monument pictured here built from the chamber’s rubble with a remembrance plaque written in every language spoken by the camp’s inhabitants.
My final stop was in Warsaw where I climbed through construction tape to visit the Memorial to Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, pictured here, which was just recently completed and stands next to the soon-to-be Museum of the History of Polish Jews which is set to open in 2013. I also found the markers in the ground of where the ghetto walls once stood.
Ultimately, this experience was one I will never forget. My whole life I have learned about the Holocaust from afar, but to actually see how people lived with and continue to live with the Holocaust right in their backyards was an amazing learning opportunity that I am very thankful I had the chance to experience.