Cultural Proof #6: Taking in the Past, and touring different Holocaust memorial sights

 Throughout my semester here, I have been fortunate to have to opportunity to immerse myself in many different historical places. There have been castles and forts, basilicas and central squares. Some pieces of history are more prevalent than others, including the painfully recent second world war and the mass deportation and execution of European Jews that accompanied it.

To give you some context, I am writing this assignment on a bus between Nuremberg and Munich in Germany, and we visited the courthouse where the Nuremberg trials were held early this morning. (Shockingly: The court room that was used for the trials is part of the museum, but is still occasionally in use today!)

Every single country in this region was effected by the Nazi party. There are holocaust memorials in every large city, serving as a constant reminder. Below are two that I have seen personally.

When I first started traveling, me and Nicole spent several hours in a holocaust exhibit in the British Military Museum. Although I have studied this horrific event in classes for years, this experience was the first time I was fully immersed. There were videos and artifacts left behind by the victims. There was a large model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. At this point, however, the people were from countries I couldn’t quite place on a map, and the whole thing still felt distant. I had no idea that in a few months I would visit these places.

Then I headed further east.

I didn’t realize this until about a month into my experience here, but I live in the old Jewish Ghetto area of Budapest. Occasionally I have noticed some Orthodox Jews (note that there are other denominations, but they are not easily identifiable) but my understanding is that the area’s Jewish community was almost destroyed entirely. I was taking a self-tour around the Jewish quarter in this city, and in one of the apartment complexes, if you can have someone buzz you into the courtyard, there are remains of the old ghetto wall. The history remains in the cities foundations, and in the cracks of every building.

A piece of the old Ghetto wall, in the courtyard of an apartment building in Budapest.

There are Jewish quarters like this in most major cities, like Vienna, Prague and Krakow. They all have a similar history. The Jewish people naturally settled together in a city to form a community, and the area was usually well-off. This area became the Ghetto during the occupations. The areas were destroyed and became a much less desirable part of the city. Most bars and nightlife are now in these areas, and they can always be a good bet to find cheap, late night food. Are any of them a true cultural center? Not really anymore. With the destruction of people came a loss of community, culture and heritage.

A few weeks ago, in Krakow, me and some fellow students decided to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau. We felt that it was necessary to understand the area, and we had all studied it so much that it seemed only right to experience the place for ourselves.

My first impression was how busy the place was. It was difficult to move and follow our guide. People from all over the world had come to see this place of death. Tours were offered in a few dozen different languages. My second impression was that the landscape was quite beautiful. There were trees and birds singing. They did not have any idea of the historical significance of the place. The most demanding thing to see was the artifacts that they had taken from prisoners. There were piles, and piles of silverware, shoes and the worst of all-hair. It was these items that finally helped me to grasp that this was a real event.

Auschwitz I, they told us that some of the first tour guides here were the survivors themselves.
I am sure my fellow Mines students remember taking Nature and Human Values and dicussing how the Nazis had made mass execution efficient. We walked through the basement where Zyklon B was first tested as a poison for the gas chambers, and then through the room with a whole in the roof for the chemical to be dropped in.

The largest gas chambers are in the back of Birkenau camp, and they are in rubble now. Auschwitz was the more infamous, but Birkenau was striking in its size and scale. Any words were taken right out of my mouth after passing through the main gate. Finally, after reading memoirs, and studying this time period, there was a physical place in front of me. The first moment of seeing this place was very impactful. The rest of the weekend was fairly quiet as we tried to absorb all of the information and emotion.

The remains of a gas chamber in the Birkenau Concentration Camp

I was speaking to my friend Abby about this experience, because she traveled to a different area of Poland. She said she was traveling with a student from Trinidad, who had not studied these events in school. When they entered a memorial/museum the student was overwhelmed. She could not comprehend the tragedy and immediately wanted to leave. I have been comparing this to my own experiences, because I am not surprised to see these things anymore. I am glad that I have a basic understanding of the events, but I will never be able to comprehend it fully. I also don’t want to become desensitized to it

This morning in Krakow, we continued our study of significant Nazi places with the tour of the courtrooms. You can feel the tension in the air when you sit in the chamber. Overall, there is a sense of cooperation there, though. The trials were the first of their kind. They brought together many nations. And rejected the idea that war without humanity was acceptable.

I know there is some crazy history in the places that the other Mines students are visiting. Maybe not as heart wrenching and recent as in Central Europe. Have you been spending some time wrapped up in the past like me? 


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