January 10-13

16 Jan

January 10: Today we got our first taste of Warsaw, and Poland in general. Might I add, Poland is cold and the language is super hard to learn. All I know so far is Djekuje (pronounced like zjen-coo-ja), which means Thank You. Don’t worry, we are all trying our best to be polite.  

We started the day off early with a walking/bus tour of the former Warsaw Ghetto. To give you a brief history, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe during the WWII period. This is why many of the concentration camps were located in this area, because it allowed for easier transportation and extermination of the Jewish (and non-Aryan) communities. It was ideal to set-up camps and ghettos in Poland because Germany would not be directly connected to the horrific acts. Finally, it is also important to note that Poland had a fantastic railway system set up previous to the war. Over 20% of the country is wooded, and one of the largest industries was lumber. The systems were already set up and provided the means to ship victims to their fates.

The Warsaw Ghetto has an interesting history and I encourage each of you to read more about it. If I remember correctly, over 300,000 Jews were confined in the ghetto walls for several years. Living conditions for them, as with many other ghettos, progressively worsened to the point that people began to die from starvation and disease. Inside the ghetto walls became a death-trap and those who were lucky to survive were simply sent to death camps, Treblinka to be exact. There was an uprising towards the end of the ghetto’s existence, though many of the ringleaders were too weak to make a major difference. No matter, the action was still incredible and brought hope and a needed sense of resistance to the survivors.

During our tour, we also learned about one leader who made an impression on the group. His name was Janusz Korcak and he ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He was a renaissance thinker for his time, encouraging his kids to think more democratically and to challenge the present. When the Final Solution was enacted and his Jewish orphans were forced to go to Treblinka, he volunteered to go with them so they would not be alone. This is not only an act of true character, but reinforces the best qualities of leadership. He put others’ needs in front of his own and demonstrated an act of humanity during a time of evil. There is a stone in Treblinka with his name inscribed on it, the only stone not possessed by a name of a city.

We studied the Judaism in Warsaw for the rest of the day. This included visits to the only pre-war synagogue left in Warsaw and the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery contains over 250,000 graves, making it one of the largest, if not THE largest, Jewish cemeteries in the world.

Although Warsaw had a large number of Jews before the events of the Holocaust, Polish Jews are still struggling to find their place in the country. Today there are only about 2,000 registered Jews in Warsaw, and many people are starting to make efforts to learn more about their roots. Some of us visited with the head Rabbi at the synagogue during our free day. He told us that most Jewish people that survived the war abandoned their Jewish roots, because they were so scared to identify themselves in that tradition. These histories are starting to unearth, slowly growing the Polish Jewish population.

January 12: “At 4pm the train got under way again and, within a few minutes, we came into the Treblinka Camp. Only on arriving there did the horrible truth dawn on us. […] Helpless, we felt intuitively that we would not escape our destiny and would also fall victims to our executioners. But, what could be done about it? If it were only a nightmare! But no, it was stark reality. We were faced with what was termed “eviction,” meaning eviction into the great beyond under untold tortures. We were ordered to detrain and leave whatever packages we had in the cars.” –Yankel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka

When someone says the word “concentration camp” more often than not, one would think of Auschwitz. Although Auschwitz was one of the most brutal camps during the Holocaust, there is one that I personally believe surpasses all tragedy- Treblinka. Treblinka was a death camp located about an hour and a half from Warsaw and is responsible for nearly 1/6 of the total deaths of the Holocaust. Because of its “systematic killing efficiency”, it is considered to be the factory of death during this period of history. A person only had about a 1% chance of surviving two hours after they arrived and only a fraction of prisoners escaped after the revolt.

I knew some basic information about Treblinka before we arrived. Approximately 1 million people lost their lives during its 15 month operation and the camp was destroyed when the prisoners revolted towards the end of the war. Today, the site is memorialized mainly in the field where the two mass graves reside. The display is very symbolic, with a large stone structure in the place of the gas chambers, grate-like stone planks representing the open crematorium and 17,000 stones, each bearing the names of the communities where the victims previously resided.

Although we had this background information at the ready, there was still uncertainty about what it would be like to visit Treblinka. There are few places on earth where one can stand and think, “Wow, almost a million people were murdered here.” The thought is unbearable and frankly unimaginable.

My personal impressions of Treblinka were absolutely not what I thought they would be. The scenery was gorgeous. We were in a wooded area that was just caressed with a beautiful untouched snowfall. That reaction in itself made me feel bad, because I was instantly drawn to the environment and not the purpose. We entered the visitor center where we learned more about the camp’s layout and what we would be seeing in the memorial site. I found myself flipping through the visitors’ book while our guide was telling us about Treblinka, and stumbled upon a note written late last year. It said, “This is where my sister and grandmother were gassed in September 1942”. My lost purpose was immediately renewed and we all left to visit the memorial.

The weather today was cold and brittle, but I couldn’t feel anything. I was just lost in reflection and the numbing sight of endless stones. I think this experience was a turning point in the course for the entire class. The perceptions of the death camps we studied in school started to mold into realities; a feeling that few people have the opportunity to experience.

January 13: After the day visit to Treblinka, we were all excited to relax and release our minds of the Holocaust during our 8ish hour bus ride to Krakow.

Psych. We were surprised by our professors that we had a group tour appointment at Majdanek, located about 3 hours east of Warsaw. Though we were tired and a little uneasy about going to two death camps in a row (well, three if we include tomorrow’s visit to Auschwitz), but this was an opportunity too hard to pass up. Majdanek is truly a valuable death camp, at least when it comes to today’s understanding of the Holocaust.

Why is this death camp so special? After all, if you are like me, I had never even heard of it. It is a small camp (i.e. approximately 80,000-90,000 Jews were deported there), and there are no notable figures that were imprisoned there. Its rarity emerges from its liberation. Since it was one of the first camps to be liberated, the SS did not have enough time to destroy the evidence. Almost all of the buildings, including the administrative, barracks, crematorium, gas chambers, and disinfection stations, are completely intact. Majdanek is as authentic as you can get when it comes to concentration camp preservation.

Walking around the camp was a weird experience. The weather was bone-chilling cold and ironically, the sun was out that day. The coldness of the camp also resonated from the things we saw. Our guide lead us to the registration rooms, showed us where people were shaved and showered, walked us through where people’s possessions were disinfected, and finally to the gas chambers. I will never forget seeing the blue-stained walls of those rooms (from the Zyklon B poison) and the original steel doors that sealed-of the victims’ lives.

Our tour continued to take us to the different areas of the camp. The barracks are set up as museum displays and examples for people to better understand how Majdanek was run. We saw original bunks, the camp model, and cages upon cages upon cages of victim’s shoes. That was hard to see. We then proceeded to the crematorium at the very end of the camp, another difficult site. We learned here that many of the victim’s remains were used to produce fertilizer (yes, fertilizer) for the camp. Since liberation, a large section of dirt has been preserved and memorialized under a dome structure.

Majdanek is also noted for one of the darkest days of the Holocaust: “The Harvest Festival”. This event happened on November 3, 1943 and resulted in the murder of 18,000 prisoners within that 24 hour period. There were many uprisings happening around that time at various camps, and the SS guards were worried that the prisoners of Majdanek would conspire in the same activities. In an effort to eliminate this risk, the Harvest Festival was instated. It is the largest single-day, single-location massacre in Holocaust history. 

The professors have scheduled our visits well, allowing us to work up to what is considered to be the climax of our journey: Auschwitz. 


January 6-9

12 Jan

January 6: It’s our first full day in Berlin! I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived here. I knew it was big and full of rich historical meaning, but how can one prepare for its actual cultural impact? The class went on a walking tour to explore some of the important sites of the city, as well as many Holocaust-oriented locations. These sites included, but not limited to, the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, and the Roosevelt Plate. This was also the day one of our classmates experienced the effects of being pick-pocketed. Don’t worry, she is a trooper and all is well!  Unfortunately for me, I was sick that day, so my perceptions of the city were only as good as the reactions of my peers. I do encourage you all to connect with your friend/family members on the trip to see what they thought of the city.

January 7: As we approach the one-week mark in our journey, the material and site visits are becoming more and more serious. This has helped us prepare for our first camp visit to Sachsenhausen.

Sachsenhausen was a labor camp that held about 35,000 prisoners. It was a “model camp,” meaning that it was one of the first camps to be constructed and used during the period of the Holocaust. In fact, the construction of this camp was started during the same time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Of course, I can only speak for myself, but it’s hard to put into words what I felt when walking around the camp. I think the best way to describe it is to think of putting grief, guilt, shock, exhaustion, and heartbreak into a large pot and creating a sort of emotional potpourri. Its essence was stronger in some locations of the camp than others. Seeing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance, imagining sleeping in the crammed barracks, walking down to the execution trench, observing the remnants of the crematorium, realizing the open plot of grass at the front of the camp was a mass grave…all of these moments sent chills down my spine.

However, the most powerful moment for me was towards the beginning of the tour. The camp is set up to go at your own pace, so much of the time I was alone with my own thoughts and reactions. I walked through the roll call lawn and faced towards the entrance of the camp, just as the prisoners were forced to do every day, twice a day. They stood there for hours at a time while they were counted and/or awaited their labor orders for the day. I stood facing the electric, barbed-wire fence and tried to comprehend how it might have felt to literally face the barriers that kept me from my freedom. It was unimaginable. I never thought that an eight foot wall and wire could make me feel so small.

Another interesting thing about Sachsenhausen was not the camp itself, but the town around it. In order to get to the camp, we took the subway from Berlin to the end of the line, walked about 15 minutes, and stumbled upon this adorable little street. There were kids walking up and down the side walk, white picket fences, and really nice small German houses. It was at the end of that neighborhood where the entrance to the camp hits you. It was so eerie. How can people live here, so close to historical terror? And more importantly, how could people live here in the past when those events were happening? That put the thought of discrediting the events of the Holocaust in a whole new light.

We rode the subway back to Berlin and grabbed some lunch at Vapiano’s. I had never eaten there before, but it was delicious. I joined a large group to go visit the Pergamon Museum, the site of many tapestries, art pieces, and relics from the Roman, Greek, and Istanbul regions. It was an amazing museum, one unlike those we can see in the states. I think the cultural opportunities in Europe are one of the perks about being on the trip, since we are exposed to four vastly different cultures with countless historical and artistic lessons to be taught

January 8: Today is our last full day in Berlin and I feel like I could spend so much more time exploring all the sites here. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure this is the largest city I have seen to date, and it is hard to conceptualize how massive it is. Perhaps the future will bring me another opportunity to visit again.

We woke up early, or what seemed to be early, to venture to the Berlin Jewish Museum. This museum went through the history of the Jewish Tradition and how it has evolved over periods of time. Hands down, this was the coolest museum I have ever seen. The artifacts and ways the information was presented were so artistic and open-ended, fostering a dual purpose of drawing personal meanings with each display. Usually museums strive to communicate simple, straightforward information for the purpose of educating the public. Here, you were expected to analyze material and interpret it. There were two specific rooms that carried out this philosophy perfectly. The first was the Holocaust Tower (or, as my roommate Becca mistook as- The Tower of Terror). It is a remembrance room located on the corner of the museum that is at least five stories high and walled with solid concrete. There is no lighting, heating, or ventilation- only a sliver of natural light coming from the top of the roof and a solid steel door. The purpose of this room is to immerse oneself in a completely isolated state and reflect on the lives of Holocaust victims. The simplicity of the room sparked such complicated feeling and reflections. The second room was called the Fallen Leaves exhibit. This room comprised of a dark, desolate area, however it had more natural light than the Holocaust Tower. The floor was made up of 10,000 steel plates with faces. The purpose of the exhibit is to walk across the faces without making a noise. When doing this, we were forced to look at all the faces, giving it an incredibly creepy effect. The room is hard to describe, but it was SO COOL. All in all, the museum wasn’t too solemn, but it made me think more about how many challenges Judaism has faced over the years.

Later, the group visited Check Point Charlie, a Cold War site where people could cross from East to West Berlin. They are currently building a visitor center of sorts to commemorate the site. The area around Check Point Charlie was very touristy, and to be honest, I was checked-out of Charlie (so punny, right?) and was more worried about being the next pick-pocket victim on our trip. So, I didn’t pay that much attention to the information. Oops.

After we finished our class tours, some of us ate lunch and decided to go to the very edge of town to see the East Side Gallery.  The East Side Gallery is composed of a large section of the Berlin Wall that is dedicated to graffiti art. It took us a while to navigate the subway system (and a minor run-in with the Subway ticket police) to find the site, but it was so worth seeing. The double-sided art was incredible and stretched for more than a quarter mile.

We came back to the hotel to discover that another Elon Winter Term trip had arrived in Berlin and were staying at the hotel! It was nice to see the members of the Gutenberg trip and learn about all of their adventures in London, their previous stop to Berlin.

January 9: Today was really no different than that of our drive to Berlin. We all piled in the bus for our 7-8 hour drive to Warsaw. I think as a class, we were more worried about going to Poland than when we came to Germany. The language is very difficult and our perceptions of the country were desolate at best. For example, I remember in my high school AP European History teacher telling my class that all he wanted to high-five a Polish person because their country has been through hell and back, and is still alive! If that’s not a depressing preconception, I don’t know what is.

Driving through the countryside was about the same as driving through Germany, expect it was actually snowy. Many of our classmates have noted that they have never seen “fluffy” snow, so I think they are in for a fun time! We made it safely to Warsaw and we are excited for what is to come.



January 2 and 3

5 Jan

(Previously posted) 

Written by: Kelly Smith 

January 2: So far, we are having a great experience in Amsterdam. The flight over was fantastic and not too crowded. We even landed an hour earlier than expected. Only one bag was lost in transient (I happen to be that lucky person), but all in all we had a smooth journey to the Netherlands.

Our tour guide, Anika, and the bus picked us up at the airport to drive us to our hotel. On the way, she pointed out the different modern skyscrapers that lead into the city. These buildings are incredibly artistic and posses character that we all don’t see in the states. Ironically, the heart of Amsterdam is not home to modern statements, but traditional Dutch residences and buildings. The city looks as if it’s comprised of tall, skinny townhouses. Each of the buildings are of different heights, widths, and styles and bring an indescribable sense of charm to the city.

After we dropped off our belongings to the Eden Hotel, we were free to explore the city. Many classmates walked around to get a better sense direction. One can immediately noticed in Amsterdam that bikes and public trams are the major sources of transportation. In other terms: stay out of their way or they will mull you over. We all enjoyed visiting the famous communities, coffee shops, restaurants, and museums for the rest of the afternoon.

January 3: Today was our first “real” day in Amsterdam. We awoke to a great breakfast, comprised of meats, cheeses, rolls, yogurt, etc. After indulging in our first European breakfast, we headed on our way to Zaanstad, an open museum dedicated to the display of traditional Dutch windmills and craftsmanship. Windmills are such an important part of Dutch culture because that is how the country produced its energy sources before they implemented the use of electricity. These windmills would power the production of everything from cutting logs to making mustard. Today, approximately 1,000 windmills are still in existence throughout the country. They are maintained by volunteers or people who actually live in the windmill. By law, they are required to turn the wings at least once a month to keep the mechanisms in-check. We also saw a cheese-making demonstration (and free samples), as well as a wooden clog-making demonstration.

Next, Anika took us on a walking tour of Amsterdam. We started in the Jewish neighborhood of the city and saw the two synagogues of Amsterdam. We learned a little more about the Dutch’s involvement in World War II and the resistance movement that ensued when Hitler went against his promise to not invade the Netherlands. The tour continued to the Hermitage Museum (currently home of the Impressionist and Van Gogh exhibits), the many canal systems, the old orphanages, the outskirts of the Red Light district, Dam square, the New Church, and so much more. Each twist and turn of the streets captivated our attention as we explored this amazing city.

January 4 and 5

5 Jan

(Written by Kelly Smith)

January 4: There is one Holocaust victim that everyone can relate to on some level. Her words have changed the way we perceive the constant fear and the unknown for those who lived in during this time. For two years and one month, the Franks, and a four other residents, lived in hiding from the Nazis. Today, we got to visit the secret annex.

We walked about 20 minutes from our hotel to bypass the already lengthy line at the entrance of the house. We learned that the entrance is located two buildings to the right of the actual house, and all three buildings are used for museum purposes. Our class came together to learn about the history of the Franks and how they eventually went into hiding. The building was home to Otto Frank’s jam making business. However, when the Nazis came to the Netherlands, he had to give his business to a fellow colleague. It turns out he also prepared the “Secret Annex” for almost a year before the family went into hiding. It was located on the third, fourth, and fifth floors of the back house of the business. There, the Franks and others in hiding spent their days in silence and utter anonymity. The account of these silent and shut-in days passing by provides us of what we now know as the Diary of Anne Frank.

Walking through the house was incredibly educational. We started in the museum portion, learning about the annex, the preludes to hiding, and personal accounts of those closest to the Frank family. Corresponding quotes from the diary cascaded the walls and put everything into better perspective. The annex itself was not quite what I expected. The curtains were drawn and it was dark inside, giving a more real-life illusion to what environment they lived in for over two years. After walking through the annex, the walk looped back around to information about what happened to the Franks after they were discovered. Some video accounts show interviews of people who saw Anne and her sister in the concentration camp. Anne died one month before the camp was liberated; Otto was the only Frank to survive. The tour then lead to the display of Anne’s original diary, and all the other notebooks and loose-leaf paper she used to write her story. She wrote the diary for the intent of having it be published, and today, the Diary of Anne Frank can be read over 60 languages.

We all surfaced to the daylight with an even greater sense of their ordeal. The line to go inside was probably a quarter of a mile long, so we were all thankful to have had reservations. The rest of the day was spent visiting some gotta-see-these-before-we-leave places, including the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt’s House, the IAMSTERSAM sign, and others.

Visiting Amsterdam was a great location to kick-off this journey!


January 5: Today was a chill day for us. We woke up early, packed the bus and headed to Berlin! The drive took about 7 hours, however most of the bus was dead asleep for at least half of that time.

The drive across Germany reminded me so much of my home state of Ohio. It was cold and rainy the entire time and the landscape consisted of rolling acres of farm land, with small villages clustered together. Immediately, we could all notice the houses are different than in the states because the roofs are sharply pointed and are a rusty color orange. We also spotted the passage gates that divided East and West Germany. They remain as a memorial of sorts. The abandoned buildings looked completely normal to one’s eye, but their historical meanings hushed the bus as we drove past.

Another vast difference that I noticed on our trip was the extensive use of wind-turbines. Wind energy perceives to be a valuable source of energy for the Germans, and it was cool to see fields upon fields of these spinning turbines.  

After a long trip, we made it to Berlin! We are all excited to see what this great city can teach us.