Don’t forget to follow my new blog where all content will be posted from now on. Newly posted today is Tweeting the #Holocaust, #docsocial, about the Museum of American History’s recent tweetup of their new exhibit Camilla’s purse about documents found in the purse of a Theresienstedt survivor.
Hello friends and faithful blog followers!
In an effort to expand my blogging capacity and keep all of my history related blog posts together (rather than spread among multiple blogs), I have migrated all of my previous content from this blog to a new one. I will still write posts that focus on the Holocaust and my work related to that topic (look for one shortly!), but will also be posting content that is more generally about my work as a public historian.
All of my new posts will be on the new site, so I won’t be posting here any more. If you would like to follow the new blog (and I hope you do!) you can find it here. There is a button on the right side bar so that you can subscribe to the new blog and continue receiving updates about my posts.
On September 29th the Illinois Holocaust Museum opened its newest temporary exhibit, Keep Calm and Carry On: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibit explores the use of textiles during the war years, specifically propaganda scarves and government regulated clothing, to tell a story of rationing, propaganda, and patriotism. The final sentences of the introductory panel beautifully sum up the thesis of the exhibit: “During a decade of extreme hardship and deprivation, these bright colored scarves and smart fashions were enlisted in the battle to keep spirits high. Beauty — in measured amounts — was not frivolous, it was a patriotic duty.” Utilizing a broad range of artifacts from textiles and furniture to fashion magazines and oral histories, this brightly colored exhibition provides an upbeat and invigorating contrast to the somber permanent exhibit of the museum.
Upon entering the exhibit the visitor is confronted with a fairly open floor plan: panels and artifacts are, for the most part, along the walls while the middle of the space is taken up by a rectangle of moveable walls, each side of which features a different film while a larger-than-life portrait of Winston Churchill presides over the entire space. This floor plan allows the visitor to easily move between the different sections of the exhibit, each of which fits into the overall narrative, but can also stand alone.
The scarves are, undoubtedly, the biggest draw of the exhibit. The section label outlines how brightly colored propaganda scarves were created, without government influence, by fashion firms throughout these years and also begins to explore the issue of rationing. Whether the visitor is one to read labels or not, he or she will undoubtedly be drawn to the text of this exhibit in order to find an explanation for a vivid print featuring Winston Churchill or a scarf emblazoned with practical advice.
The section on the rationing of clothing uses well-written text to explain and artifacts to demonstrate how the British public coped with this shocking wartime measure. Government launched utility fashions, easiest to purchase under the clothes rationing system, were designed by top British fashion designers. These measures allayed fears of standardized “civilian uniforms” and made fashionable clothing available to a broader spectrum of British society.
Even visitors who do not read the section or individual labels here will learn about rationing through viewing or hearing the “Rationing in Britain” video. The only one of the four central videos to be accompanied by sound, “Rationing in Britain” outlines a day in the life of a typical British family dealing with the hardships of the rationing system. This intriguing video was actually produced by the British Ministry of Information during WWII and has that old propaganda video feel that can’t help but draw in viewers.
The other videos featured in the center area provide context for the exhibit as a whole. These videos, which do not have accompanying sound, feature photographs and videos along the themes “Britain at War,” “The Blitz,” and “Victory…One Year Later.” Through the use of these videos, the realities of the war are never far away, even though the exhibit itself focuses on issues that specifically affected those at home. A fifth video, screening in its own alcove in the corner, connects the British home front experience and the experience of the American serviceman. This video, which features an interview with Arthur Fishtine (an American GI during WWII) as well as photographs and videos, showcases how British textiles were bought by American servicemen as well as by British women seeking to impress these young Yankee soldiers.
Overall, Keep Calm and Carry On is a vibrant, interesting exhibit and is certainly a change from what one would typically expect to find at a Holocaust museum. In fact, it is the atypical nature of the exhibit that is its only potential pitfall. With no connection to the Holocaust or its victims and even an only tangential connection to the United States, this exhibit might be characterized as out of place in a Holocaust museum. It would seem that visitors who take the time to explore the exhibit, however, have not found this potential criticism to be a source of conflict. The guest book, available for all visitors to sign and comment, reveals an overall positive experience with the exhibit. Many guests seem to find the exhibit’s unique character refreshing. One early guest, for instance, commented on the unexpected nature of the exhibit, but was very positive about it saying “What a truly lovely display for such an unfortunate museum!” and proceeded to note that this was “one of my most memorable visits to the museum.”
Whether you are a first-time visitor or a member, Keep Calm and Carry On will without a doubt be a “memorable” addition to any visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum now through January 26th.
Museums accept objects into their collections on a regular basis through a standard procedure called accessioning. While the details of this procedure differ between institutions, at the most basic level accessioning means making an object an official part of the museum’s collection by giving it a unique identification number and adding information about the object into the museum’s database.
But museums change, evolve, and grow. What may have seemed like a good addition to the collection in the beginning of a museum’s existence may become redundant or unnecessary in the future. This is where deaccessioning comes in.
Deaccessioning, as anyone with a knowledge of suffixes might expect, is the exact opposite of accessioning. Where accessioning officially admits an object into the museum’s collection, deaccessioning officially removes it from the collection.
This is not a process that should be taken lightly. Objects should really only be deaccessioned from a museum’s collection for a small handful of reasons:
- The object is beyond the purview of the museum:
- The object is redundant, there are more duplicates of this type of object in the collection than necessary:
- The object is in such a state of deterioration that it can no longer be kept
This is where I stand right now with one of my projects at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. I’ve been instructed to go through the many books in the museum’s collection (we’re talking a few dozen boxes worth) and make recommendations about what should be done with them. Some are obviously relevant and should be kept: diaries, prayer books that were carried through the ghetto and a concentration camp with a survivor; and some clearly belong in the library rather than the exhibit collections: memorial books about concentration camps, reference books, memoirs of survivors, etc.
Then there are some books that are just no longer relevant to the museum. Prayer books, for instance, are a big one. How many prayer books does one Holocaust museum need? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s less than the couple hundred in the collection right now. This is definitely a case of duplicates and redundancy. So if a prayer book was published after WWII? I’m recommending it for deaccession. If I can’t identify anywhere in its documentation how it got from Europe to the US? I’m probably recommending it for deaccession. With hundreds of books currently in the collection, some will have to go. But I’m not the one who has final say on this.
Deaccessioning is not a quick and easy process. Museums need to think carefully before they accept objects into their collection (someone should have thought carefully about that jackalope in the first place…) and even more carefully before deaccessioning.
First of all, I’m just an intern (though an awesome one) so what I say is just a recommendation. No book is going to be removed from the collection simply on my say-so. Instead, my recommendations will have to be approved by the Collections Manager who will need the Director of Collections and Curation to sign off on them as well. Then, like all objects to be deaccessioned at the Holocaust Museum, the removal of the books from our collection will need to be approved by the Board of Directors.
After the deaccession of the books is approved by the Board of Directors, the original donors will be contact to inform them about the decision, why it was made, and to see if they would like their books back. If they don’t, then in the case of prayer books, they will likely be properly disposed of which in the Jewish tradition means a religious burial.
In my last post, Commemorating to Forget, Part 1, I discussed how memorials and commemoration in general is almost always created with the purpose of forgetting less savory aspects of the history being commemorated. While this in no way is unique to Holocaust memory or to Poland, I outlined some of the typical forms of Holocaust memorialization I saw while in Poland this summer and discussed how these memorials commemorate a specific version of the past, while obscuring aspects that the creators would rather were forgotten.
That last post talked a lot about the problems I see with commemoration, but it didn’t really provide much in the way of solutions. That’s what Part 2 is here for.
The problem, I believe, is in the very nature of most memorialization. Monuments and plaques can only ever tell part of the story. Complexities and controversies are not easily illustrated through monument iconography and the amount of text that can realistically be displayed is minimal. For me, the answer to this problem of easily obscured history in memorialization is simple: museums. As an aspiring museum professional I am, of course, at least partially biased in favor of museums. At the same time it seems clear to me that these institutions are the only place where the general public can engage with the memory and history of an event like the Holocaust while still being exposed to the complexity surrounding it.
Sadly, not all museums achieve this. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum falls into the typical American trap when it comes to Holocaust commemoration. It glorifies America as the liberator of the camps and down-plays the shameful American policies that left victims of Nazism with no refuge.
In a number of museums we visited in Poland the memory of the Holocaust and the pre-war contribution of Polish Jews is commemorated, while conveniently forgetting the less savory aspects of the history of Jews in Poland. Smaller museums in former synagogues are especially susceptible to this. Tarnów easily had the best and most professional former synagogue museum we saw during our entire trip, even when compared to former synagogues in Krakow that likely have many more visitors. This museum did a fantastic job of highlighting the interconnected lives of Polish Jews and Gentiles in the city and the surrounding area throughout its history.
And yet the interpretation presented in the exhibition conveniently neglects to discuss the two pogroms against the areas Jews that took place around the time of the First World War. This is not an aspect of Polish-Jewish history that deserves to be remembered in the eyes of the exhibits creators, and thus it must be obscured.
On a much larger scale, the Schindler Factory Museum equates the suffering of Poles and the suffering of Jews under the Nazi occupation by making it unclear to visitors when they are “learning” about the Jewish experience or the more general Krakow experience during the war. Because the suffering of non-Jewish Poles at the hands of the Nazi occupiers was largely obscured for years, some examples of memorialization like this museum have overcompensated in their commemoration of this suffering and have in the process obscured the narrative that is unique to the Jewish victims.
While clearly not all museums are capable of achieving the lofty goal of educating the public about an event or of a period with all of its complexity, even in their imperfect form they are far ahead of the typical memorial or monument. A well-developed and intellectually engaging museum about the Holocaust would do even more. Such an institution would be capable of commemorating the victims and celebrate the resistors while still addressing the complexity surrounding collaborators and bystanders. It would be capable of telling the Jewish narrative while not obscuring that of other groups. It could celebrate the foreign troops who liberated the survivors while still addressing the outside world’s lack of support for the Jews before the Final Solution. Most importantly, it would be able to memorialize the events of the Holocaust, but leave its visitors with an understanding of the complexity of the history surrounding it.
I have yet to visit this museum and I’m not sure it exists, but it should be what all Holocaust museums seek to achieve: to commemorate in a way that does not obscure or forget the details and unpleasant truths but instead remembers the event in full with an understanding of its complexity.
If you’ve never seen the movie The History Boys you absolutely should.
One specific line in the movie has always stood out to me, in fact it gave me the idea for my senior thesis in undergrad. At this point in the film the teacher and his students are looking at a British World War I memorial. The teacher, Mr. Irwin, gives his students an atypical explanation of the purpose of memorialization:
It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about—the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
Irwin tells his class that without the monuments to the dead, the British might remember that collectively their country was as eager for World War I as anyone else. Instead, they can use their memorials and monuments as a way to focus their memory on the death and destruction of the war, and ignore their complicity in allowing it to happen. The event itself is remembered and memorialized so that the details and potentially difficult truths surround it can be forgotten.
After I returned from Poland I had to write a reflection on some issue that I grappled with during my time there that was due today. Like any good student I waited until this morning to start on it (don’t judge me). In reflecting on my time in Poland I was reminded once again of the use of memorials to shape memory and of commemorating to forget. While commemoration and memorialization of the Holocaust is important, both Jewish and non-Jewish commissioned commemoration in Poland seeks to glorify or commemorate some aspects of these years while ignoring or obscuring others.
*A caveat before I go on, this criticism does not solely apply to Polish commemoration of the Holocaust. It most certainly also applies to American commemoration of these events and likely — though I haven’t studied them — Holocaust memorials across Europe.*
Commemoration and memorialization produced under communist rule is obviously guilty of seeking to shape memory. These monuments vilify the “Hitlerites” and mourn the victims. On the site of the Płaszów concentration camp in Krakow, the original memorial erected in the 1960s merely states “In tribute to martyrs murdered by the Hitlerite genociders, 1943-1945.”
There is no mention of who these “martyrs” were or why they were killed. Communist-era memorialization commemorates the dead, but obscures their identities. Those who were murdered by the Nazis were not individuals. They were not Jews, Roma, homosexuals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were, purely and simply, opponents of fascism. And while it is undeniably true that millions of Poles who opposed the Nazis were murdered, characterizing all the victims as such was a clearly calculated move by the communist government.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, built in 1948 is also guilty of this attempt to shape memory, although not by the communists. The immense memorial has only three lines of text “The Nation of Israel to the Martyrs and Saints.” Instead of words, the focus is on the images. The front of the memorial glorifies the resistance fighters. These men are strong, heroic, and they are ready to fight. Literally sculpted so that they leap out of the monument, these figures are clearly meant to inspire awe and reverence with their determination to resist even in the face of certain death.
This image is juxtaposed with the image on the reverse of the monument: an inlaid frieze of victims headed to their death. These individuals, rather than being glorified and carved out of the stone itself are diminished in importance by being carved into it. They are not the fighters and they do not resist but instead walk mournfully to their deaths.
The difference in these two sides of the memorial are striking and is not at all coincidental but once again illustrate a clear agenda. This immediately post-war memorial exemplifies the insistence of Israel and many Jews at the time of its construction, to glorify and accentuate the legacy of Jewish resistance and uprising in an attempt to combat characterizations of the Jews as going to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter.
Recent commemoration is not immune to commemoration to forget either. The survivor’s park in Łodz celebrates resistance and survival: a monument to Żegota, the underground resistance organization to help Polish Jews; a huge memorial to the Polish “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews; the names of survivors from Łodz inscribed on the borders of the garden path; and of course the quintessential Jan Karski bench.
These memorials convey a message about the heroism of individuals who chose to resist the German occupation to help Jews and of admiration and awe of those survivors who overcame the odds and the German determination to annihilate the Jews. Resistance and survival are rightly commemorated, and yet their commemoration allows for complicity and indifference to be ignored.
In stark contrast to the communist-era memorials, and probably in response to them, many memorials constructed since the fall do say why the victims were murdered: because they were Jews. In attempting to highlight the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, these memorials hide the existence—whether intentionally or unintentionally—of other victim groups. They consistently ignore or trivialize the fact that while the Jews were the primary target of the Nazis, there were also millions of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Though there are some, like those at the deportation square or cemetery in Łodz, which commemorate other victim groups, many contemporary memorials are only one step up from their communist-era counterparts: they tell part, but still not all of the story.
 You could also probably see the play, but I’m not sure the line I love is in there so that doesn’t prove my point.
So, I’ve been a bit neglectful of the blog ever since I returned from Poland. I actually have a number of posts from my time with the AJC folks still rattling around in my brain—the two exhibition reviews I promised ages ago as well as a gushing fan girl post about the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and why I want to go back to Poland ASAP— I just haven’t put forth the effort to actually write them down. With the start of classes looming over my head (August 26th!) and the thought of beginning my second year of graduate school, I’ve been avoiding anything that even looks like work.
Spoiler alert: work means anything that isn’t lying in the sun and getting my pleasure reading fix while I still can.
So that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last month when I wasn’t at work. Getting a *little* bit of a tan, letting the sun bleach my hair, and reading to my little heart’s content. But, that means the blog has slipped down on the priority list.
But no more. Summer must come to an end eventually, but I’m not as sad about that as you might imagine because this week I started my internship with the Curation and Collections Department at the Illinois Holocaust Memorial Museum and Education Center, ie the Skokie part of this blog.
After getting a tour of the bowels of the museum—so that I don’t get lost, which I still probably will—I got my first project: create a collection guide for the JCR display. What is the JCR display you ask? This:
In the years after WWII, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc (JCR) was given authority by the U.S. Government to identify and redistribute “heirless” Jewish cultural objects found in the U.S. occupied zone of Germany. While whole communities of European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, their cultural heritage remained, but with no immediate descendants left to claim it. The JCR took custody of hundreds of thousands of books as well as thousands of Torah scrolls and ritual objects and redistributed them to institutions throughout the Jewish world. In the early 1950s some of that cultural heritage came to the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. In 2012 the Hebrew Theological College loaned these artifacts to the Illinois Holocaust Museum so that they could be placed on display somewhere where they would be seen by a larger audience.
Included within these artifacts is this beautiful Torah shield:
This is a Torah shield, a decorative piece used to adorn Torah scrolls in order to increase their beauty and also for the practical purpose of indicating the Holiday or Sabbath reading to be used next. This piece is not only quite gorgeous in person, but its elaborate decorations including the crown and lions flanking the tablets of the law are characteristic of Eastern European Torah shields created in the late 19th century. But, you wouldn’t know any of this just by looking at this artifact. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even know anything about most of these objects unless you’re Jewish or familiar with Jewish religious artifacts. While there is a text panel next to the display that explains all about the JCR and how the objects came to be at the Hebrew Theological College and now at the ILHMEC, there is no information about the individual artifacts themselves.
So, most people looking at this collection would see candlesticks, menorahs, and a lot of other cool shiny things you know nothing about. Not exactly what a museum wants you to take away from one of its exhibits, even if it is a small one.
Let’s see what you make of these examples of pieces from the collection. (Shout out to Joshua Arens for telling me how to do this and giving me the idea).
Okay, hopefully you didn’t skip the polls and just come straight down here, because that’s cheating. But here are the answers:
1. The artifacts in this picture are called yads, or Torah pointers, and are used when reading from the Torah. It is believed that touching the Torah would render it impure, and thus the yads are used to avoid touching the Torah when reading. Additionally, not touching the Torah protects the fragile parchment from tearing and the ink from smearing.
2. This is a wimple, or a Torah binder. In Ashkenazi communities Torah binders are made from the swaddling cloth used during a boy’s circumcision and are decorated with the child’s name, date of birth, passages from the Torah, and other symbolic decorations.
3. These beautiful pieces are spice boxes used during the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat. During the ceremony, sweet spices are passed around to represent the sweetness of the Sabbath compared to the rest of the week.
I don’t know about any of you, but I wouldn’t have known these answers just by looking at these objects. Artifacts do not, contrary to the belief of some old-fashioned museums, speak for themselves. So over the next few weeks it’s going to be my job to speak for these objects and create a guide so that the average museum visitor will learn something about these beautiful objects and their place within Jewish ritual and culture. Stay tuned for those updates, they should be interesting. Or, at least involve more cool pictures.
The town of Oświęcim, Poland has a rich history dating back to its first mention almost 900 years ago. The town saw invasions from the Tartars, and Swedes in the 13th and 17th centuries respectively and became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the partition of Poland in the 18th century. Businesses flourished here once and the town became an important railway junction in the late 1800s. Polish Christians and Jews lived together in Oświęcim and on the eve of WWII the majority of its citizens were Polish Jews.
Yet the 900 year history of Oświęcim is overshadowed by the years of the Second World War when it was given a new name, a German name: Auschwitz.
Historically Oświęcim is much more than just Auschwitz, and this is also true today. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Auschwitz each year, but few visit Oświęcim. Unlike most visitors who visit Auschwitz for a day or possibly two and make the drive from Krakow, we spent a week in Oświęcim. I realize that’s not possible for everyone. It would, in fact, be impossible for even the majority of the visitors who comes to Auschwitz to stay in Oświęcim. First of all there simply isn’t enough room in this city of about 40,000 and second it would be incredibly difficult for someone who doesn’t at least mówi trochę po polsku (speak a little in Polish) to get by there. But these visitors should experience Oświęcim as it is today and gain an understanding of its rich history dating to before 1939.
Enter the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
Founded in 1995 as the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation “in order to rebuild a Jewish cultural, spiritual, and educational center in Oświęcim.” Located in Oświęcim’s only surviving synagogue the center itself opened its doors as a museum, synagogue, and education center in 2000.
The core exhibition of the museum focuses on the history and culture of Jewish life in Oświęcim before WWII. The exhibition contains photographs, documents, and artifacts of individual residents as well as local Jewish organizations and businesses. If you take most Holocaust education and exhibitions at face value, you would believe that Jews in Europe—and certainly the Jews of Poland—barely had a history before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The core exhibition at the Auschwitz Jewish Center provides the context of pre-war life in Oświęcim—a microcosm for pre-war Jewish life in Poland as a whole—that is lacking in most Holocaust education and is completely absent from the exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.
To go along with the core exhibition and further teach about the pre-war life of the residents of Oświęcim, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has developed an incredibly cool smartphone app called Oshpitzin (the yiddish name for Oświęcim) and accompanying website. With this app and the website you can visit Oświęcim without leaving your home through historic photographs and key historical information as well as (ridiculously cool) 3D renderings of some of the buildings. If you are in Oświęcim the app allows you to use the map and gps feature to find the sites of various historic buildings and to use augmented reality to view historic photographs alongside the present-day site.
The special exhibition “New Life” showcases former residents of Oświęcim who survived the Holocaust and the new lives they built for themselves in Israel. This new life after the Holocaust is another aspect of the experience of Holocaust survivors that, while often overlooked in much Holocaust education, is specifically addressed in the exhibitions of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
The educational mission of the center is two-fold:
1. To teach about the pre-war Jewish history of Oświęcim and the impact of the Holocaust, and
2. To help students find connections with the Holocaust and contemporary issues of prejudice, stereotyping, and hate.
And to these dual purposes the Auschwitz Jewish Center hosts lectures, hosts cultural events, and leads workshops and programs for students, teachers, and law enforcement professionals.
Whether a visitor walks through the exhibitions, engages with the Oshpitzin app, or participates in a workshop, the Auschwitz Jewish Center allows its visitors to walk away with the understanding that Oświęcim had a history before Auschwitz, and that it has a future beyond it as well.
This morning we spent time with someone in the education department at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. The goal of our meeting was to bring our understanding of Auschwitz to the personal level of individual prisoners rather than on the general level of the numbers.
In an exercise that I think is fantastic for middle and high-school students, we broke into pairs and used photocopies of primary and secondary documents available at the Auschwitz archives to understand the history of an individual camp prisoner. While the 7 individuals we discussed weren’t representative of all prisoners at Auschwitz, they did bring our work to the personal, individual level.
My partner and I reconstructed the following history of the prisoner Stefan Kiślewicz from our documents:
Stefan Kiślewicz, a Catholic Pole born in Zwirka, was born to Izydor Kiślewicz and Julia (née Mazurek) Kiślewicz both of Zwirka on June 12, 1913. Before the war Stefan was a teacher; presumably in Zabie where he was eventually arrested. Teachers were viewed as a member of the intelligentsia by the Nazis and were thus a threat, a fact that likely explains why Stefan was arrested in Zabie sometime before the end of May 1941. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Stefan was imprisoned at Lublin Castle where on May 24, 1941 he and 486 other prisoners were transferred by the Sipo and SD to Auschwitz. Upon arriving at Auschwitz Stefan was assigned the number 16189. Stefan survived in the camp for 5 months until his death on October 31, 1941. In the official death certificate, signed on November 5th, Stefan is said to have died from lung disease 5 days previously.
Like many prisoner death certificates, however, Stefan’s official cause of death was an attempt to cover up Nazi crimes. Stefan lived in the camp for 5 months until there was an escape attempt by someone on his block. In retaliation for this attempted escape, 10 prisoners from block 18a—including Stefan—were taken to the jail at Bock 11 and sentenced to starve to death. Six of these men died of starvation between October 31st and November 10th. Stefan was one of these men who died of starvation as the Nazis intended. Three of the prisoners who were still alive on November 10th were shot the next day. The last prisoner, Henryk Kozłecki, was actually released back into the camp on October 29th. Interestingly, this is the only documented instance of a prisoner being released after being condemned to starve to death.
It’s interesting going back to Auschwitz a second time. I’m not sure if I expected this second experience to be completely the same as the first or if I thought it would be completely different having seen it all once before. It was neither. Like so many aspects of Holocaust history and memory, the circumstances and feelings surrounding my second trip to the sites of the infamous concentration and extermination camp were more complicated than I initially expected.
On the most mundane level the experiences were different because they took place at such different times of the year. This may seem both obvious and arbitrary, but this simple difference changes how the camps are experienced. In 2010 when I visited Auschwitz it was January and the weather was miserable. It seemed especially cold and the camps, especially Auschwitz II-Birkenau, were almost entirely deserted. There were a few groups besides ourselves there, but for the most part the camp was empty and covered in snow; it was devoid of life.
Coming back in July, the circumstances of my visit couldn’t have been more different. The sun blazed while we walked between the barbed wire at Birkenau and peered at the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria. Groups of young Jewish people draped in Israeli flags and groups receiving tours in a myriad of languages shared the camp with us. The people were one thing, they were expected. I knew, of course, that the camps receive more visitors in the summer. What was unexpected was how lush and vibrant everything looked. Grass in need of mowing and wildflowers bordered the gravel paths and filled the places between barracks. A grove of trees at the back of the camp where men, women, and children waited to be gassed were shady and provided much-needed relief from the sun. It rained yesterday, and pits around the remains of the gas chambers were filled with water, frogs splashed into these pools and dragonflies buzzed above. The camp was full of life.
Seeing these differences, I wonder what people who have only ever visited the camps in the summer must think. While visitors can never understand what the experience of the victims was like, feeling the draft in the barracks and standing outside in the freezing wind in the dead of winter can give you a tiny idea. It makes you appreciate what you have: your coat, your gloves, your boots, your socks (or, in my case, your double layer of socks), even your underwear. All these essentials were denied to the people imprisoned in the camps. In the summer, I wonder if people still feel this way. Do they “understand” less? Do they empathize less? Do they think, “well concentration camps must not have been that bad, look at how beautiful it is here!” I don’t know what they think or how they feel about their experience when they only see the camp in the beauty of summer, but I do know that the experience itself is different than being there in the winter.
On a more personal level, I was struck by how visiting the camps affected me on this second trip. I’m not a particularly emotional person, in fact I would say I’m less emotional than most. The first time I visited Auschwitz I and even Auschwitz II-Birkenau—which I personally find to be a more meaningful site—I honestly didn’t feel much of anything. In a way, I suppose I was numb. I could process what was going on, I understood what I was seeing and being told, but I couldn’t connect to it on the emotional level I knew other people were feeling. I wanted to feel this emotional connection; I knew that I should feel it, and I was almost mad that I couldn’t.
This second visit I still did not feel what I knew other people in my group were feeling when we visited the sites. Yet I felt more than I had on that first visit. At Birkenau this morning, especially as we stood on the selection platform I was able to connect more to the feelings of confusion and anxiety or fear over separation that must have been felt by the people who were taken there 70 years ago. Thinking of these feelings in general terms, rather than in the case of an individual survivor as during my first visit, I was able to connect, at least a little bit more.
Yesterday at Auschwitz I I was even more surprised. In the three and a half years since my last visit to Poland I have recounted my experience visiting the camps to many different people and thought about it many times. Always I would come back to the display of human hair that is exhibited in one of the rooms of the permanent exhibit barracks. This display stuck with me and is one of the most defining aspects of that trip. In 2010, this room made my breath catch in my throat. I knew before arriving that there was hair on display, but I had no idea how much there was or when to expect to see it. It was completely unexpected when I did encounter the display and I was transfixed. Like the quintessential car accident on the highway, I couldn’t look away. It was horrifying to me, yet it was also an irrevocable connection to the victims: it was part of them.
Coming back to this same barrack in Auschwitz I yesterday I was ready. I knew to expect the sea of hair. I knew it would be on the second floor of the second building in the room we would enter immediately after seeing the model of the gas chamber and crematorium. I didn’t know how I would react. We walked up the stairs into the room with the model and I looked to my left, I saw the room with the hair. I couldn’t see the hair, but I knew it was there and I started to get nervous. I was about to see it, about to see what had become so iconic for me and such a personal symbol of the suffering at Auschwitz. Our guide finished explaining the model, moved to the Zyklon B canisters, and began to usher us to the next room. My breath started to accelerate and I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go in that room again, I couldn’t see the hair. The hair. A direct link to bodies, to human beings, to people who were murdered. These are their remains. Seeing this hair, to me, was like seeing limbs, and I just couldn’t do it again.
But I did walk into the room. I was with the rest of the Fellows from my program and I didn’t want to make a scene by conspicuously remaining outside. But I didn’t look either. The display of the hair, in its rolling waves, takes up the entire left side of the room but the right side is largely empty. I turned my head from the moment I came near the threshold of the door and I kept my head at a 90 degree angle to the rest of my body until we had entered far enough into the room that I could turn my back on the display. We stayed there for maybe 3 minutes, possibly even less, and for the entire time I refused to look at the display. I simply stared at our guide as she spoke, a firm hold on my left earlobe to keep the tears from fully forming.
Perhaps with time I will be able to more eloquently or more intelligently explain how this second trip to Auschwitz was different from my first and more importantly perhaps I will have some idea why. For now, all I know is that it has been different. Not better or worse, no more or less meaningful, simply different. I would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences. I know some of you have visited Auschwitz, what was your experience there like? Have you visited any camp more than once and found that your experiences were noticeably different?