Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Reflections on “Inside America’s Auschwitz”

24 Apr

By Elyse Warren

In the Smithsonian article, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Jared Keller wrestles with the shadows of America’s riddled past with racism after a visit to Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum. The museum, which opened in December of 2014, marks the first museum in the nation to be recognized as a slave museum. The museum pays homage and bears witness to the history of slavery and crimes against humanity committed against the slaves who were forced into labor at the former indigo, sugar, and cotton plantation.


The memorialization and pedagogical design of the tours conducted at the museum break from the confines of the conventional history lesson given in the classroom or at other plantations. The focus is placed on providing the visitor the opportunity to understand the slave experience and remove, as Keller notes, the veil of the Gone With The Wind view of America’s Southern plantations. The experience disillusions the visitor from the romanticism associated with the grandeur of the planation homes and provides a narrative that can not only educate, but act as a change agent within the visitor when they conclude their experience.


This thoughtful design mirrors the experience of visiting sites of atrocities committed during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, specifically the renowned pedagogy and reconciliation constructed through Germany and Poland’s memorialization of the Holocaust. Thanks to the generous support of the Jewish Federation and Dr. Barry and Mrs. Anne Stein, I participated in the March of the Living (MOL) in 2011 with five other high school students from Sarasota and witnessed the concentration camps in Poland and traveled to Israel. Reflecting on the experience, I can still vividly remember the sensory details of visiting the concentration camps and ghettos in Poland. The stench of the rotting wood of the barracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the scraped walls of the cattle car at the Lodz Ghetto, and the cold, sterile, space of the gas chambers at Majdonek that were stained with an effervescent turquoise blue from the Zyklon B chemicals. All the details wove together the prisoner experience in the concentration camps into the fabric of Holocaust memorialization and memory.


In particular, visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps manifested a poignant experience of walking through endless barracks and fields which evoked a painful feeling of absence. The absence was augmented by comfort and support from peers and the humbling ability to walk through the space with survivors to learn from their testimony. However, the experience would not have been whole without the strong use of narrative and contextualization provided in the education by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Center and the staff we had on the MOL. To better understand the role of education and how a nation tries to reconcile with a fraught past, I took my passion from the MOL trip and visited Poland again during a study abroad program in college the following year. I took the experience of the MOL trip and applied it to my studies of how Germany and Poland reconcile the memory of the Holocaust through education and memorialization. Staying in Oswiecim, where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located, helped me understand more fully the role pedagogy in education, as Keller commented, helps to build understanding and reconciliation with the past to ensure that “never again” reins absolute.


Paralleling Keller’s experience at the slavery museum, I felt a call to action when I left Poland after the March of the Living and again when I studied abroad. It was a discovery in terms of sense of self, belonging, and meaning not only to Judaism, but to Israel and preserving the history for the next generation to bear witness. Keller noticed the same call expressed in a tour group of young African American students that took to heart the moving mission of the museum. The article by Keller is his call to recognize and draw parallels to how America may learn valuable lessons from Germany, Poland, or even Rwanda in reckoning with the past centuries late.


While the two atrocities mentioned have different context and history, they both speak to the call for “never again.” We serve as stewards to the next generation, as the phrase L’dor Vador emphasizes. Echoing a note left at the slave museum, fostering and encouraging the movement to provide enriching educational experiences, whether through the March of the Living or a slave museum, will help ensure that the future generation knows and will not forget the past.


To learn more about the March of the Living program, click HERE.



March of the Living Update: Reflections from Auschwitz and Birkenau

29 Apr

The past 2 days have been the worst and best of my life.

2 days ago, we visited Birkenau. I have been reading books about this horrific place since I was 10 as well as seen several movies about it. None of those could have prepared me for the real thing. As I walked through the main entrance, I was immediately struck with grief and sadness. I kept looking at the barracks and seeing scenes from movies. I kept seeing the boy in the striped pajamas or Anne Frank or Schindler’s Jews. I didn’t want to picture my own relatives. After walking along the train tracks, we went to an ash pit. This was the hardest part of the entire day for me. I was already upset, but seeing all my friends, especially Len, be so distraught really just broke my heart. What made it even worse was that I knew everyone was inconsolable. I think what really hit me the most was when I looked into the pit and saw a bone. I immediately burst into tears and just let the emotion run down my face. I am so thankful for my friends and Len for being here for me and always having my back.

After Birkenau, we went to the notorious Auschwitz death camp. I thought it was a much different feel then Birkenau. Auschwitz looked like a college campus and is now a museum. Each barrack was a different exhibit. Prior to this trip, I had limited knowledge regarding my family’s fate during the Holocaust. This all changed when we entered barrack 6. Mugshots of the Polish prisoners as well as some of Jews lined the walls. I spent a few minutes scanning the walls, but I found nothing. A few minutes later, Madison came up to me and pulled me into the hallway. She held my hand until we reached our destination. I looked up and saw a photograph of one of my relatives. I immediately fell to the floor and burst out into tears. I felt a gaping hole in my chest and didn’t know what else to do except cry. I didn’t even know that I was related to this man or that he was in Auschwitz. How did I not know? I wanted to say Kaddish, but I don’t know the words, so I said a makeshift prayer. That was the hardest moment of my life. Words cannot even begin to express the sadness and pain I felt that day. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. Later that day, we went into the crematoria. I was emotionally numb. As much as I wanted to cry, I just couldn’t find the tears. I focused on comforting Len, Brittney, and Madison. Everyone in the room said Kaddish together and it melted my heart. Afterwards, the entire southern delegation prayed together at the wall of the crematoria. This was one of the most powerful moments of the day.

Yesterday was the International March of the Living, also known as the best day of my life. Marching for those who couldn’t along with 15,000 other Jews was truly amazing. My favorite part of the day was trading pins and meeting people from all over the world. I felt so proud and honored to be a part of this march. We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, 3 kilometers, linked arm in arm with our fellow Jews. Walking out of Auschwitz freely, knowing that just 70 years ago our ancestors couldn’t do the same, was truly amazing.

The aspect of yesterday that truly meant the most to me, was when I planted my wooden paddle on the train tracks. In a symbolic way, I was burying all of my fallen relatives. This was the only time that I cried yesterday. It was such a different experience then the one I had the day prior. I felt so overjoyed to be with all my friends and so many other amazing people. I will never stop telling the stories, I will never forget, I will always remember, Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel live.rachel mol

Rachel M. is a participant of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee’s 2014 March of the Living delegation.

March of the Living is presented in partnership with the Shapiro Teen Engagement Program (STEP) of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.