The Student News Site of Elmira College

Octagon

Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

Students+enter+Auschwitz+I+through+the+main+entrance%2C+which+remains+surrounded+by+barbed+wire+fencing.
Students enter Auschwitz I through the main entrance, which remains surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

Students enter Auschwitz I through the main entrance, which remains surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

Brian Demo

Brian Demo

Students enter Auschwitz I through the main entrance, which remains surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

Brian Demo '17, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Why do we learn about suffering?  Why do we take history classes, read the news, or simply discuss the upsetting topic with peers or family members?  The answer remains unclear at moments.  However, the process drives us to ask questions; and in some instances, it fundamentally moves us.  On Saturday, my classmates and I stood on the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau – a pair of major concentration camps used by Nazi Germany in World War II.  We treaded across these emotional vacuums with no sound except the brush of our shoes against the dirt.  During that period, I began to make sense of the pains and implications that transpired in Poland and Prague.

Once great kingdoms during old and ancient times, the World Wars provided tumultuous awakenings.  Treaties after World War I redrew borders, which provided land for the reconstructed states – Poland and Czechoslovakia.  A defeated Germany felt shackled.  With economic inflation and political humiliation circulating through the former-empire’s streets, the Nazi Party emerged to power in 1933/34, headed by a man named Adolf Hitler.  This new regime restructured its political organizations, rebuilt its military, and—most crucially—recrafted its culture.

Hitler blamed others for Germany’s problems and electrically used racially-driven rhetoric to mobilize his people.  He held rallies, censored media, and eliminated political enemies.  His book, Mein Kampf, served as the heart of his ideology.  Regarding race, he envisioned a social pyramid running from (top to bottom): the Aryans, Latins, Slavic peoples, Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Jews/Roma.  This theme acted as a catalyst for the coming years.

He sliced through states.  By 1938, he achieved the Munich Agreement with Britain and France to add Czechoslovakia to his collection of captured countries, including Austria.  Then by 1939, his government signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Josef Stalin’s, which meant that both states would not wage war onto each other and—secretly—invade Poland before carving it up between them (yes – this happened).

My classmates and I gazed along the waters outside of the now-port city of Gdańsk, Poland, where Hitler launched his first strike in September 1939.  The Nazis captured the city and plowed through the western half.  Soviets waited in the east to “save” the Poles.  They called them “comrades,” and shipped them by train into Russia.  However, I weaved through memorials to commemorate these individuals who died during the rides to Siberia – notoriously home to the Gulag’s most intensive labor camps that stood hungry for workers.  Meanwhile, Poles – especially Polish-Jews – remained encased in a jar of chaos.

The Germans annexed land and established an authority to control and terrorize individuals.  Immediately, the Nazi soldiers expressed their hatred for what Hitler deemed, “inferior races.”  In December, Germans gunned down one hundred and fourteen innocent men after known Polish criminals killed two German soldiers.  In January, The Reich grew angry that the Warsaw Jewish community refrained from turning in someone with a questionable last name.  This individual had nothing to do with the Jews.  However, blinded by a manifestation of hatred and order-following, the Nazis rounded two hundred and fifty-five community members and shot them dead.

To the East, the Soviets continued the mass-deportations and assassinations.  Though frozen from the journey, Poles poured into the Gulag.  One can find a memorial in Warsaw that portrays dark crosses laying on a cart.  Polish soldiers, gradually questioning the chances of reuniting with their families, found themselves systematically unloaded into the Katyn Forest.  Soviets shot them and tossed the bodies into mass graves.  Others met darkness under dim lights.  Led into shelter, the Red Army placed them against bunker walls and killed each person with a single shot to the back of the skull.  For decades, governments and textbooks left this out.  Yet, once Nazism and communism dissolved from power, people learned what happened.  Some suspected the truth.  However, authorities forced them to never speak of it.

We found that World War II’s violence ensued—and even increased—at moments.  Hitler and Stalin eventually turned on each other.  Germany invaded Russia.  In 1942, the Nazis had millions of Jewish and other political prisoners in their possession.  The Russian method to killing proved too costly.  Key German leaders met to discuss ways to solve the problem.  They arrived at the “Final Solution.”  To increase productivity and reduce the burden for soldiers, the government ordered the construction of “death camps” within its concentration camp system.

A notable facility in Poland, Auschwitz I, added a gas chamber to kill prisoners with Zyklon B, as well as a crematorium installed to burn the bodies.  We found that the Germans needed to expand.  The Nazis constructed Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  The site had multiple killing facilities and structures to ensure that individuals either met death immediately or fell like ill-rooted trees from starvation and exhaustion.

With the sun tailing us at Birkenau, the tour guide took us to a living barracks.  The wooden walls squeezed the air by half, and dust circulated through each bunkbed.  She told us that the dwelling served as a horse barn before the Nazis acquired it.  Also, she informed us that this building housed approximately four hundred people at a time during operation.  The Germans nourished them with non-nutritional, rotten, and moldy foods.  Water proved tainted or scarce.  The situation became so repulsive, some Jews refused certain foods and risked diseases, or what many coined as the “death mark.”  Yet, we learned about acts of altruism.

Days prior to our visit to the camps, we travelled to the Krakow factory (now museum) of German businessman, Oskar Schindler.  During the war, Schindler sheltered over a thousand Jews by bribing Nazi officers and miscellaneous individuals.  His factory produced pots through Jewish craftsmanship before the ghetto liquidations, or when the Germans funneled Jews from designated living areas to the camps.  In the end, Schindler’s goal no longer centered around revenue.  When we arrived at what historians speculate as likely his office, we found hundreds of made pots in a glass container—untouched and unsold.

Schindler’s risk embodied genuine kindness.  Though a party member for safety and other perks, he pierced through the Nazi rhetoric.  He discerned between right and wrong – two categories that Hitler or anybody’s government cannot ultimately define.  Under Nazi ideology, the strongest determines what is just.  Adolf Hitler advocated for the elimination of other races.  He distortedly—and openly—thought of the Jews as a sub-human group.  Subordinates followed him, whether they believed in his ideals or simply “followed orders.”

However, human suffering causes us to react.  As humans, we sympathize with our own.  When one’s spirit diminishes, we likely have a natural tendency to find this unsettling or unjust.  Among the attendees of the Auschwitz property, I located a group of Hindus and a Christian priest.  We found that some evil is so powerful and fundamental, a wide array of individuals hear the call to learn what happened and reflect.  We seek to learn to avoid repeats.  Once we turn away, issues arise again.  For instance, close to my birth year, both the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides occurred.

I humbly admit that I rarely read in high school.  I skimmed or completely disregarded assigned books, including the famed Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.  After the tour at Birkenau, I purchased a copy at the museum’s book store and read it on my way to the Czech Republic, where we planned to visit the Nazi concentration camp in Terezín.

Inside Frank’s diary, I initially heard a first-hand account of Jewish life under Nazi occupation.  However, I later discovered much deeper themes.  I learned of a child with interests and dreams.  I learned of a child with an extraordinary sense of awareness regarding the world around her.  Though, most evidently, I learned of a child with aspirations.  She sought to climb towards new experiences and gain further respect from her parents and peers.  Her individual potential ceased when she died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony, Germany.

Leave a Comment

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.




Navigate Right
Navigate Left
  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Cover Story

    Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part II

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Cover Story

    Poland and Prague Journal Series: Introduction

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Literature Review

    The Chemist Book Review

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Literature Review

    Thirteen Reasons Why Review

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Sports

    This Week in Sports Recap

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Sports

    This Week in Sports Recap

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Entertainment

    DIY Tattoos

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Opinion

    Should Animals Be Kept in Zoos?

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Sports

    This Week in Sports Recap

  • Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I

    Literature Review

    Split Review

The Student News Site of Elmira College
Poland and Prague Journal Series: Part I