I, witness: My experience at the Holocaust field school

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I remember my hesitation clearly as I walked into the Germanic Studies office in Clearihue on the first of November. My hands were sweating, my stomach was in knots, and my head kept screaming at me, wondering what I was getting myself into.

In my hands I clutched my final application for the I-witness Holocaust field school.

The field school is part of GMST 489, a course offered by the Germanic Studies department here at UVic every other year. It consists of a week of intensive study on campus at the beginning of May followed by three weeks travelling various cities in Europe, analyzing how the Holocaust is memorialized in those countries. In doing so, participants also learn about contemporary Jewish culture and how it continues to live on in Europe, seeing how people interact with memorials and monuments on a day to day basis.

The course description sounded like a dream come true. Being a student specializing in 20th-century European history, I knew that not only was this right up my alley, but it would also benefit my studies in the long run. Firsthand experience with what I was studying, and seeing how it is still applicable today, is almost impossible to gain while taking a full course load at school and working part time. But this course offered the opportunity to see why my degree is still important.

With this in my heart, I submitted my application.

 

After learning the subsequent week that I had been accepted, the following six months were a whirlwind of planning and preparation. Deposits and flights had to be booked, and I undertook monthly orientation sessions at which I got to meet my classmates and prepare for studying in a completely different atmosphere. This half-year brought so many fears to mind: how would I be able to deal with the emotional stress of the course? I knew that we would be going to some former concentration camps; how was I going to react to some of the monuments and sites we were to visit?

At the same time, I feared that maybe I wouldn’t react at all. I had studied the Holocaust and Nazi Germany intensively in various classes, and knew so many facts and so much of the historical background about the horrors that transpired. What if I had desensitized myself? What if I was unable to separate the emotional from the intellectual?

Fast-forward to the first week of May, and these thoughts were still on my mind as we began our week of studies on campus. In that one week, we met with three different Holocaust survivors, and listened to their stories, and discussed the importance of memorialization and what it means for us to be the last generation that will be able to talk with people who witnessed these events.

We also participated in B.C.’s first ever Yom Ha’Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the provincial legislature — all of this while stressing over packing and making sure everything at home was OK for me to leave for three weeks. That first week introduced me to the reality of what the field school would offer; I clearly remember driving to my mum’s work after talking to Bob Boekbinder, a man who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and bursting into tears in the middle of her office for reasons I still can’t even explain. It was only during these first days of the course that the fears I had when submitting my application resurfaced, and it made me question if I was up to the challenge this course was proving to be.

And then, before I knew it, we were in Europe.

The Nueu Wache (or New Guardhouse) memorial in Berlin. Photo by Riley van der Linden

The Nueu Wache (or New Guardhouse) memorial in Berlin. Photo by Riley van der Linden

Those three weeks were a phenomenal learning experience, but there were definitely some moments in particular that were effective in helping me explore how the Holocaust is memorialized today.

Take the first day — Berlin. It began with a short walking tour in Berlin’s Jewish quarter —  the first of many, many walking tours we would partake in over the coming weeks. Our professor, Helga Thorson, who curated the course and guided us on our day-to-day activities and discussions, took us for a short walk around the area to give us a feel for a city that was so foreign to most of us — a helpful exercise for our exhausted and jetlagged bodies.

But soon enough we were at our first monument, the Neue Wache (or New Guardhouse), a government-established memorial constructed in 1931 in what was formerly the guardhouse for troops of the Kingdom of Prussia. While not a Holocaust memorial — the memorial is dedicated to “the victims of war and dictatorship” — it still helped put into perspective how government-funded memorials look, and how they bring different questions to mind than some of the grassroots monuments we would see later in the course.

This first walking tour, in which we saw almost a half-dozen different monuments and memorials over the span of an hour and a half, showed me exactly what I was getting myself into, and how stories could be told in so many different ways.

A Jewish cemetery in the small town of Brzostek, Poland. Photo by Riley van der Linden.

A Jewish cemetery in the small town of Brzostek, Poland. Photo by Riley van der Linden.

When we made our way to Kraków, Poland, we had the opportunity to spend a day with Jonathan Webber, a well-known former professor at Oxford who moved to Poland, where he established memorials in the small town of Brzostek. Because its Jewish population was eliminated by the Germans, Webber helped the town establish a Jewish cemetery, a plaque on the side of the town hall, and a mass grave for the hundreds of Jews who were killed in the middle of the Brzostek forest. Webber was a prime example of how local, small-scale grassroots movements can be just as important in memorializing the Holocaust as the large-scale state-sponsored monuments we saw throughout the course.

In most of the cities we visited throughout our trip, we came across what are called stolperstein, or “stumbling stones,” small brass-plated stones placed in the street to memorialize individuals who were victims of persecution during the war. The stones are placed outside the last known residence or workplace of the person they are memorializing, and have as much or as little information as is known about them.

A stolperstein (or stumbling stone) placed in the street. Photo by Riley van der Linden

A stolperstein (or stumbling stone) placed in the street. Photo by Riley van der Linden

The stones are all placed by one man, Gunter Demnig, and are funded and organized by family members, community members, or people otherwise connected to the person for whom the stone is made. Because these stones have been placed in 18 different countries throughout Europe, it’s the world’s largest decentralized memorial project. You never know where you will be when you see one, and you never know when you might interact with this tragic history.

In Berlin, we were fortunate enough to witness two stones being placed, and were invited to participate in a ceremony performed by family members of the two victims. Being put face to face with those who are still commemorating the Holocaust and are still directly affected by it made me see why this trip was important, and why we need to keep those victims and survivors in mind when memorializing these events.

 

We were told before we left Canada that the field school would be a “life-changing” experience. Now, over a month after returning home, I’m still left with more questions than answers, and still am unsure if the experience was anything I would call life-changing. But I do know that the field school gave me a new way of seeing a familiar history. No longer do I see the Holocaust as just a tragedy I read about in books, but as one I have been forced to interact with. I have borne witness to an event that killed 11 million innocent people, and it has left me a more humble person. The field school has made me a better student, a better friend, and a better member of society. I am more aware of how I interact with the world on a day-to-day basis; I never know when I will stumble upon a stolperstein, never know who has gone through hardships I can’t even begin to empathize with.

The Holocaust is still present in everything we do. We can never escape the imprints it leaves on the future, nor can we try to run from the loss and heartache it left in its wake, even if we have no direct connection to the events. The field school is important because it showed me this in the most upfront and eye-opening way possible.

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