Friday, March 24, 2017

The Important Questions

            I took this class hoping to find answers to some of the difficult questions surrounding the tragedy of the Holocaust, but instead of answers, I’ve only gotten more questions. I’ve learned that some of the most important questions simply don’t have answers. Questions like “What kind of horrible human beings could orchestrate an event like this?” or “People must have been aware of the situation, how could they sit idly by?” or even bigger questions like “Where was God?”
            The one question that particularly plagued me was as follows; how could a human being with any sort of moral compass ignore the tragedies occurring right in their own country? After visiting Auschwitz, it became nearly impossible for me to believe that those anywhere near a camp could ignore what was happening there. The camps were enormous, covering an incredible amount of space. I’m sure at the time they were operating it was loud, smelly and again, nearly impossible to overlook. Visiting Auschwitz and seeing just how close in proximity some houses were to the camps, it was clear that residents of this country were avoiding the issue. After learning about the torture, murder and general mistreatment of the prisoners of the camps, it hurt me to think that people could turn a blind eye. For me, it raised yet another important question; what would I have done?
            It is so easy for me to sit here and say that I would have intervened. But what would I have done? I could have joined the underground as some non-Jewish members of the community had. But what if I had a family of my own and helping those suffering would be sacrificing the safety of my own family? Would I have been willing to make a sacrifice like that for people I didn’t know? In the Holocaust kingdom, a non-Jewish friend on the outside of the ghetto saved Alexander Donat’s son. This woman risked her life for another family’s child. I have incredible respect for this woman and would like to believe that if I was in her situation, that I would have done the same. But, once again, the difficult part about asking these questions is that you are never guaranteed and answer.

            As thought provoking and frustrating as these questions are, they are nonetheless important to be asked. Although it is impossible to answer these questions because I am not in the position that these bystanders were in, it is important to ask them because it shows that I am recognizing the need to look out for those around me who are struggling. Despite not knowing what role I would play if a situation ever arose, I am showing that I am aware of the need for people to stand up and not be passive bystanders. To be socially conscious and active is incredibly important. To raise questions like “what would I have done?” is evidence of your inclination to do something. After seeing some of the horrible injustices imposed on the victims of the Holocaust, I feel more inclined than ever to not be a bystander and to use my voice against any wrong, either big or small.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Resistance in the Face of Evil

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes by Nathan Rapoport in Warsaw
Resistance movements orchestrated by victims during the Holocaust have captured my interest while studying abroad at the Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland.
While studying the Holocaust, one is constantly confronted with the fact that the Nazis were relentless in their pursuit of annihilation of the Jewish people. The fact that people found the courage and strength to fight back against a force as powerful as the Nazis fascinates me because hope must have seemed out of reach for so many people. For the resisters, however, hope was not only attainable, but sustainable in the form of active opposition.

Biuletyn Informacyjny - A Polish underground publication during World War II

In Jewish ghettos during World War II, one way resisters organized was through an underground press. The approximately 1,500 underground publications that appeared in Poland between 1939 and 1945 were in direct opposition to Nazi propaganda. Clandestine publications like the Home Army General Command’s Biuletyn Informacyjny were necessary for providing information untainted by Nazi ideology to the Polish people. As a journalism major at Iona College, I am conscious of the significance of the dissemination of information from various perspectives in maintaining a free society. Of course, German-occupied Poland was never free, but the existence of an underground press was a key factor in the ability of Poles to resist.

Underground education in Poland - Łopiennik Górny 1941

Another form of resistance that existed during the German occupation of Poland was an underground schooling system. In spite of German efforts to destroy the Polish intelligentsia and minimize the education of Poles, clandestine schooling appeared at every level of education, involving about a million people. This helped shape and maintain a high level of national consciousness so that Nazi ideology could never take complete hold of the nation.

Photo taken during Warsaw Uprising - From Jürgen Stroop's report to Heinrich Himmler - May 1943

The Warsaw Uprising was an act of resistance that stands out as one of the key events in the history of Polish Jewish resistance against Nazism. According to the Auschwitz I exhibit “The Struggle and Martyrdom of the Polish Nation 1939-1945,” the Jewish National Committee rallied the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to revolt. Alexander Donat’s memoir, The Holocaust Kingdom, detailed the author’s experience of the uprising, which broke out on April 19, 1943.
“The entire length of Niska Street was one billowing sheet of smoke and flame,” Donat writes. “The fighters put up a fierce defense and our own building had joined in the shooting. We all were suffering from lack of sleep and food, but we were at high tension, gripped by a kind of ecstasy that made any effort seem within our capabilities” (p. 155).

SS men strolling past a burning building during the Warsaw Uprising

Despite the passion of the Jews, the uprising was crushed after 63 days. The revolt was carried out with almost no assistance from the western Allies. To this day, the Warsaw Uprising is representative of the fighting spirit that Jews held onto even in the face of crushing opposition.

The resistance efforts carried out by Polish Jews during the Second World War deserve recognition as outstanding models of human perseverance. The examples in this blog post are only a few of the many ways Polish Jews fought to maintain their dignity as human beings.

By Michael Coppola

Walking in the victims footsteps -- Birkenau



Railroad tracks in Birkenau
When I applied and considered the trip for Poland, us being able to tour the concentration camps was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be able to experience this. I have always been fascinated by the Holocaust and wanted to learn more about why and how something catastrophic like this could occur. Auschwitz-Birkenau housed over 80,000 people in the camp although the aim was to hold about 100,000 but wasn’t completed because of the camo being liberated. Before Birkenau became a concentration camp, the land was a village occupied by locals who were all eventually kicked out. A main reason that we learned about why the Nazis chose to put the camp here was because there were railroad lines created and in place way before, giving them easy access. Around 500,000 people were sent to this railroad line and most of those who were murdered were Polish Jews. I had already had a lot of knowledge about the Holocaust because of all the reading and movies I have watched on my own time, I learned so much more new information
than I expected. Although at Auschwitz there was a lot of information given because it has since been turned into a museum, Birkenau was raw. We had visited Auschwitz the day before and had a guided tour, but Birkenau had a different feel. Seeing the camp in person was so different than I had expected, it looked like all the photos I had always seen but I couldn’t believe that I was walking where harmless people were murdered for no reason other than they were thought to not fit the “Aryan” race. Most of the people brought to Birkenau were killed in the gas chambers but some without any documentation, so although we have numbers it could also be much higher than we’ll ever know. One thing that stuck out to me was when we were told about the Sonderkammando. This was a group of prisoners, mainly Jewish, who were forced with their own death to aid in the disposal of the bodies from the gas chambers. 450 of those in the Sonderkammando revolted and destroyed a gas chamber on the camp, after this occurred 250 prisoners from the camp were then shot as the punishment for what they had done. You can sit and question all day why people would revolt or go against the Nazi’s knowing that it would result in some other innocent prisoner being killed. But, the fact is they were nothing more than scared for lives and unless we could walk a day in their shoes choosing to be “selfish” may have been the only option to them if it meant possibly becoming free. Something I questioned a lot, which I could only imagine the victims of the Holocaust were questioning as well, was where was God during this time? But, I don’t think there is an answer to that question at all.