By Kim Bolduc
“Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘the response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is a ‘response’ in responsibility,” reads an excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s “Preface” in his Holocaust memoir, “Night.”
The Holocaust History and Restoring Jewish Cemeteries Mini-Term runs in the summer months, just after graduation to, typically, the first week of July.
Students fly first to Krakow, a delightful city of winding streets and elegant, open-air cafés. Wide, busy squares and stately basilicas give the city a truly European air.
There, students tour Wawel Castle, Cloth Market Square, Saint Mary’s Basilica and dozens of other sites crowing Poland’s rich and glorious history.
Beside this baroque architecture and cheery tourism are juxtaposed places like Schindler’s factory, Plaszow, Kazimierz Square and the Krakow Ghetto, places that hint at the level of evil lurking beneath gilded spires and medieval castle walls.
Just outside Krakow is Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the largest and oldest continually operating salt mines in the world.
The grand and eerie cathedral located at nearly 1,000 feet below ground is a must-see for tourists.
From Krakow, students travel to Warsaw, taking a train through the countryside where innocent red-roofed cottages sit nestled among the fields of wheat and barley.
In Warsaw, students tour Lazienki Park, Wilanow Palace, the Royal Castle and walk through Old Town, wandering into squares where children play with a soccer ball or an elderly couple dances next to a fountain to the sweet sounds of a violinist.
Also in Warsaw, students visit the Warsaw Ghetto and Mila 18, where looming, 12-foot ghetto walls of red brick and peaceful grass-covered mounds of former resistance centers mark the resistance of people under great duress.
The subtlety of the Holocaust in places like Krakow and Warsaw starkly contrasts the blatant terror of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, whose very air seems charged with evil and suffering.
Soon after leaving the vicinity of Warsaw, students visit Treblinka, another, smaller death camp than Auschwitz, but just as ghastly.
After the Polish half of the trip, the next week and a half is spent in Lithuania, touring the charming city of Vilnius and doing a home-stay with a Lithuanian family in the countryside, all the while continuing to witness the devastation of the Holocaust at places like Ponarei Forest and the Vilnius Ghetto.
However, the last, best and most rewarding portion of the trip is the time spent at a lodge in Aukstadvaris where students work everyday to restore a Jewish cemetery.
Forgotten and overgrown, often down bumpy, narrow, weedy lanes, these burial grounds are no longer cared for by the descendants of those buried for the simple reason that those descendants no longer exist or have moved far away.
This is the true tragedy of the Holocaust: the loss of an entire generation, the desecration of an entire lineage and the erasure of individual histories and traditions.
The synagogues of Eastern Europe, the ones that remain, sit unused and empty, rotting and weather-beaten.
The Jewish cemeteries, untended and dishonored, recede back into nature.
Names blur into green moss.
I was able to talk to Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies Stephen Berk, who spoke of the trip as a “life-transforming experience.”
He emphasized the benefits of seeing places like Auschwitz, stating, “Every human being should go through Auschwitz to see what people are capable of and to see the resilience of people living under great stress.”
Berk also praised the restoration of a Jewish cemetery as an opportunity to “do a righteous deed” by “honoring people who cannot thank you.”
Berk acknowledged that, in many cases, the current residents of the communities visited by the mini-term have forgotten about the Jewish population that once lived there.
Through students’ efforts, these locals can “become aware of the Jewish history” of their region.
The murder of 11 million people is a great injustice and a black mark on the history of humanity, never to be forgiven or forgotten.
But this mini-term offers a unique opportunity through which students can witness gruesome places like Auschwitz, Ponarei and Treblinka can become activists.
If there is a chance at redemption, at easing the void left by the dead, then it is to take responsibility.
It is doing what the dead of the Holocaust cannot; it is doing the simple favor of honoring their loved ones and their legacies.
The mini-term is proudly sustained through the generosity of donors like Dr. Arnold Goldschalger and Dr. Aaron Feingold, Class of 1958.
For more information about this year’s trip, contact John and Jane Wold Professor of Religious Studies Peter Bedford by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.