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Showing posts with label Jonathan Furst. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Furst. Show all posts

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reflections from Prague, Part 3 – Auschwitz/Birkenau: The Heart of the Beast

JPEF Education Manager Jonathan Furst recently returned from a trip to Prague for the ELMLE conference European International School middle-school educators. The trip included a pre-conference tour of the Terezin ghetto, and was followed by a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

Following the trip to Terezin, I realized that my journey would be incomplete – I would be incomplete – until I went to the heart of the beast: Auschwitz-Birkenau. I arranged to visit a few days after the conference.

The first thing to know about Auschwitz-Birkenau is that it is cold. On the day I went, the temperature was -30˚ Celsius on a windless day. Even in thermals and a heavy coat I was chilled. I took my shoes and gloves off to pray for 20 minutes – days later, my hands were still chapped and my feet felt painfully cold. How anyone survived there at all is beyond my understanding.

Bikenau is one of the most desolate places on earth. 1.1 million people were murdered* – more than a thousand human deaths occurred every day for years. Truly a death machine.

They say that no birds and no animals ever strayed near, and no plants grew there during the Holocaust. And I believe it. The ground is barren – the ruins of barracks (destroyed by the Nazis’ attempt to erase evidence of their crimes) lie behind stretches of 13-foot high barbed wire. Electrified barbed wire: something about that still stuns and enrages me, the mere fact that someone could conceive of it.

My overall reaction, though, wasn’t rage. Or even shock or sadness (although I felt all of those). Unexpectedly, I felt a defiant pride. The Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years didn’t even last twenty. But we still live on, after four thousand years on this earth. “You’re gone,” I thought, “and we are here”.

And even here there was resistance – even the armed kind. Very few people have ever heard of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Revolt, when a group of Jews overcame the guards and destroyed one of the crematoria. (Tiny amounts of gunpowder were smuggled into the Birkenau death camp by women who worked in the munitions factory in Auschwitz). The ruins of the crematoria are simultaneously horrifying and inspiring to see in person.

And then there were the latrines. Dysentery was rampant, yet inmates who were in a constant state of diarrhea were allowed to go to the bathroom only at two or three fixed times of the day, and for no more than a few minutes. The latrine is a vast barn with hundreds of crude holes placed over a trench, side-by-side and back-to-back, to be used by 32,000 people a day. It’s the little details like this that bring the horror home.

The smell must have been asphyxiating. In an attempt to humiliate intellectuals and other ‘troublemakers’, the Germans would assign them the task of cleaning out the filth. But the job of ‘Scheissekommando’ was secretly considered an opportunity instead of a humiliation. Not only could the enslaved workers relieve themselves as often as they needed, but the guards would refuse to go in do to the stench, so this was one of the few places where Jews could talk without being overheard. Here is where the resistance organized and made plans.

Even in the most desperate conditions such as this, one could unearth stories of resistance. Most of them will never be known, but some still survive. To find out more, visit the following links:

*Until the end of the communist occupation of Poland, Birkenau was referred to as the place where 1.1 million Poles and other people, including Jews, were killed. Of those murdered at Auschwitz, approximately 75,000 were Polish. One million were Jewish.

All photos and videos taken by Jonathan Furst during his trip. Copyright 2012 JPEF.

Part 1 — Insights from the Prague International Schools Conference
Part 2 — Terezin: Healing Through Art and Storytelling

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections from Prague, Part 2 - Terezin: Healing Through Art and Storytelling

JPEF Education Manager Jonathan Furst recently returned from a trip to Prague, Czech Republic, where he attended the 26th European League for Middle Level Education (ELMLE) Conference for European International School middle-school educators. The trip included a pre-conference tour of the Terezin ghetto, and was followed by a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. He shared the following reflections.

Read Part I here.
Read Part III here.

When I saw that there would be a pre-session educators’ tour of Terezin (also known as the National Memorial of Suffering), I was both eager and frightened. Even though I have worked in Holocaust education for more than 5 years, I had yet to visit a concentration camp.

Jonathan leading an impromptu partisan workshop.

A “model” camp used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, Terezin was a place of lies. But it was also the setting for startlingly brave acts of truth-telling. Jewish artists, poets, journalists — even a secret photographer — risked their lives to document the physical and emotional reality of this horrible place. There were many other acts of spiritual, artistic and other resistance, perhaps the best-known documented in I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a book of children’s art from the camp, and the film Brundibar about an opera created in the camp, which helped to both keep spirits up and serve as a coded cry for help.

Room where the opera Brundibar was performed. The Terezin
Judenrat also used it for meetings.

For the first part of the tour, I felt both sadness and shock, but when we stepped into the crematorium, the reality of the horror hit me: the scale of the room, the meticulous engineering of the ovens. I purchased a candle, and was touched when one of the teachers on the tour asked if she could light one with me. However, that was nothing compared to the emotions I experienced when nearly the entire tour said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) with me. Words do not describe the feeling of support and compassion from this group of strangers — almost all non-Jewish — who stood with me. It was a transformative experience.

I can not thank our tour leader, Trudi van der Tak of the American School of the Hague in Amsterdam, enough for the sensitivity, depth of knowledge and sense of humanity that she brought to the experience. I am also grateful that she invited me to speak about the Jewish partisans at the end of the tour.

Though we were all somber, it made the experience more bearable for both my fellow educators and for me. And that is one of the most valuable lessons I received: telling the stories is just as healing as hearing them, perhaps even more.

So I highly recommend encouraging your students to share what they learn about Jewish resistance to their family, friends, and anyone else who will listen. We all know that the best way to truly learn something is to teach it. The lessons of the Jewish partisans and the millions of others who engaged in non-violent resistance teach us that resistance is always possible, always worthwhile. Evil can be fought even in the harshest circumstances, and even the smallest acts of defiance make a difference. The world will always need these lessons and people to teach and realize them.

Part 1 — Insights from the Prague International Schools Conference
Part 3 — Auschwitz/Birkenau: The Heart of the Beast