This May, a number of Albion College students traveled to Poland with the Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project. Students spent almost two weeks there as part of a larger project to improve the New Jewish Cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland.
This trip is offered at the beginning of the summer in alternative years to Albion students of any major. Embarking on the trip requires students to first take a half unit class in the spring semester focused on the Holocaust’s impact in Poland throughout World War II. Seven members of the faculty also accompany students on the trip.
The project began in 1997 when an FYE class learning about the Holocaust decided that they wanted to do something to help the Jewish community in Poland. Students traveled to Poland after hearing about the New Jewish Cemetery in Wroclaw, Poland, which was vandalized and left in a state of disrepair after World War II.
Since then, students continue to go to the New Jewish Cemetery, where they choose a new plot within the cemetery to work on each trip. Here, they dig up headstones and clear away debris surrounding them in an effort to restore the cemetery.
For the first three days of this year’s trip, we spent time in Wroclaw, Poland, where we worked at the New Jewish Cemetery. There, we met a group of Germans who were also restoring headstones. It was really interesting to talk with them about how they, too, came to the cemetery as part of an effort to restore it.
Uncovering a headstone on my own for the first time was a moment that stuck with me for the rest of my time working in the cemetery. That was when I truly realized the importance of what we were doing.
At the end of our time in the cemetery, Frank Kelemen, director of counseling services, informed us that we had uncovered at least six hundred headstones. Given the short amount of time we were there, that was a really humbling fact to hear.
To be able to see the impact we were making on the cemetery, despite our limited tools, was amazing as well. It was exciting to contribute to the restoration of the cemetery after years of neglect, even in a small way.
During our time in the country, we also took a tour of the Jewish district in Wroclaw, ending in a trip to the Old Jewish Cemetery, which was in use in the century before the New Jewish Cemetery. This Old Jewish Cemetery had already undergone restoration, allowing us to we see what the New Jewish Cemetery might look like one day.
From there, we traveled to Krakow, where we visited the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. This was a labor camp that was later partially converted into a park in Krakow. It also serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the camp, especially at the end of its use in 1945 when many of the prisoners were killed.
Before World War II, Krakow was home to roughly 60,000 Jewish people who had lived there since the thirteenth century, and it now has one of the smallest populations of Jews in Poland. Visiting the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, which is now used as an entertainment district with many ethnic restaurants, was a stark reminder of that loss in Krakow.
We traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau near the end of our trip and spent several hours walking through the camp.
One of the most intense experiences for me on this trip was the museum that has been made of Auschwitz I, where we saw the shoes that the Jewish people were forced to get rid of before being killed. This moment really drove home for me the importance of our being there, and the suffering that had taken place in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
From there, we crossed the street and went to Auschwitz II, which was, for me, an even more intense experience. Unlike Auschwitz I, it wasn’t converted into a museum. Rather, it was more of a memorial to those who had been killed there. Everything has been left mostly untouched since the end of the war, so walking through the gates on the same death march that the prisoners were forced to undergo was a very emotional experience.
Our trip ended in Warsaw, where we traveled to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This is on the site of a former Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish people were forced to live during the German occupation in Poland. At the museum, we learned about the extensive history of the Jewish people in Poland, going back for one thousand years.
As someone who had never been out of the country before this trip, traveling to Poland was a moving experience for me. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the trip, but even the small amount of good that we were able to do in uncovering graves in the New Jewish Cemetery is something that will always stick with me.