Six ghettos, five museums, and four concentration camps in three weeks; or how I spent my summer vacation

Jewish quarter signage in Prague

Jewish quarter signage in Prague

 

Summer is the season for travel – and for some of us it means traveling to Europe to trace family history and commemorate the Shoah. Fredie Adelman, the director of the Smithsonian Associates program in Washington DC, and her sister were both named after relatives murdered in death camps by the Nazis and had long wanted to make such a trip. They did so last summer, accompanied their daughters and visiting sites in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, and Austria. In this report, she describes parts of the trip and reflects on the experience.

 

Six ghettos, five museums, and four concentration camps in three weeks; or how I spent my summer vacation

 

By Fredie Adelman

 

Our first stop in every city was the Jewish Quarter: diminutive but powerful in Prague where we toured the synagogues (the ornate Spanish, the mournful Pinkas with its carefully inscribed names of Holocaust victims, the Klaus and the Maisel with exhibits on Jewish life, and the austere Altneu); the commercialized Krakow Jewish quarter, and Warsaw, where our guide gently pointed out that the entire city is a memorial. The perimeters of the Warsaw Ghetto are still visible: garden walls that were designated ghetto walls are either memorialized with plaques and bits of brick that have been donated to museums around the world or have receded into part of the landscape and once again serve to delineate property lines. The burial mound at Mila 18, the heart of the Ghetto Uprising, is an oddly unremarkable yet highly photographed site in a seemingly upscale neighborhood. Residences on either side, and a little further on, massive memorial sculptures: one in front of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and another commemorating the 1944 Polish Warsaw uprising.

 

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In Lodz, we stopped when we heard boisterous singing coming out of the modest synagogue, and then, amazed, had a joyful and unplanned reunion with American high school students who were also touring the Old Country before heading to Israel.

There’s no marker at what would have been the Jewish quarter in our family village, Busko-Zdrój, a spa town just north of Krakow: the synagogue had long ago become a laundromat and we were told that all the Jewish residents were taken to Treblinka where they died. We looked at each other – living proof that not everyone was deported to Treblinka.

 

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We explored cemeteries, silent – and sometimes empty – reminders of the millions of lives that were lost before the millions murdered during WWII. In Lodz, 180,000 burial plots covering the overgrown 105 acre cemetery staggers the imagination; similarly, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is packed into a much smaller area, but the grave sites are stacked and the forest of gravestones dates back to the mid-1400s. The Busko-Zdrój gravestones from the early 1800s were used by SS to surface the streets. All that remains today is a pile of rubble, barely identifiable as tombstones, in an empty field surrounded by a newly constructed fence.

Although we arrived in Busko more than halfway through the trip, after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and Lidice, Terezin and Dresden, this was the first place I that made me angry. Yes, the stories of wanton destruction and loss of life is upsetting, but as a former staff member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a first generation child of survivors, I had come to terms with the grief. It was the very idea that in this tiny little spa town, on the way to nowhere, an unnamed SS officer decided to commandeer gravestones to pave a highway. That image and those wrecked stones brought me to tears of fury.

 

Photo courtesy Fredie Adelman

Photo courtesy Fredie Adelman

 

Still, nothing had prepared me for the vastness of the camps.

In June, Auschwitz-Birkenau is very hot, very noisy, and very crowded – more than 2 million people visited it last year. We were treated to a fully immersive experience: preoccupied staff herded visitors into large groups distinguished by language. English speakers on the left, Italians straight ahead, French on the right and wait until you’re called. Our small band was sorted into the next available English speaking tour. Once our audio devices were adjusted – the tour guide marched several paces ahead of us, talking constantly – we hurried to keep up. No time to observe or reflect, no time to meander and explore; no accommodation for anyone who might need a rest or a snack (prisoners didn’t eat, so why should visitors?). After four hours striding across the acreage, we were invited to linger.

Photo: courtesy Fredie Adelman

Photo: courtesy Fredie Adelman

By that point, we were wrung out. Anyone needing facilities was left fumbling for change for the WCs. A ramshackle kiosk was selling what appeared to be every book or memoir ever written about individual prisoner experiences of A-B. At another stop, bottles of water could be purchased at exorbitant cost. The seats of the jitney that runs between Auschwitz and Birkenau were covered by torn, brightly colored gummed visitor identification stamps. It seems that no one wanted to keep souvenirs; I was struck at how much the colorful visitor labels reminded me of the roomful of still-vibrantly hued confiscated household items.

Our visit to KZ Mauthausen, in Austria, proved very different. There, our small family group was welcomed with concern and respect. A visitor services staff member greeted us warmly and spent the day showing us around. We toured at our own pace – our guide led us to shady spots to sit and reflect, provided us with bottles of water, and led us to air conditioned rest stops (with no surcharges). Monumental sculptures from foreign nations memorialized the prisoners; barracks and gas chambers, crematoria and cemeteries are well maintained and include informative and discreet signage. The visitor center and bookstore are immaculate and architecturally in keeping with the forbidding stone that was quarried by prisoners to build the camp. The small café is well-stocked with healthy options; workers here, the signage proudly proclaimed, are people with disabilities. This place of death is a stark memorial committed to educating future living generations.

The places that resonated most potently with us were the memorial museums – maybe that’s because I’m a museum person and those are the places that are most meaningful to me. The Radegast train-station-turned-memorial in Lodz needed little interpretation; the thousands of names on transport lists spoke volumes. Names handwritten or typed, entire families listed or lists of just men or just women.

In Berlin, the surreal and stark juxtaposition of memorial and history in the Berlin Jewish Museum rendered me speechless. Daniel Libeskind’s design may be difficult for installing artwork, but it is deliberately so. A staircase that abuts a wall – what better illustration is there of futility? Immense stone markers on crooked cobblestones – how better to describe uncertainty? A pitch-dark tower with only a sliver of a window to let in light – now I understand hope.

The little-known memorial museum in Lidice, in the Czech Republic, was equally powerful. It recounts the retaliatory destruction of a small farming village whose residents were accused of plotting the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. The compact unadorned concrete museum houses small eye-level photos of the 340 murdered citizens and video testimony of some of the 143 women and 17 children who survived.

This remote Czech village should become as much a modern pilgrimage site as Warsaw, where POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, memorializes by looking both backwards and forwards.

Into the Forest.... Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Visitors start by seeing their own reflection in a reflective photomural of an old growth forest, then move through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment; they experience markets and industry, are led through the Holocaust era on a narrow path and must follow the story by choosing to remain in Poland or to emigrate abroad after the war. And there is an ‘after’ – in this final gallery, visitors understand what it was like to try to rebuild after WWII, to survive under Communist rule, and then to stand with the Solidarity movement. The museum artfully juxtaposes artifacts with digital media; in one gallery, the ceiling soars to accommodate a re-created brightly painted wooden synagogue and later, the walls close in at odd angles through the WWII years. There is an unfinished quality throughout because, after all, Polish history continues today.

I knew before leaving that this trip would be important; what I couldn’t have known is that our daughters would begin planning a return visit before we headed home. There are still so many unanswered questions — and so many more places to visit.

 

June 5, 2017

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Frederica (Fredie) Adelman is the director of the Smithsonian Associates program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In the past, she was on the staff of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and worked on the Precious Legacy exhibit of Czech Judaica treasures.