Alexandria Oemig took a two-week study-abroad course, “20th Century Eastern Europe and the Holocaust,” offered through the Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh Office of International Education, with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Earlier last summer, I traveled to Poland and Lithuania as a way to learn about the Holocaust there. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will carry with me forever. The walking tours of Krakow, Lublin, Warsaw and Vilnius gave us context for the atrocities committed during World War II. A few of our stops were particularly impactful.
We toured both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau giving us a glimpse of the deadly reality of the concentration camps. The tour of Auschwitz I ended in the gas chamber, which still has the scratches on the walls from victims’ final fight for their lives. We continued to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Nazis turned their Final Solution into a true death machine, and finished at the end of the train tracks, between the ruins of two gas chambers. There sat a large stone monument, with more than 20 plaques — each in a different language — that read “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1943.”
The memorial at Majdanek was opened by the Soviets in 1969, on the 25th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Most of what is left of the camp is on either side of a long gravel road, which now leads from the stone monument at the front at one end, to the concrete mausoleum at the other. We walked through the crematorium, the ovens still covered with residue of the ashes they created with horrifying efficiency. We then walked up steps to the mausoleum. The pile of ash and soil was terrible and moving and horrifying. The idea of thousands of people having their lives erased, reduced to nothing but white specks of bone fragment visible against the ashy gray background, is truly heartbreaking.
Belzec was an extermination center. Only two people are known to have survived its horrors. When the Nazis left, they completely leveled it to the ground and built a farm. Now, instead of being completely erased from memory, an incredible memorial stands on the site. It’s hard to describe exactly, but every aspect of the memorial was intentional and well thought out. We walked through the memorial, and up and around to the museum. The most powerful part was the Contemplation Room. A concrete room the size of one of the gas chambers with only two dim lights, it was cold and dark. Absolutely haunting. I walked the length of the room and back towards the door, when it occurred to me: I get to leave, to walk out of this place. So many people did not.
Throughout the memorials, a verse from Job (16:18) was featured. It spoke to me as a plea from the victims: “Earth, do not cover my blood; let there be no resting place for my outcry!” We cannot cover the atrocities of the Holocaust, we cannot bury their cries for justice, and we must heed their warnings so it never happens again.
Alexandria Oemig is majoring in Psychology at University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.