My college trip with We Bear Witness Holocaust Student Fellowship | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

My college trip with We Bear Witness Holocaust Student Fellowship

Berlin is a city of multi-level traumas, said Janna L. Ressel, our tour guide. I stood in an alleyway the Gestapo used to stomp down with deportation lists in-hand of Jewish names.

Ressel has done tours in Berlin for decades and as she took us to see the sites, she told stories of the war with great empathy and sorrow, resolve and strength. And outrage. This complex interpretation of Germany’s past cannot be found in a textbook. The city does remember and is haunted by the war.

I was a recipient of the We Bear Witness Holocaust Student Fellowship, a year-long study of the Holocaust and a 10 day trip to Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow from May 20-30. The fellowship was a partnership project of Hillel Milwaukee and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. It was sponsored by Nancy Kennedy Barnett and Sue Spinello in memory of their late father George Kennedy, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary.

Breanna West is a former Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle intern and is a 2019 graduate of Marquette University with a degree in sociology. If you are interested in being a part of this fellowship, contact Julie Schack at

I was with 11 other college-aged students from various local universities. Julie Schack, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee and Dr. Shay Pilnik, director of HERC, accompanied us on the trip.

Gleis 17 platform memorial at Berlin-Grunewald train station, the first deportation site in Berlin. Train tracks used to go all the way to Auschwitz. Photo by Breanna West.

Every corner of Berlin has been touched by Nazis. We drove through the picturesque streets in the Wannsee district, with Berliners’ country homes overlooking the lake and their yachts parked at the dock, to the end of a street where the glamorous, old mansion, the House of the Wannsee Conference, stood  surrounded by a lush garden.

The most infamous, top-ranking Nazi officials met there in 1942 and wrote down their plans to exterminate the Jews. I stood in that very room where the document was signed and observed their penmanship. I read the English translation of the most perverted and disturbed text. They tallied up how many Jews were in each European country by the thousands and then estimated they would kill 11 million Jews in total. The number at the very bottom of the page gutted me. The beauty of the mansion became ugly and sinister.

We visited the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of German reunification and walked across to the west side.

We took a six-hour train ride to Warsaw and we saw the countryside of Poland. Our hotel was in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. During the day, we walked the perimeter of the Warsaw Ghetto, to see how small it really was to imprison more than 400,000 Jewish people, a city within a city. We saw an old tenement building, the windows boarded up now, and a remaining ghetto wall. Seeing how the city used to look brought the realness of the war back into my mind.

At the Berlin-Grunewald train station, there is a memorial for the platform Gleis 17. These tracks used to travel all the way to Auschwitz and have since been torn up. On the platform, the slabs stated the day, month and year, how many Jews were in the train car and where the car was headed, either to a ghetto or to a camp. Standing on the platform the scene was real in my mind of 100 Jews per car being pushed in. I put a rock on the platform in memorial.

Tour guide Janna L. Ressel stands in front of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Photo by Breanna West.

We visited the Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum represents the Jews’ experience during and after the war. It’s designed purposely to provoke. It does so with the cold, grey slabs of concrete, the dark shadows in the corners of the walls, the unparallel staircases, the flashing white lights, all meant to disorient us. Libeskind intended to capture emptiness in a room. There is a vulnerability to walking through an empty space. He captured a void. Losing the lives of six million Jews is a terrible and tragic void in our world.

Libeskind’s exhibit titled “Garden of Exile” is a physical representation of Jewish diaspora after the Holocaust. Concrete structures stood outside, over our heads in perfect parallel lines, upright and symmetrical, but built on slanted cobblestone. As I walked through it, I was immediately put off-balance and nausea lurched inside me, as I held onto the sides of the structures. My ankles shook as I was propelled forward, unsure of my next step. This is one interpretation of the harsh realities people faced having to assimilate into a new place and attempt to call it home, especially after being forced out of their old home and violently persecuted.

On Friday night we met Hillel of Poland. They welcomed us to their table for Shabbat dinner and we ate a lovely meal together.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is an hour and a half outside of Krakow. Right before the camp is a McDonalds. Walking through the camp, with the barbed wire and wooden barracks and the emptiness, it is sinister, still, heinous and man-made. I thought of the terror of the unknown that the prisoners must have felt in this strange place.  

Boarded up tenement building from Warsaw Ghetto in Warsaw. Photo by Breanna West.

Walking through the gas chambers and seeing the crematorium was sickening and it is an image I will never forget. One room displayed personal photographs of the people who perished. They were doctors, artists, musicians, teachers, sons, fathers, mothers, daughters, grandparents, friends. They were getting married and having children and going off to their first day of work with their briefcase in hand. It is completely tragic what happened. These people had full lives ahead of them. They had talents and ideas and the world would be much richer if they were still here.

That night we met the director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow and we were welcomed at their table. They are working with non-Jews in rebuilding an active Jewish community.

This trip was such a privilege to go on. The Holocaust was only 80 years ago and it is our responsibility to never forget and to retell the history to everyone who will listen. It is imperative that we not close our eyes to oppression and persecution in our modern time. There is an urgency in guarding the sanctity of every human life.