Kim Blevins-Relleva/Nashville State Community College/Abintra Montessori School
My gratitude for this experience is immense. I’m in awe of Danielle Kahane-Kaminsky’s vision and tireless advocacy to make this thoughtful, well-organized trip a reality, and I am deeply grateful to her, and to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission for making the trip a priority. This trip has profoundly changed my life.
I’ve framed my reflections within each of the USHMM’s Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust since the experience gave new meaning as to the best practices for presenting this essential history to students.
Define the term “Holocaust.” The schedule of the trip and the experiences we had sharply defined the Holocaust: we started in Berlin, where the state sponsorship of this event was undeniable. In Poland, we saw the systems that were used to murder the Jews. Visiting the death camp Treblinka, where 900,000 Jews were murdered in 8 months, was overwhelming in the recognition of loss and the reality of how many lives the machinery of death consumed.
Do not teach that the Holocaust was inevitable. Every step of the trip we saw where people made choices. In Berlin, at Track 17, where the Jews were deported to death camps, we saw how their neighbors and friends chose to look the other way. It was not inevitable. People made choices.
Avoid simple answers to complex questions. Seeing the vast physical scope of the Holocaust: from the places it was planned in Berlin, to the ghettos and death camps of Poland stresses in a totally different way that there are no easy and pat answers to be found. This realization is pronounced when you travel the space in which that the horror occurred.
Strive for precision of language. Tanya, the expert that Danielle arranged to guide us in Berlin, illustrated this guideline perfectly: the importance of being specific, not vague, and the requirement to avoid sweeping generalities. This also was a consideration when emotionally processing the vast horror of the Holocaust in a totally new way that being in the actual sites presents. You can have emotions, strong ones, but you still must present the history factually to preserve its integrity. Dorota, our guide at Auschwitz, was another example of respectful, but factual and precise language.
Strive for balance in whose perspective informs your study of the Holocaust. Being in Warsaw, seeing the Jewish cemetery with its mass graves and its neglect, seeing the former Warsaw Ghetto site, just another part of town: this trip recommitted my dedication to telling the story of the Jews over the story of the Third Reich. While that history is, of course, essential, the overwhelming sense of a vanished people and the responsibility to honor their story was made crystal clear.
Avoid comparisons of pain. The trip sharpened the fact that the Holocaust was a singular event. To trace the path of this history is to see its unique dimensions and to avoid comparisons. While all genocides are atrocious, each one has its particulars, the most important being the identity of the victims. The village of Tykocin completely shook me: the illumination of the enormous loss of Jewish culture and life was overwhelming.
Do not romanticize history. Seeing Auschwitz, being in that space: the air moves through your body in a different way. The reality of what happened is so palatable and real that you fully recognize that to romanticize what happened is to dishonor the victims.
Contextualize the history. Seeing the places made me realize that without context, for example, the former site of the Plaszow camp would just be another beautiful rolling hill in Poland. In order to present my experiences to my students, I must be able to place every site we visited into a historical context.
Translate statistics into people. For me, this is the lasting legacy of the trip. When we visited the village of Tykocin and saw the houses of the Jewish residents who were executed on August, 25, 1941—saw their actual houses, still standing, but with new occupants. I heard a baby crying inside one of the houses, and thought of the children never to be born of the Jews of Tykocin. The abandoned cemetery: every old stone a family, a story. This trip made it impossible to view the Holocaust without thinking of the individuals. Our Study Tour Guide, David, also aided in this by sharing countless personal stories of the Holocaust.