Monday, June 17, 2013


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.


The last camp I’ll describe here is actually the first one I visited. Treblinka was an extermination camp located about fifty miles northeast of Warsaw. When I was planning my trip, I didn’t think twice about seeing it. I was planning to see the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, and knew that most of the Jews deported from Warsaw went to Treblinka. In my courses, I’ve included films that discuss the camp (Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, for example) and I knew that around 850,000 people were killed there, mostly Jews, making it second only to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the number of victims.  (Non-Jewish victims included ethnic Poles and Roma.)  This number is even more staggering given that the extermination camp only operated for fifteen months, from July 1942 to October 1943.

Stones representing the victims' Jewish communitites in Poland
The images I had seen of the memorial made me want to see it in person—17,000 large and jagged stones representing the victims' Jewish communities in Poland. While the commemorative focus is on Polish Jews, there are commemorative stones representing ten countries from where victims were deported: Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. (The memorial was created in the 1960s and Cold War geography is reflected in the stones.)

After arriving in Warsaw, it became clear to me that I hadn’t spent enough time researching how visitors actually get to Treblinka.  I had assumed I could use a combination of trains and buses, as at Auschwitz, though on a smaller scale. However, it’s rather complicated getting there by public transit and most visitors either rent a car and drive themselves or hire a tour guide and driver. There are also companies that will organize tours for small groups. But I was only in Warsaw for a few days and needed to make arrangements quickly, so I decided to use a guide and driver, spending much more than I had planned. In the end, it was well worth it. My tour guide, Magdalena, taught me a great deal about the history of Warsaw, Poland and Treblinka.

As we drove away from my hotel, I was able to take in a broader view of Old Town Warsaw and the areas reconstructed after World War II. Magdalena helped me appreciate how much of Warsaw was destroyed in the war—85% of the historic city and 100% of the Jewish Ghetto. Of the 1.3 million prewar inhabitants, less than 10% survived the war. While walking around the reconstructed Old Town, I saw an outdoor photographic exhibit of Warsaw in 1947—rubble, two years after the war had ended.  It’s hard to imagine the vast destruction of the city, the result of German bombing in 1939, and Nazi retribution for the Jewish ghetto uprising of April 1943, and the broader Varsovian resistance uprising in August to October 1944. Though the Polish insurgents had planned to receive Soviet support, Stalin let the Germans destroy the resistance, holding back the Red Army on the outskirts of Warsaw to facilitate Soviet domination after “liberation.” Today, the Old Town has been impressively reconstructed, with 13th to 20th-century architecture, and is a UNESCO heritage site. Though it does not feel entirely authentic, one has to admire this example of Varsovian spirit and resiliency. (see the photo gallery at

The drive from Warsaw to Treblinka takes about an hour and features with some lovely scenery. As around Ravensbrück, I was struck by the beauty of the Polish countryside, very green and lush, with wetlands and dense forests. It’s an odd feeling to admire the surroundings of such a place, knowing the horrible acts committed there.

"Never Again" inscribed in several languages on the
commemorative stone to the left of the central obelisk.
Given the scale of killing carried out at Treblinka, I had anticipated more visitors at the memorial.  Whereas there were thousands at Auschwitz, there were perhaps dozens at Treblinka, and no tour buses, at least not that day. Before my trip, I had been aware of this disproportionate number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, about a million each year (eerily close to the number of people killed there). It makes sense, given that the Nazis destroyed Treblinka, whereas much of Auschwitz has been preserved and could be turned into a museum.  Yet I found myself wishing that more people would see other camps as well, where there is a concerted effort by governments and organizations to teach this history. Researchers today are still learning about thousands of smaller Nazi camps and ghettos that had all but vanished from public memory—estimated at more than 42,000 across Europe. (see the multivolume encyclopedia project being published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum,

When I was at Treblinka, most of the other visitors came from one large group of Polish motorcyclists. They seemed to be covering a lot of miles during the holiday week. (Labor Day on May 1 and Constitution Day on May 3) Magdalena seemed a bit surprised to see them there. Clad in black leather and reflective gear with their motorcycles parked side by side in the parking lot, they didn’t exactly fit the imagined profile of the typical Treblinka visitor.  But we were heartened to see them there, feeling that it was indicative of a larger public wanting to learn about the camp.

There were two Nazi camps near the village of Treblinka.  The first, Treblinka I, was a labor camp established in December 1941. About a mile away, the Nazis established Treblinka II in July 1942 for one purpose: killing. Along with Sobibor and Belzec, Treblinka II was part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi program for exterminating Jews from occupied Poland. The Nazis closed the camp in October 1943, two months after a heroic inmate uprising that failed to thwart SS control of the camp but allowed 300 inmates to escape, 100 of whom survived the ensuing manhunt.  Operation Reinhard had been a top secret program and when the Nazis closed the camp, they tried to destroy all evidence of it. There are no preserved buildings so one has to imagine how the camp appeared.

Visitors can walk on the train platform where victims arrived and visualize the scenes that took place there.  The Nazis maintained the illusion the victims were heading for a labor or detention camp. They didn’t want the victims to panic or to overtake SS guards.  This illusion enabled thirty or so guards to dominate hundreds of victims at a time.  A warehouse with the victims’ belongings was made to look like a train station from the platform, with a sign that read “Treblinka,” and a ticket window—completely useless. At the “field hospital,” there was a Red Cross flag, again entirely useless because those who were too weak or ill to walk to the gas chamber were simply sent there so they could be shot into a mass grave. 

Concrete slabs representing railroad ties
The victims who were able to walk were separated by gender and stripped of their belongings. The SS seized valuables such as coins or jewelry and the clothes were piled in huge mounds.  SS guards then ordered the victims to walk the “path of happiness” to the gas chamber.  Men’s heads were shaved, women’s hair was cut short so it could be woven into textiles. (There is a very powerful scene in Shoah in which a Polish-Jewish barber recounts being forced to cut the hair of Treblinka victims.) They were killed in gas chambers, mostly using carbon monoxide, and their bodies were burned on huge pyres.  Initially, the Nazis had tried to use mass graves at Treblinka but discovered that the soil was too sandy and the bodies didn’t decompose adequately, leaving evidence of the operation. Compared to Birkenau, the Nazis’ extermination methods were less sophisticated at Treblinka, and the coarse, rocky memorial created in the early 1960s also seems to reflect this more crude approach.

Leading to the train platform, the path of the train tracks is commemorated in concrete narrow blocks, meant to look like railroad ties.  As you follow a path to the extermination site, you enter a wide field and see a looming, 26-foot stone obelisk modeled after Jewish tombstones. Surrounding the obelisk are 17,000 jagged granite shards inscribed with the names of the victims’ Jewish communities in Poland. As James Young puts it, the memorial “resembles a great, craggy graveyard.” (The Texture of Memory, 186)  The largest stone, as one might expect, commemorates Warsaw’s Jews. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a set pattern in terms of the stones’ placement and some stones are blank. For this reason, it can be difficult for visitors to track down a stone from a particular community. (Magdalena has helped visitors do this, and she was pleased to pick up a guide from the visitor center with the stones’ locations.)

There is one stone dedicated to an individual, Janus Korczak, a Polish-Jewish pediatrician and author of children’s books who ran an orphanage for Jewish children. The Nazis offered him an opportunity to escape deportation, but he instead chose to die with the children under his care.  At the base of his commemorative stone, visitors had left dozens of small stones, a Jewish tradition akin to leaving flowers at a Christian cemetery.

Next to the memorial, there is a small but useful visitor center that displays artifacts, such as coins and everyday objects collected from victims at the extermination and labor camps. Exhibits in a few rooms explain European history leading up to World War II. In this and the Warsaw Uprising museum, I was struck by a narrative emphasizing the lack of Allied action in face of Nazi aggression in the late 1930s. The displays show that the Poles were abandoned while the West appeased Hitler; Britain seemed to be the primary target in this critique.  A photo of Ribbentrop and Molotov signing the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939 was juxtaposed with one showing lovely British ladies at a seaside boardwalk around the same time, not a care in the world. If the West had checked Nazi aggression, the displays suggest, the Holocaust and murder of Poles and other enemies of the Reich could have been prevented.  Whatever one thinks of the interpretation, it comes through clearly in these Polish museums. 

A detailed scale model of the camp helps visitors visualize how it operated. Photographs of the camp taken by SS guards also help visitors visualize how it operated and provide further evidence of the crimes committed. One image that still haunts me showed victims loading onto a cattle car, a little girl in a light-colored jacket holding her mother’s hand. It’s such a basic, primal image of mother and child that one sees every day, but here, you know the mother can’t protect the little girl and you imagine what they endured. Other photos that stick in my mind: the huge mounds of victims’ clothing piled up next to the gas chambers; the site of the initial mass graves, before the bodies were burned; the zoo—yes, a zoo was at the camp for the SS officers’ enjoyment; the model shows planted flowers outside the Kommandant’s quarters; the vegetable gardens, which must have been covered by human ashes. Humanity at its worst.

Having seen the four camps I’ve described here, I’m left with a question I ask in my classes on World War II and the Holocaust:  what should we do with the knowledge of atrocities committed by the Nazis, killing six million Jews and at least several million other enemies of the Reich?  We all have to answer this question in our own ways. For me, this history provides a deep sense of gratitude for the blessings I enjoy that are easy to take for granted—to live, work, marry and raise a family.  I want my students also to recognize the many ways in which they are fortunate, despite whatever personal struggles they may be facing. (and many face serious ones)  In my opinion, awareness of our security and good fortune gives us a duty to recognize when basic human rights are withheld from members of today’s society, and to speak out against social and political injustice. The Holocaust Memorial Social Action site at DU, sponsored by the Center for Judaic Studies and Holocaust Awareness Institute, offers the perfect space in which these connections between the past and present can be made.

My memories of these visits are still fresh and I have several months to think about how I will incorporate what I’ve learned into my courses. I can only make sense of the experience by focusing on hope. There was a beautiful symbol of hope in the area surrounding Treblinka—storks. These graceful birds migrate to the marshy habitat in this part of Poland to breed, and often build their nests on houses or barns. They aren’t afraid of humans, which helps explain the centuries-old legend about storks delivering babies and bringing good fortune. As we were driving away from Treblinka, we could see a row of nests on street lamps along the road. In a place forever marked by murder and genocide, this life-affirming image restored my faith in regeneration, human compassion, and our collective potential to pursue a more just present and future.


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.


When I was planning this trip, I knew I wanted to visit Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp that primarily held women. Around 133,000 women and children were detained there, including political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, and Jews. There were also around 20,000 male inmates who carried out hard labor, including continual expansion of the camp grounds.  As at Sachsenhausen, it’s difficult to know the exact number of victims, but the museum estimates that tens of thousands of people were killed there, from disease, starvation, exhaustion and medical experiments. Though Ravensbrück was not designed as an extermination camp, between five and six thousand prisoners were murdered in a gas chamber built in late 1944. (See museum website and guide

Getting to the memorial for the tour was a challenge, partly because the rail line to the nearest town, Fürstenberg, was closed for construction work. Even if the train had been running, the trip still would have required a combination of rail and bus transit and good amount of walking. I had received mostly accurate bus information at the train station in Berlin, but “mostly accurate” really isn’t good enough when you’re travelling in an area with limited public transit.

The camp is a 25-minute walk from Oranienburg, where Sachsenhausen is located.  I had learned in Berlin that buses run to Ravensbrück, so I decided to try public transit, relying on friendly advice from local Germans along the way. From Fürstenberg, I was the only person on a full-size city bus and the very kind driver thought we would do me a favor by going off the main road and showing me a short cut to the camp. He gave me vague directions, “Go straight, go straight!” and in a chipper voice said in English, “Have fun!” I didn’t plan to have fun, really, but I knew he was merely being polite. I stepped off the bus and found myself in the German countryside, following a dirt path, no one else in sight.

Mothers, Fritz Cremer (1965)
I was visiting in early May, on a gorgeous spring day. The area surrounding the camp is beautiful, pastoral. Forests with lots of pine and birch trees. Wild flowers dotted the clearings. It seemed like a wonderful place for a leisurely picnic. After a 5-minute walk, I could see the camp’s visitor center. But first, I stopped at a memorial that stands at a fork in the road about a mile from the camp, Müttergruppe (Mothers) by sculptor Fritz Cremer (unveiled 1965).This is easily the most heartbreaking memorial I’ve ever seen. Three emaciated female figures with shaved heads carry a child—apparently dead—on a stretcher. An older child clutches the thigh of one figure. Ravensbrück is filled with this kind of homage to mothers and children.

As visitors, our reactions to these camps are informed by our own experiences, memories, stories we’ve heard, what we bring to them. As a mother of two young kids, I felt a deeper emotional connection to the memorial and museum than at other camps, and yet wondered whether I should. Perhaps because I’m Christian with German and Czech ancestry, it was easier for me to create a plausible narrative in my mind, how I might have ended up there—I’d like to think that as a wife and mother in 1930s Germany, I would have had the courage to oppose Nazism. I like to think we would have been bold enough to hide Jewish friends, perhaps the family of my younger son’s best friend. What if we had been denounced by a fearful neighbor, and the kids and I ended up at Ravensbrück. I found myself personalizing the experience there more than at other camps. Yet I also wondered how I would have reacted to the memorial if I weren’t a mother; perhaps it would seem too focused on families and children, diminishing memory of the women without children who suffered there.

The camp sits on a small lake and one has a nice view of Oranienburg on the other side, with a church steeple typical of many European towns. It’s a lovely scene, and yet unspeakable horrors were committed on the other side of the camp walls. There’s a sculpture at the edge of the lake, Tragende (Burdened Woman) by Will Lammert (1957, unveiled at memorial in 1959), a stoic Pietà figure. It appears to depict a mother gazing out toward the town, holding the limp body of an older child.

Belgian Memorial
There weren’t many visitors while I was there, but I was pleasantly surprised to find extensive, recently developed displays that together created an impressive and unforgettable museum.  Most of the displays have English translations.  Outside the camp walls, one can see the crematorium installed in 1943 and a commemorative stone where the gas chamber operated from late 1944 to April 1945. Inside the camp, the prison building is used as an exhibition hall. The individual cells contain national displays organized by the victims’ countries of origin, including Poland, Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece. The French display is very artfully presented, with a large wooden sphere representing motherhood.  The Belgian display lists the victims' names and ages at the time of death. The Polish display is understated and somber, the Austrian more stridently patriotic with flags and colorful banners.

A couple cells are used to describe the use of female prisoners as prostitutes, with a collection of the women’s personal accounts available in binders. I was impressed by the attention paid to this relatively obscure aspect of Nazi camp life. The SS considered Jewish women too racially inferior even for prostitution, but Slavs and imprisoned women from “higher” ethnicities were granted the privilege. Some had openly opposed the Nazis, others had been labeled “asocial” by them—women afflicted by alcoholism, depression, and mental illness.  In some ways, these women were indeed privileged—they had adequate food and shelter and better medical care than other prisoners.  The SS offered male prisoners time with a prostitute as a reward for hard labor. For those women who survived the ordeal, many continued to face exclusion in the postwar period and were denied victims’ benefits by their national governments due to their “collaboration” with the Nazis.

Back outside, visitors can see where the barracks stood, through indentations in the gravel. About 100 yards from the prison stands a building where the inmates were forced laborers during mostly textile work. This space is still being developed as an exhibition hall but one could imagine hundreds of people toiling away there.

After two or three hours at the camp, I worked my way to the bus stop, about half a mile from the museum. The bus driver who had dropped me off picked me up again, and once again, I was the only person on the bus. We didn’t chat on the return trip to Fürstenberg; perhaps he sensed the tour was more emotional than “fun.”  But I thanked him for his kindness. 

While I was waiting to catch another bus to Oranienburg, I gazed at the well-kept homes around the bus stop with manicured little lawns, potted spring flowers, azaleas and lace curtains. I wondered what it was like to live so close to a Nazi camp. But my view is that of a “memory-tourist,” using James Young’s phrase, whereas the residents of Fürstenberg and Oranienburg are working, raising families, carrying on with daily life, as did their ancestors while thousands of prisoners perished nearby.

Next and finally, Treblinka, an extermination camp outside Warsaw…


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.


After seeing Auschwitz, I went to two camps outside Berlin, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück. These were not extermination camps, which were all located in Poland, but concentration camps designed primarily for detention and slave labor. They held political prisoners, Soviet POW’s, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jews and other enemies of the Reich deported from across Europe. Ravensbrück was primarily a women’s camp, and I’ll describe it in my next post.  During my visits, the museum sites had far fewer visitors than Auschwitz, in the dozens rather than thousands, and both allowed self-guided tours. I was alone for these visits and had time to wander, take in the surroundings at my own pace, and think about the war crimes that had taken place at each camp.

The main entrance and watch tower
Sachsenhausen lies on the outskirts of Oranienburg, a town about twenty miles northwest of Berlin.  It’s an easy day trip from the German capital, but it’s worth devoting an entire day to the visit, considering travel time and taking a few hours to view the extensive displays.  From the Oranienburg train station, visitors follow signs through a very normal-looking central town—potted flowers on public squares, a small post office, small businesses lining the main street. But this is no ordinary town.  After walking about 20 minutes, you arrive at the Sachsenhausen visitor center outside the camp grounds, which is lined with a 10-foot stone wall. You pick up a map and audio guide, walk along the wall to the entrance of the camp, and feel like you’re beginning an average historic tour. (I was thinking, “…how much time do I have? Where will I have dinner back in Berlin, maybe try that little restaurant near the hotel….”) You pass through an arch under the camp’s main watch tower and…BAM. The 1,000-acre camp opens up before you, the stone wall perimeter marked with watch towers every 50 yards or so. 

Several dozen gravel filled rectangles show where barracks stood.
The grounds were designed in one large, equilateral triangle, with a semi-circle roll call area in front of the main watch tower, located in the middle of the triangle’s base.  Behind the roll call area, the barracks fanned out in a semi-circle. The barracks are no longer there, but their location is marked in gravel. (See museum guide with map, I imagined the prisoners passing through that entrance, and suddenly realizing the hell they had entered.

About 200,000 prisoners were held at Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. Initially, the camp held political prisoners but during the war increasingly held Jews, Soviet POW’s and others deemed threatening or racially inferior by the SS. It’s still difficult to know how many people were killed there, but the museum cites Soviet estimates of several tens of thousands. ( They were victims of disease, starvation, forced labor and execution. The SS installed crematoria and a gas chamber in 1943.  Thousands of prisoners died during death marches when the camp was evacuated in April 1945 as Soviet troops advanced.

Sachsenhausen was designed with chilling precision. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, wanted to make it the ultimate prison camp and a model for other camps. The triangular design was meant to allow the main watch tower to provide surveillance of the entire camp.  The single tower did not suffice, however, and the SS added the additional towers along the perimeter. The layout feels modern—rational and geometrical. If it were a garden or park, it might even be beautiful; surely the Nazis viewed it this way. But this site, even more than Auschwitz-Birkenau, made me think it was 20th-century modernity and ingenuity pushed to a horrifying extreme, used by the SS to control and eliminate people who threatened their ideal of the Aryan Reich.  Sachsenhausen also was a training center for SS camp guards and housed the centralized Nazi camp administration.

"Death strip" along the camp perimeter with electric fence.
The museum has an excellent audio guide and a refurbished watch tower at the tip of the triangle houses audio-visual displays on interactions between the SS and townspeople of Oranienburg. The camp expanded as far as possible into the town and the Nazis couldn’t entirely keep secret the war crimes being committed behind the walls. Before the stone wall perimeter had been completed, townspeople saw from the bordering road the desperate situation of the prisoners, despite the Nazi ban on loitering along the camp boundaries.  Residents next to the camp could see the grounds and roll call area from their second-floor windows.  There wasn’t room on the camp for the SS camp guards, so some were lodged in town and interacted regularly with local residents.

The townspeople later described those interactions in a chilling kind of cliché, that the SS seemed friendly and “normal.” Their kids attended schools in Oranienburg.  I listened to an oral history recounted by a local woman who met, fell in love with and married an SS officer of Sachsenhausen.  Prior to the wedding, she needed to prove her Aryan descent and affirm her National Socialist convictions to qualify for the marriage license.  Her husband was later captured by the Soviets and died in prison. Another woman recounted a story about Gustav Sorge, a particularly cruel SS guard who helped carry out the murder of thousands of Soviet POW’s at Sachsenhausen. He eventually was convicted of war crimes and died in a West German prison serving a life sentence. Yet while at Sachsenhausen, he asked a local woman to kill a rabbit for him; he couldn’t bear to do it himself. For me, these stories about interactions between the SS and townspeople were perhaps the most interesting displays in the museum.

Between the main gate and the tip of the triangle stands a colossal monument from the Communist era—a 120-foot obelisk and iron figures, depicting liberated prisoners standing with Red Army soldiers. The monument was created in 1961 under the German Democratic Republic to commemorate the Communist struggle against fascism. After the Soviets liberated Sachsenhausen they also used it as a prison camp, detaining around 60,000 people between 1945 and 1950. Around 12,000 prisoners died from disease and starvation in the Soviet period. 

The execution trench.
On the west side of the camp there is an execution trench, where thousands of opponents of the Reich were killed. Seventy-one Dutch resisters were shot here, and when I visited, a small memorial to them was covered with flowers. Nearby, one can see the foundations of the crematoria and gas chambers. These were used on a smaller scale than at Birkenau, but this area is close to the perimeter, just yards from the townspeople, who witnessed the smoke and stench emitted from the crematoria.  Also along the western side of the camp, infirmary barracks house displays on exceptionally cruel medical experiments carried out on victims, including Jewish children, testing sterilization methods, castration and response to the injection of diseases such as hepatitis. Those who survived were left with lifelong deformities and disabilities.

The Soviet chapter in the camp’s postwar history is explained in an exhibition created in 2001. It is housed partly in original barracks, beyond the tip of the triangle. It’s now a high-tech and slick modern space, set underground to avoid obstructing the view of other buildings. After entering through doors that automatically whisk open, visitors descend a few stairs or a ramp to access the displays.  It was late in the day when I was in this part of the camp, not another soul around, not even a museum guard. The exhibition has a variety of documents, audio-visual displays, newsreels projected in a continual loop on the back wall, creating a noisy backdrop. Display cases exhibit propaganda posters, letters with translations, and a glass-walled room houses a row of computers available for visitors’ research. It’s all impressive but while I was there, unused. It was like entering an abandoned space ship. I lingered over some propaganda posters, taking pictures I might use in my classes.

The displays were a reminder of the war crimes that continued after the Soviet liberation of Sachsenhausen, and the tragic fate of millions of East Europeans who were caught between the power struggles of Hitler and Stalin. Clearly someone—governments, foundations, individuals?—had invested heavily in this exhibition space.  I found myself hoping that many of the camp’s visitors would use it.

As I was contemplating the museum's resources, I suddenly realized it was closing time. I was alone, on the far end of the camp with my driver’s license at the visitor’s center as collateral for my audio-guide. I quickly walked back through the grounds, reviewing all the tragic history I had just absorbed. In a word, chilling. Though I later learned that the grounds remain open in the evening, at the time I was fixated on making sure I did not get stuck alone in Sachsenhausen.

Next…Ravensbrück, primarily a women’s camp

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Journal entry, May 9, 2013
I've been in Europe for about two and a half weeks, part of the time doing research for my current book project on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis during World War II. This is my third research trip during my sabbatical year (September 2012-May 2013), enabling me to examine government archives in Belgium and the Netherlands, and meet with art restitution experts in both countries. During my previous trips this year I've also studied archives and met with experts in Washington, D.C., London and Paris.

For this trip, I decided to extend my stay across the Atlantic to do some traveling that will enrich my teaching as well as my scholarship. I teach courses in modern European history, from the French Revolution through the Cold War, including World War II and the Holocaust. Over the last few years, I have felt that I needed to travel to Nazi concentration and death camps to give my students a more in-depth perspective of the sites, their surroundings, and the memorials that today honor the victims of Nazi persecution. I'm offering reflections here on my experiences as someone who teaches this history but is not an expert in the field. I'm not reviewing the historiography, just sharing how I felt as I toured the camps and some of what I learned.

I went to four camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, and Treblinka. During World War II they were sites of war crimes and genocide; now they are, in Pierre Nora’s words, “sites of memory.” My desire to see the camps made me what James Young has called “a memory-tourist” (The Texture of Memory. p. 144) and I felt an unsettling tension of wanting to honor the victims yet somehow feeling that my presence as a tourist was exploiting them.

I felt this most of all at Auschwitz, where there were crowds of “memory-tourists”--thousands during our “tour” (the word seems too superficial but it’s accurate). More than a million people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau each year, close to the number who perished there during World War II.  My husband Paul joined me for this part of my trip, which coincided with a holiday week in Poland--May 1 is Labor Day (as in other former Communist countries) and May 3 is Constitution Day, celebrating the 1791 Polish constitution, which as Poles will tell you with pride, was the first constitution in Europe. (They beat the French, whose revolutionary constitution was adopted several months later, in September 1791.)  With two weekdays off, many Poles took a week of vacation and like us, thousands of them went to Auschwitz.

Entrance to Auschwitz
It was a bleak, dreary day with light but steady rain throughout our time at the camp, which seemed appropriate.  Having seen many images of Auschwitz in books, online and recreated in films like Schindler’s List, some aspects of tour were as expected—the uniform look of the two-story brick buildings, the roll call spaces, the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work brings freedom) sign above the entrance. Among the unexpected: the crowds of visitors and inability of the museum to manage them, at least while we were there. Visitors are required to join an official tour, offered in several different languages. Our "small" group of English speakers had around 100 people. Fortunately, our tour guide was excellent and had very detailed knowledge of the camp history. She spoke quietly into a microphone and we could her voice through headphones. This system enables guides to speak softly and remain audible, even when next to other groups.

There were actually three main camps on this vast site, for detention of prisoners (Auschwitz I), extermination (Auschwitz II-Birkenau), and slave labor (Auschwitz III). An estimated 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them Jews. (For statistics, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, vol. 3, appendix B; Young, The Texture of Memory, 128.) Other victims included ethnic Poles, Roma, Soviet POW’s, homosexuals, social outcasts and political opponents of the Reich. I've been teaching the history of Nazism and the Holocaust for thirteen years but no amount of reading compares to seeing the camps in person. Seeing the torture chambers, the phone-booth sized spaces where four people were held for days, with no room to move; the spaces used for Josef Mengele’s exceptionally cruel medical experiments; the latrines where one imagines the stench, filth and disease endured by victims.

I'd seen the display of victims' shoes at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., but in Auschwitz the display was more vast and poignant. There were piles of eyeglasses and massive mounds of human hair, used to create textiles and carpets.  I knew this, I had seen images of the collected hair in Alain Renais's  film Night and Fog and shown it to my students, but was still stunned to see it in person.

I have two young boys, ages seven and five, so in all the camps, displays on the murder of children hit me particularly hard. Display cases held baby clothes, a broken doll and a vast mound of children's shoes.  Children's shoes. For me, the sight of children’s belongings was especially searing.

In The Texture of Memory, Young questions the value of displaying these everyday objects. “That a murdered people remains known in Holocaust museums anywhere by their scattered belongings, and not by their spiritual works, that their lives should be recalled primarily through the images of their death, may be the ultimate travesty.” (p. 133) Have Holocaust museums accomplished what the SS would have wanted, the portrayal of a destroyed civilization? Perhaps it depends how the experience of seeing these objects is used. How can we draw on the shocking sight of the collected objects and use it interpret the past in ways that honors Jews and other victims, yet avoids reducing them to victims? The debate goes on….

After viewing displays in several buildings for about two hours, we turned in our headphones before taking a shuttle bus to Birkenau, the real killing center and site of genocide. Having just seen mounds of everyday objects left behind by the victims, there was something very odd, an eerie kind of parallel as we piled our headphones in a stack of hundreds. As we waited for the bus to Birkenau, we again felt the impact of the crowds. There were not nearly enough buses for the visitors and we had to push our way onto one. A few mothers were yelling at their children, trying to stay together. Tour groups dissolved as visitors were separated from their guides, as the rain kept falling.

Again, it all seemed strangely appropriate and I didn’t hear anyone complaining. Perhaps we were all aware that these were just minor inconveniences as we waited for a shuttle bus on a tour. We were not victims of anti-Semitic or political persecution, we had not suffered on cattle cars for days, with no food, water, or bathroom facilities. We knew we would eat after the tour, Paul and I knew we had a hotel reservation in Krakow. Our kids were safely playing with their grandparents at home. On any other tour, we might have complained about the disorientation and mild discomfort-- but not at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The bus ride to Birkenau only takes several minutes, and we probably should have just walked anyway, but at least we were able to continue our tour with our English-speaking guide. In contrast to Auschwitz, there are fewer preserved structures in Birkenau. There is an imposing memorial created in 1967, with heavy black marble columns and tablets dedicated to countries from which victims were deported. The crematoria were destroyed by the SS in January 1945 as Soviet troops advanced, and today are left in crumbling ruins. There are reconstructed latrines and barracks, initially built as horse stables then converted to hold prisoners. The original barracks were either destroyed by the Germans or dismantled by local Poles, desperate for firewood.
Ruins of gas chambers at Birkenau

A few details here stick in my mind: a barrack rafter bore a message to victims, “Sauberkeit ist Gesundheit,” meaning “cleanliness is good health.”  Another sign warned that a louse can mean death (from the risk of typhus).  The wife of the commandant, the head of the camp, later described Auschwitz as a kind of Eden, though she told her children to wash the ashes (human) from the strawberries gathered in their garden. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around these contradictions.  The lack of hygiene in the latrines ironically made them a relatively safe place for inmates. The SS avoided them to prevent the spread of disease and assigned inmates as guards. The lack of an SS presence meant they became a place where inmates could exchange information and barter whatever meager objects they possessed.  In the women’s barracks babies were born, hidden from the SS, and some survived. Though the barracks are reconstructed, one senses the desperation of victims, from hunger, cold, thirst, and disease as they waited to die.

We lingered for about an hour in Birkenau, and preferred to push our way onto another shuttle bus to return to Auschwitz, rather than walking (how lazy we seemed knowing what victims endured), and then waited for another bus to Krakow. It was a long, heavy day, as one might expect on a tour of Auschwitz.  But it’s the unexpected sights and details that will stick in my mind and, in the end I hope, enrich my teaching. I’m still processing the experience and thinking about how to incorporate it into my courses.

Next I’ll share my experiences at two camps outside Berlin: Sachsenhausen, designed with chilling precision, and Ravensbrück, which mainly held female prisoners.