Embedded program explores Holocaust memory in Poland and Lithuania

Michelle K. Baker
April 22, 2019

For nine students enrolled in HIST/JST 426 The Holocaust and History, the memory landscapes they had studied in class became meaningful reality on an embedded program trip to Poland and Lithuania during spring break last month.

To deepen the students’ experience of Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe, embedded program coordinators Eliyana Adler, associate professor in history and Jewish studies, and Tobias Brinkmann, the Malvin and Lea Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History, took students to remote Holocaust locations, places less known and less visited than sites such as Auschwitz.

“In Warsaw, the students get the basics,” Adler said. “At the Polin Museum, they get the whole spread of Jewish-Polish history, both its vibrancy and destruction. From there, we go to see death sites, but different ones. And then we see small towns and larger towns that are sites of life, where there remains a Jewish presence.”

Treblinka: For students an impacting memorial

“I didn’t understand the scale of it before going there,” Anjelyque Easley said of visiting Treblinka, one of six extermination camps built and operated by the Nazis in Poland during WW II. For Easley, a senior landscape architecture major and Jewish studies minor, seeing photos, hearing witness testimonies, and even seeing a model of the camp didn’t equate to walking down the path toward the remote, heavily forested site in Northeast Poland where nearly 900,000 Jews were murdered.

“When you actually go to the site and see everything, you get to be present in the moment,” Easley said. “It was surreal.”

Kelly Jedrzejewski, a senior English major with minors in business and the liberal arts and history, was similarly moved when the group’s tour guide in Treblinka described how the natural elements original to the site remain as a memorial to the people who died. The guide’s description of “Nature as Witness,” was an evocative idea to Jedrzejewski.

“The use of natural elements at the site to remember the victims as people rather than just a statistic was powerful,” she said.

Easley, whose studies focus on memory landscapes, agreed. “It’s very intense to say that the vegetation grew up ‘watching’ events unfold at the extermination camp,” she said.

Different from Auschwitz-Birkenau, where original buildings and reconstructions of structures now stand, the camp buildings at Treblinka were destroyed in 1943 by the Nazis to conceal murder on an industrial-scale. The ground was ploughed into farmland. A farmhouse was built. Yet when the Soviet Army arrived at the site where the camp once stood, the soldiers found evidence of mass murder. Between 1959 and 1963 a massive granite memorial was erected at the approximate site of the Treblinka gas chamber in the likeness of a Jewish tombstone. This memorial, along with 17,000 stones of varying size and color—a symbolic cemetery in a spacious field embraced by trees—are the only visual reminders of the death camp.

“Though there is a lot of Jewish history in Poland, this trip was very much about absence,” Brinkmann said. “And at Treblinka, there is really nothing left.”

Adler said this absence required students to engage with Treblinka from a much more archaeological perspective, to consider what was unseen as a site of memory.  

While at Treblinka, students learned that in recent years researchers themselves have been using noninvasive archaeological techniques like ground-penetrating radar and aerial laser scanning known as lidar to detect burial pits at Treblinka without disrupting the burial site, something forbidden by Jewish law. These scans detected the location of mass graves and clarified the location of former camp buildings, including one that may have served as the camp’s first gas chambers.

Because Treblinka has been the subject of much Holocaust denial due to the absence of physical evidence and few survivors, these findings—which included rings, hair combs, and terra cotta tiles stamped with stars of David near the location of the gas chambers—are critical to substantiating the history of the death camp.

According to both Adler and Brinkmann, visiting Treblinka was also integral to exposing students to nonstandard Holocaust sites. Treblinka, which the Nazis purposely situated in a geographically isolated location, is far less visited than Auschwitz, which received more than 2 million visitors in 2018.

“We wanted to expose students to places they would not normally visit,” Brinkmann said. “Most students don’t think of Eastern Europe as a potential destination, and Northeastern Poland and Lithuania are not so accessible.”

Students learn about Lithuania’s Holocaust history

For students, Lithuania can be forgotten as a location of Holocaust memory. In the late 1800s, Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, had a vibrant Jewish culture, with more than 40 percent of its population being Jewish. During WWII, the German occupation of this Baltic state resulted in the murder of more than 95 percent of its more than 200,000 Jews—by percentage, a higher death toll than any other Nazi-occupied nation. Today Vilnius’s Jewish population is less than one percent of its total inhabitants.

“We wanted the students to get a sense of the aftermath of the Holocaust,” Adler said. “To see what it means for people to live in a place that used to be so different and populated by an entirely different group of people. We can read articles about it, but to see that on site is very powerful.”

To experience the memory of the Holocaust in Lithuania, students visited Ponary, a forested area about seven miles from Vilnius, where an estimated 100,000 people were shot and buried in mass graves by Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators between 1941 and 1944. The majority of those murdered were Jews.

“Even though a lot of people died here, it’s not that well known and not as frequently visited,” Adler said. 

While at Ponary, students saw several burial pits, which contain the cremated remains of thousands of victims. This was a very somber moment for many students, and Easley was overwhelmed by the volume and scale of the site.

“It’s hard to imagine the mass graves in Ponary,” she said. “It’s hard to capture that in words or a photograph. You have to be there to physically experience it.”

According to Adler, one of the most complex aspects of Holocaust memory in Lithuania is how the current population coexists with these locations scarred by the Holocaust.

“There are people who live in Ponary and go on with their lives,” Adler said. “It’s important for the students to see what people make of these Holocaust sites and how people live around them. The combination of these terrible sites and everyday pursuits is very true to life in that part of the world.”

To give students a flavor of contemporary Jewish culture in Lithuania, Adler and Brinkmann took the group to a Sabbath dinner at the Choral Synagogue, the only active synagogue in Vilnius to survive both the Soviet and Nazi occupations. In a city that once had more than 100 synagogues, this beautiful Romanesque-style synagogue is a testimony to the resilience of Vilnius’s Jewish population.

“One of the reasons we have the Sabbath dinner is for the students to see that there are some Jews still there and that Jewish culture still lives,” Adler said. “It’s a complicated and interesting space.”

Students visit Polish NGO working to integrate culture and memory

Brinkmann also points to the complicated social space created by contemporary Polish and Lithuanian societies still in transformation after the Holocaust.

“The memory of the Holocaust is difficult in these places, and this came out on the trip,” Brinkmann said. “We approach one of the most difficult aspects of Polish history when looking at the Holocaust.”

Before WWII, Poland had the largest Jewish population of any country in Europe, with more than 3 million; after the war, fewer than 10 percent survived. On Polish soil, the Nazis built six extermination camps, and from Polish cities they carved out their two largest ghettos: Warsaw, which confined more than 400,000 Jews, and Łόdź, which contained more than 160,000 Jews. In Warsaw, students saw the remnants of the walls that surrounded the ghetto, and they stood at its Umschlagplatz, the collection point from which Jews in the ghetto were deported to Treblinka. Though the Nazis irrefutably planned and perpetrated the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, deep-rooted antisemitism in Polish culture along with evidence of Polish collaboration with the Nazis has complicated Poland’s Holocaust memory and created political tension in the country.

“Holocaust memory is central to Poland’s national identity,” Brinkmann said. “Even if the governments don’t like it, there’s no way around it.”

To explore grassroots response to this political and social tension in Poland, Adler and Brinkmann took students to the Borderlands Foundation, an NGO located in Krasnogruda, a village located in a remote region of Poland that had once been vibrantly multicultural—a place where Jews, Tartars, and Belarussians coexisted—but today is populated only by Poles and Lithuanians.

The Borderlands Foundation hosts workshops to teach attendees how to build multicultural communities and open channels for cultural communication. The group also reaches out to children through artistic workshops, theater, and films they have produced about multicultural relations in the region.

“Borderlands is a very unusual project,” Brinkmann said. “Poland had to start all over again after communism ended, and they are trying to revive these places in a way that is appropriate. It is really about communitarianism, about bringing people together.”  

Trip inspires students to see more of the world

For Stephen Rodas, a junior history major, going on this trip was a deeply inspiring experience.

“This was the first time I have been out of the country and off the Eastern Seaboard,” Rodas said. “I always wanted to travel abroad, but I thought we couldn’t afford it. When we got to Warsaw, I was tearing up in the back of the van because this actually happened. Vilnius was the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. I get goosebumps talking about it with my friends. This trip changed my life.”

Now that he has been out of the country, Rodas plans to travel more, and he advises other students to do the same.

“Go, travel, get out of this country,” he said. “Reach out to your college for funding. I’m definitely going to travel more. You can’t just go once.”

Both Jedrzejewski and Easley also plan to continue traveling abroad. This trip to Poland and Lithuania is Easley’s second embedded travel program.

“These embedded courses are intense,” Easley said. “You get a whole history in one week. You’re constantly moving, so they’re not touristy. You’re actually learning. When you go by yourself, you don’t get to take advantage of the things you can learn with the class.”

Easley said she also likes the opportunity to talk to local people and get their perspectives.

“Understanding what is significant for the people of that country is important,” she said. “We need to see other people’s perspectives of the world.”

For Rodas, this trip also helped him to have a different perspective of the U.S.

“America’s young compared to Lithuania and Poland,” he said. “I have a different sense of the U.S.’s place in the world now.”

Rodas also appreciated the deep friendships he made during the trip.

“We clicked,” he said. “We became friends so quickly. We barely knew each other at the airport, but now we feel like we’ve known each other for a lifetime. We’re already planning to go back with each other. It means something to be together.”

Adler was also encouraged by the students’ deep bond with each other.

“It was such a heartening experience to see the students form this group and support one another and enjoy one another’s company,” she said. “Their positive attitude seemed to ricochet and bring everybody up.”

Chelsea Keen, global experiences coordinator and career coach in the Liberal Arts Career Enrichment Network, said that courses with embedded travel programs are growing in interest with students.

During the 2018-19 academic year, the College of the Liberal Arts offered 12 embedded travel programs, up from 10 programs during the 2017-18 academic year and six programs during the previous academic year. Across the University’s commonwealth campuses, 720 students participated in the 58 embedded programs that Penn State offered during the 2019 spring break. This represents an increase of almost 17 percent in student participation in embedded programs from the 2018 spring break.

Keen, who helps to integrate students’ international experiences with their career ambitions, conducts workshops with students to help them think intentionally about choosing international experiences that enhance their professional goals.

“We really view embedded programs as a valuable opportunity,” she said. “There are career benefits from having any type of international experience. The most important part is for students to identify the skills they developed abroad—such as the ability to adapt and communicate across cultures—and to articulate those skills to future employers.”

Brinkmann, who has been taking students abroad throughout his entire academic career, said he is a big believer in the efficacy of these trips to impact students’ lives. He and Adler offered their first embedded program trip to Poland in 2017. They plan to offer an embedded program through their 400-level Holocaust and History course every two years but intend to vary the sites students visit on each trip. In 2021, they hope to travel through Southeast Poland and possibly end the trip in Ukraine.

For Adler, the students being physically present in the spaces where the Holocaust occurred is ultimately what leads to deep learning and life-changing realizations.

“You can read endless articles about the Holocaust and never really get to the core,” Adler said. “The numbers are so staggering and the places so distant. Going there is the way to truly touch that experience.”

Embedded courses are available in many different departments and on various topics. To learn more about liberal arts embedded courses and to see more programs, visit https://sites.psu.edu/laembeddedcourses/.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 21, 2019