Day Five

Admittedly I am writing this blog back in London, as there simply hasn't been time to write in the last couple of days. You will soon understand why...

Thursday was an awfully long day. As much as it was interesting, we sat in the same room for a total of 8 hours (with breaks, of course) in lectures and a panel discussion. I made notes and tried my best to concentrate as much as possible, but the mind can easily wander, and the distracting thoughts I had were, interestingly, more of shock than anything. Suddenly, that day, I really got to grips with where I was. In the conference room of Block 12, you could be anywhere in the world - until you looked out of the window at the brick barrack opposite, pulling you back into reality. Why did I only feel like that on that day? I don't know, but it may have been to do with the slight change in weather (overcast rather than hot and sunny) and the fact we stayed in the Museum until it was closed to visitors. However, I tried to put these thoughts at rest and take part in the discussions that were had throughout the day.

Lecture: 'Auschwitz as a Centre of Historical Education', 9:00 - 10:30
This lecture was given by Alicja Bialecka, a museum curator and the current Head of Educational Programmes at the ICEAH (International Centre for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust). She stated the three main points which the Museum tries to work around: Remembrance, Awareness and Responsibility, which essentially translate into the past, present and future of the Holocaust and its education. Alicja admitted that the Museum relies too much on statistics and facts in their guided tours at the moment, and hope to train guides to focus more on the individual (something that the Holocaust Educational Trust already emphasises. In my opinion, this is the best way to get the message of the Holocaust to people). She also commented on the rising numbers of visitors to the Museum - 1.4 million last year - and educational approaches to teaching the Holocaust to students, which last year made up 74% of visitors.

Lecture: 'Teaching About the Holocaust from a Historical Perspective', 11:00 - 12:30
Led by Piotr Trojanski, who works at the Institute of History of the Pedagogical University of Krakow, this lecture focused specifically on how Holocaust education is currently taught in Poland. Piotr talked about students' perception of the Holocaust and how education of the subject has changed in Poland post-Communism (i.e. from 1989 onwards). He stated that Holocaust education was only put on the curriculum in 2000 and the first textbook on the subject published in 2003, compared to the U.K., a country that suffered no losses in the Holocaust, where it was put on the National Curriculum in 1998.

Workshop: 'Teaching Materials on Anti-Semitism in Europe', 12:30 - 14:00
This part of the day got us on our feet a bit! After an introduction to the workshop by Martyna Gradzka, a PhD student at the Pedagogical University of Krakow, we were divided into groups and given materials to discuss. Some groups had to think up lesson plans with the materials provided; our group had cartoons depicting anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and had to give our reactions to them, as well as comparing the cartoons to those used in Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. Finally, each group presented their work to the others.

Panel Discussion: 'Polish-Jewish Relations During and After the Holocaust: Historical, Religious and Sociological Aspects', 15:00 - 17:00
This panel was chaired by Slawomir Kapralski, currently a lecturer at the Warsaw School of Social Psychology. He first introduced Zdzislaw Mach, a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Jagiellonian University, Krakow. Mach talked about how Jewish identity has helped to form Polish identity and self-image over the years, as the Jews made up such a large part of the Polish population before the Holocaust. He looked at the hostility after the war, such as Poles plundering Jewish property and not giving it back, but also the acceptance of Jewish identity after 1989.
Next to speak was Jan Grabowski, a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Jan talked about different kinds of assistance and altruism during the Holocaust - the more positive attempts to rescue and hide Jews, which we often hear about, and some more negative accounts that have since been given. He read an excerpt from a diary that surfaced not long ago, written by a 12 year old girl hidden with her cousin in a barn. The attitude of the man hiding them changed from helpful and altruistic to cold and careless, often refusing to provide more food and complaining about how much of a burden they were. Interestingly, however, the girl - who is now living as an elderly woman in Canada - thinks of the man as something of a "god" and fully credits him with her survival. As a Psychology student, I found this particularly thought-provoking.
The last part of the discussion was presented by Marek Kucia, Director of Sociology at Jagiellonian University. He gave a presentation on a survey he conducted on a random sample of the Polish population in 2010 regarding levels of anti-Semitism in the country. Unfortunately, a fairly high level of anti-Semitism does remain in Poland; in a 2009 survey, it was found that 55% of respondents agreed with four main anti-Semitic statements presented in the survey. Interestingly, however, the highest level was found in Hungary (67%!) and the lowest in the U.K. (15%). Responding to a question I asked, Marek stated that the highest level of anti-Semitism could be found among 15 - 18 year olds, the youngest age group in the survey. He stressed that the sample group was small, but it still alerted me to just how important it is to teach the younger generation about Holocaust education and general Jewish history.

During the half-hour break we had before our next lecture, I decided I would go and buy flowers to pay tribute to those killed in the area in which I was spending so much of my day. This was also something I had wanted to do before. At a nearby shop, I purchased a large, single red rose and made my way to the gas chamber. At first, a couple stood in the room, but soon left so that I had the space to myself. I chose the wall on which you can see scratch marks, as it had left such a deep impression on me, and placed the rose there.
Once I had put it down, I thought, Ah, damn, I didn't bring my camera! But then I stopped, and thought, Hang on - do I really need my camera? Am I really going to take a photograph of this flower to say 'Oh, look at me, I am doing some good by paying tribute to those who died here'? No, that would just be self-glorification. This is not the only way to commemorate the Holocaust; indeed, it is the lessons that I will be passing on when I return, and the work I will do in the future, that will be the true way of commemorating it. A camera is the least important thing in this situation.
After a moment of quiet and reflection, I stopped off at another shop to buy a comic book - yes, you read that right - entitled 'Episodes of Auschwitz', which I believe could be a very useful educational tool. I will elaborate more on this in a future blog.

Lecture: 'Nazi Persecution of the Roma', 17:30 - 19:00 (overran until 19:15)
In this lecture, given by Mr Kapralski (who chaired the panel discussion), we were given an in-depth look into how the Roma and gypsies gradually became excluded from society by the Nazis, even though they were not considered as big a problem as the Jews were. He detailed the first transports of the Roma to Auschwitz, and talked about the mass extermination of the gypsy camp on 2nd-3rd August 1943, when the Roma tried to barricade themselves into their huts as a last act of defiance.

Later on in the evening, we were taken by coach to the lovely Galicja Hotel, where we had a farewell dinner, also attended by our co-ordinator Ewa, Kasha (our guide), Alicja Bialecka and the Acting Deputy Director of the Museum. Each of us were given a certificate in recognition of our 40 hours of participation and enjoyed the fantastic food and wine on offer.
This, however, was not the most touching part of the evening, as I had expected it to be. Back at Hotel Olecki, part of our group bought some drinks from a local store and sat around the tables outside, talking over a drink. Another group sat nearby, but we paid them very little attention.
Later on, as this other group departed, an elderly gentleman smiled in our direction and said, "до свидания!", meaning 'goodbye' in Russian. I have a little understanding of Russian, and replied, "спокойной ночи!" ("Good night!"). At this, he approached our table, and I realised I had seen this man in the hotel restaurant before. He wore a blazer with three medals attached. Someone had mentioned that there was a survivor staying in the hotel, and it suddenly clicked. He spoke no English, and I told him I spoke very little Russian, but all of a sudden he rolled up the sleeve on his left arm - and then we all knew. Slightly faded but still visible was a number, tattooed from his time at Auschwitz. The whole table fell silent immediately. He went on to say he had also stayed in Buchenwald and Mauthausen, and came to Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 16. For the next hour or so, I 'talked' to him - by which I really mean he told his story and I picked out the little fragments I could. When I told him my level of Russian was quite poor, he replied, "It doesn't matter. Language does not matter. You still understand what I am saying."
All the other survivors I have heard from have always kept themselves composed as they told their story. This was the first time I had seen a survivor cry, and the man had to stop himself frequently so as to try and hold his tears back. At one point he made me cry, too - gesturing wildly, he cried, "Little children, the little children! Killed! Why? What for? Why did they have to be killed?" The idea that he may have seen such horrors with his own eyes brought tears to mine. Whenever he welled up, I would put a hand on his shoulder, or his arm; just a small gesture of comfort. I also hugged him a few times when he could not hold his tears back. He felt so frail, so thin, and for a moment I almost felt as though I was hugging him as he had been at liberation.
I eventually summoned up the courage to ask him his name and look at his camp number once again. "Of course," he replied. His name is Ivan Chuprin, number 128735. Having done a quick Google search, I have found nothing about him except for his contribution to a Russian documentary on the war entitled 'The Altar of Victory'. I will be asking my father to translate his testimony properly for me at some point. Once I have obtained this, I will try and write a blog on it. In the meantime, you can see this incredible man in this video, at around 9 minutes 30 seconds.
After we had finally said good night to Mr Chuprin, our group stayed a while longer to reflect and bring our mind to happier things. We eventually went to bed around 3:45am. I paid for this lack of sleep the next day, but I knew I would never have such an experience again in my life.