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Students visit six Holocaust sites over break

Liz O'Donnell | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

While some Notre Dame students jetted off to exotic locations to spend their Spring Break, a group of students ventured halfway around the world to explore various sites commemorating the Holocaust.

The trip was in conjunction with a class focused on the Holocaust taught by visiting professor of history Fr. Kevin Spicer.

The course “includes study of the origins of anti-Semitism, the rise of National Socialism, German Jews in the Weimar Republic and their exclusion from public life under National Socialism, the euthanasia action, Reichskristallnacht, ghettoization, deportation and the concentration and death camps,” according to Spicer.

Amber Rosenberg, a student in the class who went on the trip said that the Holocaust hit close to home.

“I decided to apply for the class because my family was fairly involved with the Holocaust and I’ve always been really interested in learning more about it,” she said. “My grandma lived in Krakow when Poland was invaded and my grandpa did some undercover work for the Allies and then escaped Germany before Hitler came to power.”

Including this trip as a part of the class is an essential aspect of studying the Holocaust, Spicer said.

“Although traditional classroom study is important, the uniqueness of the Holocaust may only be fully understood through visiting the historical sites,” Spicer said.

Rosenberg said that the class has, thus far, focused on the history of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism.

“We were sort of setting the stage for how the Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust,” said Rosenberg. “We’re talking about the people who worked in the Concentration camps the murderers really” 

While in Europe, the students visited four different sites.

“I mean it was strange to be there and see it all. It was like we were stepping back in time,” said Rosenberg, “We visited six camps, three of which were pretty intact and three of which were completely destroyed and just memorials.”

The class began their trip with a visit to the former ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. At this location, there were various memorials, a Jewish Cemetery, as well as a synagogue.

Next, the group journeyed to Lublin, where they visited three different death camp memorials. Of these three, one camp, Majdanek, was also a concentration camp.

“At Majdanek we saw a mausoleum with a huge basin of human ashes. And it really sort of hits you that those were normal people who died and there were so many of them,” said Rosenberg.

The students also visited Krakow, which is well known for its role in the movie “Schindler’s List.” While there, students saw Oskar Schindler’s actual factory and the infamous death camp Auschwitz.

The final stop on the tour was Prague, where the group toured the Theresienstadt ghetto memorial and museums.

After the trip, Rosenberg said the power of the event started to sink in.

“Just to see the memorials and everything, you can’t even begin to comprehend the magnitude. 6 million people were killed,” she said.

This was not the first year that Spicer has taken students to Europe to visit Holocaust sites.

“This was the fifth time that I have offered a similar travel program related to my course on the Holocaust. Due to financial concerns, I altered the travel schedule to exclude visiting Berlin,” said Spicer. 

Without the visit to Berlin, more time was opened up to explore other venues that were closer to ones previously visited.

“Instead the travel program this year also included visits to the death camp memorials at Treblinka and Belzec – both within 2 hours driving distance of Lublin.”

Now that the class has returned for the second half of the semester, its focus will shift to the topics of the evolution to genocide in Nazi-occupied Europe, the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the Jewish resistance and the Nuremberg Trials.

Although the trip dealt with heavy issues, Rosenberg said that the overall experience was a good one.

“It was an intense trip but we had a lot of fun too so it was a good balance,” she said.