Posts Tagged ‘poland’

One Traveler Honors Her Family Lost in Auschwitz

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Thomas Emmert Thomas Emmert, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe with a research focus on the former Yugoslavia. He received his B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and his Ph.D. in Balkan and Russian history from Stanford University.

Recently, Thomas led a Smithsonian group on a trip around Old World Europe. One of the most important and moving visits brought the group to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where one of the travelers had a chance to honor family members lost in the Holocaust. See his post from the visit below:


No one is ever truly prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a generation born in the years just before or after the Holocaust, this inexpressible horror of the twentieth century continues to haunt us even as we move fully into our new century with all its possibilities.  We left Warsaw early in the morning and drove through the lush, rich countryside of south central Poland, eventually catching our first glimpses of the Tatra mountains on Poland’s southern border. It was a warm, sunny, infectiously beautiful, late spring day, and one could be forgiven for wishing for a lovely, leisurely picnic instead of contemplating a visit to a concentration camp. We were all so very quiet that morning, deep in our own thoughts, reflecting perhaps on our memories of reading Wiesel, Levi, Borowski or the memoirs of some other Auschwitz survivor. We were steeling ourselves for the shock and the tears even as we knew that nothing could really prepare us for this experience.  As we drove into Oświȩcim and caught sight of the first red barracks of Auschwitz, I reminded everyone that we came here to honor the memory of all those who suffered and perished in this nightmarish place. The silence continued.


Auschwitz-Birkenau main track. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

I don’t know if it’s easier to come to this place when the sun is shining and the weather warm and inviting. I have seen it in pouring rain and in deep winter when the bitter damp cold freezes the tears on our faces, and we cannot imagine a single minute in this place without adequate clothing and food. But the sun and the warmth could not distract us from the reality of what we were seeing.


Zorica and other Smithsonian travelers reading a psalm at Auschwitz. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Zorica, our fellow traveler, was as ready for this day as she could be. All her life she had waited for this moment to honor all the members of her family who never returned from this earthly Hades. The tour was almost finished when she gathered us together as a group next to the train tracks and the unloading ramp at Birkenau where Zorica’s relatives and millions of others experienced their last moments of life. Embracing Zorica in a circle we together read a Psalm and listened as some of the group said Kaddish. Finally after almost seventy years, Zorica’s relatives and, for the rest of us, these representatives of the millions, were honored and given their own short funeral.


Aushwitz-Birkenau track entrance. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Afterwards, everyone was silent for a very long time on the drive from Auschwitz to Cracow. Silvija, our Tour Leader, played a CD of some meditative violin music for us. As we approached Cracow, I spoke briefly and reminded everyone of Primo Levi’s admonition to us all. He said that we must not leave Auschwitz despondent and without hope. If we are to honor truly all those who died and suffered there, then it is our duty to live our lives as beautifully, honestly, and justly as we can. I know that  these words were very cathartic for all of us.  We had made our pilgrimage and were humbled beyond words by the experience. But we had indeed honored the millions and we accepted the admonition to live good and just lives. A great burden had been lifted from Zorica’s shoulders, and together we were ready to continue our great adventure into Central Europe.

Lured by Eastern Europe

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Dr. Ursula Rehn Wolfman is a perennially popular Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader. An adjunct professor at Georgetown University, her field of study is the relationship between literature, painting and sculpture, architecture, and music. Here, Dr. Wolfman will introduce you to Eastern Europe, destination of her next tour. Click here for more information on Ursula and travelling with her.

Prague Castle on the Charles River

Prague Castle above the Charles River

A journey through Eastern Europe takes you along ancient trade routes which have existed since prehistoric times, linking the Baltic region to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. The great powers of Europe — Prussia, Austria, Russia and France –have clashed here throughout history, altering borders by changing allegiances, devastating cities and countryside well into the 20th century. With the fall of the Communist system and the rebuilding and restoration of the many cities on our tour, we can experience their past glory, magnificent architecture and extraordinary art collections.

This entire region has nurtured some of the greatest of European arts, architecture, music and literature: having traveled extensively in these countries, I am passionate about sharing my fascination with its many riches.

These cities and landscapes evoke many musical and visual memories – whether it is sitting in St. Katjan, a baroque Church below the Hradčany, Prague’s Castle Hill, listening to a concert on a baroque organ and trumpet with the sounds soaring into the painted heavens, or wandering through the romantic gardens of Zelazowa Wola, Chopin’s Birthplace outside Warsaw, with one of his haunting Nocturnes drifting from the concert hall.

In Krakow resides one of my favorite paintings, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ in the Czartoryski Museum, and in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum the wonderful ‘Brueghel room’, in the extraordinary collections of the Habsburgs.

The Old World coffee house culture is very much alive in Krakow, Budapest and Prague, with many coffee houses retaining their Fin-de- Siècle atmosphere and authentic Art Nouveau furniture and decorations. In Vienna, at Zuckerbäcker Demel’s, one of the 19th century coffee houses, people share an ‘Apfelstrudel mit Schlag and a Grosser Brauner’, watching elegant Viennese walk by.

Where is your favorie cafe? Share below.

Click here for travel to Eastern Europe.