Sorry it has been so long since my last post! DIS really knows how to keep you busy! One thing I really love about the DIS program is how they take what you learn in class, and then offer opportunities for you to receive hands on experiences beyond the textbook.
Being Jewish, it was an extremely special experience to travel with my holocaust and genocide class to Hamburg, Germany to explore and discuss the events that happened there during WWII.
I’ve obviously been taught about the holocaust for years, but actually stepping foot where some of these things took place was a somewhat eerie, yet important and an extremely special experience for me.
Our first stop was to Bullenhuser Damn School, where 20 Jewish children were killed in fear that they knew too much about the mental experiments forced upon them at Neuengamme concentration camp. Along with the children included the deaths of their four adult Jewish caretakers and six Red Army prisoners of war. Today the school is used as a kindergarten, however there are subtle monuments in place to remember the lives that were lost during this terrible incident. One of the most disturbing things I learned here was that the Nazi officers were forced to pull the children down while they were being hung since the children were too skinny from starvation. It’s always extra disturbing to learn about the innocent lives of children that were taken during these terrible events.
We also visited Nicolai Kirche, one of the only landmarks to survive the bombings that took place in Hamburg during the war, which is now used as a memorial to the death and destruction of WWII. Hamburg served as a strategic port city during the Nazi regime, thus making it a prime target for Allied bombings. Our teacher taught us about “Operation Commorach”, an Allied firestorm that resulted in the death of 46,000 Germans. Here we discussed that in Europe, it is seen as “taboo” to describe the Germans as victims during the war. However, many innocent German lives were lost during events similar to the one that took place in Hamburg.
Rubble and destruction in Germany was normal back then, and our teacher described moments as a child while traveling through Germany and witnessing all of the destruction and families without homes. Danish citizens could even see the fire from the bombings in Hamburg from the coast of Denmark. Millions of refugees from these bombings were left without help due to the fact that most countries refused to help Germany. Events like these are examples of the world hopefully learning from history, for strategic bombings on full cities do not take place today. It was definitely interesting to look at WWII through a totally different complex.
The most touching visit on the trip was to Neuengamme Concentration Camp, which was a forced labor camp used by the Nazis during the war. Our teacher, an amazing historian, took us around and gave us a private tour of the grounds with room for stories and reflection. The ride into the camp from our tour bus was extremely upsetting. While passing through cute and quaint towns, you suddenly enter the concentration camp gate. We learned that residents in these neighborhoods knew about the events that took place at the camps, and children even used the torture of prisoners as entertainment on their way home from school. While discovering more about the camp, our teacher helped us reflect on the daily dilemmas that campers faced. For example, since prisoners only received one piece of bread each morning, one would weigh the options of either eating it all at once, or saving one piece for inspiration to survive throughout the day. However, having that half piece of bread stolen was a constant worry…since food was a rare commodity. These simple decisions are things I know I will never be able to truly relate to, but it makes me feel so fortunate for my life today.
The conditions of the campers were completely unbearable. The little food they were given was rotten leftovers that the surrounding farmers refused to feed their pigs. What really hit me the most was touring the camp cellar. During air-raid alerts towards the end of the war, thousands of prisoners were herded into the cellar vaults. Many lost their lives in the resulting crush or at the hands of the SS during such alerts. While listening to interviews from surviving prisoners, these events were sometimes the most violent incidences that took place at camp. There weren’t many surviving prisoners left, with around 50% of the campers reaching their death during their stay at Neuengamme.
Although this wasn’t your typical “European travel vacation”, I feel so fortunate to have shared the experience of visiting these important places with a historian who is truly inspired by teaching and providing hands on experiences for his students. It will definitely be something I’ll never forget.