December 26, 2007

Guest Blog: Abby Spilka's Trip to Poland

My colleague, Abby Spilka, the director of communications for the Museum, recently went to Poland for a week. This was her first trip, and she made a point of sending e-mails almost daily to share her experiences with us in New York. I have asked her to “guest blog” about her trip and share her experiences with you.

Guest Blog
As David mentioned, I traveled to Poland earlier this month to help make a promotional film for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a film that will inspire viewers to want to go themselves, or make it possible for others to visit.

My First View of the Gate at Auschwitz I

Although we had some logistical issues, we were able to start filming in Auschwitz –Birkenau beginning at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. Wladyslaw, our guide, drove us to meet the crew of 5 from Krakow, Tomasz, the photographer from Oswiecim; Robert, the guide from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum; and Artur, the historian from the Auschwitz Jewish Center. We had a list of shots to get before the sun went down, which begins at that time of year at 3:15.

The Arbeit Macht Frei gate was the first shot of the day. If ever there were an iconic image to represent the Holocaust, and the Nazi’s unbridled evil, it would be this sign. To see a representation of it so many times in books and films cannot compare to seeing it in person. The power of that sign and what it was meant to communicate to the prisoners, and what it means to us more than 60 years later is really quite terrifying.

For most of the day a combination of frost and mist remained on the grounds as we walked around, fixing a suitably ghostly atmosphere on the otherwise sunny day. From the gate we went to the crematorium, the one that remains standing in Auschwitz I. It ceased operation in 1943 when the gas chambers opened at Birkenau. When I entered and stood in what must have been a place to disrobe, I was overcome with a feeling I had once before: When I went into the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center soon after it re-opened after September 11, 2001, I could not help but think that this place was all but destroyed after 2 hours of man-made terror rained down upon it. And here it is, re-built, with shorter palm trees, giving the outward appearance that nothing untoward had happened, while remaining the site of such terror. The empty rooms in the gas chambers/crematorium contained nothing physical, but, years later, they could not be separated from their designed purpose.

The crew and I went to the river across from the commandant’s house, we drove to the Judenrampe, and then to the entrance at Birkenau. We filmed in the guard tower to illustrate the sheer expanse of this place. What look like cement foundations have been placed around the edges of buildings that are no longer there; they function as mini memorials. In some cases, all that exists are the chimneys from the barracks. The train tracks leading into the building that houses the guard tower is another one of those images that has been in my memory since I was in high school.

From the guard tower we walked to a women’s barracks to film what remained. The barracks were based on a design for stables to accommodate 55 horses; instead they held several hundred women.

We filmed in the pond and in the vestiges of crematoria 4 and 5. The eponymous birch trees behind the ruins of the crematoria in the winter light and the mist were appropriately eerie. The red brick, the green moss, and the white trees added unexpected touches of color. Considering it was December in Poland, it was surprising not to traipsing in snow.

Birch Trees

Literally, at the end of the day when we concluded filming, I looked up to see an orange reflection. The sky was full of orange striations and the sun was reflecting off a guard tower. I have never seen anything quite like it. Colleagues know that I seek out the sunsets over the Statue of Liberty in winter that we can see from our offices. When you see them, you wonder how such beauty can be created from air, water, and light. The sunset at Birkenau rivaled our west side sunsets. To see such beauty in such a place of darkness made me feel even more connected to the Museum.

Sunset at Birkenau

(Photos by Tomasz Mol)

December 18, 2007

Thou shalt not stand idly by...

(Photo by Richard Levine)

This month we are pleased to announce the launch of two new initiatives to educate students and the public about the crisis in Darfur. The Education Department has created a new workshop for middle and high school students, Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By. As an institution devoted to educating all who walk through its doors about the Holocaust and the universal lessons that can be learned from this unique period of history, the Museum feels a special responsibility to speak out about Human Rights violations.

The workshop’s title refers to the Biblical phrase “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The initiative features artifacts, images, and written testimony from witnesses to the genocide in Darfur — most of whom are young adults and children — to teach abut the crisis and to offer information about actions students can take. The Museum has also created a dynamic website page devoted to educating teachers, students, and the general public about the situation. Visitors to the site can read background information, download videos, get recommendations for books, and launch their own letter writing campaigns.

We invite you to visit this webpage, bring students to the Museum to participate in the workshop, and most of all to get involved in speaking out against genocide. Click here

December 8, 2007

Blog from Prague II

Flags of ITF Member Countries

I attended the final Plenary Session of the Czech Chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research in Prague. This meeting was also my last as the Chair of the Museums and Memorials Working Group. Beyond the real meanginful work of the Task Force, these meetings provide a useful opportuinity to connect with colleagues from around the world. The major issues at this meeting involved the establishment of a permanent office for the Task Force in Berlin and the engagement of a permanent Executive Secretary. Since the Task Force operates by consensus, the meetings involve a unusual brand of diplomacy. Much of the work takes place in the hallway and at the dining table, with passionate lobbying and intensive jaw-boning.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg Opens Plenary

Task Force Plenary Session
My Working Group met for two long days. In addition to making decisions on applications for the funding of projects, we addressed the appropriate follow-up to our important work in June on Historic Sites and charted our work for the future, which will focus on best practices for Museum education.

Gate at Small Fortress in Terezin

We visited Theresienstadt (Terezin), which was the site of a Ghetto, which incarcerated tens of thousands of Jews from around Europe. It was also the site of a great propaganda hoax, the socalled beautification action, which was engineered by the Germans to fool representatives of the Internation Red Cross, who visited the the Ghetto in 1944.

ITF Delegates Visit Terezin

For me the most striking aspect of our visit was learning that much of the former ghetto is the current home for Czech citizens, who live where Jews were once forced to live. Among the most moving of the sites we visited was the secret synagogue, which served as one of the several clandestine places of prayer for Jews in Theresienstadt.

Terezin Museum Display

ITF Delegates Visit Terezin Secret Synagogue