Trinity Students Spend Spring Break in Warsaw, Krakow, Poland

Students get firsthand Look at Renewal of Jewish Life and Nazi Death Camp

Hartford, Connecticut, April 17, 2014 –Some students spend Spring Break lolling on the beach in Cancun. Others head home with basketfuls of dirty laundry and healthy appetites. And some hunker down in the library, hoping to catch up on their reading or finish a senior thesis or an independent study project.

Then there are the 12 Trinity students who headed to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, with Sam and Lisa Kassow, where they immersed themselves in that country’s history, focusing primarily on Poland’s experience in World War II. The weeklong trip was educational but also, at times, gut wrenching as the students not only learned about the Holocaust but visited the death camps where hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated.

There were no better guides than Samuel Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History and one of the world’s foremost experts on Poland and modern Jewish history, and Lisa Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel.

A year ago, Sam Kassow was invited to Warsaw to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He was asked to speak at the building opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. About 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II, although nowadays there are fewer than 10,000. The Trinity group was a pilot study group project hosted by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (IAM), which focuses on promoting Polish culture abroad and initiating diverse forms of international cultural cooperation. Together, the staff of the Mickiewicz Institute and Trinity Hillel created the program for the week. “We could do whatever we felt was appropriate or meaningful,” said Lisa Kassow. “The program was based on the Jewish past, the present and on thinking about the future.”

​Trinity students cleaning a section of the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
 The group also combined their sightseeing and learning experience with a community service project. With the guidance of the Taube Center for Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, they helped to clean up a small section of the historic Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, which had fallen into disarray.

Three of the 12 students recently joined Lisa Kassow for a discussion of the trip. For all three, the most powerful, most moving experience was their visits to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the Auschwitz concentration camp complex was the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. It included three main camps, all of which deployed incarcerated prisoners at forced labor. One of them also functioned for an extended period as a killing center. The camps were located approximately 37 miles west of Krakow, near the prewar German-Polish border in Upper Silesia, an area that Nazi Germany annexed in 1939 after invading and conquering Poland. The SS authorities established three main camps near the Polish city of Oswiecim: Auschwitz I in May 1940; Auschwitz II (also called Auschwitz-Birkenau) in early 1942; and Auschwitz III (also called Auschwitz-Monowitz) in October 1942.

At least 960,000 Jews were killed in Auschwitz. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles; 21,000 Gypsies; 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war; and 10,000 to15,000 members of other nationalities.

Seth Browner ’17, of Thousand Oaks, CA, hadn’t been to Eastern Europe and wasn’t sure what to expect. Although he learned a lot from visiting Krakow and its synagogue and seeing the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all of the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe with more than 400,000 Jews crowded into an area of about 2 square miles, Browner said the “most moving experience” was seeing Auschwitz.

“It definitely affected me,” he said. “It gave meaning to things that I had learned about in school and made me feel more dedicated to Judaism than at anytime since my bar mitzvah.”

Overall, Browner, who is taking a history course this semester on “Eastern Europe Since 1948,” said the trip made him more curious about his Jewish heritage.

Sophie Katzman ’14, of Marblehead, MA, viewed the opportunity to travel to Poland with the Kassows as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Although she, too, wasn’t sure what to expect, Katzman found the visits to the museum, Auschwitz and Birkenau “very powerful.”

Professor Kassow in front of a photograph of Emanuel Ringelblum, the subject of his book Who Will Write Our History.
 In an essay that she penned for the online student publication New Voices, Katzman wrote: “Many members of the American Jewish generation before me refuse to go to Poland. For some it’s because they have endured too many horrific accounts, for others it’s a refusal to support a country where millions of their people were killed, and still others just don’t want to travel to a place that evokes death and sadness. I understand these notions; it isn’t easy spending a week walking on top of grounds where thousands of my own people’s bodies are buried. Yet walking these paths has allowed me to understand my own feelings about the Holocaust on a deeper level and connect to Judaism in ways I could never have imagined before.”

New York City resident David Linden ’16, is a first generation American, his father having been from Budapest, Hungary, and living there during the country’s 1956 revolution. Linden’s father escaped to Australia, where he lived until college brought him to the United States, where he remained.

Like the others, Linden didn’t know how he would feel upon visiting many of the places they went. But he viewed the trip as a great opportunity to go to Poland with Sam Kassow, whom Linden called “a walking encyclopedia.”

Like the others, Linden made the most of his short visit, visiting the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war. And when he was at Birkenau, where four of his family members were likely killed, he called his father and together they recited the “The Mourner’s Kaddish,” which is a prayer for the dead.

“It was very meaningful…and powerful,” said Linden, adding that before he left for Poland his mother asked him if he was emotionally prepared for what he was about to experience.

“I still don’t know if I was ready, but it was important for me to go and I’m happy that I went,” he said.

Students who participated in the trip will speak about their experiences at the Trinity College Yom HaShoa Commemoration at the Zachs Hillel House on Monday, April 28. An exhibit of student photographs from the journey will be on display. 

For more photos from the trip, click here.