Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Letter from the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania

We are honored to have such high words spoken of our students from the recent Holocaust memorial course in this letter to Father Graham from the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania. Thank you, Deborah McCarthy, for your kind words and for welcoming our students on their journey of exploring faith, culture, and service in Lithuania.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Homestay

by: Emma Krummenacher



On Thursday night, we got to do our homestay with families in Stakliskes. I did a week long homestay on a study abroad trip through my high school in France, but we had talked to our families for months before coming to stay with them. For this homestay, we met some of the kids at the cemetery earlier in the week, but we did not know who exactly we would be with. Because of this, I was really worried about the homestay.

After an initial bout of confusion at the school trying to figure out who was staying there, we headed home with our families. Shannon and I stayed with a girl named Lina and her family. Lina spoke English very well and from what I could tell so did her brother and sister, but her parents did not speak any English. I was worried that this language barrier would cause some problems at the homestay, but Lina translated perfectly and everything went smoothly.

When we got to Lina's house, her mom immediately offered us sandwiches and tea. Every member of her family that was at the house at that time pitched in to help make Shannon and I food. I was somewhat surprised by how nice and accommodating they were to us outsiders, but I was even more grateful.

From that point on, the warm hospitality only grew. Lina and her brother, Lukas, took us around Stakliskes and then we went to see their grandmother. She was so sweat. After inviting us into her home, she just kept repeating how beautiful we were. She thought that Shannon and I knew Russian so she kept trying to speak to us in Russian. While we were getting ready to leave, she asked to take a picture with us. I was so touched by how just meeting Shannon and I and taking a picture with us made her so happy. When I think about it, I do not really believe that getting to take a picture with some girls that came from another country would ever make me that happy. It just goes to show how far simple acts of kindness can go.

I was not expecting anything from my host family except for a place to stay. I certainly did not expect to feel the warmth of a family home while I was 4000 miles away from my own. Getting to spend a night at Lina's house was an experience that I would never trade for the world. For me this homestay encompassed a lot of what this trip is about in making lifelong connections with such a wonderful community.

Appreciation

by: Aubrey Meyer 


Today we got to finish up the cemetery, getting it ready for the dedication tomorrow. Seeing all the stones that we got upright was very satisfying, and comparing the pictures beforehand was super exciting. After cleaning the cemetery, we went to the school to have lunch. It was an amazing lunch, and the people making the lunch were so sweet. What really sealed the lunch was when Emmalee bought her and I cinnamon rolls from the cafeteria! They were the most amazing things I have tasted in a week.

We were honored to be able to attend the schools graduation after lunch. It was an emotional moment for some of the seniors who were leaving the school they have been in for 12 years. They sang and danced and even dedicated a song to us and thanked us for coming to see them. We gave the principal a Xavier banner and portfolio, and also announced the art contest winner and the essay contest winner. They were so excited and so thankful that we had done this for them.

Our final event of the day was staying with our host family. Me, Paige and Blessy stayed with the mayor. We went to a little town called Birštonas to have pizza with Mantás, our translator. The mayor drove us around the little town and we went to see a huge oak tree. We also got to see a beautiful lake with a lodge. Seeing all these nature sights made me really appreciate the little bit of nature that I have at home. When we got to the mayors house, his family welcomed us with open arms, even though we didn’t speak their language. Seeing how happy they were to talk to us made me realize that we are pretty blessed in the United States, and how easily we pass by people who have amazing stories and knowledge.

As we continue through these final days, I hope to cherish all the memories we have had here. I hope to expand on all the knowledge that I have gotten to acquire and even grow in the friendships I have made. While we can share these experiences with our family, friends, and peers, nothing will compare to actually being here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fence is up!

by: Greg Reyes

I can’t believe it’s been three days working and restoring the cemetery. In just the past few days the amount of work done from such a resilient team has been unbelievable. With the strong diversity of the team we have all come together with our own strengths to surface buried tomb stones, stand them up right, and clean them off for visitors to read and pay respect to Jewish families who have been laid to rest for hundreds of years. The communication between the students while working together and the passion to give back to a devoted community has been extremely motivational for me. Today was really special because we finished putting up the beautiful iron fence, which surrounds the cemetery. Farms surround the cemetery and without the fence it is very possible that farm animals and even human life could prevent the cemetery from being preserved. While we understand that Lithuanian winters and strong weather patterns the tombstones will not stay upright for tens of years but the iron fence will do justice to what is deserved of the many lives that impacted the surrounding community.

Today was also a big day for a few visitors to stop by and see the service work that the team has put in this week. In the morning the vice-minister of culture, who we met in Vilnius at his office on Friday, visited us and complimented us on the beautiful work we have been doing. He thanked us for the dedication we bring to Lithuania to restore Jewish tradition so that lives will not be forgotten for generations to come. In the afternoon we were honored to have the Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania and his team visit us and talk to us. He first asked us about what we were studying and the expectations we had before coming to visit Lithuania and our expectations we had for him. He shared with us his story before he became appointed and his commitment to hold strong ties between Jewish history in Lithuania and those who live in Israel. I did not know that he was the first Ambassador and that there was not an Israeli Embassy in Lithuania until the beginning of last year. While he was very short and direct with us at the cemetery it was really nice that he came to visit us after at our lodge for a sit down talk over tea and cookies. One thing he said that I really liked was that it is so important, and our duty as humans, to give back to communities around the world who need a hand. Even though most of our team is not Jewish it really doesn’t matter what our faith is because ultimately we all deserve the same respect and dignity especially in a cemetery. It was really nice that he read and translated a tombstone that we cleaned off today in Hebrew. He ended our conversation by thanking us and telling us that any day someone does something to preserve Jewish tradition is a good day. It felt really nice to know that an international government official spent a few hours with us and shared what his efforts are to set an example to Lithuanians to do more to embrace the rich Jewish customs that have influenced Lithuanian culture.

We enjoyed a nice home cooked Lithuanian meal with soup and excellent fish for dinner. Afterward, we all embraced eastern European culture and spent some quality bonding time in the sauna, which felt great to relax and recover from a long day. Tomorrow, I’m really looking forward to continue finishing up restoring the cemetery and in the afternoon meet our host families, which will be hosting the team for one night. It’s crazy how fast the trip has been going and the amount of cultural history I’ve learned that has greatly impacted my understanding of Eastern Europe culture and especially Jewish history. This trip is one I will remember for years to come and I can’t wait to bring the memories and stories back to the United States!

Feeling a Presence

by: Macey Gerster


Throughout this journey, we have been preparing ourselves to begin our work to restore the Jewish cemetery located in Stakliškės, Lithuania.  Now that our work has finally began, I am more eager than ever to make this a place that will honor all of the Jews that once lived here.  Though to some it may seem as if this cemetery is simply a memorial to those who are buried there, it has taken on a much greater meaning.  After learning about the atrocities of the Holocaust that destroyed the lives of so many, this cemetery is not only for those who died before 1940, but for all of their family members who were never given the dignity of a proper burial.  As we work to restore this cemetery that was almost lost forever, I cannot help but feel a presence surrounding us as we work. It is as if these individuals from the past are standing by our side as we work to preserve what is left of their physical memory.  The more we work in the cemetery, the more passionate I become about restoring this resting place to the best of our ability.  Though I know that the cemetery will not be perfect when we leave due to the limited time that we have, I want to make sure that we do the best we can do to bring awareness to the world. I want everyone to know that this cemetery exists and that Jews once lived in the town of Stakliškės, Lithuania.  

Knowing that each grave represented an individual who was unique to the world and there will never be another person like him or her, has inspired me to put my heart into all parts of our work no matter how hard it is.  For example, one tombstone that we found had been buried by dirt that had accumulated over decades.  Though this one tombstone took almost two hours for a group of us to pull out of the ground and get it standing the way that it was meant to, the effort and time was worth it.  The stone belonged to a woman named Rachel, and I believe that she was with us the whole time as we worked to restore the dignity of her grave.  She must have been smiling and cheering as her grave began to look similar to how it had when her children had placed it there in her memory.  Each of these graves deserves this respect, and I hope that our involvement in Stakliškės has inspired the community to continue to watch over these graves in order to preserve them for future generations to see.  By liberating this cemetery from the forest, we are doing what we can to show the world that Jews once lived in Lithuania.  As long as we continue to fuel our labor with the passion that we have for our cause and we use the inspiration given to us from the souls that are surrounding us, I do not doubt that our task can be completed. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Teamwork

by: Blessy Varughese


Our second day of work is complete! Just in two days of working in the cemetery we have gotten so much done. At least 3/4th of the fence has been put up and a lot of the stones have been put up. It is crazy to believe already that from the first day of seeing the cemetery and now how so much has changed. Majority of the day I was helping out with the fence. We first sanded the part of the fence where the fences were welded together then painted over them and from this I created a bond with the people who were also helping with the fence as well as a lot of teamwork was involved that we were able to figure out a system on how to get this fence done efficiently.

Even though I was not helping upright the stones and clearing them off I still felt like the fence was a very important part of this restoration project. As people drive by the cemetery, the first things they will see are the beautiful black iron fences and just by noticing these fences will show that there is a cemetery there specifically a Jewish cemetery. Also, the fence will help keep trash out. When we first saw the cemetery as we were walking around the perimeter I would see plastic and glass bottles all around as if people were passing by and not even noticing there was even cemetery located there is unbelievable.

During apart of the day I had the chance to help with the stones. From the day before, the students who gave us a tour of their school also joined us today to work in the cemetery was a great experience to work with them in their own community. There was one grave that I worked on that was split in three parts. The stone was extremely heavy and large in size. I could not believe we were able to find the parts of this one stone but being able to see the stone put together was a great feeling especially doing it together with everyone. Although at the end of the day, we completed so much and I am so proud of everyone of their hard work even though we are working in direct sunlight at times or having fire ants crawling up our socks and pants but I am looking forward to completely upright the stones and clean up the rest of the cemetery perimeter.

Restoring History

 by: Sarah Kramer


Our first day doing cemetery work was very accomplishing. We woke up early to cover ourselves in sunscreen and sprayed lots of lots of DEET (strong bug spray). We did not smell pleasant, but we were pumped to start working on the cemetery. When we first got to the site we surprised to see part of the fence up. It was inspiring to see the workers putting forth so much energy to help us help the community.  After getting out of the van everyone broke up into small groups to cover a lot of ground. Some of us carried the fencing to their appropriate places, others collected rocks to put the fences in places, and the rest of team started to uncover hidden tombstones. When uncovering the tombstones we had to be very careful. Many were under leaves, grass, and dirt, so we had to use a long crowbar to tap the surface of the ground to find them. One of the most conflicting tasks was determining how to uncover the tombstones. We wanted them above ground but we did not want to damage the surface either. However, when we got the stones upright and in ground the day became a little brighter. The process was tedious but we all worked as a team to accomplish something bigger than us.

Around noon we got a break for lunch. The local town’s school was generous enough to let us come to their cafeteria to eat our lunches. There we met two students who showed us around their school. They were thrilled to have visitors at their school. Kids would come over and say hi to us. We even have the honor to judge the school’s art contest! One of my favorite moments at the school was when we played outside on their jungle gym. The two students taught us how to play a game called ‘potato.’ It was really fun. The group then decided to show them how to play ‘Knockout.’ The time spent at the school was really interesting. Their school system is different then what we usually expect in the United States. At the school they teach their student three different languages and all of the grades are in one school. As the week goes on I hope to learn more about how their lifestyle is different from ours. Personally, I really enjoy learning more about the community and building relationships between them and the cemetery.

Around 4 pm we started to head back to the lodge. We walked away feeling proud of ourselves; some of us even wanted to keep going. Dirt covered the porch floor and our feet were dark brown, as we took our shoes and socks off. Sweaty heads, dirt from head to toes, and bright smiles, we got back to the lodge feeling proud of ourselves. We had just begun our journey of restoring history. Our efforts are helping those who can no longer help themselves, as well as bringing the community closer to their town’s ancestry. Hopefully the community will continue our work in restoring the cemetery. At the very end of the day we were all pooped-out and went straight to our beds. Oh boy, were we going to feel sore the next day.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Not Forgotten

by: Paige Rimer


On the seventh day of our Lithuanian adventure, we began the day with breakfast before attending a Catholic Mass at the local village church.  The priest gave us a warm welcome as he asked Rabbi Abie to speak to the whole congregation and Ruta translated English to Lithuanian.  Afterward, the priest took a moment to speak with us and gave us all divine mercy medals to commemorate our visit.  I was actually stunned at the priest’s reaction to our attendance to our visit to the church.  Even though we did not speak the same language, I could feel his excitement about our trip and what we were doing on this visit to Lithuania.  It really surprised be how the people of the church were interested in our visit to Lithuania.

Later on, we headed out to a small village called Butrimonys.  There we visited a mass grave that was not far off the main road.  This is where the Jews of Butrimonys were murdered.  The trail leading to the grave was paved with uncut grass and mosquitos, but that discomfort pales in comparison to the walk that those took to their death.  As we walked down the trail, I really tried to put myself in their shoes, but in reality I could not imagine how those people really felt.  After we spent some time at the grave, Rabbi Abie pointed out how one of the pine trees had pinecones that were a bright blood red.  I feel that is nature’s way of explaining how that the blood that was shed there is not forgotten.

Our last stop on our day’s trek was to a Jewish cemetery to specifically view a grave to honor fifty Jewish girls that were murdered at that cemetery.  The story of these girls were essentially forced into a brothel for the officers that occupied the town; it made me think about how scary that situation would be.

The next day we finally got to see the Jewish cemetery in Stakliskes and begin our work there.  The cemetery was a lot larger than I expected it to be, but I was very excited to start working.  The day was very productive and I was very proud of how well everyone worked together to get as much accomplished as possible.  I can’t wait to see the progress that we make this week and how we can make an impact on this community.

Restoration

by: Shannon Carney


First day of work is now complete! When we arrived to the cemetery this morning, about a quarter of the fence was already welded and looked absolutely incredible.  There was a gate opening into the cemetery that was also already complete signaling that it was a Jewish cemetery with the Star of David on top to the rest of the passer-bys.  The workday began by dividing up into different teams to accomplish different tasks such as fence placement in order to be welded, collecting of rocks around the cemetery to make cement, and digging up and restoring gravestones.  Initially, Macey and I began carrying the fence posts to there positions along the outside of the cemetery. This was definitely hard work and my face turned bright red as a result of this.  The working men, who were doing the welding and cement making, kept asking us if we wanted a break and we simply said not yet.  I’m not sure if it was sheer determination and a can do attitude that enabled us to continue to lift the posts along the border of the cemetery but we were able to complete a decent part of the fens border placement of parts.

After this around 12:30, the team had lunch at the local middle school.  This was quite an experience.  We walked in smelling of bug spray, mud, and honestly a lot of body odor from the first half of the day, but the school really welcomed us with open arms.  The director of the school greeted us with another teacher and two students.  We quickly ate lunch and then we were invited to tour around their school, which was a great opportunity to see different student art work, inspirational quotes throughout the school, and even a small museum resembling the student’s grandparents living conditions.  After this, we were taken outside to play and learn a few games with the students that had led the tour.

In the afternoon, the groups were rotated in order to partake in more aspects of the cemetery restoration process.  Paige, Sarah and I (The Power Puff Girls) were one of the groups doing the gravestone restoration.  Here, we tried to find, outline with a shovel, and lastly usually turn over the gravestones that we found buried under about 2 inches of soil.  There was one grave in particular that we worked very hard to dig up and turn over.  We were each surprised to see how well it was persevered.  At the end of the day, the mayor of Stakliskes even came by to commend our work thus far.

Today was filled with a great deal of teamwork and team bonding via hard work. One aspect that I was reflecting on today was the girl power-ness of the day.  Whether it was carrying the fence posts with Macey and having the workingmen compliment us on our determination or Paige, Sarah and I lifting up massive grave stones with help from a crowbar or shovel I was very proud of the work our group has put in so far and it was only been one day of work.

An Unforgettable Experience

by: Emma Krummenacher


When I came on this trip, I knew we were going to a Catholic mass, but I was expecting it to be just like all of the other masses I have been to; I never thought I would have an experience I would never forget. This morning we had the opportunity to attend a Catholic mass at the church in Aukstadvaris. The service was all in Lithuanian, so I did not really understand what they were saying the entire time. I was able to follow along in the order of the mass because of my Catholic upbringing. While I felt awkward and out of place at first, I quickly realized that religion and worship can unite people even if they are from different parts of the world. This realization helped me feel more comfortable at church today and I am really glad that I was able to see this today.

Before mass Ruta told the priest that we had come to visit today. When mass started, the priest told the congregation about us coming. I heard a word that sounded like America and then most of the congregation glanced back at us. I was worried that the people there would not be very welcoming of us coming into their church. As I watched the eyes turn back towards us, I originally saw this as a confirmation of my preconceptions. Then Ruta leaned over and told Rabbi Abie that the priest wanted him to come up and say something to the congregation. I quickly realized how wrong my original beliefs had been. The whole congregation had been super opening and welcome to us coming in and taking up four pews in their church.

This welcoming spirit was displayed again after mass when a reporter came up to our group and asked Ruta if he could get a picture of us with the priest. I was pretty surprised that a reporter wanted to take our picture. I feel like if a group of Lithuanians or anyone from another country came to mass in the United States people would not be unwelcoming, but they would just be kind of indifferent. That was not the situation here. After we got our picture taken, the priest invited us all into his sacristy. There he gave us all Divine Mercy Medals that he had blessed. After he had handed everyone one metal, he went back around and started handing us more. He was so friendly and opening to all of us. I have never had that close of a conversation with a priest after mass. Even though there was a language barrier and Ruta had to translate for both sides, the conversation seemed to flow almost effortlessly. Everyone was smiling and laughing which made the mood in the room feel so light and peaceful.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Our History is Our Future

by: Sarah Kramer


On Friday, the group toured Vilnius all day. Accompanied by Ruta, our guide and translator, we learned about the Jewish ghettos and history. Ruta pointed out ghetto boundaries and mentioned the requirements for establishing a ghetto—such as a Jewish ghetto cannot be built if there is a non-Jewish resident or building is there. We then made our way down to see the Vice Minister of Culture, where we learned about the future goals and projects in conserving the history of the Jewish people during WWII. At the meeting, one girl asked whether the citizens were behind the projects—as in they believed this history should be restored and documented. In response, from my interpretation, it sounded like the Lithuanian people do not question their government; they do as they are told and are almost unaware of what their “tax” money goes to. Several of us were taken back by this answer. In the United States, we question our government and are entitled to know what they do with our tax money. And if we disagree with anything we voice our opinions. However, the conservation and preservation of the culture of the Jewish society—before, during, and after WWII, is crucial. Our history is our future (take it how you want it).

Continuing our tour, we were walking down a one lane street, Jewish Street it is called, and smelled fresh baked goods. There we stopped for a little bit and treated ourselves to an array of delicious cookies. Along the street there were high-end, tourist shops and a small, kid-friendly park. Without a second thought you would not believe the discrimination and poverty that had once filled the Jewish Street. Before the classy stores had existed, the buildings were homes and before the sweet, warm smell of pastries there was the smell of death and garbage.  We are sheltered from the truth and have become naïve to the injustice that once walked the very path others have happily shopped around.
Within the same day, we had a Shabbat Dinner. Here, we were introduced to several people, who have aided in the cemetery reconstruction projects. They were ecstatic to meet us, as much as we were to see them. They seemed fascinated by our country, which shocked me as I perceived it differently. From their perspective, the group was a representation of the United States. Which is crazy to think, because we are just average young adults that simply live there. We do not have the same authority as a government official or the President, yet they are honored that we are in their country. But in reality, we were honored to be in their country and learning about their culture. And the more we meet the community the more we get to understand the history.

Visiting the Embassy

by: Aubrey Meyer


Today we got to do some incredible things. We got to go meet with the Vice Minister of Culture here in Vilnius. He talked about some of the new projects that he is doing, including a project called YIVO. This project is trying to promote the establishment of Jews in Vilnius. After meeting him, we walked and saw some beautiful synagogues and churches on our way to the United States Embassy. Once we got to the Embassy, we checked in (no phones allowed!) and went to meet some of the officers.

Meeting with the United States Embassy directors was a huge honor. They told us a lot about what they do, how they got to where they are today, and some of the difficulties being a foreign service officer. Each person we talked to (3 of them) had a different story and never really saw themselves getting into Foreign Service when they were younger.

Everyone asked tons of questions like what was the health care system like, what was the family life like, and also personal questions as well. I asked one of the officers a specific question about the Peace Corps. He participated in the Peace Corp right when he got out of college (with a finance and business undergraduate degree), which can really relate to what I want to do. I also got to personally talk to him afterwards to ask about his experience and what areas I should go into in the peace corp. One of the officers also talked about his family life and how adapting was difficult for his daughters. Something that was really hard for his daughters was getting the question of “where are you from” because moving around for different assignments never gave them a steady place to say where they were from.

Being able to talk to people with such high value was such a gift to us and I know we all really appreciated their time. These officers were so impressed by the work we are about to do that the ambassador wrote a letter to Father Graham about how special we are for doing this job, and how honored she was to have us there. Even the Vice Minister of Culture was so honored to have us there.

Meeting such important people really opened my eyes as to how lucky we are to have great opportunities and be able to express ourselves. This puts things into perspectives in viewing the things that have happened in the Holocaust, that our problems are not even close to the things that happened to those people. Hopefully I will be able to take this experience and apply it to my everyday life when we get back to the States.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Lush Picturesque Execution Site

by: Emmalee Phelps


When we first pulled up to the site of Paneriai in Lithuania, I only saw two large memorial monuments. Ruta quickly began telling us about the little town of Paneriai, which was a beautiful forest and a popular recreational area for residents of Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) and the other surrounding towns before the war. The area of Lithuania has had many boundary changes from being their own country to then being controlled by the Soviets and Paneriai became a place where fuel tanks and ammunition stores were set up for the Red Army. The Soviets dug rather large pits in the ground to set up the fuel tanks, but when the Nazi forces invaded, they took notice of the unfinished pits for the fuel tanks. Because of the close proximity to Vilnius and the easy access to trains, the Nazis transformed Paneriai into a site for mass extermination operations. Today Paneriai is a picturesque forest full of lush green grass, chirping birds, and trails that lead observers to pit after pit and memorial site monument, which is very ironic given there were 100,000 individuals killed, 70,000 of which were Jews that lived in the town and also surrounding areas.

There were hardly any individuals looking at the memorials and Ruta said many people use the grounds as a place of picnic, which is also very bizarre to me given the history of the ground. There was a small museum that had pictures of the executions and also the pits. Looking at the pictures is what truly made me cry because you could see bunches of individuals standing together in a circle in a pit that one could never climb out of without a ladder, with their arms over their head all facing each other vulnerable and scared of what would happened next. There were 12 pits that we currently know of that had roughly 7,000-10,000 human beings, killed and dumped in each pit. Putting into perspective, one pit could hold the entire staff, faculty, and student population at Xavier and then some. To me, Paneriai seemed more emotionally tolling than Auschwitz, which we visited earlier in the week, because people knew that once they were brought here, there was no camp that would allow them to maybe even be given another day to live; Paneriai was the end of the line. Nazis were not the only ones killing Jews and other civilians; there were other Nazi-compliant citizens of Lithuania willing to bring the life of one of their peers to an end. Paneriai does not get the acclaim and tourist attraction that Auschwitz gets, but I also think that is because the 6 main death camps were in Poland and Lithuania often gets overshadowed even though they have one of the highest Jewish population decline from the war (250,000 pre-war to 4,000 current day).

Everyday I am learning more and more about Jewish relations in Poland and Lithuania and I am looking forward to working at the cemetery this week.

P.s: Our lodge is absolutely beautiful!



More than a Pair of Shoes

by Gustavo Hecker


As I walked into Auschwitz, I felt a strong sense and emotion of the people that walked here before me. I checked my surroundings looking at being caged in and having no where to go. I try to get into the emotion of what it would have been like to be their during the holocaust. I understand that I will never come to understand the feeling that the Jews at the concentration camps had to go through. As I walk around I look at the buildings and it feels odd to me because I have been at a summer camp with buildings that look like the ones at Auschwitz. When people are talking about camps it is odd because when I think of camps I think of happy and fun things but this is the camp that no ones gets to leave. I found that the weather was appropriate for being at Auschwitz The weather was cloudy and it started to rain and I think it made being at Auschwitz even more powerful because when I think of the horrible things that happened their that’s the way I think of it. Seeing physical things of Auschwitz made me feel the importance and how emotional this trip was. When I saw the piles of shoes I was taken back because when people are just saying a number, like 6 million Jews people do not actually understand how big of a number that is. So when I saw the huge pile of shoes and just understanding that that wasn’t even close to the number of shoes that people had come to the concentration camp. I started looking at just one pair of shoes and thinking that those pairs of shoes belonged to someone and that even killing one person is still super morally wrong. After Auschwitz we went to Birkneau and we went to the gas chambers. As I was walking I was looking down at my feet and I was trying to imagine what it would be like if I was walking to the gas chambers. I was looking around seeing if there was any way that I could escape and I couldn’t fine one. As I continue to walk I think about how I am walking to my death and there is nothing I can do about it. I wonder so much about how these people felt and even if I met them right before what they where thinking about it. It really hit me hard and I am so thankful for being on this trip.

Reconstructing the Past

by: Drew Kaplan



Today is the day we will be arriving in the town of Aukstadvaris, just a short drive from Stakliskes. Stakliskes is the place of the hands-on work of our trip. All the previous day's have been filled of learning and knowledge on the holocaust (the lecture course). The previous day's consisted of pre-work learning that make the cemetery work that much more influential to our team and to the Jewish community. The next week to come is our lab portion of the course, it is the time we learn with our hands. The team and I today ventured to Penerui burial pits. Penerui memorials is the largest killing site of Jews in Lithuania, over 70,000 Jews were slaughtered on the grounds below our feet. The pits are deep and wide and were once filled with Jews that had no fighting chance. The view of the grounds will once again add to our work in the cemetery and add feelings and emotions to the in depth work we will partake in together in Stakliskes. My thoughts on the Penerui memorial hit me as soon as I saw the ditch leading to the massive burial pits. Pictures and stories can not describe the pits, and to picture in my head that their were at least 10,000 Jews in each pit really hits me deeply. The second half of our trip is just underway and many mixed emotions are going through me as we will soon reconstruct the forgotten burials.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Speechless

by: Shannon Carney


The itinerary for our third day in Poland indicated that this would be the day that we would be visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau museum along with Wadowice, Pope John Paul II’s birthplace. The museum was one of the main things that I remembered being on our itinerary. When our group gathered for breakfast early in the morning there was a strange sense among the group. I think everyone was kind of in the same position as me a jumble of nervousness, uncertainty, and completely unsure of how we were going to react to the death camp. We started off in Auschwitz One, which contained many brick barracks used for housing. This area of the camp contained many different exhibits explaining the history of the Holocaust, the number of lives killed, and many accumulations of different objects from the Jewish people that were brought to Auschwitz, which ranged from shoes to kitchen items to hair. As we went from barrack to barrack our group was able to barely scratch the surface of some of the events that took place there.

After this part of the tour we went to Birkenau, which was 20 times the size of Auschwitz One. We walked through the infamous arch, which so many people came through never to walk out of. There was an incredible feeling that was overwhelming knowing that where we were stepping was there millions of Jewish people also stepped on their way to there deaths via the gas chamber. There were many emotions that were running through me while walking, such as how could humans do this to other humans and how someone or power not have stopped it? Mostly though, I was simply speechless and the vast number of barracks and enormous amount of people that were here during WWII. One aspect that our tour guide, Ana, reiterated was to use Auschwitz and Birkenau as a warning to humanity. After an out of body experience like the one I had, I’m still not sure how to put everything back in and to take this experience from Auschwitz.

A Day of Two Extremes

by: Macey Gerster


Today was a day of two extremes. Our group began this cold and rainy day in Poland by going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration and death camps. One of the reasons that I chose to go on this trip was because I wanted to have the opportunity to fully understand the realities and atrocities of the Holocaust. I thought that by going to these camps, it would help me to better understand what these innocent people went through and how it could have happened. However, after taking my first steps into Auschwitz, I found the opposite to be true. While I had anticipated to gain a better vision in my head regarding what these people went through, it became harder and harder to imagine that such terrible acts of violence could have taken place. Normally I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but today was one of the very few times in my life that I went into shock and could not understand my own feelings. Now hours after having left the camps, I am even more stunned and angered about how a mass killing of this size could have happened and why no one was able to put a stop to it. 

We saw many things that showed the magnitudes of the killings. These exhibits where what helped me understand the fact that these victims were not just numbers, but were human beings that were all beautiful and unique. One room was filled with piles and piles of shoes. Seeing these shoes helped to see a glimpse into the individual lives of individual victims. When I go to buy a pair of shoes, I take time to look at the different colors and styles and then try on several pairs in order to determine if they feel and look right on my feet. This act of picking out ones favorite pair of shoes is universal. Therefore, each one of these shoes that now lie in a pile on display once had an owner who picked them to walk towards the brutal and inhuman death they would face. Each shoe represented an individual and his or her story that would never be told to the fullest or completely understood.

This day has been extremely hard for me as well as the rest of the group. Though eventually I will be able to write pages more about my feelings and experience in Auschwitz and Birkenau, I do not think that I have had enough time to process what I have seen today to the best of my ability. I hope to site down at one point during this week and continue to write more about what came to my mind during this part of our journey before the memories become dim. However, I want to take a couple more days to understand some of my deeper thoughts before I try to write them down for others to read.

Though the majority of the day was extremely difficult as we saw with our eyes the realities of the Holocaust, we ended our day by going to the birthplace of Saint Pope John Paul II. This particular part of the trip was one that I was extremely excited for when I had discovered that it was a part of our itinerary. As a devout Catholic who has spent a good amount of time learning about JP2 and his teachings, especially his works on Theology of the Body, I have looked to JP2’s teachings for several years in order to better understand myself and to help guide in regards to discovering my vocation. Going into the small city of Wadowice felt sacred to me. The memory of a Saint that had been alive just 16 years ago filled the city. Going into the cathedral named the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where JP2 had received the sacraments of baptism, communion, conformation, and reconciliation in his youth was very moving. In the few minutes that we had inside the church, I took a moment to offer my own personal intentions to the saint.

After going to the church we went to the museum that honored JP2’a life and achievements. The exhibit helped me understand how human JP2 was. Though I have spent a great amount of time looking at his theological works, I have not spent a great amount of time thinking about who JP2 was as an individual. After going to this exhibit I decided that if JP2 and I had been the same age at the same time, we would have been great friends. He was a man who powered his life with the spirit of God while at the same time knew the importance of living in the world and learning from the individuals that surrounded him. My respect continues to grow for this great saint and this trip to Wadowice has helped fuel the fire of my growing passion to immerse myself in my faith.

Today was a day of two extremes. I was able to see where one of my heroes was born and where he became the person that he would be remembered as, and I saw the place where millions of innocent people where marched to their deaths. It is hard to understand each of these events when looking at them back to back in such a way, but I am glad that I have been blessed with both of these experiences and I look forward to continuing to process what each of these journeys mean to me personally.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Walking the Streets

by: Blessy Varughese


After a long day of traveling from the previous day, today we finally got to walk the streets of Krakow! We got to explore various parts of Krakow, first the Jewish district and then to Old Town.In the Jewish district, there was so much history we saw as we walked through the streets from synagogue to synagogue, which it was also a new experience for me especially to learn about what goes on during the services. Each of the synagogues was set up so differently and had intricate designs, the picture on the left was shaped in a circular shape, in the middle inside of the what looks like a gazebo is where the Torah is read. The picture on the right was another synagogue we went to and was shaped differently and place where the Torah is read was closer towards the front where the Rabbi sits.
Then, we really got to sit down and eat some Polish food for lunch. I tried Pierogi’s (a potato filled dumplings served with toppings like melted butter, sour cream or fried cream) for the first time, which is somewhat similar to ravioli. The rest of the day we spent our time in Old Town, which was beautiful everywhere when we went through the streets, center of Old Town and the market. The first building you see is the castle (red brick building on the left), and as we went through the market we saw on various souvenirs that had fire-breathing dragons “protecting” the castle.
Overall, today was a great experience for our first time being able to walk the streets of Krakow. Although, I am very excited for the upcoming days we have in Poland especially for our visit tomorrow in Auschwitz. It will definitely be a life changing experience.