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


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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


by: Emma Krummenacher

Today was our first “real” day in Krakow! We started out the day with a great breakfast at the hotel and then headed to the Jewish District in Kazimierz. It was so cool to explore the Jewish District. On all of my trips before this, I have visited so many churches, but I have never visited a Synagogue on a trip. While in the Jewish District, we visited 3 synagogues and saw a couple more. It was crazy how close they all were to each other (this is also true for the churches was saw in Old Town later today!) After lunch (where I tried some meat pierogi (dumplings) which we actually pretty good!), we headed to Old Town to visit Krakow’s National Museum and the Cloth Hall. At the Cloth Hall, there were a lot of little shops that we could buy souvenirs from. Some of them had painted woodcarvings and I was really excited to find a cute carved elephant because I collect elephants! We stayed in Old Town to explore after we finished up at the Cloth Hall. Before going to Old Town, the places we visited in Krakow had seemed much more westernized and less like other European cities I had visited, but in Old Town everything seem much more European which was really interesting.

This is a picture of a sculpture that was in the square in Old Town. We actually have the exact same head in a sculpture park in downtown St. Louis (where I am from) and it was so cool to see something that reminded me so much of home in Krakow today! I do not know the story behind the matching heads in St. Louis and Krakow, but I am definitely going to look into that!

Team Xavier

by: Greg Reyes

We made it! After traveling for almost 24 hours and three flights later it feels great to have made it safely to the beautiful city of Kraków, Poland. Traveling for so many hours has allowed the team to get to know each other better as we strive to learn about the Holocaust and next week restore a Jewish cemetery. This evening we got the chance to visit the former Nazi German concentration camp “Płaszów.” Our tour guide told us that surprisingly not much has been done to preserve and mark the location except for a memorial that was placed in recent years which was standing strong on top of a hill as the sun was setting when we arrived. The memorial was beautiful and powerful to walk up to even with the colder temperature. The team had a chance to go to a Polish grocery store to get dinner and it was great as we were truly emerged into the culture and ate delicious bread, meats, and cheeses. Tomorrow, we have a full day ahead of us as we tour memorials in Kraków. I am honored to be a small part of a unique and influential team at Xavier University. For months, we have been known as Team Lithuania and Poland but now we are truly Team Xavier. I can’t wait to see what is in store for the next two weeks and the good that this amazing Xavier Team is going to share with the world for generations to come.

First Steps

by: Drew Kaplan

After a long day of travel to Poland, it felt great to finally walk out of the terminal and take in the first breaths of the polish air. The first experience as a group in Poland was the tour of Kraków. Kraków is an amazing city and driving through the old ghetto minutes after we landed really set the stage for an amazing trip. Plaszow is the first concentration camp on the journey and the first concentration camp I've ever experienced in person. The experience was very surreal and a great way to start the two week journey with and awesome group!