Holocaust Remembered: Notre Dame students in the European Classroom

Author: Jennifer Lechtanski

“The Holocaust wasn’t just 1939 onward, but all the events that led to the killing: the persecution, the exclusion, the deportation,” explained visiting Notre Dame professor Kevin Spicer, CSC, who recently led a group of twenty-seven Notre Dame and St. Mary’s students on a ten-day trip to Holocaust sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

Spicer’s students followed the progression of these harrowing events through lectures and discussions and by reading diaries, government documents, memoirs, and secondary sources—all standard components in university pedagogy. But when spring break arrived, their studies became unconventional. The students flew with Dr. Spicer to Warsaw and traveled by bus to Lublin, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin to see for themselves the sites of World War II atrocities, the former Warsaw ghetto, the death and concentration camps at Majdanek (pronounced mi-dan-ek) and Auschwitz, the Theresienstadt ghetto, as well as monuments, synagogues, and museums dedicated to Jewish culture.

Despite the passage of time, which has radically altered the social, cultural and economic landscape of Eastern Europe, the students’ written reflections on their experiences prove that the camps remain profoundly moving.

“It is one thing to hear that six million Jews were killed, another to see where it happened and then to see the mountain of ash that is all that remains. It made me feel for the victims, but also made me furious at people who deny the Holocaust,” said Conor Kelly, a Notre Dame senior majoring in history and theology.

“I will never forget the sheer number of shoes and the biting wind at Majdanek or the hair and baby clothes at Auschwitz,” wrote Maureen Rhodes, a Notre Dame junior studying political science and history.

“When I entered the room with all of the hair, that’s when it hit me: two tons of hair, just sitting there. I think about how important my hair is to me. How I take care of it and how it is a part of who I am. I’m sure it was the same for the women who were taken to Auschwitz. I bet they loved their hair as well,” wrote Bridget Mahoney, a Notre Dame junior majoring in history and gender studies.

For St. Mary’s junior Jackie Rothschild, the trip helped restore very personal links with the past: “Our second to last day in Berlin, the day we visited the memorial [Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe], I finally learned that two of my great uncles passed away in Auschwitz. That was the first time my family or I ever knew what happened to my grandfather’s brothers and sisters.”

While the trip inspired some students to connect more fully with the past, it directed others toward new paths in the future. The trip inspired Katrina Peller, a Notre Dame junior studying English and history, to apply for an internship at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “I feel a sense of duty, after going on the trip, to tell people about [what happened] because it’s important, and we need to prevent similar things from happening.” Several of the returning students expressed new interest in studying the Polish and Czech languages.

Even in its planning stages, interest in Dr. Spicer’s trip was high. Eighty students showed up for the first information session; thirty others sent email queries. Funding became the next concern, and a sizable concern it was, considering the devaluation of the dollar against the euro and the trip’s hefty $3,000 per student price tag.

Ultimately, contributions from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the Department of History, the Office of International Studies, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Learning Beyond the Classroom made the trip more affordable. In addition, eight program participants received UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) grants to pursue relevant research on the trip with topics such as: “The Ideology of Dehumanization,” “Representations of the Holocaust in Germany and America,” “German-Jewish Reconciliation,” and “Monuments of the Holocaust.”
Dr. Spicer credits John McGreevy, History Department Chair, Daniel Graff, Director of the History Department’s Undergraduate Program, and Stuart Greene, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, for supporting him in his early efforts to organize the trip. Dr. Spicer himself provided all the forward momentum, academic expertise, and accumulated experience of a seasoned traveler—where to eat, what to see, and how much to tip the bus driver so your group won’t be left waiting in the rain.

Despite the enormous amount of time required to plan this trip, Dr. Spicer, who has led three previous tours of Holocaust sites for his home institution, Stonehill College, insists it’s worth the effort. “Visiting sites related to the Holocaust and Jewish religion, culture, and life offer students an immediacy to witnessing history that no book or lecture can ever do.”

by Karla Cruise