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It’s sometimes difficult to imagine where we all were just before the pandemic shut down our life routines. Perhaps you were at a bar dancing with your friends or jetting off to far away places. I know for many people, St. Patrick’s Day weekend marked the end of normalcy. For myself, last Valentine’s Day, I was sitting in an airport, about to journey to Germany for a Service Learning Trip. I remember the pandemic being a minor concern and the excitement of travelling being a newly discovered love. So there I was, boarding a plane, making the long flight to Germany, too energized by the prospect of visiting a new country for the first time to sleep.

When we arrived in Germany, realizing it was technically a new day, we grabbed our carryon’s and changed our clothes. Feeling better, we grouped together and headed towards the exit of the airport, knowing we had a long day ahead of us from the beginning. As soon as we departed our shuttle to our Hostel, we embarked on a walking tour of Berlin. We passed a square with several shops and cafés on our way to see Otto’s Workshop for the Blind. As we entered Otto’s Workshop, we found ourselves headed up a small and narrow flight of steps, which led to a room with boxed artifacts from the age. Otto as in fact vision impaired himself, and owned this brush making workshop. Upon the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, Otto hid many of them in a secret room hidden behind a cupboard. Unfortunately, many of the Jews he hid were found and brought to concentration camps although it is understood that Otto kept in contact with them f possible in an effort to rescue them.

As we made our way back towards the exit of Otto’s Workshop, we found street art along the walls of the alley, which we were told elicits a walking tour of it’s own. There was a vivid image of Otto himself, and another familiar face, Anne Frank, which I am sure most would recognize. We did not dive too deeply into the artworks on the bricks, as our time was very tight and filled with histories of Germany, but we did on occasion have enough leisure time to enjoy some good food, the sights, a little shopping and group activities. Many of us chose to elude sleep so that we could jam as much as possible into our little 10 day trip. It was easy to do as the very streets of Germany have history ingrained in them. Along our walk, we encountered bullet holes in created in combat during World War Two, strewn throughout the city. Beneath our feet, we came across ‘stumble stones’ that were placed in front of the residences formerly dwelled in by Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust. This project ensures that the memory of these people is recognized everyday. Our group was moved by this, and we decided to contribute our raised funds to the procurement of a stumbling stone.

Numerous monuments, statues, and museums we passed, the city filled with culture, art and history. Our next stop was Humbolt University, near the oldest preserved street in Berlin where you could nearly picture the Royals travelling down the road in horse and carriage. At Humbolt, we happened upon another piece of history associated with the Shoah. Outside the University, there is a enclosed glass space, filled with bookshelves of the starkest white. The shelves remain empty. As it was described to us, during the Shoah, Jewish books were banned, as were Jewish Scholars. This meant that the works and practices of prominent Jewish Scholars, like Albert Einstein were burned. Einstein of course managed to flee Germany to the United States, but in Germany, his work was discarded for years.

Shortly after we visited Humbolt, we took a double-decker bus to the Reichstag Building where we found yet another memorial. This memorial was in honor of political prisoners taken to camps and was in the form of a sequence of jagged metal fragments with names, political parties, and camps where they were imprisoned. The memorial is a permanent reminder of those imprisoned due to their opposition to Nazi rule, which Hitler interpreted as a direct threat to his leadership.

Just a south of the Reichstag building on our walk to Brandenburg Gate we entered an enclosure, with a large pool of water surrounded by cobblestone blocks. In the very center of the pool was a small triangular stone platform with a single flower on top. The triangular shape referenced the badges of different signifying colors which were meant to be worn to identify what type of prisoner those interned in concentration camps were. Everyday, the stone is submerged below the water, and when it emerges, a new flower appears. While we stood in the enclosed area, music, distant but at the same time loud, was playing in the background and was also part of this specific memorial. The cobblestones surrounding the pool listed names of concentration camps. We were told there were 70 surrounding stones, which seemed significant as many people only know about the prolific camps like Auschwitz, however there were many many more. This specific memorial was done in remembrance of the Sinti and Roma people who were persecuted and perished in the Holocaust.

Just about to Brandenburg Gate, we saw remnants of what was the Berlin Wall. You can still trace the path where it lay as the remains are all over the city, even in sections where grass now grows, the stone still shows through. Throughout the city sometimes you can see a partial part of the wall still standing, broken, rebar, graffiti and all. Other areas were also left either untouched, or replicated. We got to see Checkpoint Charlie, which would have been the military posting by which people would enter and exit Berlin. There are large photographs on each side depicting the Allied Soldier and the Soviet Soldier, watching over both their respective sides of the checkpoint.

Following our walking tour of the city, we were able to return to our Hostel. Luckily, as a group we all seemed to want to fill up as much of our time as possible with the city. Service Learning is a great opportunity to not only learn about different cultures while on your experience, but t bond with the group you came with as well. Often some of the best times on our trip, was the moments we had at night, wandering the city and trying new foods. Sometimes, we spent our free time exploring more of the monuments and memorials. Once we even contemplated skipping breakfast to walk an hour before our tour started to go see the Berlin Wall. Luckily our tour guide was already at breakfast and notified us that we would in fact be going to see a piece of the wall after all, and that it just wasn’t on our printed itinerary. The whole point of the trip is to see everything you can, and to learn from it – so make the most out of your time. We were all exhausted when we got home of course, but all of us made a point to use all the hours of the day, for the short ten days we were travelling to truly immerse ourselves.

The next few days were filled with museum tours. Germany has so many amazing informative and artistic museums, all with different stories to tell. One of my personal favorites was ‘Topography of Terror’. The building used to in fact house the Gestapo headquarters, where high-ranking Nazi officials offices could be found. On the same block, Nazi Propoganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels created his newspaper, Der Angriff. These buildings were largely destroyed in World War Two by an Allied bombing in early 1945 in an attempt to destroy evidence of crimes committed. In 2005, architect Ursula Wilms was chosen to design the new building, and Heinz W Hallman to design the landscape which surrounds it. In keeping with the preservation of history, many ruins of the historical building/landscape was used in the undertaking of the design. Today, the building houses a maze of information on both perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust.  

On the more artistic, and less text-based side of museums, we visited the “Judisches Museum Berlin”. Here, we found an exhibition, which the famous Berlin Blocks was actually based off of. The difference between the two, was that this exhibit had trees growing out of the top of the large concrete blocks, and the floor was very rugged cobblestone. Another highlight exhibit for many of the people in our Service Learning group was an installation called ‘Schalenchet’, or ‘Fallen Leaves’. It was located in what was referred to as the ‘Memory Void’, which is a symbolically empty space in the Libeskind Building. The installation consisted of over 10,000 heavy iron plates, with faces cut into them. People are meant to walk across them, which makes the metal screech and slam again one another, causing the sound to echo loudly. This was done to evoke the painful memories of the victims of the war.

Our last day in Berlin was spent at Wannsee House, where the plan for the ‘final solution’ was truly committed to by high-ranking Nazi officials during the Wannsee Conference. This beautiful waterfront pavilion is odd to walk into and remember the horrible things discussed there, as the beauty that surround it contradicts what we know truly happened there. The museum itself was turned into one of the best museums I have seen, at least from an accessibility point of view. The floor has texturized so that those with impaired vision could lead themselves along the path of the exhibit without assistance. Headphones which could be plugged into each display were also available. For those who were hearing impaired there were captions available, and lots of text along the way as well. I wasn’t as impressed with the information housed there, as we had already been to several information heavy museums where the information was new to me, but this museum gets an A+ for anyone who has issues with accessibility.

Marking the end of our time in Germany, we caught a 4am flight to Krakow. Surprisingly, most of us seemed fine, despite the early morning, but were sad to see Berlin disappear beneath the clouds. As soon as we got to Krakow, we had a long bus ride to our Hotel. On the way there, we caught a glimpse of the historic villa of Hans Frank, the general of Poland who was appointed by Hitler during Germany’s occupation of Poland. Hans Frank was a fanatic of racial hierarchy but it is reported that he annoyed even Hitler with his constant attempts to impress through brutality. He remained Governor General until the wars end, but Hitler stripped him of all other positions in 1942. In 1946, during the Nuremburg Trials, he was hung for crimes against humanity.

Finally, arriving to our Hotel, our Service Learning squad split into two distinct groups: those who clearly needed a few more hours of sleep, and those who were too excited to explore sleep. Having been allotted a few hours before the start of our tour of Krakow, my group decided to find a place for breakfast while the other group caught some extra hours of shut eye. We walked down the streets, and were floored by the number of bakery’s within the span of only a few blocks. Street vendors selling bagels from their carts were also on every corner! We stopped in on to grab a snack for later, and finally settled on a beautiful little breakfast location for smoothies, and classic eggs, toast and bacon before making our way back to the Hotel to meet up for the walking tour.

Beginning in what was called “The Jewish Quarter”, we began our tour of Krakow. During war time, this Jewish Quarter would have been known as a Jewish Ghetto. Though today, it is called Jewish Quarter, very few Jewish people still reside there, and it is mostly kept only for tourists and educational purposes. One of the first memorials we came across here, was a statue of Jan Karski. Karski was a member of the Polis Underground Army, and during his post he snuck people into ghetto’s and camps to record the atrocities happening there. He managed to successfully escape Europe to meet with allied leaders – he was the first to present credible evidence of crimes and extermination of Jewish people by the Nazis. His testimony however fell on deaf ears. There is now a memoir about his mission entitled, “My Report to the World: The Story of a Secret State”.

While visiting a Jewish synagogue (place of prayer), we entered the grounds cemetery. Here we found a beautiful tradition of placing rocks with notes of hopes and wishes, peoples prayers, which they placed at the base of the headstone of a revered rabbi. Further along in the cemetery, we found another memorial. This memorial was a wall made of destroyed gravestones. During the war, entire cemeteries full of Jewish people were bulldozed over. What ruins were found were later memorialized as a wall to ensure a final place of rest was respected.

            After a break for lunch, and pierogi’s for all, we quickly made our way to the other side of town for a tour of Wawel Castle. Although you are unable to take photo’s inside of the Castle, there were so many interesting artifacts inside. Outside, there is a dragon that breathes fire about every five minutes, and is truly very fun to see. Just past the castle, the cobblestone street to the Main Krakow Square began. In this loop to the square, you can find the best cupcakes you will ever have in your life, and even take a ride on a horse and carriage. There is a large statue of a head that can be found in the square, and it is funny that such a large installation had almost no historical significance, but was in fact just gifted to the city by the artist.

            The next day, we left our Hotel, and travelled to Oswiecim. Oswiecim is the polish name for the city, which during WW2, occupying German’s renamed Auschwitz. We stayed at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer. On a lighter note, before we inevitably dive into the horrors of the Holocaust since that is what this trip was all about, is that the food here was amazing. If you hate soup, you have not tried the soup they make there. After a particularly long day, walking the chilling grounds of concentration camps, it really is a much needed comfort food. The people who run the Centre were also extremely helpful, and joined us for nightly debriefs.

            We had the opportunity to join both a guided tour of Auschwitz, and on another day were allowed to walk the grounds alone to see exhibits we missed or have a closer look at the ones that we had seen the previous day. On our guided tour, we learned a little about the entrance to Auschwitz, and the inscription above the gate that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which translates to “Work Makes You Free”. In the inscription, the b in Arbeit, is upside down. We learned that the sign was done by prisoners under the orders of the SS, and together they decided to put the b upside down in an act of protest.

An exhibit that stands out during the guided tour was the ‘Book of Names’, which was done by the Yad Vashem. The book is a collection of around 4.2 million names, hometowns, birthdates, and places of death of all those victimized. The book spans the length of the entire room, and has around 500 names per page. Other notable, and well known exhibits we saw included the hall of items which were confiscated from those imprisoned, and the re-constructed gas chamber. The hall of items included separate rooms of piles of confiscated items like; eyeglasses, crutches and prosthetics, prayer blankets (Tallits), household wares, luggage, and brushes (for hair, beard, and shoe). As for the gas chamber, the space was in fact, at one time used as a gas chamber, but was at some point converted to be used as an ammunition bunker. The only reason that the gas chamber still stands is because of this oversight. When the chambers were being destroyed as they were evidence of crimes, this one was forgotten due to the conversion. When the camp was turned into a museum, the chimney was reconstructed. Just beside the gas-chamber, we viewed the square, where many prisoners were interrogated. In 1947, at the Polish Supreme Tribunal on war crimes, the first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, was sentenced to death in the very same square. The home where he and his family would have resided during his post at Auschwitz, was a mere stone’s throw away from the square.

                While at the concentration camp, we attended a workshop on “The experience of art on prisoners”. The works included those done after liberation grappling with memory, those done in the camp which would have been labeled as contraband, and even works that were commissioned by SS officials. Since returning from the camp, this workshop has proved useful in my university courses, and has allowed me to use the knowledge I gained there as a focus of a paper for a class on Art and Politics. Art was a huge focus on the trip, as memorials, and museums often used art as a way to grapple with the atrocities that took place during the war. Just a short drive from the camp in the town of Harmeze, a place called “The Labyrinth”, housed in the basement of St. Maximillian Kolbe Centre houses floor to ceiling haunting images done by Marian Kolodziej, a survivor of the concentration camps. Kolodziej was forced to be a Sonderkommando while he was interned. This meant he was made to help with the disposal of those who were killed, to his horror, he found one of his best friends bodies, and was made to dispose of his body as well. At Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there was an entire exhibit done on Sonderkommando that was just created, which I went to see after our tour.

                On one of our final days in Oswiecim, we went to see Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. The sheer size of this concentration camp was surprising to see in person. We climbed to the top of the guard tower when we arrived and were floored. We walked the perimeter of the camp, and stopped at a few of the blocks which were still standing. The walk around took, I’d say around 3 hours, just to give an estimate of how big it was. It was debated whether or not to keep this site standing, as many wanted to tear it down given that they had already committed to making a museum out of Auschwitz. Ultimately it was decided to keep Auschwitz-Birkenau as it always looked, with only restoration taking place to preserve the history. No exhibitions have been placed inside the blocks.

 One of the most interesting things we saw while there was the difference between the adult blocks and the children’s blocks. The red brick floors were still intact in the childrens blocks whereas in the adult blocks, the floor was worn away completely. Apparently, this was due to the children constantly cleaning, and doing chores to pass time until they were old enough to do more challenging jobs. Haphazardly made ladders were also placed on the bunks so that smaller children could reach the top bunk. We also saw the most pictured place in the concentration camp – the train tracks and main entrance. Here there is a cattle car, which was left to show the type of cart that prisoners would have arrived in. It was small, and the people would have been packed in. Standing room only.

We returned home with much to think about. The whirlwind trip, days packed and information whizzing around in our minds on our flight, still fresh. Many of us journaled while we were there, just to keep straight what we did each day. Upon our return to Antigonish, many of us began to compile information about our trip to share with others. We had come back at the end of February, and for a while, many of us hung out together, keeping the spirit of the friendships we created on our trip abroad alive. Our shared experience, bonded us together in a way. Even today, we still share a group chat. Two weeks after our return however, the pandemic shut down our university and province, the whole country reeling. Surprised, as only a month ago, we had travelled abroad, something that was now considered unimaginable. On Valentine’s day of 2021 however, we once again were reminded of memories shared during the trip. A most welcomed memory after a complicated year. These memories inspired me to share my experience with all of you, albeit one year later.

I hope everyone takes something away from reading about my Service-Learning Trip, and that perhaps it will encourage someone to embark on a trip of their own. This experience has served me in so many positive ways when I returned back home, and I hope now it can benefit some of you!

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