A few miles outside of Krakow, Poland, in a wide field covered by wild grass and overgrown weeds, a part of World War II history lies buried. The 200-acre expanse housed the Nazi labor camp Plaszow, where, starting in 1942, some 150,000 people, mainly Jews, were slave laborers. Thousands died of disease and at the hands of the camp’s sadistic SS commander, Amon Goeth, who is depicted in the movie Schindler’s List shooting prisoners from the balcony of his house.
Amid Plaszow’s bushes and weeds, people walk their dogs and go jogging; children play. One sign reads: “Please respect the grievous history of the site,” but those in the park seem not to notice. When a group of Princeton undergraduates studying the history of Polish Jews visits the site of the camp in June, the students are stunned by the way it is treated.
“It shocked me, how it’s been forgotten,” says Lydia Demissachew ’15. “Unless somebody points it out, you don’t know what it is.”
For Iwa Nawrocki, a Princeton graduate student who accompanies the students and who lived in Poland as a young child, Plaszow opens a window into questions haunting the Polish people about the scars of the Holocaust etched into their land. “Some people don’t realize or don’t care about the history,” she says. “They can let the grass grow over Plaszow and walk right over it.”
But even while they mourn over the horrible history of the field, the students are witnessing an astonishing revival of Jewish culture. Before the Holocaust, in which 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were murdered, this country was home to a diverse, vibrant Jewish community, Europe’s largest. Living for six weeks in a hotel in Krakow — with study trips to Warsaw and the Galicia region to visit former Jewish shtetls — the 15 undergraduates immerse themselves in that rich and painful history, exploring how Jewish life in Poland once thrived, how it was annihilated, and how that history has been preserved — yet at the same time, forgotten.
The students are guided through this maze of contradictions by Princeton history professor Jan Gross — a native Pole who is reviled by many in his homeland, and admired by others, for his searing work on the relationship between Jews and Poles. The complex history of what happened to the Jews in Poland “has not been worked through in many ways,” says Gross, though it lurks in the fields of Plaszow and in so many other places the students visited. “It’s everywhere, or it’s very actively avoided.”
Only a few of the students on the trip are Jewish. Rachel Neil ’13, a mechanical engineering major from Minnesota who is earning a certificate in African-American studies, explains she came to Poland because she is interested in relationships between minority groups and dominant societies. Bradley Yenter ’13 grew up in rural Stevens Point, Wis., eating his grandmother’s Polish cabbage rolls in a community where “almost everyone is Catholic and has a name ending in ‘ski.’ ” “I had an idealized picture of Poland from my childhood,” he says. “I’m very proud of my Polish heritage, but it’s hard to reconcile that with what happened here.” The course makes him think about relatives who lived in Poland during the Holocaust. “Obviously I still had extended family around during the war,” he says. “Would I be proud of how they acted? There’s no way to know.”
The trip also is personal for Eric Silberman ’13, who is Jewish: All four of his grandparents were Polish. A grandmother was hidden in a barn by a Catholic woman; a grandfather, a tailor, survived five concentration camps. Silberman has studied the Polish language at Princeton, and in 2011 he traveled to Poland and other Eastern European countries to research his family’s roots, as a recipient of the University’s Martin Dale Summer Award.
“People back home say, ‘Why are you going to Poland? You know what happened there,’” Silberman says. “But I think the connection to Poland still needs to be kept, even if it’s a hard thing.”
For the first four weeks, the students study Jewish life before the events of World War II. The idea, Gross says, is to provide context for what comes next. “When American students learn about the Holocaust, it’s often taken out of the experience that precedes and follows it,” the professor says. “It overshadows almost 1,000 years of a very rich Jewish life that went on here.”
Indeed, Jews settled in the area known as Poland as early as the 11th century. By the 17th century, there were hundreds of small towns — known as shtetls — where the Jewish, Yiddish-speaking population made up a majority of the residents. Jews also congregated in cities such as Warsaw, which had 400 synagogues and prayer houses before World War II. By the 1930s, there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, making up more than 10 percent of the population. Then came Hitler, and as the people perished, Poland also lost a colorful part of its culture: music, art, literature, food. Today, about 10,000 Jews live in Poland, out of a population of 38 million.