Fellow of the Gregg Centre makes a special pilgrimage on March of the Living Holocaust Tour

Dr. Cheryl Fury, a member of the Department of History & Politics at UNBSJ and a new Fellow of the Gregg Centre, participated in the March of the Living Holocaust Tour for Educators in 2010 along with educators from various places in Canada. Participants visited a number of sites in Germany and Poland related to the Shoah.

A Unique Experience for Educators

The March of the Living for Educators Holocaust Study Tour began in Berlin where participants visited the Wannsee Conference House, the Gleis 17 Memorial, the Topography of Terror Document Center, the Aktion T4 Memorial, the Rosenstrasse Memorial, the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, and the Bayerisches Viertel Memorial. In Krakow they toured the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz), Schindler's factory, Plaszow, the Krakow Ghetto, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Warsaw, there were tours of the Warsaw Ghetto and Mila 18. Participants visited Tykocin, the Lopochowa Forest and Treblinka extermination camp. On the final day they visited Lublin and the Majdanek camp.

Photographs supplied by Michael Rajzman and Anne McLeod.

Dr. Fury would like to thank those whose generous donations led to the creation of scholarships to offset the costs of the trip. She was fortunate to be awarded one of these scholarships.

Dr. Fury shares her personal experiences

The entrance gate at Auschwitz. I got a lot of "funny looks" when I told people about my summer vacation. Whereas most people were heading to the beach or to their cottage, I was going to a camp of a very different kind. I had applied and been accepted to go on the March of the Living Tour for Holocaust Educators to Germany and Poland.

Half my lifetime ago, I had taken an Honours seminar in the Holocaust at UNB in my undergraduate days.  After three hours of that every week, I would come home and cry. I knew that there were few things more important than Holocaust Studies but I knew I didn't have the fortitude to make that the focus of my academic career.

Subsequently, my research focused on the social history of Elizabethan sailors - far from the Shoah.  However, as a professor, I teach about the Holocaust every year in my classes. I have often said that the Holocaust follows me. I decided in the spring of 2010 that I would engage the Holocaust head-on, personally and pedagogically.

For me, one of the best aspects of our MOTL group of educators was that it included Gentiles and Jews. There was a great range of how the Jewish participants and leaders practice their faith and it was beautiful and instructive to see the breadth of their tradition. I began to understand the "necessity and impossibility of being a Jew" in a whole new way.  The Jewish teachers experienced things on an entirely different level than the Gentiles, although everyone experienced a certain amount of grief.

After listening to the Kaddish sung at the crematoria in Birkenau or seeing the granddaughter of survivors return to Plaznow, it is impossible to view the Holocaust in a solely academic way.  The pain of the Holocaust has its own reality for survivors but also for their descendants: as Jean Amery has written, "being a Jew... means that I bear within me a catastrophe that occurred yesterday and cannot be ruled out for tomorrow..." While we all can understand the Holocaust as a human catastrophe, its essence is very much an on-going Jewish tragedy.

Yet we didn't just see the residue of the horrors, we also saw beautiful synagogues and what remains of Jewish life before Europe came under the dark cloud of Nazism. Most gratifying were the signs of small Jewish communities in the present day that are valiantly trying to endure and even thrive. This was a useful antidote to all the images of suffering and death.

The 2010 March of the Living Holocaust Tour group. In the centre is Vera Schiff (left), a survivor of the Theresienstadt camp and Janina Rożecka (right), named  Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jewish people during WWII. Dr. Fury is front row (second from right).The highlight of our trip was getting to know "our" survivor, Vera Schiff.  It was a privilege to have access to her for the duration of our trip. She answered each question with great academic knowledge as well as very candid personal revelations.  Her journey to rebuild her shattered body, soul, and intellect is an inspiration.  I learned more from Vera over breakfast than I did from any number of scholars and books. I know that I am one of the most fortunate of people to have had this opportunity: we are approaching an era where there will be no survivors able to make the return journey.

We were also blessed to meet a Polish woman, Janina Rożecka. She, along with her mother, are Righteous Among the Nations. Like Vera, Janina is a powerful witness to the tenacity of the human spirit. It is because of them that I can say that I saw the best in human nature when we were surrounded by the worst of it.

Lessons learned

What did I learn on my trip?  We have questions which seemingly have no answers - some of the great intellectuals and theologians of modern times have told us we are unlikely to find these answers. Vera echoed this sentiment as well. Yet we still feel compelled to wrestle with the questions endlessly. I will never comprehend how such things happen and part of me doesn't want to.  Another part feels driven to dissect it in order to combat future horrors.

I now know that the Holocaust is an event that is "too large for History". This is not an easy admission for someone who has spent her entire adult life in academic pursuits. It certainly cannot be contained in a classroom textbook.  While Holocaust studies are essential, the only way to understand even a part of this is a full-on assault of one's senses in various locations - to smell the odour of 10,000 shoes in Majdanek (which were incinerated in a fire weeks after our trip!), to walk through Auschwitz and be struck by the horrible contradiction of the singing of birds, sunshine and crematoria; even on a scorching July day, there are no words for the chill that pervades you walking through acres of barracks and barbed wire. 

How to "translate" the "tremendum" of the Holocaust for myself and my students may well be my life's work. One of the judges of the Eichmann trial summed this up:

            "I know the facts and the events that served as their framework; I know how the framework unfolded minute by minute, but this knowledge, as if coming from the outside, has nothing to do with understanding. There is in all this a portion that will always remain a mystery; a kind of forbidden zone, inaccessible to reason. Fortunately, as it happens..."

The shoes at the Majdanek camp in Poland. One thing that I will emphasize when teaching about the Holocaust is that systematic killing of millions of people wasn't necessarily the worst of the Nazi atrocities. It was the deliberate humiliation and calculated cruelty that preceded extermination. The Nazis attempted to shatter people's souls before they destroyed their bodies. One was confronted time and time again with accounts and images of those who gloried in their grisly task and revelled in their mercilessness. Even more tragic, Elie Wiesel has pointed out that "the victims suffered more, and more profoundly, from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner." Indeed the circle of culpability is wide.

How does one cope with what's been termed "the problem of Job magnified six millionfold"?  I think that as educators we must raise awareness and spread a message which by its very nature should unsettle, perplex, and jar us all from any degree of modern complacency. I don't have to have the Holocaust completely "figured out" to do this. No matter how challenging this is, I cannot recoil from Holocaust studies as a matter of personal preservation. It would be denying everything I have seen - not to mention betraying those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I have to translate the tortured intersection of war and genocide into a history lesson for my students and a passionate fight for human rights in the present.