UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS URBANA-CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Illini Hillel and UIUC’s Program in Jewish Culture and Society have organized two days of international Holocaust education programming to mark the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The “Night of Broken Glass” marked a turning point in the Holocaust. The series of attacks coordinated by the Nazi regime in Germany, annexed Austria and the Sudetenland resulted in the deaths of more than 90 Jewish people, the arrests of roughly 30,000 Jewish men and the destruction of hundreds of synagogues, businesses and homes.
“It is a marker on the Jewish calendar and on the world calendar of how hatred can transform from just verbal into a violent stage,” Hillel director Erez Cohen said.
The anniversary comes at a critical time for Holocaust education; a survey this fall that found 63% did not know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
“We believe that the importance of learning about the Holocaust, teaching about the Holocaust, talking about the Holocaust is first and foremost learning how to be empathetic to other people,” Cohen said. “If you understand how hate can manifest into violence, then you are more likely to sit down and try to understand the person in front of you before making judgement, and we’re trying to promote a more understanding atmosphere on our campus.”
The programming features two historians, Karolina Ozog and Kamil Karski, from Krakow, Poland, who are focused on researching the Plaszow concentration camp, which Nazis operated from October 1942 to January 1945. Before liberation, SS guards demolished the site and tried to burn any evidence. Polish officials recently approved the creation of a memorial site on the now vacant space, which has served as an unintended park in recent years.
“This is a big cemetery,” Ozog said. “This is a big place that has human ashes. It’s not a park of recreation, it’s something different.”
Ozog has been working with colleagues at the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow on a project to develop the site into a memorial ground where visitors can listen to the songs passed along by survivors over headphones.
“The traditional monument is a manifestation of collective memory,” Ozog said. “The music, the sound monument is kind of a modern monument. It also invites a visitor or passersby to actively participate in remembering. So, this form of monument encourages reflection.”
“We are in this moment that the last people who survived the Second World War are dying,” Karski said. “Their story becomes our story. So, we are responsible for a transition to the next generations.”
Karski and Ozog were connected with Cohen, the grandchild of survivors, last winter, when he visited Krakow to research his family history. Ozog spoke with Cohen about his great-great grandfather’s murder at Plaszow. He had been a Rabbi in Krakow before he was shot and killed by Nazis at the concentration camp. Ozog explained the sound memorial concept, adding a request to use his great-great grandfather’s final words as part of the memorial. Cohen obliged.
“I wish that may I be the last victim of this terrible war. And may I redeem the Jewish people.”
“As a family, this was a way for us to have our great-great grandfather memorialized and basically get his dignity back after being so violently murdered by the Nazis,” Cohen said.
He visited Plaszow on his last day in Poland.
“The first moment that I set foot in Plaszow, I really felt out of sorts because it doesn’t look like a concentration camp,” Cohen said. “It looks like a neighborhood park and it’s just an overgrown field. If you didn’t know what it was, you would never know that Jews were murdered and terrorized there for three years of the war.”
While Cohen said the experience was deeply personal, on a larger scale, he wants people to understand the Holocaust, which is why he co-organized the Kristallnacht anniversary events.
“We want people to understand history and to help prevent this type of history from ever happening again,” he said. “Not just to Jews, but against any minority, any people in the world. No one should ever, ever go through genocide.”
On Tuesday, Karski will discuss his archaeological research at the site. Registration for his lecture is free and will remain open until the presentation begins at 3:00.