In a new international research program, undergrad students bring home tales of courage and lessons for society
Spending 12 days in Auschwitz this summer, fifth-year History and Modern European Studies student Karina Vertlib was struck not only by horrors of loss, but also by the moving signs of courage and creativity some prisoners in the Nazi death camp had left behind.
Vertlib was taking part in a new UBC research seminar where she was most fascinated by a collection of art, particularly the “illegal art” that prisoners secretly made in their cells. They documented their internment, drew caricatures of Nazi leaders, and smuggled postcards to other camps.
“With every stroke of the pencil they were risking their lives, they wanted so badly to add meaning to their time there,” she says. She had never heard of the art in all her studies of the Holocaust. “I kept thinking, why have I never seen these in a single textbook?”
The class, Witnessing Auschwitz – Conflicting stories and memories, is part of the Arts Research Abroad suite of programs supported by Go Global. A group of 17 upper-year undergraduate students spent four weeks in Poland, including almost two weeks in Auschwitz, conducting research and exploring the question of how to educate others about Nazi crimes when there are no more survivors. It is the only student research program for students from a non-Polish university in the former concentration camp.
For Vertlib’s research paper, she focused on the prisoner art as she thinks it could be a valuable teaching resource to bring to life the breadth of experiences of those interned at Auschwitz.
“What really shocked a lot of us was the life we saw there, in such a place of death,” she says. “So many people died there, but they also lived, laughed and loved there.”
While she hasn’t yet managed to get prisoner art into any textbooks, Vertlib is helping share much of what she learned back in Vancouver, where she now works at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, having Skyped in from Poland in May for her job interview.
Associate Professor Bozena Karwowska of UBC’s Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies says Vertlib is typical of the students who want to share what they discovered.
Karwowska says some of her students are speaking to other UBC classes as guest lecturers. One student will visit a Vancouver elementary school to talk about children in Auschwitz, and other UBC students have been contacted by UBC’s Hillel House, including a student who looked into what gets lost in translation from the Yiddish notes left by prisoners.
“We’re building this need to educate, to share expertise,” Karwowska says, stressing that the students are experts after conducting in-depth, first-hand research, guided by world-leading academics they met in Poland.
One student, Dani Belo, has been invited to an international conference in Poland about urban post-war narratives. He’ll be presenting his research by videoconference on October 16.
Belo wondered why, of all places, it was the picturesque southern Polish town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz is the German translation of the name) that became the epicentre of the worst genocide in human history.
Beyond the economic practicality of key rail connections for moving prisoners, there was also a centuries-long history of ethnic tensions between Polish, Jewish and German groups in the area. The Nazis saw an opportunity to revert the town to German domination as a “model city” of the Reich and secure Poland as part of the Germanic homeland.
The Nazis evicted the Polish and Jewish residents and brought in German settlers; the resulting language barriers made it harder for Auschwitz escapees to find refuge outside the camp.
Karwowska says Belo, a fourth-year Political Science and International Relations student, was invited to the international conference because he’s one of only two experts on his topic – the other is the head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s research department, who worked with Belo during the seminar.
Karwowska says one of the biggest things the students have learned is that the Holocaust didn’t happen in a society with rampant hostility between cultural groups. She says Jewish communities in Poland and Germany were well integrated into the population before the Holocaust, so there are important lessons for multicultural societies today.
Belo echoes that sentiment.
“I would say take any cultural friction with utmost seriousness,” he says. “Today it might just be a few people fighting on the street, but tomorrow it could really escalate.”
For more information about UBC’s Global Seminars, click here.