Jan. 27, 2023Print | PDF
Jan. 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to honour and remember the approximately six million European Jews murdered by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
The Holocaust was a genocide designed by the Nazi Party to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population. Death camps were established on the territories of pre-war Poland, where the majority of European Jews – 3.3 million – resided before the Second World War.
Eva Plach, associate professor in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, teaches about Polish history and the Holocaust at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. This spring, Plach will lead 22 undergraduate students through the Holocaust's timeline during a 13-day field course – “Into that Darkness: Poland, World War Two, and the Holocaust” – in Poland.
Below, Plach discusses the upcoming field course, the importance of continued discussion about the Holocaust and how experience-based learning contributes to student growth.
The course is a comprehensive dive into the Holocaust, what happened and how it happened. We focus on Poland because it had such a significant Jewish population before the Second World War. Before traveling, the students and I will spend about 18 hours in class learning about the historical context of the Holocaust and what led to its existence.
In Poland, we will visit museums, former ghettos, former death camps, memorial sites and various related commemorative spaces. We will also meet with curators, educators and grassroots activists who are doing the work to ensure that the lives lost during the Holocaust are not forgotten.
Many students come into my courses with knowledge about the Holocaust from documentaries and films, such as Schindler’s List. We visit Plaszow, the concentration camp portrayed in the film. We will also visit Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest of the Nazi death camps – and the camps at Belzec, Majdanek and Sobibor.
We also visit POLIN: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Jewish Historical Institute, and engage in service work by tidying some of the forgotten graves in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow.
These sites are all important to learning about the Holocaust, as there are several ways to enter its history.
This isn’t a typical travel course where students expect to have fun in the same way they might with other courses or travel opportunities. The students know this and express this in their written applications for the course. We all know the course will feel heavy at times.
To counter that, there is free time for the students to do things on their own or with others, and we talk about the fact that it is okay to feel sad about what we’re learning. The content is devastating, but I also find it inspiring to see the many people doing the work to preserve the history of the Holocaust. I hope my students feel uplifted by that, too.
In HI109: The Age of Extremes, we enter the Holocaust through the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of fascist politics and the Second World War. Students in HI109 read The Diary of Mary Berg, which chronicles four years of Mary’s life, some of which she spent in the Warsaw Ghetto. She was just 15 when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. The major assignment for HI109 – an essay – is based on this book.
HI109 is very popular with students, and they bring a lot of passion and knowledge to the course. Students who never take another history course after this come away with a better understanding of this difficult time in human history.
When looking at the Holocaust, it is important to note that the ideas of those responsible for it – abhorrent as they were – made sense to themselves and other people. The collective buy-in for these ideas allowed the Nazi regime to extend its policies. When teaching, I highlight for my students that extremism isn’t just about being on the lookout for one “mad man” with terrible ideas. It takes a lot of little steps over time and buy-in from many other people to get to something as extreme as genocide.
Today, the internet allows us to do and say anything, but it's important for us to be critical consumers of the assertions that people make and the evidence that they use. Analyzing what happened in the past helps us understand the present and be better citizens. History is a two-way street between the past and the present.