Oświęcim. Important to Stay Together

“History Begins in the Family” is the international project, where young people from Poland, Ukraine, and Germany deal with the topics of family, history, and the family values through the history. They get to know the historical context in three different countries through family stories. Young people make a research into their family history, learn the lessons of the past. This makes the understanding of unhealed past and difficult present possible. Here we are taught to look at the family history in the wider context.

The first project encounter took place in August 2015. Back then we stayed in Anne-Frank Haus in Oldau and visited the Bergen-Belsen Memorial. In the end of the meeting we were given a task to conduct an interview with any member of our families who can share the family’s experience of that time, and prepare the presentation for the group.

Olia VasyletsOur second trip started in Lviv at the crack of dawn. Some of us had already covered quite a long distance to get to Lviv from other regions of Ukraine. The trip from Lviv to Oświęcim lasted for 12 hours. We got our first experience of crossing the Polish border on foot. By and large, we changed trains and buses around ten times. Finally, warm almost family hugs were waiting for us in the hospitable International Youth Meeting Centre.

What was next? Here are some facts in figures prepared by Olia Vasylets, one of project participants from Ukraine:

Three rooms were used for presentations of the interviews taken by project participants. In total, twenty one family stories were presented.

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Two days were spent by the national groups in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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Two hours were spent talking with the survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp Zofia Posmysz. She was sharing her feelings and memories. The evening before the meeting the participants had an opportunity to watch The Passenger, the film based on the novel by Mrs.Posmysz.

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We studied 5 Jewish families whose destinies are connected with Auschwitz-Birkenau. It turned out that their family photos have been found by chance and a lot of them were signed on the flipside.

Four unvaried languages were used. This time in Poland we taught each other slang and dialects.

One birthday celebration. We were greeting Ms. Ela, our wonderful project co-organizer!

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One amazing Polish cultural evening.

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One visit to Krakow.

A project web-site presented, where the participants will publish the interviews recorded by them.

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We didn’t count the hours of sleep, as they stayed unnoticed.

Olia Vasylets (Pishchanka, Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine)

Yulia LevytskaUp till now even a mention of the word Auschwitz made my imagination draw Munch’s The Scream. The masterpiece is believed to make people lose their mind if they observe it for a long time. One gets the feeling that he/she is dropped from the reality and fear becomes his/her eternal companion. So it is better to look aside.

When you stand near the gate with the Arbeit macht frei inscription, only a few minutes are left before entering another reality, hidden behind the barbed wire. You realize that you won’t be able to look aside and you just go forward.

It seems as if you are invited for the excursion to hell just like Dante was. But after all there is no salvation, Beatrice won’t wait for you at the end. You try to rescue yourself, your mind makes weak attempts to find the evidence that something else used to be before the hell and keeps existing after it.

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Suddenly you cast a quick glance at your dear Ukrainian team, which is as frightened and perplexed as you. Their presence brings you back to the welcoming reality. Your fear is slowly getting weaker. But new series of exhibitions are waiting for you. They make your easygoing reality fade away.

Your own helplessness is killing. You can’t save starving children, whose eyes are begging you for help from the museum wall picture. You are just passing by and reaching another circle of hell. Suddenly, somebody from your group gently puts your hood right. And you start believing again that the better world exists, because it is the home for care. Then you will enter the Jewish exhibition and hear shouts of nazis predicting the beginning of the following circle of the hell. No sooner does your memory come back than you see photos of smiling members of modern Jewish families established by camp survivors. Your sense of reality will fade into oblivion and then come back again many times up till the guide thanks for attention and asks you to leave the headphones.

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Then there will be a long way to the youth center full of different thoughts.

Now you are at home, with your family, where you get support and care, where you feel warmth. It is hundred kilometers away from the former concentration camp. You haven’t lost your mind, but something definitely has changed. Now you have no doubt that Auschwitz must never be forgotten. Unfortunately, just knowing about its existence is not enough. You start realizing the scope of the tragedy only when you see it. After visiting this place you start asking yourself millions of questions and try to find the answers. My search has just started and the gate with the Arbeit macht frei inscription will make my sense of reality fade away again and again, but I’m not going to look aside, as I agree with George Santayana’s: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Yuliia Levytska (Teofipol, Khmelnytskyi oblast, Ukraine)

Oksana VoitiukThis trip has changed me greatly. It is sad to realize that a lot of people associate this beautiful Polish city only with horror, death, and despair.

The visit to the former concentration camp came as a great shock for me. A lot of thoughts, which I couldn’t put into the words, appeared in my mind. I had a lot of questions, the answers to which I would probably never find. I still have a lump in my throat. No wonder, there was complete silence in our discussion circle right after coming from the camp site.

I thank luck for for giving me an opportunity to meet the beautiful woman and talented writer – Zofia Posmysz. She is the example of a person who not only withstood the inhuman conditions, but also didn’t lose her faith, and here she is sitting in front of you. She inspires others to live! In such moments you start realizing how much you have. When I came back to Ukraine, I wanted to hug my closest and dearest people immediately.

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I have a feeling, that I will want to come back to this horrible place again, pay a visit to those people who will stay there forever.

All in all, the second part of the project was amazing! I listened to my friends’ family stories with great interest. All of them were unique. It was very interesting to observe how different are the ways of perception of the same events. Besides, the Polish participants organized their cultural evening and it was wonderful!

Oksana Voityuk (Ladyzhyn, Vinnytsia oblast, Ukraine)

Lilia TrubkaDid you know that fruit means vegetables in Polish and no means yes? Not only have I learned to pronounce the tongue twister w Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie, but I also went through many changes that week together with other participants of the international team. Some have become very close to me, and I have become dear for the others. One moment I felt like the left hemisphere of my brain stopped working, and another one, which is responsible for emotions, was about to explode. The approximate way how it was happening is below.

The most terrible thing was to imagine the feelings of the people suffocating in the gas chambers.

The weirdest thing was to see thousands of people walking through the rooms in Auschwitz museum on Monday at 11 am. I put myself into 20-year-old-girl’s shoes who had been taken from her home to the concentration camp. The last thing I’d want would be that the dressing room where I had been prepared for death would become the subject of exhibition visited by millions of people.

The most unexpected thing was evening in Birkenau.

But after all these things, we always came back to the youth centre and felt completely safe. It was the place, where we were told that we had to remember the past in order not to allow its repeating. The place, where one could keep silence for an hour or so or say just one word and everyone would easily understand you. People is what I’ll remember after this trip. Although we argued sometimes, we always came to understanding. We talked a lot, we laughed out loud, and sang songs in different languages. And we did it with all our hearts. We saw and heard dreadful things in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but we went through all of this together, and this is the point.

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Lilia Trubka (Donetsk, Ukraine)

Roman ZvarychRecalling Oświęcim makes me feel happy and sad at the same time. But for my project friends, I would have brought only depressive mood to Lviv. The former concentration camps have got heavy energy. When I was in Birkenau, an idea kept bothering me: “There is no other creature which is cleverer and at the same time more stupid than a human being.” Instead of compromises people chose war. Everything depends on the amount of resources. One thousand years ago it was the same as it is now. It is hard to realize that another war is going on just thousand kilometers away, on the East of Ukraine.

Dialogues, numerous discussions, trainings, and interview presentations – all of this made my week in Oświęcim. I don’t know when I’m going to come there again, but I‘ll keep it in my mind forever. Now I have 29 new friends on Facebook, a lot of new pictures, and positive emotions. I am very grateful to the organizers of the project for that.

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Roman Zvarych (Verbivka, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, Ukraine)

Valeria PavlyshKnowledge of the Motherland’s and your family’s history becomes more and more important in the modern world. Understanding the past helps us to confidently build our future. The second part of the History begins in the family international project has passed.

As far as it is my first experience of participation in such kind of activities, it is very important for me. I’ve learned a lot of new things.

First of all, I was taught how to conduct an interview, which questions to ask and how to process the data. Secondly, the visit to such important places as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau happened to be a great shock for me. Nevertheless, it was a great experience and important knowledge for me.

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Thirdly, I made an attempt to find out in which concentration camp my grandfather was imprisoned. I am very grateful to all people who helped me to do that. Due to both parts of the project I learned how to analyze emotions and express myself. I like very much the friendly and warm atmosphere in our team. Everyone became a very important person for me. Finally, I’m very grateful to all our project organizers who gave us the opportunity to open a new world!

Valeriia Pavlysh (Kryvyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine)

Serhiy ZalevskyiThe History begins in the family project changes the views, breaks the stereotypes, and serves as a great push for self-improvement and self-development. The second part of the project showed how important is family for everyone of us. It was a great pleasure to observe the care with which project participants opened their hearts, shared something private and dear.

We spent really interesting and fascinating week. Every day was bright and unique. We prepared our own projects, expressed our thoughts in terms of problematic events in history, and did different interesting tasks, which made us find out  gripping and impressive facts.

The process of integration was so easy, that now I have a lot of friends from Germany and Poland who constantly message me and support.

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I am looking forward to the next part of the project to dive in learning such an interesting subject as history. I am very grateful to the organizers for creating the project that changes the eyesight and gives the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

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See you soon in Lviv!

Serhiy Zalevskyi (Novoselivka, Odesa oblast, Ukraine)

Ukrainian participants of the History begins in the family project.