The Emotional Weight of Place

Photo: Lev Gringauz – TC Jewfolk

This blog was written on JCRC’s Power of Place educators institute in Europe – an experiential professional development for teachers where learning unfolds as they tour historical sites across Europe in order to transform their understanding of the Holocaust, WWII, antisemitism, and Jewish life today. Power of Place is planned and co-led by Humanus Network on behalf of JCRC and generously supported by the Minnesota Vikings, the Tankenoff Families Foundation, and Allianz of America Corporation.

by Alexander Coffroth of South Dakota | June 25, 2024

A few days ago I was squeezed into an airplane seat, knees in my throat, and the events of the Holocaust still an abstraction in my mind. The reality of this tragedy was no more tangible to me than hi-gloss images printed in a textbook or the words stenciled on a Holocaust display at a museum.

Now that I am in Berlin and halfway through this trip, I have been shocked at just how visceral the power is that these places still possess.

On a basic level, I knew that this experience would progress far beyond flat academia. But I couldn’t fathom how to prepare for the emotional weight of being at these authentic places.

The Power of Place has been life changing even only five days into the journey. It has revealed to me how much of a novice I am in this realm. I had no way of knowing the impact that a physical place would have; and none more impactful thus far than Treblinka.

Typically, I pride myself on logical responses in the face of critical situations. For the first day, this trait proved true. I was able to process the first day of the trip just fine as we walked and read and listened. However, the second day caught me off guard: The second day we went to Treblinka.

As I walked in silence amongst the towering pine trees towards the killing fields of Treblinka, my chest tightening and hair raising on the back of my arms, it was surreal to think I was in a place that saw the end of nearly a million people. Reels of black and white pictures began to play out scenes in my mind, from the history books I have read and studied. None of the reading could have prepared me for this place which was designed with only annihilation in mind.

Here, in the Polish countryside, I was faced with brutal, physical reality beyond the protection of the printed page. That is when I began to struggle to fully process everything. I was stuck. I found myself struggling with the feeling that I am an intruder into a world that I cannot hope to fully connect or understand.

Over the next few days, I became very insular and contemplative as I wrestled with the idea that I wasn’t supposed to be on these grounds. It felt wrong to be walking through the graveyards and tombs of the millions who died.

Luckily, my fellow travelers helped me. With interesting conversations and kind words regarding these tragic topics, they helped me to come to terms with my place on this trip and in the field of Holocaust study and remembrance.

The key moment that caused it all to click was when I was reminded of Elie Wiesel’s famous quote:

“I believe firmly and profoundly that whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us. At a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.”

Despite not being Jewish, I am here to be witness to the tragedy and help to carry stories into the future.

I am a bit wary with the remaining stops, but I think I am of a more sound mind. It is not much in the grand scheme of things, but if I can help maintain the collective memory of these events and ensure these people — and what happened to them — are not forgotten, then it will be my honor.


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