Marlene Stine: Classroom Discussions

Marlene Stine (24 minutes)

Historical notes

For centuries Poland was a major European power, but in the late eighteenth century it was partitioned among Russia, Austria and Prussia (later Germany).  The Polish people were strongly nationalist and fought for their freedom, but did not achieve it until 1919.  The Versailles treaty created an independent Poland, but also gave it a section of Germany’s coastline so it would have an outlet to the Baltic Sea.  This was called the “Polish Corridor” and, as it was inhabited mostly by Germans, it was a source of anger in Germany between the world wars.  Hitler made it his first military objective to recapture the lost territory.  In August 1939 he made a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, agreeing that they could take the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) if they allowed Germany to take much of Poland.  As a result the Soviets looked the other way when the Nazis overran Poland and began sending its large Jewish minority to concentration camps.  In the meantime, the British had promised Poland support if it were attacked; when the invasion came on September 1, 1939, Britain responded, thus beginning World War II.  Within a month most of Poland was under German occupation.

A vast number of Poles, many of them not Jewish, went to Nazi concentration camps.  Perhaps six million Poles (Jewish and non-Jewish) died, and millions more fled or were forcibly removed to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Germans.  About 2.5 million Poles were transported to Germany or other Nazi-occupied areas to be used as slave labor.  Poland today has still not recovered from Nazi occupation, and the Polish government (both the former Communists and the current pro-Western regimes) have purposely kept the memory of the Holocaust alive.  In 1939 and 1940 most Jews were rounded up and forced into ghettos, particularly in Warsaw, Łodz and Vilnius.  By 1943 most of these had gone to the death camps as the ghettos were “liquidated” one by one.  Throughout the war a Polish government-in-exile functioned in London and an active resistance movement greatly aided the Allied cause within occupied Poland.  More than a hundred thousand Poles fought in Allied armies.  After the German attack on the USSR in June 1941, the Soviets occupied parts of Poland and rescued many Jews and other victims of the Nazis.  Hundreds of thousands were transported deep into Russia for safety, but many of these were also conscripted into Russian labor battalions.  At the end of the war the Russians liberated Poland and installed a Communist government there.

In recent years a great deal has been written about the impact of the Holocaust on the second and third generations, the children and grandchildren of survivors.  Many if not most of survivors were unable for decades to talk about their experiences, and some never have.  Their children grew up knowing that something terrible had happened to their parents, but often they did not know what.  They also grew up without grandparents, uncles and aunts, or cousins, and knowing that their roots were not in America (or Israel, or Argentina, or wherever else they were born).  They would have learned little more in school, because the Holocaust was rarely taught anywhere before the 1970s.  But even without this conscious knowledge, their lives and psyches were affected in many unconscious ways.  Parents who have been deeply traumatized tend to produce traumatized children too, even if they are not aware of it.  Subtle behaviors and attitudes are passed on.


Topics for discussion:


1.  What was it like to be a Jew in Poland before World War II?

(Several million Jews lived in Poland; they had the most active and vital Jewish community in the world, and were an important factor in the country’s life and economy.  In general they were tolerated but in the Nazi era an ugly native anti-Semitism appeared – not only Germans, but Catholic Poles also victimized Jews.  In contrast with Germany, most Polish Jews were farmers or small businesspeople; not so many were professionals or lived in big cities.  Many thousands of them were quite poor.  They were generally more religious and conservative than their German kin and not quite so well assimilated.


2.  Why was this trip to Poland so important to Marlene?

(Discuss the need to discover one’s own past.)


3.  How would you deal with being the child of Holocaust survivors?


4.  What happened to Marlene as a result of her trip?

(She came to understand her parents better, and also learned about her own attitudes – the sense of having no relatives; of anger against the Poles as well as the Germans; also about her own obligations as the child of survivors to help perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust.)


5.  Discuss this statement: Poland itself was a major casualty of World War II, and the fate of the Polish Jews was only a small part of that larger tragedy.

(Discuss the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, and Poland’s long history as a pawn in the great-power struggles of Europe.  How does poland today deal with that past?)


6.  How did the Nazis decide whom to arrest and send to camps, whom to kill outright, and whom to leave free?

(Those who could contribute to the economy were left free, and some were used as slave labor.  The very old and very young, the sick or weak, and political prisoners would go to concentration camps, and probably not survive long.  They were put to work until they died, or were killed when no longer useful. Discuss why both Marlene’s parents survived Auschwitz, while several million others did not.)


7.  What kind of personal characteristics would you have to have to survive an ordeal like the Stines’?


8.  Is Marlene’s anger against today’s Polish people justified?

(Discuss the responsibility of today’s Europeans for what their grandparents did or didn’t do during the war.)


9.  Why is it important that our leaders be accountable to us?

(Secrecy and lack of accountability promote tyranny; people become apathetic if leaders don’t respond to their demands; and power always corrupts.)


10.  Why is it important to be aware of our rights?

(“eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” – but vigilance against whom, or what?  Can the enemy within sometimes be more dangerous than the enemy outside our borders?  If we are not aware of our own and others’ rights, is there a danger of stereotyping – that is believing that a certain ‘other’ group does not have the rights I have?)


11.  Could something like the Holocaust happen again?

(What happens when we see evil but do nothing to oppose it?  Where else has this happened in the past century – Cambodia, Armenia, Kurdistan?  What about our own prejudices against American blacks and Indians, homosexuals, and others whom we stereotype and blame as a group for society’s ills?)

12.  Why is it useful to hear views about the Holocaust from someone directly connected with or affected by it?

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