Tufts University

Renewal in Poland

Laurie SabolTufts librarian Laurie Sabol traveled to Poland, helping to transform the neglected site of a notorious concentration camp into a commemorative park.

Laurie Sabol knows a thing or two about being on her own in an unfamiliar country. In 1992, the St. Louis-born librarian took a break from the bookshelves to spend a full year teaching English in Xian, China.

Being alone for a year in a country where you don't speak the language sounds like it would be an intimidating prospect for anybody. But for Sabol, who has worked at Tufts for a decade and is currently Tisch Library's instruction coordinator, the decision to uproot herself was an easy one. "It was suggested to me that I apply, and I said, 'Sure, why not? Sounds cool,'" she said with a smile.

Coming from someone else, you might not buy the assertion that the decision was really that simple. But you can't help but believe it when it's coming from the 50-year-old Sabol, an avid volunteer with a breezy sense of humor, a warm, energetic manner and an openness to whatever possibilities might come her way.

And on one day in early June, as she prepared to leave for Krakow, Poland, to spend a month helping to turn Plaszow—the long-neglected concentration camp depicted in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"—into a commemorative park, she acknowledged having no idea what to expect. "But that's part of the excitement of this trip," she said eagerly.

Sabol – no stranger to volunteer work, thanks to her involvement with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and various recycling initiatives – worked with a crew of volunteers from the United States that have been brought together by a cultural and educational organization called Experiential Living International.

Parts of the concentration camp—in which between 10,000 and 20,000 people were killed and between 50,000 and 150,000 people were imprisoned—were built atop an old Jewish cemetery. As those who have seen "Schindler's List" may recall, the Nazis crushed many of the cemetery's gravestones and used them to make pavement, burning the bodies that had been buried beneath those gravestones in a mass grave nearby.

Sabol and her fellow volunteers set out to uncover the forgotten gravestones and cleaning up the area surrounding them—a mission with great personal resonance for Sabol. Not only did her grandparents emigrate to America from Poland, but her father was imprisoned in the country while serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. Sabol's plans for her stay in Poland included journeys to the area north of Warsaw where her ancestors once resided and the northwest region of the country, where her father's P.O.W camp was located.

And thanks to Sabol's decision to record her trip in blog format, her family, friends and Tufts colleagues could follow along as she explores Krakow, Plaszow and her own family's history. "At the [Tisch] Library, we're talking more about blogging—we know that it's a big deal," she said, adding that one of her colleagues, Associate Librarian Anna Neatrour, has a lot of experience with blogging.

"So now I'll learn a little bit about this stuff for myself and for library applications," Sabol said of her blog, "Laurie in Poland," which Neatrouer helped her to set up. "I knew I wanted to keep in touch with a lot of people, and I thought this would be a great way to do it. It'll be the way I keep in touch with everybody—even my father, who's 83 years old!"

So Sabol brought her laptop with her to Krakow. After finishing her work in Plaszow each day, she'd sit down with it in a nearby internet café to fill her blog with observations, anecdotes and pictures. And when she returned from Poland, she realized for sure that she had made the right communication choice.

"I was amazed when I got back to the library to see that so many people had been reading it—I was surprised and gratified," Sabol said in mid-July, several days after her return to the U.S. She adds that her blog appealed to some unexpected people from her past. "My old neighbors—from way back home, when I was a kid!—emailed me to tell me how much they liked it," she marvelled.

Sabol returned from her tip with a strengthened sense of connection to her cultural, religious and family heritage – even her volunteerism, with a recently renewed commitment to return to China to teach English in two summers.

Laurie Sabol

"As many of my Polish friends told me, if they said anything—if they protested or tried to call the Germans on what they were doing—they would be killed," Sabol said. "So they were between a rock and a hard place in the worst sense of that concept."

But it was also a sobering experience. Among the photographers she took was one of the plaque in front of the train station where her father and thousands of other prisoners arrived en route to the P.O.W. camp.

"He told me later that it wasn't a 'walk,' as the plaque says, but a run," she recalled. "He said it was really hard to do because they were all shackled together, and there were people that were killed during that trip because they weren't able to make the run."

Sabol described that experience as "grim"—a word that can also be applied to the situation in which many of Poland's denizens found themselves during World War II. When Plaszow was established in 1942, it was not, unlike Auschwitz or Birkenau, in a remote, isolated location (therefore enabling members of the public who were so inclined to plead their ignorance of the camps' existence). Rather, Plaszow was actually inside Krakow's city limits, and as Sabol says gravely, "people did know about it."

Which begs the question: why didn't those people put a stop to what was happening right outside their doors? "As many of my Polish friends told me, if they said anything—if they protested or tried to call the Germans on what they were doing—they would be killed," Sabol said. "So they were between a rock and a hard place in the worst sense of that concept."

Now, Sabol said, Plaszow's proximity to residential and commercial life has become even more pronounced. "On the other side of the monument [to those that died at Plaszow], there's a street with a warehouse store," she said, incredulous. "It's really jarring, you know, to see this monument to this solemn site—and then, across the street, something like Home Depot!" She shrugs, adding wryly, "That's progress, I guess."

Sabol and her fellow volunteers—there were six total—are doing their part to ensure that progress of a different and definite sort continues. "We're all talking about raising money, putting together some kind of foundation so that we can seriously and systematically raise money for this project," she explained.

It's an ambitious undertaking: as Sabol wrote in her blog, "long-term plans call for a small museum, tours, walking paths [and] informational plaques, with the site being maintained by a local organization." Finding funding is the hard part, she says; local involvement is not hard to come by. In fact, most days, Sabol's group of American volunteers was joined by a shifting group of Poles, mostly high school and college students.

Older local Poles displayed interest in the Plaszow project as well. On her last day in Poland, Sabol, having spent the morning sweeping and raking, stopped to take some photos of the plaques at the edge of the cemetery. Two women were walking by on a nearby dirt path, and when they saw Sabol, they started talking to her.

"They were saying, in thick Polish accents, 'Thank you very much,' over and over again, interspersed with 'is that the right way to say it?' in Polish," Sabol wrote in her blog.

"They must have been 50 or 60, so they may not have even been alive during the war, but certainly their parents would have told them about their experiences," she recalled later. "That's all they were doing, just thanking us for being there and for doing this work."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photos of Sabol by Brian Loeb (Class of 2006). Poland photos courtesy of Laurie Sabol.

This story originally ran on Oct. 3, 2005