May 8, 2017
As I spent the weekend trying to gather and process all my feelings and thoughts, I figured a blog post would be the best way to publicize my impactful weekend traveling throughout the country of Poland. I didn’t know what to expect. I have been learning about the Holocaust and World War II since I was 13 years old. I had never envisioned myself, at 20 years old, flying from the amazing city of Tel Aviv, Israel to Warsaw, Poland. I knew that to some extent I had Polish roots. But, due to many factors, I was unable to trace these roots directly. So I accepted in my mind that I would be an impartial viewer of each camp, ghetto, memorial, and grave site. I am going to do my best to summarize and dissect the most impactful moments of the weekend.
I understand that my opinions and views may not agree with yours, so please be kind in reading.
After a tiring flight from Tel Aviv at 6:00 AM, we started our touring immediately. Just an hour after landing, I found myself standing in the Warsaw Ghetto, with my hand on the partial ghetto wall that remains. My first thought was, “who’s window is that…?”
The Warsaw ghetto wall remains sandwiched between two large apartment complexes. The windows look out onto the courtyard where Jews once sat starving and dying of disease. And the complex entrance walls are scattered with hundreds of bullets from the war. It baffled me that people could possibly live on the same grounds, let alone in the same buildings as the Warsaw Jewish ghetto. These apartments were refurbished, beautiful, and modern. What type of person could bare to live within these still standing ghetto walls? If these walls could talk…
Later that day, we boarded our bus to head to our first concentration camp… My first concentration camp: Treblinka. I pictured everything I had seen in photos and movies: the wooden barracks, barbed wire fences, dirt paths. I was so shocked as I walked into this lush green forrest, watching the tall trees dance, and smelling a familiar woodsy scent that was hauntingly similar to my old Jewish summer camp.
What I didn’t know was how much deception went on from the German Nazis. Everything they did was to deceive Jews. There was a ‘building’ in Treblinka with a Red Cross sign, where they took the injured, disabled, elder, and children. They would enter the doorway and wait their turn for help. When they entered the building doorway, there was a mass grave and they would receive a bullet in the head. Sickening.
The entire camp ground, which I had learned, was completely destroyed. Everything that stands there is made of stone and is there to be of tribute to all the Jews that had perished in that wooded area.
There was a feeling at that camp that I cannot put into words, but it fills your spine with chill and puts a knot in your stomach.
Each stone standing is meant to represent an entire community that died at Treblinka. It must have been two football fields of statues. One small stone statue to represent an entire community. It’s sickening.
The idea of stones in Judaism is a very powerful meaning that I thought was so touching. It is customary to leave stones at a gravesite because stones do not perish. They stand with time, as opposed to flowers, which die within a matter of days. Stones withstand time and weather and are so powerful in representing those who perished. In a way, it’s beautiful what they have done with the space where Treblinka once stood. It’s poetic in withstanding time for those innocent Jews who barely had any time on this Earth.
We all walked off the camp feeling distraught from our first exposure to the painful truth of what happened to our ancestors.
The brutality and the dehumanization was so off-putting that it was hard to eat after leaving the camp. But while our bus pulled away from Treblinka, our trip rabbi explained something that I think says a lot about the Jewish people and Judaism itself. He explained how after visualizing all this death and feeling so stunted by it, we were able to physically walk off this camp, unlike our distant relatives who previously entered the camp. For that reason, we celebrate and we drink a l’chaim. He poured shots of whisky for whoever wanted.
“There are no birds here, only crows. Birds don’t sing in Majdanek.”
As we drove through a residential town in Poland and passed a McDonalds, I was hit by a brick wall. The forced labor camp we had just driven to came out of nowhere, and we were now in a place that felt like hell on Earth. The bus went silent.
The first thing I noticed were the houses directly outside of the camp. This is a child’s view outside their window… sickening. I saw a man exit his house and hop on his bike to go down the path directly next to the gas chamber and crematorium.
One of the first things we did upon entering the camp, was walk through the gas chamber. As I stood there, I felt numbed by the pain that was once experienced in that relatively small building. Our tour guide read a story about a young girl named Helena Birnbaum who survived Majdanek and the Holocaust. But she was separated from her mother immediately after being shaved and showered prior to the gas chamber. As Helena stepped out to be put into the labor camp, she noticed her mother no longer behind her. My heart strings tore at the thought of being ripped from my mother knowing my last hug with her had already passed.
As I walked out of the gas chamber and onto the bright green grass, I had this overwhelming thought that was so emotional and beyond words at that point. We, a group of 20-21 year old Jewish adults who came here from Israel, are walking out of this camp. With our lives, our dignities, our ambition, and most importantly, our sense of Judaism. As so many of our ancestors weren’t able to, we have the privilege to leave this place and pass on the story and our Jewish tradition.
We also were able to walk through the crematorium, which is in its original form. I have chills up and down my spine thinking about that room. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was so horrified and disgusted, I was beyond the point of sadness. My stomach hurt in the worst way to think about everything that took place where I was standing. As I left that horrible space as fast as I could, I could only pray that the twisted, barbaric, messed up people who operated that system were rotting in hell.
Auschwitz – Birkenau I and II
This place I was dreading. I knew it to be the mother of all labor and extermination camps, but I didn’t know how I would react. So far, I had seen a lot of the same terrible things that went on under Adolf Hitler’s power, but I didn’t know what made these two camps so monumental and – dare I say – famous.
Auschwitz I is an absolute tragedy. It was a twisted and manipulative fate for Jews that had been deported there. The grounds are massive, we weren’t able to do all of it in a whole day. The large brick buildings all housed different purposes: a brothel of Jewish prisoners, a Nazi doctor who experimented on women and children, a canteen for German’s to relax and look out and admire their prisoners, the list goes on.
The most sickening part about Auschwitz I was that it almost felt like a college campus. There was structure to it: big buildings, stone paths, gates. I almost felt like there should be a map on the corner showing which building was which. But instead of a place filled with opportunity and learning, it was a twisted living community for Jewish prisoners awaiting their fate and living miserably in the mean time. But compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau II, Auschwitz I looked like a fantasy land…
Auschwitz-Birkenau II was horrific. The living conditions alone showed how worthless the Germans saw Jews to be. They treated them worse than animals and it’s something that I never want to envision anyone
having to go through the unimaginable torture they endured. People risked their lives by hiding in the toilets, covered in feces, with the hope of escaping the forced labor camp. And when they didn’t die of disease or starvation, they were sent to the gas chambers.
Auschwitz-Birkenau II went on forever. The rubble of barracks (prisoners living quarters) went on for what seemed like miles. Each barrack was filled with 100+ prisoners and was around the same size of a typical bunk at my summer camp – which typically fit 15. I didn’t understand how someone could possibly survive this place, let alone live to want to tell the story about it.
On Shabbat, our rabbi, Ezra, told us a story. Abridged: A man living in Krakow, Poland has a dream that there is a hidden treasure under the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech. He has this dream many times and decides that it must be true, so he travels to Prague. Once he gets to the bridge, it’s blocked off and he cannot go under to see if there is treasure. He asks a policeman what’s going on. He tells the policeman that he has to go down under the bridge because he had this dream. The policeman laughs and says if he listened to his dreams then he would meet a man from Krakow who had treasure under his stove in Poland. So the Jewish man goes home to Poland and looks under his stove and finds the treasure.
Sometimes you have to go a long way to find what you’re looking for very close to you. And here I am living in the most amazing city and country in the world for five months, but I had to travel all the way to Poland to find what was in my heart all along. After this amazing trip, I’ve finally realized my purpose as a young Jewish woman: to live my life as a proud Jew for those 6 million who unfortunately could not. I never thought that it was important to raise my children Jewish, or to marry a Jewish man. But now I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I lost 6 million of my own kind due to ignorance, selfishness, and pure hatred. It would be purely selfish if I did not do everything in my power to grow the Jewish race. I not only feel rare and special, but I feel like I have a purpose.
The trip was something I never envisioned myself doing, but I am so incredibly proud that I was able to and that I have taken away so many important realizations from it.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” -George Santayana