This blog post isn’t about work, or travel, or the prompts I’m supposed to be writing to, this blog is about today. It isn’t about my love for the historical period surrounding World War II, it’s about today. It isn’t about my family that left Poland due to anti-Semitism prior to World War II. It isn’t about Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, nor Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, nor the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, nor the Jewish history museum in Berlin, nor the synagogues in Prague that would have been turned into museums for the “dead race” had Hitler succeeded, nor the controversial memorial for Jews in Hungary, nor the Polish-Jewish history museum in Warsaw. It’s not even about the line where the Warsaw ghetto used to be that I cross over every day on my way to work, it’s about today. It’s about today, because today I face the Holocaust head on, because today I walk into Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Today, I sat in a bus bound for Auschwitz with a pit in my stomach and a dry throat. Today, was a day that I was simultaneously anxious about and excited for. Today, was the culmination of the Jewish history tour of Europe that had accidentally happened this summer. I didn’t know how to feel going into today and I didn’t know how I would feel coming out on the other side.
Today, I was one of 13 people on the 6 hour English speaking tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Today, my day began in a place where millions were killed. Today, I decided I would ignore my phone. Today, I wouldn’t focus on taking pictures to commemorate my day, because I knew there would be nothing I saw today that I would ever forget. (I ended up taking less than 20 photos during my 6 hours in the camp).
The first thing I saw in Auschwitz I was something I’d seen a million times before in pictures, but today I was seeing it with my own eyes. A metal arch that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free. Despite having seen and heard these words for years, I recoiled a little bit as I read them, today, with my own eyes, the metal surrounded by a beautiful sky and brightly shining sun.
I followed the docent through buildings that had been used as barracks and looked at pictures taken throughout the war of arrivals at Birkenau, pictures of the piles of dead bodies, and pictures of how thin people were when they were finally liberated. These were very similar to all of the pictures I’ve seen of the Holocaust over the years and over this summer, so today they didn’t elicit a response, not physically or emotionally, from me. It probably says a lot about me that I no longer feel the shock I once did when it comes to these pictures. The one shocking thing I saw among these pictures was the urn full of ashes that had been recovered from Birkenau. Most of the people on my tour probably did realize the heavy, underlying significance of these ashes, as I was the only Jew in our group, but Jews can’t be cremated after death according to the Torah. These people not only had been starved and worked to death or near death before being gassed, but as one final blow they weren’t buried, they were cremated.
Another barrack I entered today had the title “Proof of the Crimes.” I walked from room to room finding one with 2 tons of human hair, that all looked very similar to the long, dark locks that are one of my favorite features. I saw a room with dishes that seemed to go as deep as it did far, it was so huge and made me think of my mother and her love of cooking and how it’s a big part of Jewish culture. There was a whole hall of shoes, thousands and thousands of shoes, high heels, work boots, children’s shoes. Each pair belonged to a person with their own sense of style. I saw suitcases, labeled with the names of the owners, so they could be claimed again after the showers. Deception until the end, I reminded myself. The walls lined with picture after picture of prisoners, with their name, birth date, occupation, arrival date and death date. It was my first experience of vastness today, all of these rooms seemed to hold endless possessions and endless pieces of people’s lives.
We walked over to a specific barrack that had been used to hold prisoners before their trials. Many people found themselves there for things like helping Jews, not showing up to work, having a radio, or being in the same barrack as an escapee. These prisoners all met the same fate on the field next to the barrack, where there still stands a silencing wall and the neighboring barracks’ windows were covered. Deception until the end. But as I stood outside on a grassy area and looked at the wall where I knew people had died and I could see the candles, flowers, and stones in their memory I still didn’t feel sad. I understood the significance, but today I had expected to feel more sad as I looked at a place where people had died, not just at pictures in a museum.
Following that we entered a gallery area that was created in collaboration with Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum in Israel). I read the plaques and the quotes and felt the familiarity as I had seen them in Yad Vashem only a few months prior. Then I walked into a dark room. I watched as the blank walls were filled with videos of Jewish life in Europe prior to World War II and the accompanying sounds. I watched and soon I heard a familiar song sung by Ukrainian children, the song that would be adapted into the Israeli national anthem. I’m not sure many people in the room knew what it was, but I immediately found that my eyes were watering and my cheeks were damp. I thought about how all these people didn’t know what would happen. I thought about how it didn’t matter to the Nazis if they considered themselves Jews first or second (after their nationality). I thought about the number of Jews there are in the world today, as it climbs closer and closer to the number before the Holocaust, but it’s still not there. For the first time today I felt truly sad, as I mourned those who loved being Jewish, as I do, but didn’t know that it would result in their suffering.
We moved into the next room which listed the numbers along side pictures. Today, I looked at the numbers more closely than the pictures. I noticed that there were only 3 countries that had more than 500,000 Jews killed in the Holocaust: Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine. Today, I thought about my 3 great-grandparents who had left Poland after World War I due to the anti-Semitism in the country. I thought about my 3 great-grandparents who left Hungary during the same time period. I thought about my 1 great-grandparent who left Ukraine as well. (My maternal grandfather’s mother was born in the U.S.) I felt grateful that they weren’t another tally in these large numbers. I was thankful they had the insight to leave when they had. I felt relief as my fingers flitted across the pages of the 4 million names they know of the 6 million who died, that I wouldn’t find my family members among them. I was happy to see that of the 8 Siegal’s with the same spelling as me, that none were my great-grandparents or grandparents.
Today, I also had the special privilege of entering a set of barracks that had been seemingly untouched. Because my tour was twice as long as the standard one I was able to look at the bathrooms, bedrooms, and drawings of the prisoners without the overwhelming feeling of the crowds. There were 14 of us in 2 stories of the barracks that housed thousands of people. I touched the walls for a moment thinking about all the people that had lived there and likely touched these same walls. They weren’t my direct relatives, but it’s possible they could have been grandparents of my friends or the Hungarian survivors I see when I go to Saturday services when I’m home.
From there we walked over to the sole remaining gas chamber in either Auschwitz I or Auschwitz II. I took a deep breath as I walked into the gas chamber. I saw the sun peak in from the holes that had been used to drop Zyklon B on the people who stood where I was standing. I looked at the wall where there were scratch marks from people trying to get out of the chamber as the gas filled their lungs. Our tour guide said the walls had been painted over many times while they used the chamber and crematorium. Deception until the end. I walked outside I took a gulp of fresh air, kind of hating that it was such a perfect day outside, today.
After a short break, we took the shuttle bus over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I followed the other people on my tour through a turnstile as our guide scanned us in, assuming it was a normal part of the tour. It wasn’t until I had climbed all the way to a landing and looked out the window did I realize where I was and what I was seeing. Today, I saw Birkenau from a different perspective. Rather than seeing pictures of thousands of teens, adults, and survivors wearing Israeli flags on their backs and March of the Living hats on their heads, walking on train tracks toward the exit of Birkenau, I saw a train track with an end, a few barracks still standing, hundreds of smoke stacks where barracks once were, miles of what used to be electrified barbed wire, and a large forest, because I was standing in the tower that once marked the entrance of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I say once because at the time it was truly in use it wasn’t an exit for those who came through the gates. For the second time today I experienced true vastness. I’ve had friends describe Birkenau to me as vast and empty, now I’ll have to ask them if they realized just how big it actually is just from the ground.
As we descended back to where the standard tour groups started I was a little nervous about entering the camp that was seemingly empty and wasn’t a museum, it was real life. Our first stop on the ground was a bathhouse, where there were 200 seats carved out of concrete to be used as bathrooms for 2,000 people in a limited amount of time. It smelled like death. I knew it wasn’t where people were killed, but that’s what it smelled like to me. We then walked over to one of 2 preserved barracks that visitors can still enter. We saw triple bunk beds (the bottom floor, which was often dirt, included) where 8 people slept on a single level. There was concern of cold, snow, rain, and starvation diarrhea leaking to the bottom. As we stepped back outside I swiped my hand across my forehead trying to battle the sweat. I reminded myself that as hot as it was today, at least I wasn’t working 11 hour days with next to nothing to eat.
We walked down the train tracks towards the end, stopping to look at the cattle car, that was one of many used to transport thousands of Jews to Birkenau. When we reached the end I stopped for a second and noticed the ruins of where a gas chamber and crematorium once stood. The thing that made me stop was not the ruins, but the flowers in front of them as if life was coming back to this spot that used to be all mud and dirt and death. As we walked around the ruins I looked and told myself that the fractured pieces were stones or bricks for fear of what they might actually be. We stopped at a pond where there stood 4 stones, each with an inscription in a different language to remember those that had been killed and cremated there and their ashes dumped into the now mossy pond. I took a moment to say the words “Yitgadal veh yitgadash…” the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I thought about how it’s one of a handful of prayers you’re supposed to say with a group of Jews, not by yourself. I closed my eyes and thought there are more than a million Jews here, just under the surface. I said the words under my breath and for the first time today I felt alone.
We walked back to the area where the second round of selection (the first being as people got out of the cattle cars). We walked through the building as our guide explained the process step by step. When we got to the end we walked into a room and I felt myself gasp. My hand went to my chest without a second thought and I could feel my eyes start to water. You might think I was looking at something terrible by this description but really I was looking at a wall of photographs, eerily similar to a wall in my house, filled with family photographs. I looked at the vastness of the pictures and then I got closer and saw people that looked remarkably similar to me, to my parents, to my brother. I saw family pictures like the ones from my great-grandparents weddings that hang on the wall at home. I saw individuals and immediate families and for the second time today I was grateful my family left when they did. I walked to the other side of the wall, moving quickly past the survivor stories, since I’ve spoken to many survivors first hand, giving those on my tour the opportunity to hear what a survivor sounds like. I ran my hand over an inscription about how we can never forget the murders of the thousands of children that died in Auschwitz because they were the future and they were the good in the world. I backed myself up against a wall to steady myself, taking in all of the emotions I had experienced today.
Then, as we walked back up the tracks I said three more Hebrew words: “Chazak, chazak, v’Nitchazeik.” From strength to strength may we be strengthened. Today, I thought about my identity as a Jew, I thought but about how my Jewish friends, from those who attend services every week to those who celebrate Christian holidays, who all would have been considered Jewish. Today, I thought about how I’ve taken my Judaism for granted, the Jewish people have a rich history and I’m so glad that it’s my history, no matter how dark. Today, I thought about the past where there had been millions of Jews in Europe and in Poland. Today, I thought about the present where there are only a couple thousand Jews in Poland. Today, I thought about the future and how I hope the Jewish community will be thriving world wide, but without forgetting our history and how easily it could be echoed.
Today, I saw a lot, I felt a lot, I thought a lot and I’m a stronger person for it, because today I walked out of Auschwitz.