I’ve been delaying this blog post for a very long time. The visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was so emotionally difficult for me and I’ve been worried that writing a post about it would bring back those memories for me.
While we were in Krakow, we took a day-long side trip to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sub-consciously I think I knew that it would be hard for me to be there, given my religious roots, but I had no idea the magnitude that it would hit me.
The moment we set foot on the grounds at Auschwitz, I couldn’t breathe. That familiar tightness in my throat that I feel whenever I want to cry hit me immediately. Standing in the main courtyard, surrounded by the fence and buildings that I knew had housed thousands of Jews during the war, was heartbreaking. I wanted to leave, but I had to stay – for myself, for my family and for my people.
Being Jewish is incredibly important to me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and even though all of my direct family members can to America before the war, many of their villages (mostly all Jewish) were completely destroyed by Nazis during WWII. I’m sure there are distant cousins and friends of my family that didn’t survive. I feel lucky my family came to America when they did or else I might not be here today, but at the same time, my heart breaks for those who weren’t as fortunate. I feel for all those Jewish families who lost people they loved. My heart aches for the entire Jewish community and seeing where my people came from is so important to me.
As we walked through the barracks at Auschwitz, I couldn’t help but go up to the windows and look outside. I wanted to know what it must have been like to look out those windows day after day, knowing your situation wasn’t going to get any better. The stone-cold concrete floors and walls released the same feelings today as they did during the Holocaust – cold, unfeeling, harsh.
I have to admit that Auschwitz has done a remarkable keeping the stories of the Holocaust alive. Inside the barracks there are display cases that tel the stories of the Jewish people (and other) sent to the camps and their fates. Inside one of the rooms is a giant urn filled with ashes from the crematorium. Another one is filled with belongings of those who never left Auschwitz – cases filled with suitcases with names and ages of their owners still readable, pots and pans, shoes. The case that hit me the absolute hardest though, was the one filled floor to ceiling with human hair. Hair that had been forcibly removed from the Jewish men, women and children sent to die in the gas chambers. That was the first moment I cried at Auschwitz, after seeing such a integral part of the human existence all cased up like that.
Other displays around the camp showed models of the gas chambers and “shower” system. The case containing empty cans of Cyclon B, the gas that killed so many people, made me sick to my stomach.
The very end of our tour through the camp took us to the gas chamber and crematorium itself. Unlike the one at Birkenau, which no longer stands today, this one we were able to walk through. Walking through the gas chambers, you could almost feel the history that was soaked into the concrete walls. These walls too were harsh and cold and the air was stale as if it knew it held a terrible past. Seeing the crematorium ovens was too much to handle. The entire experience was, as a whole, but this moment was probably the worst of it. To see an oven, modeled almost exactly like one you would see at a pizzeria, that was used to burn human bodies, is unbearable. It’s a past no one wants to think about, but at the same time, one you want to remember every day in order to make sure it never happens again.
After such an emotionally draining morning, the absolute last thing you want to do is to have a do-over of the experience at another camp. On the ride over to Birkenau I tried to prepare myself emotionally for what we were about to see. There is so much we learn about of the camps in school and in books and films, but nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of actually being at the camps.
Birkenau was much more spread out than Auschwitz, mainly due to the railroad line that went down the center of the camp. Still on the railroad is a cattle car that was used to transport Jewish families to the camp. On the steps of the car and on it’s wheels are hundreds, if not thousands, of stones. It is Jewish tradition to honor the dead with a stone on their gravestone to show them remembrance. It was heartwarming to see so many of stones in honor of the lost on that car.
Much of Birkenau was destroyed right before liberation, so there is a lot less to actually walk through at the camp. There is a memorial put up by the government and commemorated in many different languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew. The memorial is right next to the ruins of the gas chambers, which are just as hard to see as the standing ones at Auschwitz.
The last stop on our tour was a still-standing barrack with the wooden planks coming out of the walls, two or three levels high. These were the beds of many prisoners and are universally recognizable. So many pictures shown in books about the Holocaust were taken in these barracks. Seeing the empty bunks, you can almost picture the faces peering over the edges, like in the pictures.
The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was incredibly hard, but in my opinion one that everyone needs to see at least once in their life. For Jews, it’s a part of our past and it cannot be forgotten or ignored. For the rest of the world, it is something that needs to be seen so that everyone understands fully what happened and why it can never happen again.