Auschwitz and Birkenau

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
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Trip End Nov 28, 2006


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Flag of Poland  ,
Thursday, September 21, 2006

She said:

Wall after wall of faces, lists too long to count of names, piles of glasses, mounds of hair, stacks of suitcases, heaps of clothing, mountains of shoes, even pots and pans. That is what's left of the people killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau brought to the surface feelings I have never encountered before about people I didn't even know. I have learned about the Holocaust my whole life, seen movies and read many books. I have even heard survivor's firsthand accounts of the atrocities they suffered. But I have never seen it with my own eyes...until now.

We took a bus from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These are two separate concentration camps in Poland where 1.1 million people were systematically tortured and eventually murdered because Hitler deemed them "undesirable" - 960,000 of them were Jews. These people were first forced from their homes into a ghetto where many died of starvation and/or dehydration due to lack of nourishment. They were denied access out of the ghetto and were shot on sight if they tried to escape, all because they were Jewish. After Hitler decided the ghetto was to be destroyed, the remaining Jews were sent to concentration camps under the false promise of a better life. The greatest number of European Jews resided in Poland, so they were the first to be sent. Eventually, Jews from other countries, Gypsies, and other "undesirables" were sent to one of many death camps from as far away as Oslo.

There are many things I know about the death camps that I learned growing up. Any conversation or reference made to the Holocaust immediately brings a sense of sadness and disbelief. So, I was not surprised by much of what I saw, as pictures and texts had prepared me. However, some of the detail we learned through our guided tour of both camps was so incredibly deceptive and cruel it evoked a new set of emotions, anger and disgust. I found myself so angry on these tours that when we walked through what was once a crematorium and heard that much of what remained was the original, I had an overwhelming urge to kick the metal and scream.

The deception seemed unending; the Nazis took full advantage of people's desperate need for hope and used it to control the masses. We've all learned that people were told that the gas chambers were "showers". What I didn't know is that they were not only assigned hooks for their clothing and told to remember their hooks for later, but they were also given bars of soap. We saw things like the "Death Wall", a wall created in an inconspicuous alley where people were brought to die after an unjust trial for a so-called crime committed. The windows surrounding this wall were painted black so those inside didn't know what was coming. People had to line up, many times entire families, and were shot one by one. Usually, the mother would have to hold her babies or children and watch them be killed before she herself was shot. We stood on the very spot where peoples' fates were determined, the selection platform; turn right to die, turn left to be worked to death and eventually die. We saw the barracks where people were forced to live; no latrines, no heat, no protection from the weather. They slept 8-10 per bed, sometimes; many slept on the floor.

All of this led to many questions, some that will probably never be answered. Where the hell was the rest of the world and how did this go on for so long? Another comes from a statement made to me recently in a conversation about Poland - "Polish people just turned on the Jews and handed them over to the Nazis." Was this true?

As far as where the world was, I have no fucking idea. It is an absolute enigma to me, how this calculated and extremely well-organized genocide could go on with no intervention for approximately five years. I have a hard time understanding why it took so long to liberate the camps and why so many people had to die waiting. That line of thinking also made me realize that there are many analogous situations going on right now in the world with nothing being done about it (i.e. Darfur). But as I said to Chad, this feels different. I am not sure if being Jewish and knowing that the overwhelming majority of those killed were also Jewish makes me less objective. I do not, however, think that one needs to be Jewish to feel the impact of this atrocity.

As for the second question regarding people (mainly Poles) turning on the Jews and handing them over to the Nazis, this is something I pondered for a long time after it was bluntly stated. One of the things I am really trying to take advantage of as I travel to places I have never been is hands-on knowledge. I said it before; I learn best when I am in the moment. I am trying to educate myself on the history of each place, especially when war is involved, as I stand in the region and read both sides as an objective party. Upon visiting Kazimierz, what is left of the once thriving Jewish neighborhood in Krakow, I got some answers.

The Jewish Museum had a permanent exhibit that displayed photographs of Krakow's current Jewish neighborhoods and how they relate to the past (I will discuss the exhibit further in the Krakow blog). But, one aspect of the exhibit in particular that I will talk about in this blog, is not only an interesting response to the question posed above, but also reminded me of many things I learned while studying in Israel. This exhibit was about Righteous People. Poland has more Righteous Gentiles than any other country in the former German-occupied Europe. Righteous People are basically those who helped hide and/or save Jews from being sent to death camps. They risked their own lives and those of their families. As of 2006, approximately 5,941 people from Poland have been given this distinction, more than any other country (second is the Netherlands; third is France with 2,646; Germany has 427; and the United States has two). These people have been recognized under Yad Vashem's very strict criteria, and are only part of a larger group whose numbers will never be known because many continue to fear coming out for risk of shunning by neighbors and community.

I know there were many Poles who did turn on the Jews and forsake them to the Nazi regime. Many of them, young and old, were taught to hate the Jews and that we were the cause of all their problems. I don't understand what clicks in a person's head that makes them either a Righteous Person or a snitch, and I will never understand the origin of this hatred. But, until any one of us has an SS Officer standing at our door with a gun in our face ready to shoot our entire family, we cannot say what we would do. Approximately 800 Poles were murdered by Germans for the crime of helping Jews, would any of us take a hunted person into our home and risk death for ourselves and our families because we know what is happening is morally wrong? I am not sure any of us can honestly answer that question.

It is stated in the Talmud that to save a single life is to save a whole world. While I don't believe that every Pole is innocent, I think we have a choice to make when placing blame on a people as a whole. We can carry anger for all those countries that may or may not have helped, those that turned their backs and turned in the Jews, and those that come from the line of ancestry that were in fact responsible. Or we can focus on those who did help and those trying to make some sort of amends for their ancestor's mistakes.

"To remember the past is to shape the future and give it some sense of direction." We need to continue remembering and teaching our children THE FACTS, not our emotionally charged opinions, so this can never happen again. We need to visit places like Auschwitz-Birkenau to see first-hand how incredibly terrible millions of people were treated, just for being different. We also need to visit these places to see for ourselves something that really took my breath away when I was there. Groups of Polish, German, and Israeli high-school age kids were touring the sites and learning of each ones own past, as is required by the curriculum. As I looked at each one of them, I realized that each group is a victim in some way.

Still, I have to admit that when the Israeli March of the Living group waved the Israeli flag and sang the National Anthem of Israel, I had tears in my eyes. It is an eerie feeling to think that the sum total of approximately six million people died, most of them Jews, for who they were, and that is who I am. Although I do not define myself by my religion, this is my heritage, and those were my relatives in some way or another, and for them, I mourn.

He Said:

The sky was dim gray bordering on charcoal as it probably should have been. The infamous sign was a grainy silhouette like the cuts of film shot by the Soviet and Ukrainian armies as they liberated the camp. The experience was nothing personal accounts in books, TV documentary specials, or guest lecturers with black numbers on their forearms could have ever properly prepared me for. We walked underneath "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (Work Will Set You Free) and into a place that people only left through the chimneys.

No less than 1.1 million people were murdered within the Auschwitz complex. The victims included, initially, Polish prisoners and dissidents, and in time, political prisoners, the mentally and physically disabled, resistance fighters, the Roma people (gypsies), scientists, intellectuals, and religious leaders to name a few. Over 90 percent of the victims at Auschwitz, though, were murdered because they choose to read the wrong book on the weekends.

We went into the National Memorial of the Suffering, Struggle, and Destruction of the Jews and learned many accounts of death and survival, all hammered home with first and last names. Sometimes I think we get caught up in the sheer enormity of the number killed, estimated at six million in total, and we tend to forget that each person had a job, a family, a talent, a story. When you think of it this way, six million seems like a lot more than six million. The end of the exhibit included a sculpture created to memorialize those killed simply for being Jewish. It was a barbed wire-lattice silhouetted by a golden-hued backdrop. There were so many lives extinguished inside the prison, yet life persevered and exists today, bringing with it enormous responsibility and opportunity for everyone, but especially for Jewish people.

The old canisters of Zyklon-B were piled behind glass in a mound of inanimate metal that is ground zero for all Jews today. The gas was directly accountable for the attempted extinction of a segment of the human race, and for Jews worldwide, those tiny, rusty cans and the people who dropped them are a daily reminder of the past, present, and future. It is just as much a part of their Jewish upbringings as a dreidel or menorah, and whether consciously or subconsciously, I'd bet the existence of the holocaust exists every day on some level or another. It almost has to.

When a species is threatened with extinction, one of its natural reactions and responsibilities is to reproduce with abundance to make sure the species as a whole is maintained into the future. Fish lay so many eggs because only a few of those eggs will emerge as adult fish. This is Charles Darwin 101, and it's also an understandable element in some Jewish ways of thinking. If a Jewish person marries a Jewish person, the chances are greater that they will have Jewish children and grandchildren. Yes, this is partially true, but it's not the complete truth. Maybe for the first time in my life, I argue against science.

I am lucky to not only have Alli as my wife, but I'm also thankful that her family has accepted me for who I am - a person who experiences reflection and humility in my life, not in someone telling me how I should live my life by reading me religious scriptures. Maybe not being religious (partly because it is often full of dogmatic bureaucracy and often leads to death and destruction in the name of it, or like the holocaust, because of it) has made it easier with her family, but nonetheless, I feel comfortable saying that Alli's family is comfortable knowing that our children and grandchildren will have and participate in their Jewish heritage. I, too, am enjoying new traditions and holidays, despite the fact that Jews so often like to celebrate the New Year by scheduling it in concordance with Gator football. The point is, that intermarriage, and more so education and inclusion, are other powerful vehicles to ensure that Judaism continues well into the future.

A few years ago, Alli and I were walking through Washington Square Park during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. A Chabad group, an orthodox sect of Judaism, had set up a traditional tent inside the park and was welcoming visitors to participate. I was curious and had to practically beg Alli to go in with me. For the most part they were accommodating to me as a non-Jew because I wanted to learn, but as we left, the gentleman pulled Alli aside and told her she must marry a Jew because interfaith relationships decrease their numbers - a proper Darwinian way of thinking - but is it truly helping or hindering the cause? I'll argue that because of my gentile-urgings to enter the tent, Alli actually participated when she probably otherwise wouldn't have. I think that through the years of teaching me, she has become even more Jewish than she might otherwise be. I'll never be a "good" Jew or a "good" Christian or a "good" anything for that matter, but we both accept our heritages even though, as Captain so eloquently said during our wedding ceremony, we choose to listen to relationship advice from our successfully married grandparents rather than celibate members of the clergy.

If those rusty cans of Zyklon-B stand for the responsibility of Jews to maintain their religion, they must also stand for the opportunities they present. For some reason currently unbeknownst to me, Jews have always been a persecuted group, despite the fact that they are so often highly-contributing members of society and consider education and family to be very important qualities - all things we're supposed to value as a society. That's why it's so hard to walk through the Auschwitz cell blocks filled with never-ending piles of shoes and rooms full of hair used to make lining for Nazi uniforms after it was shaved from prisoners upon arrival. No one will ever know why, but as I often say about many thought-provoking, rhetorical questions - the importance is not in getting an answer, it's in simply asking the question.

Even today, Jews face much discrimination throughout the world. People spray paint swastikas on headstones in Jewish cemeteries. They burn flourishing synagogues to the ground. They utter anti-Semitic slurs on television. But since the holocaust and through it all today, an enormous opportunity has presented itself. Jews have been given the key to the gate of the high road. They can be the group that endured human-created hell, lived to tell about it, and made sure it didn't happen again. They can be the group that everyone looks up to and believes when they say we must all be accepting and tolerant of others. Who better to believe than a group who has gone through it? The high road is less traveled for a reason, though. It's tough. It requires four-wheel drive. It would be too easy to hate all Germans or all Muslims. The monopoly on the position to forgive is more powerful than giving up individual shares of apology.

I could hear what I hoped was forgiveness in the songs sung by visiting Israeli students next to a former crematorium where so many of their ancestors died. I could see what I hoped was regret in the eyes of the German school kids as they stared out the windows of the Birkenau watchtower and hung on every word spoken by their guide. In fact I know I heard and saw those things. I also saw Alli watching them, too, and hoped that she was experiencing the same things. As I told her, you don't have to be Jewish to get a lump in your throat when you're walking down the selection platform where 'left' meant living and 'right' meant dying. After all, neither one of us actually knew someone who was murdered. We are both human, though, and it's unfathomable to think about the wide moral spectrum our species has created for itself. It's sad. It's sad because we have people like Hitler, who really was a genius, that seem to waste their lives for horrific things, all in the name of righteousness. Look in tomorrow's newspaper. It's happening again today in Africa.

Auschwitz is a place where everyone should go. You don't really learn anything new, per se. We all know the stories. More so, you learn about yourself. You learn about what being a human can mean. You learn what it should mean. And then you hope that what it should mean someday becomes what it does mean. It's not an easy place to visit.

They said:

La Shana Tova to all of our friends and family. We hope this is a sweet, healthy, and prosperous new year for you all. We love you!
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Comments

mtnester99
mtnester99 on

If we forget, we are doomed to repeat...
I couldn't help the overwhelming sadness at your descriptions of your visit to the 'camps',,,it felt like I was there with you...eerily, today's sermon in synagogue was about just that-the similarities between what is going on right now and the time of Hitler....
Chad, I love you for sensitivities and insights, and Alli, I am proud of what you have in your heart for our people:) Remembering is what we all need to do and pass down to our children. I know you both will do that. Be safe and be proud of who you are, the differences and the similarities, as I am of you both...
Love
Mom

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