September 21, 2016
Early wake up and breakfast before heading off to the infamous Auschwitz and Birkenau. What are you supposed to feel heading there? Excitement? Trepidation? Fear? Anger? Curiosity? What happens if you feel something totally different?
We had an ironically gorgeous day. Ever person that has ever visited these camps has always said the weather is constantly dismal. Today found the sun shining with a cool breeze in the air. But once we walked through the infamous “work sets you free” sign, the actual weather is irrelevant – it is a dismal sight to behold. Perhaps that’s what everyone always meant?
It’s surreal really. You hear and read about these chambers of hell your whole life. And suddenly you are standing where the selection process took place, where families where separated for eternity and lives were lost for generations. You see the piles and piles and piles of human hair; of plates, silverware, pots and pans that people thought they’d be using in their relocated homes; and of suitcases upon suitcases that were going to take people on their journey. You walk through the prison cells where people were crammed in so tight they couldn’t sit for days at a time, you see the freight car that brought way too many people to this place and, finally, you see the remains of the gas chambers and you feel the hundreds of thousands of people that were slaughtered right there – right on that spot. While so many stood in silence.
Many of us commented on the large size of Birkenau, especially compared to Auschwitz I. Some noticed the road that cars drive on, literally a step away from the barracks at Auschwitz. “Has this road always been there?”, “Yes,” our tour guide said. Some of us had strong visceral reactions to the experience, some of us were surprised that our experience felt more academic.
A group of Israeli teens were touring at the same time as us. By the end they were all covered in their flags, confirmation that evil did did not win.
We experienced this with a group of 15 people who didn’t really know each other just a few days ago. A group whose only true common bond was that of being a Jew – with being “Jewish” defined differently among each one of us. Yet, as we stood there and said Kaddish and lit a Yartzeit candle, we cried together, we hugged each other, we leaned on each other and we asked “how does this happen?”
As we left the gates to head to the airport to continue our journey to Israel, one person pointed back at the barracks of Birkenau, a mere 100 yards away and commented how lucky we are that we can just walk out any time we want. How many people stood at that very spot on the other side of that gate 70+ years only wanting to do the same thing?