Our day at Auschwitz began at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a part of the camp built specifically for the elimination of the Jews. Beginning outside of the train station, we made our way along the railroad tracks, passing barracks and crematoriums on both sides. 735 steps from the station to the gas chambers. 735 more steps to their death. The death camp began operating in August of 1942, taking hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes across Eastern Europe and shoving them like cattle into train cars to be transported to certain death. As we wandered through Auschwitz II, we were able to hear stories and testimonies of Auschwitz survivors such as the man that deliberately stole another person’s hat to save his own life, knowing very well that he was causing the death of that person. Scenarios like this make us wonder how skewed the Jews’ idea of “right and wrong” became after such dehumanization. We ask ourselves if we can really judge any of their decisions based on such unfathomable situations. Then, standing amongst the decrepit gas chambers, we heard the story of the religious man who, in the fatally crowded train car, kept spirits high and optimistic with his song about the coming of the Messiah. Some had the physical strength to survive, and others, it seemed, had the mental strength to hold up their community and stay standing tall, even if death was inevitable.
We then made our way to the storage units that once existed in the area of the camp called “Canada” where we were able to see the abandoned belongings. Scissors and forks that we don’t give a second thought were pure symbols of a hope left to rust. We followed the Jews’ footsteps through the Sauna that would take away their humanity before the gas chambers or starvation or disease would take away their lives. Hundreds of photographs that greeted us at the end gave faces, names, and a familiar sense of life and happiness to the statistics. The Jews known by numbers rather than names. Ending our journey through Auschwitz II we had a ceremony to pay homage to all of the Jews that perished at the camp.
At Auschwitz I, a concentration camp occupied by Jews as well as Poles, Gypsies, disabled persons, etc. in 1940, we walked through the horrible place like some nightmarish museum. After witnessing the structures in which prisoners slept, died, and were turned to ash, it was appalling to be able to see the shoes from their feet, the hair from their heads, and the belongings they so innocently brought and abandoned right off the trains. To bring the hauntingly unrealistic setting back down to earth, we were told stories of those killed in the underground cells as experiment subjects for zyklon B and then stories of those that survived, sometimes at the expense of others. We ended our day on a happier note, with a mincha service to honor the Jewish community that once was and show the strength and prevalence of the Jewish community in the world today.
Auschwitz II was set in a lovely forest. There were birds chirping, grass was growing, and by the end, the sun was out. I couldn’t begin to fathom that this had been a place of horrific mass murder. The barracks looked like wooden barns and the Sauna was a concrete building. The more I tried, the less I could imagine what had happened and the less devastation I could feel deep down. The events that took place are so unreal to me and so revolting that I couldn’t feel much of anything but anger. At Auschwitz, I found the camp turned museum to be incredibly intriguing. The children’s drawings were haunting, the mass of hair was horrifying, and the giant book of names was a way to personally connect the thriving Jews of today to the perished ones of the Shoah. Seeing the camps off of pages or a screen was an experience that yielded indescribable feelings for me, but it provided me with both the vivid images of real people’s’ stories and the inspiration to cherish my Jewish roots and pass on my knowledge of the Shoah to future generations.