Auschwitz. We all knew this day was going to be difficult, and for some of us it was exactly what we expected, but for others there was no way to prepare for what we were going to see. At Auschwitz II – Birkenau, our first stop of the day, the immediate reaction was to the enormous size of the place, it seemed to never end. As we stood touching the infamous train tracks in the same place our ancestors once did, it fully hit me where we were. Auschwitz opened in 1941 and had over 40 satellite camps operating, the largest being Birkenau. Used as both a concentration and a death camp, one million plus Jews were killed at this camp. Birkenau was meticulously planned out by the Nazis to the last detail, and we saw this with the amazing documentation, helping us to understand how the camp functioned. As we kept walking we arrived at the selection ramp where the fate of life or death was decided. The cattle cars came in on the train tracks and one could last days, even weeks in them with horrible conditions.
Throughout the day we heard lots of stories such as the one of Lily Yakov who found a photo album of pictures taken by SS officers and survived the war. We saw these photos blown up on the walls at Auschwitz. Lily was from Hungary and we also learned the Hungarian story in which 300,000-400,000 Hungarians were murdered at Auschwitz. We heard the story of Asriel who sang “Ani m’ameen”- “I believe”- the words of the Rambam. The entire cattle car joined in song with him and he asked if anyone was strong enough to make it through the war in order to continue the nigun and hope of the Jewish people. Two young men volunteered. One died immediately, but the other lived through the war with the mission to tell the story as his survival motivation. We heard about the women’s story of the camp: how they needed to find ways to laugh, so they made fun of the officers in skits. To their surprise, the officers laughed along with them in those few moments of shared humanity. Roman Frister’s story was one that had all of us quite torn. He was a teenager sent to live in the men’s camp and his Kapo was especially cruel. After raping him one night his Kapo took his hat from him, and without his hat at roll call the next day, he would be killed. Frister had to make the very difficult decision to take the hat of one of his bunkmates, who then was killed because of it. His honesty of sharing this story after surviving the war was truly heroic, but his actions themselves were controversial.
As we continued on, we saw the three gas chambers that had been destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover up what they had done when the war was coming to an end. At least for myself, and speaking with many of my peers, I found Auschwitz really hard to imagine and picture. The day we visited it was beautiful and sunny — blue sky, birds chirping, and we were sitting in big open areas of grass. It seemed almost like a park at times, and not a death camp. But then there were times, like the in the Sauna, where we were reminded of what happened. Here prisoners were being stripped of clothes, hair cut, showered, tattooed numbers on arms, and gave the uniform of striped pajamas. This dehumanization, loss of humanity and identity was something that really affected and bothered me. These people were no longer a name, but a number. They no longer had their own style, but looked the exact same as everybody else. Everything that was done was done to them as a group, nothing was individual any longer. Best friends couldn’t even recognize each other at this point. As we continued we saw the room of pictures and stories, so many of the people looking like normal everyday families we know. We went to what was called “Canada” and saw that there were a variety of valuables and items that prisoners thought they would need to live while they were there. We heard the story of the Crematorium and the people who smuggled in cameras and explosive material to do anything possible to slow down the process, seeing as the Nazis were capable of murdering 24,000 people each day. In 1945 the Nazis left the camp as the Soviets approached and left behind some 7,000 prisoners still alive while the rest (some 55,000) were sent on death marches to other camps. At the end of our time there we walked out as a community, together a group of Jews, something that our ancestors could never do. We left Auschwitz Birkenau with the big question of: Who would you bring with you to show Auschwitz? Future children, friends from home, grandparent, a survivor?
For the second part of the day we headed to Auschwitz 1. This was really hard to picture as well because it was turned into a museum and at least I personally didn’t feel like I was in a concentration camp. Auschwitz 1 was chosen because of its prime central location. We saw lots of documentation and material evidence including photos taken by German SS officers for records and also photos found by the survivor Lily Yakov. Because of how detailed the Nazis were in their planning, we know almost exactly how the camp functioned. We saw collections of all sorts of personal belongings and items such as glasses, suitcases, shoes, dishes, brushes, and one that was especially disturbing was the two tons of human hair. Our guide explained to us that the Nazis reused everything that they could. Ashes for fertilizer, hair for textile, etc. Also on our tour we saw Block 10 which was the camp’s “hell”. Ariella told us a truly inspiring story of a couple that met here and wrote each other love letters. Both of them lived through the war, got married, and had a child. If you went to Block 10, it was almost guaranteed that you would be used for torture and experimentation. We saw the “work makes you free” sign as we walked in. Later, towards the end we went into the gas chamber and crematorium where we saw the Zyklon B cans and the holes in the ceiling where they poured the pesticide in. One thing there that really affected me was the claw marks on the wall of people that were stuck in the chamber. The book of names was something at Auschwitz that I know a lot of people, and I too found especially breathtaking. It was the first time we could have a visual of the actual number of people affected. So many of us found names of family and loved ones, which was hard because the validation made it so real.
On a lighter note, we ended the day by welcoming in Shabbat at a local synagogue in the town of Oswiecim. In white shirts, signs of purity, we gathered in prayer and in song session. We embraced our Judaism, and I felt so much more appreciative of my ability to practice my religion and to have my identity. We sang and danced in loud, energized voices, filling the space with the sound of our people and bringing the light and energy back to a place that it was taken away from. I ended the day truly feeling more proud to be a Jew and knowing that moving forward I will definitely appreciate all I have in my life. Big shoutout to all of you and Josh for making this experience so meaningful and being such a strong support system. I will always remember this week.
Shay Morrel is a junior from Sterling, Massachusetts. She belongs to Beth El Temple, is a member of NFTY-NE and was a madricha in the religious school. Shaina also attended URJ Crane Lake for the past eight years.