August 7, 2008
Some say it is more difficult to visit Aushwitz Birkenau on a beautiful sunny day. Yes, the weather is lovely. Does that make it harder to imagine the atrocities committed against Jews and others in this place of hell? In any case, it was in the 80’s and the sun shone on everything. We met up with our guide, a young man who has been doing this full time for a year. He is a local Polish man whose uncle was among the first Polish local citizens who were killed by the Nazis at Aushwitz in the time before it became a labor/death camp for Jews
We visited the Aushwitz part for about 3 hours then drove the couple of miles to the Birkenau death camp. We also heard about the third camp, Monovitz (?) which was a labor camp connected to the I.G. Farben factory nearby.
At Aushwitz we learned about the different groups that were in the camp; about Russian P.O.W.’s who built the camp as slave laborers. We heard about the announcement made as people were oriented to the camp when they arrived: being told that they were expected to be worked to death within a few weeks. We saw the wall of death where local Poles who broke Nazi rules were brought for summary trials and then stood up against a wall and shot. We saw the 36” by 36” cells that had to be entered by crawling through a hole near the floor: and then 4 prisoners would be left in there to suffer. It was called the standing cell, and was a punishment for prisoners in the camp. We learned about the Polish priest who volunteered to be among 10 who were selected for “group” punishment after some Polish prisoner attempted an escape. The priest gave his life to save a young husband and father, who did indeed survive the war. We saw the gate with the words :Work will make you free. (meaning - the only way you will get out of here is working yourself to death and then going up in smoke in the crematorium). The gate was so much smaller than we had seen in photos.
Too much to describe. The barracks at Aushwitz were brick and the “museum” had arranged them so one could see the collections of materials from the Jews. We saw piles of hair, shoes, cooking pots, brushes, combs. We saw photos of the Polish citizens who were killed in the camp. We entered a rebuilt gas chamber and saw where the gas crystals would be tossed throught the ceiling. It was tough.
Then we went on to Birkenau. All of the wooden barracks - field upon field filled with them - had been destroyed by the Nazis when they retreated from that place and fled, taking the last Jews of the place with them on a death march. A few had been rebuilt to be used to show what had been there. However, all of the brick chimneys of the barracks still stand silently. We saw how the wooden bunks were crowded in the barracks with no air circulation and thin wood walls that made the place unbearably hot in summer and freezing in winter. We saw the latrine barracks, where twice a day 200 people would enter, sit on bare concrete latrines with plain holes for 15-20 seconds, and then be forced to exit.
We walked along the tracks that went inside the gates of Birkenau. We stood where the selection was made - a hand pointed one way and you went to the barracks and worked until death (or died of disease). We stopped and read a few first person testimonies from women who lived through the selection.
And if the hand pointed the other way - it was straight to gas chambers and then crematorium. We walked down to the end of the tracks where the ruins of a gas chamber were set.
There we had a small ceremony. We read the story of Rosa Robota who was part of an uprising to blow up the crematorium by Jewish inmates of Birkenau. She was tortured and murdered. We read pieces by Elie Wiesel. Then we stood at the Memorial built at the end of the camp and recited the names of family members of Beth El members back home who were murdered at Aushwitz. And added names from our own group’s families. It was so powerful to say the names at the place they were murdered. We tried to light our yarzeit candle but it was too windy, so we left it there for someone to light another day. We said Kaddish. We boarded the bus, where we read the piece aloud by Emil Fackenheim on the “commandment” after the Holocaust: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. Not to allow the Jewish people, or Judaism, or hope to die.
We drove back to Krakow. We discussed anti-semitism and why Poles did not do more to save Jews. We listened as Janusz challenged us to think about the unique law the Nazis had only for Poland: any Pole who aided a Jew would be shot and his whole family shot as well. Only in Poland. We pondered. Would we save a life if it meant not only risking our own lives, but the lives of our children? It is hard to know.
That night we all ate together at a restaurant that Helene and Dan recommended. Before that, some went shopping for amber and found some very nice pieces of jewelry. The dinner was very relaxing - eased us back from the difficult day. The pierogis were amazing. Mine were stuffed with mushroom/cabbage filling.
It was followed by a night tour/walk with Janusz around Krakow’s old areas and through the Old Town Square. Heard wonderful stories of kings and architecture and Copernicus and how the university was built in the middle of the original Jewish neighborhood. And then, as promised, Janusz took us to a bar so we could all have a special Polish drink. It’s a vodka that has a piece of bison grass in it - that gives the vodka a vanilla flavor. It’s mixed with apple juice and poured over ice. Delicious!!!! We toasted Ardelle for her birthday.
Turned in for the night. Next day: tour of Jewish area and then to train to Warsaw.
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