Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lessons from Auschwitz

As you will notice from the date this is posted, it has been almost two weeks since my trip to Poland.  I have attempted to write this post many times but have found it hard to place into words what I experienced while in Poland.  When I returned home, I was met with the standard question, "Did you enjoy your trip to Poland?".  I have found that to be a hard question to answer.  Was I happy to have had this opportunity? Yes, without a doubt.  It had been a dream of mine for a long time to make this journey.  Did I learn a lot about the Jewish condition in Poland before and during the war?  Certainly!  Even though I had studied and read numerous resources before the trip, I am amazed at how much I still did not know.  Was the time spent with the survivors beneficial?  Absolutely!  They were the highlight of the trip.  I admire their resiliency and their determination to tell the world their stories in the hopes of keeping such a disaster from occurring again.  So why was this trip so difficult for me to process?

When I returned home from Poland, the nightmares began almost immediately.  I found this interesting because I had slept well in Poland without any troubling dreams.   While the nightmares often center around Auschwitz, I am not actually an inmate in the camp.  Instead they center around an evil that I can't see, silent screams of warning, and a lurking presence that is so awful it can't be real.  In some of the nightmares, I wander around the concentration camps trying to find a way out; in others I am at home but know there is something lurking just outside my house.  As soon as I began sharing these nightmares with others and trying to put a face on the evil, they began to diminish and have now ended.  Before taking this journey, I had led a peaceful life.  Of course, I had had sleepless nights, disappointing days, and sorrowful times in my life, everyone has, but I can honestly say I had never felt the presence of evil so strongly before.  So, what are the lessons that I learned?  We must take a stand when any injustice is being carried out.  We must never forget what can transpire if we fail to act.  We must never let it be said that what occurred at Auschwitz didn't actually happen.  We must continue to enlighten our students about why and how such horrific events can occur.  We must be ever diligent to make sure that evil, like the kind that lurked in my nightmares, is kept at bay. 

I have been asked and wonder myself - Will I ever be the same as I was before?  I have decided that the answer is "No," and that is a good thing.

"The Trials of Nazi war criminals had the great benefit of clearly exposing how few criminals it took to murder millions using those who were neither good nor bad, but simply passive, and who, when given the right circumstances, could become one or the other."  - Eugenia Kocwa, July 25, 1948

Saturday, January 31, 2015

We Must Never Forget

January 27th, known worldwide as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Our group of teachers start this blustery, snowy day heading to the town of Oświęcim located near the Auschwitz concentration camp.  At the time of the Nazi invasion, the community itself was over 400 years old and was home to the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim as well as twenty other synagogues.  We stop for a short discussion on the site of the Great Synagogue, which was located near the river prior to being destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. 

Before World War II more than half the population (approximately 8,000 people) of Oświęcim was Jewish, but the Holocaust took a heavy toll on the town that now has no Jewish residents.  Entire generations of families were wiped out during the war and all but one of those that survived chose not to return to the town.  Szymon Kluger, the only survivor of the Holocaust to return to the town after World War II and the last native Jew of Oświęcim, died in 2000 thus bringing an end to the old Jewish community.

After we leave the site where the Great Synagogue was once located, we visit the Oświęcim Synagogue (also called the Auschwitz Synagogue), currently the only active synagogue in the town.  Its interior was demolished by the Nazis who used the building as a munitions depot.  The building was later used as a carpet warehouse in the 1970s but was restored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation and is now an active synagogue for visitors to Auschwitz.

Barracks at Birkenau
As we head back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to attend the commemoration ceremony, a single patrol car in front of the Oświęcim Synagogue is a grim reminder of the world we live in where synagogues and churches are often targets of hate.  Tonight's commemoration will be held in front of the Death Gate of Birkenau, a concentration/extermination camp added when it became apparent that Auschwitz I would not be large enough to carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution” to systematically exterminate the Jewish population through genocide in Nazi-occupied Europe.  Since most of the buildings at Birkenau were wooden structures, this camp is not as well preserved as Auschwitz I. 

Shortly before leaving the bus, we receive the credentials that will allow us to experience this historical event.  Security is tight as over 100 survivors and numerous heads of state and dignitaries are gathered under one large tent which encompasses part of the front façade of Birkenau including a guard tower.  A no-fly zone over Auschwitz has been issued and over 1600 Polish police officers will be standing watch. 

Survivors wore the symbolic blue and white stripes in the
camps prison material and their identification numbers.
The ceremony includes a short film by Steven Spielberg, heartfelt speeches from survivors themselves, and warnings of how we must be ever diligent that such an atrocity does not occur again.  The room becomes eerily quiet as three Rabbis begin to chant “The Mourner's Kaddish" to show that despite such loss the people still praise God.  The Kaddish speaks of God’s greatness and eternal nature and offers a plea for peace.  In the novel Night Elie Wiesel talks of hearing men who knew they would soon die recite the Kaddish for themselves, something he had never heard of before.  

The survivors, along with some of the dignitaries, leave the tent to light candles in memory of those who died during the Holocaust.  It is a twenty-minute frigid walk for them to the memorial that is on the far end of the camp.  We watch on the screen as these men and women pay homage to people they knew as family, friends, and fellow prisoners.  As we are leaving, the glow of the candles shines through the falling snow.

"Some of the people disapproved, but their disapproval was only silence." - Kurt Messerschmidt, Jewish Survivor of the Holocaust

This blog is a reflection of my tour of Auschwitz on Monday, January 26, 2015.

Today is the day I have anxiously awaited while dreading its arrival.  Today is the day we journey to Auschwitz.  After an hour and a half bus ride, we file off the bus and wait for our tour guide.  Instead of solemn reflection, we are met with the chatter of visitors stamping their feet to get back some of the feeling that has been sucked away with the cold.  It is much colder here than in Warsaw, and the locals tell me it isn’t really winter yet.  I can’t help but compare how we are dressed in our scarves, our snow boots, our thermal-lined coats, with handwarmers in our fleeced-lined gloves to how the inmates at this and other camps had to dress.  Once again I silently ask myself how those survivors we have met were able to withstand such horrible punishment, lack of food, and breathtaking cold.  Earlier this week when I asked survivor Paula Lebovics if she survived by setting her mind to the fact that there would be an end to the suffering, she told me that she survived just one moment at a time.  There was no thought of an ending, only the determination to live one more minute, one more hour, one more day. 

Our tour guide arrives and while she takes care of a few last-minute details, we stand in front of the famous gate with the inscription “Work Will Set You Free” and steel ourselves for what we know we will see.  Since I had seen the gate in so many photos, it does not have a visible effect on me but taking a step into Auschwitz and turning to face the back of the gate takes the breath right out of me.  After listening to witness testimony gathered by the Shoah foundation and talking with the survivors, I have put faces on the suffering.  It is not the front of the gate, but the back that the inmates looked at month after month, year after year.  It is this view that brings tears to my eyes.  

The barracks at Auschwitz line up one after the other and bring a sense of orderliness to the chaos that transpired here.  There is beauty here also.  The elaborate lamps outside the entrance of the prison blocks are in direct contrast to the dirty, slushy snow that marks our paths.  Survivors have spoken of the constant mud that was always present, of the sickness and bleakness that surrounded them, of the ashes they couldn’t seem to completely brush away.  The beauty is negligible. 

We enter block after block as our tour guide speaks of the makeup of the camp, the selection process, and resistance movements.  I find myself taking copious notes on my phone in an effort to get down every bit of information I can.  As a lover and daily dispenser of information, I foolishly want to believe that if only people had known all the facts, if only they had been informed of what was transpiring there, they would have intervened.  Upon reflection, I believe taking notes was a way for me to mentally remove myself a small degree from what I was hearing and seeing. 

In Block 4, Room 5 this attempt to mentally remove myself becomes obvious to me.  I hurriedly walk past the display of piles and piles of hair that had been shaven from those who had been gassed to death.  I had seen photos of this display and told myself I must move on to catch up with my group.  The bales of hair stop me short.  While these bales were similar to bales of cotton that I had seen in my childhood, these held human remains that had been woven into haircloth for use as lining in clothing.  I forced myself to turn around and look at the piles of hair again.  I knew it was something I must do so that I could grasp the extent of the catastrophe that had occurred in this place I was now standing.  The displays of shoes, the glasses, the suitcases, the prosthetics, the houseware items brought a sense of numbness.  The shoes and clothes that would fit my grandchildren were most upsetting.  Becoming a grandparent brings obvious feelings of joy but also a sense of responsibility that you are the keeper of the family, the anchor, the one who oversees the wellbeing of generations.  I cannot imagine the horror of knowing I could not protect those who mean the most to me.  I lag behind the group and take an extra moment to say a silent prayer for the 1,500,000 children murdered during the Holocaust. 

We walk on.  We enter Block 11, known as the death block, a prison within a prison.  Preserved in its original form, this was the main torture area for those imprisoned at the camp.  Outside of the block is Assembly Square where I see some survivors quietly talking to their families.  Numbness sets in.  My mind’s attempt to protect itself from such sights fails as we enter the area of the crematorium.  Despite all that has been said about the Nazis believing they were being humane when they told prisoners they were only going in for a shower, I know there is nothing humane about what transpired here.  The lines of waiting people were too close to the crematorium; they would have guessed what awaited them as they listened to the screams of those inside. 

Commandant's House
We end our tour at the gallows where the first camp commandant Rudolf Höss was hanged in 1947 following his trial.  To the left just beyond the walls of the camp is the house where his children played with toys built by prisoners.  The juxtaposition is disquieting.  While they frolicked and laughed behind garden walls that hid the chimneys of nearby ovens, they must have smelled the stench.  In later years these children have talked about carefully having to wash the strawberries growing in the garden to remove the ash from them.  How did men who have been remembered as gentle, family men become some of the greatest destroyers of human beings?  What has to transpire before a man can commit such unexplainable atrocities?  Why did the world allow the suffering to continue?  How can anyone in the today’s society possibly say it didn’t happen?  Those are questions that will continue to haunt me.  While I will never have all the answers, it is still my responsibility as an educator to teach my students about all such atrocities, not just the ones associated with the Holocaust.  May each of them be a shining light against injustice the world over.

Photos from Auschwitz

While I indicated on a previous post that I would not be sharing photos of personal items on the blog, I have changed my mind.  Some of the photos are distrubing, but what happened at Auschwitz was distributing.  A visitor to this blog will not get a true sense of what I saw if I do not at least include photos of some of the personal items.  No photos of the crematorium or any remains are shown.

Outside Auschwitz

"Work Will Set You Free"

Entrance to the Blocks

People were deported from all over Europe as far away as Greece in cattle cars that held 80-100 people.  They were instructed to bring one week's worth of belongings.  The majority of the people were killed immediately upon arrival in gas chambers.  Eighty percent of the Jews were killed upon arrival.  The people went through a selection process as soon as they arrived.  Those that were going to be gassed were assured they were just going to take a shower.  To help in the deception, dummy showers were affixed to the ceiling.  Two thousand people were crammed into the chamber and Zylkon 8 crystals were dropped in.  After twenty minutes the doors were opened, and the bodies were stripped of gold teeth, hair, earrings, and rings and taken to be burned.
                                            Display cases of items taken from those killed
Eye Glasses




Children's Shoes

Shaving Brushes

Shoe Polish


Memorial to four Girls Who Were Part of a Escape Attempt in the Camp

The Book of Names list in single line those murdered during the Holocaust.  This photo shows just one side of the book.

Inside the Camp Looking Out


Site Where Camp Commandant Rudolf Hoss Was Hanged.

Electric Fence Warning

Monday, January 26, 2015

Krakow, Poland

Nestled In a blanket of snow, Krakow, Poland greets the visitor with an old world charm one usually associates with an older European town.  While it is considerably colder in Krakow than in Warsaw, the atmosphere of the city is much warmer, and a late night stroll through the old city center is refreshing after a somber day.  Because Warsaw had been almost completely destroyed in the war,it is now a very modern city with most buildings less than 70-80 years old.  The city of Krakow sits in sharp contrast thanks in part to the wishes of a German commanding officer who fell in love with the city while stationed there.   He asked that the city be spared from the bombing raids, and his request was honored.  Thus, entering the old city center feels like you have stepped onto a Dickens movie set.  Below are some of my favorite photos from my walk through Krakow.  

To memorialize the early warning system of the city, a trumpeter opens the window at the top of the highest tower.  This memorialization occurs at the top of each hour every day.

Too Soon for Auschwitz

Today we visited Auschwitz.  Let me assure you it is just as bad as you have imagined, probably worse.  It will be awhile before I can process what I saw and how I felt touching the same doors the prisoners touched and walking the same streets they walked.  To post emotional photos of the personal items of the prisoners and the instruments of their suffering seems so disrespectful, so those will not be shared online.  I will share facts and basic photos later once I have the time to give the experience the justice it deserves.  We are blessed to be free from such tyranny.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Jewish Cemetery

After leaving the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, we begin our five-journey to Krakow, but first Kay Andrews from the Shoah Foundation pointed out some of the Warsaw sites from the war.

The deportation site where hundreds of Warsaw Jews were deported to concentration camps.  Most of them were deported to Treblinka.

This is the bunker where the last of the Warsaw Resistance leaders were during the Warsaw Uprising.  A few escaped but most were gased by the Germans or committed suicide.

The original gates to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw which are now a memorial to the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

The tombstone of Rabi Ber Meisels, an Orthodox Jew loyal to the Polish nation who expressed solidarity with his Christians brothers.  When the churches were ordered closed, he closed the synagogues in a show of support.

A sidewalk leading to another area of the cemetery.

The statue is of a man with a child in his arms.  He is Janusz Korczak, the head of an orphanage, who was given the option of being deported with the children or staying in Warsaw.  He would not leave the children, so he was deported and killed.

An open area with no headstones indicates a mass grave.  Before the war 450,000 Jews were in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Over 100,000 died from sickness and hunger and were buried in these mass graves. Then 300,000 were deported, leaving only 50,000 Jews in the Ghetto.

A menorah stands near one of the graves.

A special symbol in the white part of the Polish flag indicates that these are the graves of Polish Resistance members during the Warsaw Uprising.

Stars of David mark the gate as you exit the cemetery.

Snowy fields line our way to Krakow where we will encounter more snow.

Resources on Warsaw and the Ghetto Uprising can be found on Discovery Education.