Thursday, May 19, 2016

Looking for ghosts

From the moment I got off the plane in Poland, I've been looking for ghosts. The bus that drove us from the tarmac was crowded but how can I compare that to a cattle car full of Jews with only one bucket of water and one bucket to use for the bathroom?

I was greeted by a man named Gregory holding a sign that said Comins. He didn't speak English so I'm wasn't sure where I was headed. Every book I ever read about the Holocaust, fiction or not, is coming alive. The beautiful mansion I see must have been owned by Jews and then taken over by the gestapo. The ravines on the side of the road are full of emaciated skeletons.

I learned that the Nazis chose Kraków as seat of German government after they invaded. Jews were 40% of the population after WW1 and the community was full of their food, community, and cultural events.

I met up with my group at Schindler's museum and the guide was really good. He explained to us about the history of Poland, the role of the Jews, the role of the Nazis and the role of the local Poles who were also victims of the Third Reich. If you haven't seen the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler's List, I suggest you do.

We visited a pharmacy that sat on the edge of the ghetto and was a place that Jews came into to visit and "feel whole" for a few minutes escaping the tension of life in the ghetto. Outside is a plaza where Jews were lined up and deported or shot. There are 65 chairs there representing the 65,000 Jews that died from that community. The chairs represent all of the furniture and belongings that they left behind.

After that we visited a Jewish museum and cemetery. While there we saw a group of Israeli police officers in uniform, including the chief of police of Israel. Then we went to a Memorial on the former site of the Plaszow concentration camp. I wasn't as upset as I thought I would be. It's all grassy, with a memorial, and we did some readings and said a special Mourners Kaddish (prayer) naming all the concentration camps.

We went to dinner in a building that was a school for girls, called Beit Yaacov, before the war. When the Rabbis heard that the Nazis were going to come and take the girls and rape them, the 93 girls committed suicide, which was considered a mitzvah (good deed) instead of capitulating to the Nazis. While there, we met the man who is the famous child from the Warsaw Ghetto, Tavi Nussbaum.

Today, we visited Auschwitz and Auschiwtz/Birkenau.

"The scars on this land will never fade"- DR #Hadassah Fellowship

As we drove through the countryside, the forest was full of people hiding, waiting for night so they could move. Farmhouses held children hiding under piles of straw not moving for hours. Our guide reminded us that the victims were real people not just numbers with an incredible potential that was never filled. What's our takeaway?
There's no correct response for us as visitors - people are touched in different ways. Be open. I had no idea what to expect.

Auschwitz started as work camp for Russian POWs, then became a death camp.  Auschwitz is 450 acres, with 40 sub camps including Birkenau. 90 percent were sent to death immediately. 1,000,000 of 6,000,000 Jews died here.That number is unfathomable.  55,000 people survived, including Eli Wiesel, so we hear about Auschwitz a lot.

Prisoners arrived and were tried and convicted of one crime- being Jewish. Jews were considered a disease that needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. We were thought to be Sub-human by Germans.

Walking in past the line of other tourists- I felt like we were prisoners walking in past the bystanders from town. When I saw the sign Albeit Macht Frei- WORK MAKES FREE, I caught my breath. That's when it hit me where I was and all the exhibits were surreal.

 The pure numbers of things left behind, collected by the Nazis, shows only one small part of the number of our family who died there. We saw a pile of 4000 pounds of hair representing 4000 women. There were mounds of eyeglasses, shoes, combs, and hairbrushes. Victims slept on straw on the floor at first then mattresses on floor. The SS realized if they put in triple bunk beds with 2 to a bed, then they could fit more people.

There was a warehouse of victims belongings which
was called 'Canada' because it was a symbol of wealth. Victims were encouraged to bring anything necessary when they were coming to Aushwitz to "start new lives". They brought valuables, clothing, etc which was sent to Germany. Jewish workers in 'Canada' were more likely to survive because they had access to food and warm clothes. It was emotionally difficult work to go through the items of things that they recognized as belongings of their friends.

There were only 24 toilets for 1000 people and they were only allowed to use them in the morning before work and at the end of the day after work. 

We learned about the gas chambers and how Zyclon B is actually cyanide which turns into gas activated by the victims' body temperature. It took 20 minutes to die a painful death from affixation. That makes my heart hurt to think about it.

Birkenau had 6 gas chambers.
Auschwitz/ Birkenau were killing factories.
The Nazis could kill 2000 people in each gas chamber at once.

At the end of the Auschwitz tour, we happened to walk though the  gas chamber with a group of young Israeli soldiers. That was the most powerful moment of the day for me. The State of Israel rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust and to see the young men and women there in uniform was comforting. It was a reminder that there are no more Jewish refugees in the world as they always have Israel as a home.

I actually thought if we didn't go to Israel, that being in Auschwitz with the Israelis, it would have been enough (dayenu).

We walked out to the smell of freshly cut grass. The sun was shining, the trees were in bloom, and it looked like a lovely park, but there were ghosts all around us.

Survivors wanted to live so they could survive to tell the story.

We then went to Birkenau which is less of a museum and more of a sanctuary. The Israeli police were there too.  Birkenau is beautiful and peaceful and the birds sang a melody of songs as we walked silently down the tracks that brought thousands to their death.

Ours was a March of the living not a death march, accompanied by Israeli soldiers and police including the police chief of Israel. We closed with a reading and 3 gazelles actually ran by us chasing each other through the beautiful field among the desecrated barracks.

In Israel, the Shoah is commemorated as Holocaust and Heroism day which coincides with the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
It's a Kiddish hachayim (Sanctification of life). People think that victims didn't protest enough but they protested by just trying to stay alive. People ask "Where was God?" Some victims came out more religious after survival, some left the faith.

When we got back to the entrance we each put a small amount of dirt from Israel to mix with the dirt and ashes that are in that hallowed ground.

From land to land and people to people, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

We ended with mourners Kaddish and lighting yarzheit (commemorative) candles and then came to Israel. At 1:30 am this morning, we went to the Kotel (Western Wall) to celebrate that we are a free people with our own homeland. Am Israel Chai!

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