Our final day in Poland was a much anticipated visit to Auschwitz. It was to be the pinnacle of our Poland experience and after a week of emotional turmoil, we were ready to make one final stop before Israel.
After an early 5:30am start we pulled up at Auschwitz II, more commonly known as Birkenau. The first thing that struck me was the size of the place - Auschwitz spans a staggering 40 kilometres and standing in the middle of the Birkenau camp, I could not see either end. We walked through the front gates and stood along the famous train tracks that led into the camp and listened to stories of courage, bravery, and resistance of our family members and friends. A similar message ran through all - that despite the hardships and the persecution we faced, the Jewish nation has survived and lives on.
We explored the train tracks and saw first hand a cattle cart that brought the Jews to their fate. We listened to personal testimonies and learnt about the tragic conditions faced from the moment the train pulled up at the platform. We followed the footsteps of those who were sent to the left - straight to the gas chambers and their deaths. It was an intense experience that was psychologically testing. We saw the remains of the gas chamber and crematoria bombed by the Nazi’s in an attempt to destroy any evidence of their crimes and as we cried, the rain poured down on us and I couldn’t help but feel as though HaShem was lamenting with us.
We gathered around what initially appeared to be a pond - but what lay beneath the earth and soil was human ash and Miriam (our tour guide) told us that sometimes when it rained bits of ash rose to the surface and could be seen - the thought sickened me and I felt nauseous. Together we sang ‘Hamalach HaGoel Oti’ in sweet solemnity. It is a prayer about calling angels to protect you from harm and was sung the first time a grandfather blessed his grandson in biblical times. As our voices echoed through the trees, we sang for those who didn’t have anyone to sing to them.
Now that we had followed the path of instantaneous death, it was time to take a step back and join those whose suffering lasted longer - those sent to the right. We walked to ‘Canada’ - the area in which Jews were sent to work in sorting out belongings taken by the Germans, initially brought to Birkenau by victims who, for the most part, did not know that they were awaiting their death. The place was named so because it was almost a heaven in the camp - the labourers were able to obtain some belongings without German knowledge, allowing them to change and wear layers of clothing during winter. We witnessed the disinfection rooms - the machines for clothing which were operated by inmates and the shower rooms for humans, where the water would either be ice cold or boiling hot.
The next room we entered consisted of hundreds of photographs - some had names written beneath, but many more remained anonymous. Pictures of couples walking the park, families in homes, all living normal, happy lives until the world suddenly became morally corrupt and their lives were ripped apart and the people stripped of their dignity. I found it hard to comprehend what it would have been like to suddenly have my life torn to pieces and questioned the presence of humanity in the world at the time.
After completing our journey through Birkenau we headed for Auschwitz I - the main camp. The second we arrived I knew something didn’t feel right. We walked through the entrance to the museum, collected our headsets, and followed our Polish tour guide into the camp. I felt as though I was walking onto a movie set or tourist attraction. The place was overly commercialised with it’s clean-cut grass and glass walls housing items once belonging to Jews and other victims of the camp. What first caught my eye was the famous sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ - ‘Work means freedom’, which stood at what was the original entrance to Auschwitz.
Unlike the wooden barracks at Birkenau, these were strong brick structures which had been used as army barracks before the war. The outside of the buildings had not been restored, however, the interiors had been altered to adopt the format of the museum. We entered different blocks where we saw shoes, suitcases, toothbrushes, and pots. The innumerable amount of items were unfathomable. Shoes lined both sides of a room we walked through - men’s shoes, women’s shoes, and even tiny children's shoes. After being unable to take in this amount we were told that it was only about 5% of all the shoes that would have arrived. The next room was even more unbearable. Behind the glass cabinets were masses of human hair cut off the victims on their arrival. The sight of it was sickening.
We walked further through other rooms which included documents, information, and pictures, finally arriving in a room which contained a model of the gas chambers and countless empty Zyklon B canisters - representative of the countless deaths the gas brought. Now that we had seen the diagram it was time to see the real thing. The chamber had a moldy smell and I became emotional as I saw the fingernail scratches that lined the walls. I could almost hear the wails of those who had perished there. We stood in silence as David (our tour guide) read a story from the depths of the gas chambers of Auschwitz in which a group of boys resisted against all odds to keep their religion alive - a series of what could only be described as miracles allowed them to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
Our tour guide was a Polish, non-Jewish man and I found it really interesting to see the Holocaust presented from a different perspective. I felt angry at times, as though he only relayed facts and statistics rather than conveying the emotion that we had felt in Majdanek and the Children’s Forest.
On leaving the camp I felt overwhelmed - we had experienced so much in one day. Our spirits were high as we felt proud that the Jews had triumphed over adversity and kept their religion alive despite German efforts to rid the earth of our people. We sang ‘Kol HaOlam Kuloh’ (the whole world is a very narrow bridge) and ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (the nation of Israel lives) outside the camp with strength and joy. People stared as they did not understand our emotions, but we had spent a week exploring the darkest periods of our history and tomorrow we will make the long awaited trip into the light - to our home, the land of Israel.