Today was the day I was most nervous for. I had heard stories from previous IST participants, spoken to madrichim about it and had also researched and learnt a lot about it in Jewish history. Today we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I didn’t really know what to expect and couldn’t imagine how much more intense it could be, after the feelings I experienced in Majdanek and the children’s forest. So many questions were racing through my mind at once.
We got off to an early start with a 5:30am wake up. We were told it was going to be freezing, hitting -2 degrees. Some would call this pathetic fallacy considering we were going to Auschwitz.
When we arrived we all received headsets so that we could hear our tour guide as we walked through the camp. Upon entering the camp, almost in unison we raised our heads and saw the infamous gate with the sign “arbeit macht frei”, ironically translated as “work sets you free”. Walking through the camp was the most surreal experience yet. The living conditions of the prisoners, the cramped bunkers and the atrocious bathrooms, accurately identified the history we learnt about yet were afraid to believe. The 224kg’s of women hair and braids which had been ruthlessly shaved greatly shocked me as when I looked through the display I noticed that there was hardly any blondes... only brown. Our tour guide then moved us on to a display showing what this hair was used for... to make blankets! To make matters worse the next room held an elaborate display of people’s shoes, the most heart-wrenching display however was the seperate exhibit of children’s shoes! This made me think of my own feet, especially my toes which I couldn’t feel due to the freezing temperature, and made me realise the strength of these individuals who survived the Holocaust. Walking in the snowy winter with those exact shoes which looked as though they could fall off at any given moment and only one layer of clothes at this point, seemed like an impossible feat.
We ended our tour by arriving at Birkenau where we saw the train tracks. We gathered together while Jonty led us to the first barrack which included the cramped bedrooms and toilets. The toilets were just a circle in the floor in a long room; many of us felt sick just looking at it. We then walked to a cattle car and Jonty explained that this particular cart was donated by the Lowy family. Next we walked to see the gas chambers which had been destroyed. I’ve never been so shocked and traumatised by the hardships and torture which our Jewish relatives encountered. We walked and saw the huge pits in which their possessions and luggages were taken and put in. It was hard to believe that all their possessions were taken off them - family photos, glasses, crutches, prosthetic legs, brushes and more. I found it so hard to put myself in their positions. The next stop was heart breaking seeing the family photos on a wall and how happy each family was before the war. It was nice to celebrate the life that once was. Whilst walking past a lake we heard that the Nazis put the ashes of burned Jewish bodies inside in order to hide evidence of their war crimes . To end off we said Kaddish and loudly and proudly sang Hatikvah. When I got to the buses I stopped to look behind and saw the immense size of the camp. I honestly could not believe that the camp was meant to be double the size.
After a four hour bus ride we got to the hotel excited that, after 2000 years, we will be returning to Israel tomorrow, yet grateful for and uplifted by the most amazing and emotional experience.
We came with our faces bowed in mourning but left with our heads held high.