We had an early 5.00am wake up, to another day of touring Poland, and we prepared to embark on the most anticipated day of IST so far. We packed the buses and drove off, over the beautiful river Wisła, just opposite our hotel.
We arrived at the former Auschwitz I concentration camp, now heavily commercialised and converted into a museum. The museum served as an interesting educational tool to greater enhance our knowledge of the Shoah and to prepare us for what we were to see in Auschwitz II - Birkenau. In our opinion, there were two exhibits that stood out the most. The first was a video showing various Nazi personalities emitting baseless hatred and demeaning propaganda towards the Jews. The other was a large room with a glass exhibit on one side. Inside the exhibit was a collection of hair that the SS Officers had shaved off of the prisoners of the camp upon their arrival. Blunt shaving instruments were used and they often caused injury to the prisoners, while also insulting them and stripping them of their humanity. The sheer amount of hair displayed, put into perspective the amount of people that went through the gates of Auschwitz. On this note, we sombrely began to make our way to the death factory of Birkenau.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, is undoubtedly known as the largest death factory of all time, where 1.1 million victims perished, 90% of which were Jewish. We entered the camp along the railway tracks where 1.3 million people were deported and one of our Madrichot, Michal, read Elie Wiesel’s testimony, Night. Elie Wiesel’s words personified the experience of arrival and selection at Birkenau and allowed us to envision this process.
We were transported back in time, to 1944, when the Germans were losing the war and became desperate to enact their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe”. While Germany was struggling to fight on the Eastern Front, they still invested money and manpower in extending the railway line to Birkenau by 2 kilometres so that the train would stop inside the camp, essentially expediting the Nazi’s extermination process.
We then reached the point where prisoners would face a selection. An SS Doctor would choose either life or death for the prisoners coming off the transport. We first followed the path of those who were sentenced to live and work in the camp. We were guided through the building where the prisoners would get serial numbers tattooed onto their arms and their heads and bodies shaved. Here, prisoners were simultaneously stripped of their physical characteristics as well as their individuality.
We then followed the path of those sentenced to death. Although the Nazis and the Red Army had destroyed large parts of the Concentration Camp, we could still see the foundations of the Gas Chambers and the Crematoria. Our tour guide, Tzachi, helped us to envision the journey of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the cattle cars to the undressing rooms, and finally into the “showers”. We envisioned their cries of ‘Shema Yisrael’ and the names of loved ones as they were cruelly murdered.
After we passed the remains of the gas chambers, we approached a small pond, which had been frozen over in the extreme conditions. We did not believe, until we were told, that this small pond, smaller than the average backyard swimming pool, was the dumping ground for all of the ashes of the Jews that fell victim to Gas Chamber and Crematorium II. The ashes were flushed out of Auschwitz in the sewage system, and actually ended up in the river Wisła, which, as mentioned earlier, was just across from our hotel. This undoubtedly tainted our image of the beautiful river that flowed through the heart of Krakow.
We began our IST journey in Warsaw, observing the enormous Jewish cemetery there, as well as the remnants of the ghetto. We viewed the fragmented leftovers of Jewish life in Europe. We saw concentration camps, death camps, and finally, we stood at the end of our journey, the ash pit of the largest killing factory on Earth. It boggles us how Jewish blood was considered so cheap and treated with complete and utter indignity. The Nazis made no distinction based on religious sect or observance. If you were a Jew, you were considered worthless.
After reflecting on what we had seen already in our journey, we look towards the future, Israel and beyond. Rabbi Moshe Friedman, the Boyaner Rebbe, said the following words prior to being murdered in the gas chambers. “Do not think that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish people will live forever”
On this note we travel to Israel tomorrow. Bearing in mind the losses that have faced our people, not only during the Holocaust but throughout history, we are able to show appreciation for the fact that our people have their own homeland and a safe haven in the State of Israel.
At the Kabbalat Shabbat Service on Friday evening in Krakow, Rabbi Kunin shared with us an idea relating to our Jewish continuity. He used the analogy of a train and said that we can stand at the train station and allow the train to pass us or we can hop on the train and ride it to great places. Rabbi Kunin explained that we are provided with the tools and opportunities to explore our culture, our Judaism, and our Zionism, and it is up to us to take this opportunity.