Day 7 - Netzach - Liat Grossman
Even before embarking on IST, I always knew that today was inevitably going to be the most challenging and ultimately the hardest day of the trip. After waking up at 5:30, and knowing that today was going to be a heatwave (a solid 7 degrees compared to the usual 2 degrees), we ate breakfast, prayed Shacharit, and boarded the bus, feeling somewhat ready for the day ahead. There was a more sombre mood to our bus this morning than we had usually experienced throughout Poland, as people attempted to prepare themselves for the horrors that they had heard so much about. We were all anxious and extremely scared as to what lay ahead for the day - despite seeing a multitude of movies, pictures, testimonies and documentaries, we all knew that nothing would be able to fully prepare us for the confronting truth of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I’m not sure how to describe my initial feelings when we arrived at the camp. When arriving at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were all exposed to the houses situated on its very borders, and watched while a seemingly oblivious lady was simply riding her bike beside the gates that nearly 80 years ago were electrocuted and symbolic of the confines and dehumanisation of the camp, which altogether influenced my confused emotions upon arrival.
Driving up into the entrance of the camp was certainly one of the most confronting and inherently difficult parts of the trip so far. It was there that we all began to comprehend the enormity and actuality of the concentration camps. Instantly we came to the realisation that at the exact area where we were standing, the entrance to the infamous camp, more than a million people walked through those exact same gates. However, unlike us, these people were unaware of what their futures would hold, and unaware that many of them would ultimately never leave through those very gates.
After walking through the long and desolate building at the entrance to Birkenau, I was immediately captivated by the train tracks that led out as far as the eye could see. I could nearly imagine the thousands of cattle carts that rode through those very tracks, filled to the brim with people in very dissimilar circumstances.
We walked through the supposed ‘bathroom areas’, which was purely a long brick pierced with holes. We were told that these ‘toilets’ had to be shared by 2 or even 3 people on a daily basis. After this, we made our way through the living quarters, filled with darkness that to me was comparable to that of its inhabitants. We continued to make our way around the rest of camp, past eerie ponds that were filled with the ashes of people, whose voices and stories continued to scream out at us. As well as that, we were exposed to photos taken of smiling Jews, who were completely oblivious that their lives were going to be abruptly ended by the gas chambers no less than one hour later.
Throughout the time in Birkenau, I along with a few others in our group gave testimonies at a variety of places, which not only evoked a range of melancholy emotions, but was able to bring personal ideas to such foreign and deeply confronting concepts.
Our time in Birkenau finished by us walking past a building which Rav Dav, our tour guide, told us used to be the Nazi’s dormitories. After the war, the local Polish community used the area as a Church, and walking past we could clearly spot the crosses on the building, indicative of it being a church. It gave me shivers when witnessing crosses situated in Auschwitz, an infamously Jewish death camp filled with our ancestors secrets, stories and souls, yet as Rav Dav so explicitly said, not a single Magen David.
Finally, we took a photo of the whole IST group on the train tracks at the very front of the camp. It was as if through this, we, as a group of Jewish year 10 students from Sydney, Australia, were ultimately proving that the Nazi’s did not and will never succeed - despite all their might, we will continue to both survive, and thrive.
After this, we drove 5 minutes to Auschwitz I, a camp filled with primarily non-Jewish prisoners, mainly Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. We visited a variety of Blocks including Block 11, the ‘torture’ area, and were able to witness first hand the different methods of torture that the Nazi’s utilised in order to demonise and belittle the prisoners of Auschwitz. Seeing first hand the ‘death wall’, and the rooms that caused death by a variety of ways including but not limited to starvation and standing, were were able to begin to try and comprehend the hardships and connect to the prisoners who were standing here 75 years ago. Yet, even now I am still filled with many questions and such gratification knowing that these prisoners had such strength and resilience to cope with their constant dehumanisation, yet still manage to survive.
Many more blocks were part of our tour throughout Auschwitz I. They had been turned into memorials, but the most profound and poignant for me was Block 5. Within the building there were rooms that had been encompassed by specific items that belonged to people who perished at the camp. Walking past rooms that were filled to the brim with combs, pans, shoes, and finally suitcases with people’s names, birthdays and home towns scribbled on it evoked a sense of despair when realising that there was a rich and personal story belonging to each of these items. Not only did the Nazis strip these people of their prized possessions, but they fundamentally stripped them of the most intrinsic and valuable part of humanity - their identities. Each belonging that lay in a clump surrounded by identical items accumulated to thousands of stories that will perpetually be lost within the walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
During our time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt a profound connection to the hundreds of my family members who too were at the very gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau that we entered only hours earlier, but were unable to ever leave. I felt such pride towards my few family members, and all those other fortunate Jewish people, who despite all the odds, managed to survive the camps that were intended solely for their deaths.
To finish off the Poland leg of our journey, the whole of IST made our way to a synagogue in Oświęcim, a mere 15 minutes drive from Auschwitz, in what was once a vibrant Jewish community that was completely destroyed by the Nazis. We sang a very emotional Hatikvah, davened Maariv, and then boarded the buses back to the restaurant for dinner.
The Poland part of IST has been one of, if not, the single most eye-opening experience of my life. I know that we as a year group will never forget the horrors we witnessed and we will use the lessons we learned in order to influence our experience in Israel for the next 5 weeks, in memory of those who were unable to return to our Homeland.
As we begin to ready ourselves to embark on the plane to Israel tomorrow, and conclude the Poland part of this trip, one quote resonates with me. This quote was located on the wall of Block 4, one of the Blocks in Auschwitz that is now dedicated as a memorial about the extermination process. I believe that this quote not only encompasses our duty as the future of the Jewish people, but summarises the true purpose of our trip to Poland this IST. Written in white paint on a plastered black wall it says, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
We will never forget.