The day began with the rushing around of 160 people attempting to organise ourselves to allow us to leave our hotel. We had been there for 3 nights, in IST language, an eternity. We had made ourselves pretty comfortable there. In the process, we managed to lose 34 room keys which at 10 zlotys a key equals to $118.10 AUD (a number of chai!). Sorry Moriah.
We are all so ready to leave Poland, a land of our people's inconceivable suffering, of tears, despair and enveloping sadness. We are so thrilled to be going to our dear homeland; Israel a land of our nation's freedom and pride. However, before we mentally prepared to go there, we knew we had 1 last experience to grieve through. Auschwitz. The name itself sends shivers through my body, a feeling of doom.
It wasn't until we were 10 minutes away from Auschwitz Birkenau that it truly set in. We were going to Auschwitz. A place that we have heard about, learnt about and cried about countless times. However, now we were truly going to stand in this place of absolute horror where millions of our people were ruthlessly and coldly murdered simply because they were Jews. As we approached the camp Jonty read out a quote from a memoir that effectively described what we were all feeling: 'a silence that consumed all words.' You could feel the sadness in the atmosphere. What 5 minutes ago was a lively bus ride, suddenly switched to a place of reflection and preparation for the emotional journey we were about to go on. We passed a regular home with a chimney that was billowing smoke from its fire place. The thought that rushed to my head was the Crematoriums; the burning of our people. I just couldn't fathom how people could so comfortably live right next to Auschwitz knowing of the attempted genocide that was executed right outside their doorstep. You could see it from the windows of their homes.
We walked into Birkenau on the train tracks, the coarse gravel beneath our feet. It dawned on me that on this harsh ground, the prisoners of Auschwitz, our people, often had to painstakingly walk on it barefoot in either freezing or boiling hot weather; burning the bottoms of their feet with either ice or heat. Here we were complaining of the chilling zero degree weather in our snow boots and down jackets yet, the inmates lived through much harsher conditions with only the paper thin fabric of a sad excuse for clothing. It really makes you appreciate the comfortable lives we lead.
On our arrival Jade Berger articulately shared the heartfelt story of her grandfather's survival in Auschwitz. It really helped us all connect to the victims and sufferers of the Shoah instead of just numbers. Numbers in Auschwitz, numbers murdered, numbers deported. I looked out at the vastness of the camp, the misty grey sky, the countless bare winter trees and tears began streaming down my face. The silence in Auschwitz speaks. The trees have a harrowing look as if they are aware of what they witnessed. We began our tour by following the path of someone who would have been led to their death. We saw the ruins of dilapidated gas chambers and crematoriums. Their bricks are left in large heap; ruins. We were informed that a group of female inmates who used to pass by every day realised what was happening. They staged a rebellion and blew up one of the four gas chambers in an act of defiance. It really shook the Nazis and they destroyed the other three buildings. Thus came the end of gassing in Birkenau in November 1944 and in December of the same year gassing was stopped in Auschwitz I too. Due to their selfless and dangerous actions they saved lives or at least prolonged them somewhat. We heard the emotional story of Hugo Lowy and of the cattle cart placed in Birkenau by his son Frank in memorial. It connected us back to Sydney where we sat in the Hugo Lowy Synagogue on our IST Shabbaton.
We then stood by the pits where 1.5 million people's ashes (1.1 million Jews) lie. 1.5 million. That number is unfathomable. So many lives. Gone. My great grandparents, my Oma's beloved parents Dworje (Devorah) and Issac Zimels lie there. They arrived there on the 9th September 1942 and would have been killed on the same day. That is the place where they died, where their memories rest. This greatly effected me emotionally. My middle name is Devorah after my great grandmother that died at the hand of the Nazis. I feel a strong connection to her; I am continuing her memory through my name. I couldn't hold it together anymore, there were continuous tears streaming down my face for a good five or ten minutes. It was very hard to handle. Eden Dorra beautifully shared the story of his family in the Holocaust. His great aunts were some of the few survivors of Dr Mengele's human experiments. Jacob and Rudy Sukienik too effectively conveyed the story of their family. All of these personal stories really helped us all to connect to the unimaginable situation.
After reciting a moving Kaddish, we then followed the path of those who were selected for work. We traced their barracks, the rooms used to disinfect them, strip them of their clothing, possessions, hair, name (replaced by a number), and ultimately their dignity. We saw their so called 'toilets,' which must have been absolutely mortifying to use. They sit in the centre of the barracks, long rows with round holes. No privacy at all. These people were not treated like humans, they were treated like animals. Actually, worse than that. Animals are even treated better than the victims of the Shoah were.
There is a theory that birds do not fly over Auschwitz and my friend and I have decided that it is true. We witnessed as a flocks of birds flew through the sky and literally stopped at the barbed wire. It was surreal, as if the birds understand the harrowing past of Birkenau. As I walked through the depths of the camps we did not see a single bird. There were a few at the entrance but they did not fly over the camp. When they left the camp they flew low, at level with the fence.
We then went to Auschwitz I where many of us were absolutely horrified at the way it is treated today. As we drove in the first thing I saw was not the awful history of the camp but I saw a snack bar, a cafe and a vending machine. This truly upset me. Tonnes of people perished here. Tonnes of people suffered here and yet it is being treated like a normal museum. We get an electronic headset to listen to our museum tour guide as you would at an exhibition. It was so impersonal, so detached. We craved the emotion that we would feel if Jonty, Miriam and Tzachi were allowed to guide us there, but unfortunately, 'the museum' wouldn't allow it. The fact that it was treated like a history textbook rather than a living hell for our people really disturbed many of us.
Lots of the original camp remains - it was so sad to see those buildings and structures in the flesh. There were a few displays that really impacted me. One in particular was a large glass cabinet, spanning the length of the room filled with the women's hair which was cut off upon arrival in the camp. Thousands upon thousands of pony tails all tangled together, symbolising the magnitude of lives lost. There were similar impactful displays, huge cabinets of suitcases, crockery, shoes and walking sticks/ false legs/ back braces etc. These suitcases had so many familiar names on them, serving as another reminder of the influence that the Holocaust has on the whole Jewish nation. The crockery were colours of red, blue and green/yellow; all the colours used to separate sections of a kosher kitchen. Each shoe, each walking stick, each suitcase has a story and person who it once belonged to. Each person in the six million has a story and an identity, they are not just a number. By hearing personal stories we really can connect with this.
Our journey discovering our roots in Poland ended with Ari Glasser expressively, and wonderfully singing 'You Raise Me Up' in Hebrew. It was a truly fitting conclusion for the first leg of our six week journey. An exciting moment for everyone was when it started snowing for a short time, it was magical.
Poland has been an emotional rollercoaster but we have come out of it with closer and new friendships, and a stronger understanding of our heritage. We have a greater appreciation for our lives and have a prouder Jewish identity. We have an immense gratitude for the sacrifices that our grandparents and great grandparents made for being Jewish.