Editor’s note: this was a hard piece for me to edit. I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but have visited a concentration camp in southern France. It was a haunting experience for me as a person and as a Jew, and I can only imagine what a journey to this place would be for me. I am grateful to Sam for his words and descriptions, and for his strength to visit this place, a strength that I – thus far – have not found within myself. To read more of Sam’s journeys, visit his index here.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day was picked because on January 27, 1945, the notorious Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Red Army. It is for this reason that I wanted to write about my experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and the sites in the nearby city of Krakow. However, as a rabbi, a Jew, a person whose grandfather’s shtetl (Jewish village) was massacred by the Nazis, and a person who has known many Holocaust survivors, visiting Auschwitz was a unique experience, and it is beneficial when visiting a place like Auschwitz to understand what that means through a Jewish lens.
The journey begins in the city of Krakow, Poland, which is one of the most beautiful and charming cities in Europe. Krakow is Poland’s second city and, unlike the capital, Warsaw, which was leveled during World War II, was spared destruction and remained largely intact. With the Vistula River cutting through the town, visit the UNESCO sites of Wawel Castle, Wawel Cathedral (the home church of Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II), and the Old Town, as well as the Smocza Jama cave, supposedly home to a dragon. Nearby Krakow is also an impressive salt mine with underground visits. Jewish history aside, Krakow is a great city for any traveler.
However, what remains in Krakow today is overshadowed by the thought of what once was. Prior to World War II, approximately 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, making it among the largest Jewish centers in the world. In less than seven years, over 3 million of them would be killed in the Holocaust; while Poland’s Jewish population today is growing, the number is estimated at under 20,000 individuals. After Mongols sacked Krakow in 1241, Jewish immigrants from Germany were among the first new settlers to reestablish the town. As a show of gratitude, the Polish King Casimir III declared in 1257 that Jews were a protected group and prohibited under penalty of death the kidnapping of Jewish children for the purposes of conversion to Christianity, the first place of its time in Europe to have such protections. Due to his tolerance, the Jewish population boomed as Poland became a refuge for Jews who were being expelled from Western Europe at the same time and Poland’s economy boomed from this influx. As a token of gratitude, the Jews named their neighborhood “Kazimierz” after the king. Today, the neighborhood is home to seven pre-war synagogues, some dating back to the 15th century, as well as Kosher restaurants. Like the Jewish quarter of Prague, each synagogue is beautiful and has its own unique character. Nearby are two historic and beautiful Jewish cemeteries that are also worth visiting. In the part of town where the Nazi ghetto, which held 15,000 Jews, was centered, there is a train cattle car that one can visit that stands as a memorial, and one can imagine innocent souls crammed into it as they departed to their deaths. Outside of the cattle car is a giant plaza that holds 70 empty bronze chairs, forcing those who pass them in Krakow’s bustling center to notice the absence and remember the loss of what was and could have been. Yet nearby there is a reminder that not all was lost, but rather, there was also courage that saved in the form of Oskar Schindler’s factory, made infamous by Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List. It was here where the former Nazi officer used his powers of persuasion and bribery to arrange for Jews to come work for him and be spared from certain death, saving more than 1200 souls.
An old synagogue in Krakow
Yet it is Auschwitz-Birkenau in the nearby town of Oswiecim, forty miles away, that brings many to Krakow. Of all the concentration camps, the name Auschwitz is the most notorious, as it was here that 1.1 million people were killed. Though there were more than a dozen subcamps at Auschwitz, the three main ones were: Auschwitz I, which was predominately a labor camp but also had one gas chamber, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which was the notorious primary death camp, and Auschwitz III, where slave labor was used to create the Zyklon B chemicals for the death camps. The visit to Auschwitz begins at Auschwitz I, where guests arrive at the visitor reception entrance, which was also the entrance for prisoners arriving to the camp. Visiting Auschwitz as a Jew changes the way that you look at memorials and history around the world. On my first visit to the camp, I booked a small group tour, where I was the only Jewish person, and though the people around me did nothing wrong, I could not help but feel uncomfortable, and even a bit upset, by their presence, though I understood them and was glad they were visiting and learning about what had happened at this place. I saw myself in these tourists when I had visited Apartheid sites in South Africa, plantations in Virginia or a slave fortress in Zanzibar; these were for me places of sad history that were also tourist attractions. Yet when I talk to my friends who are descendants of African slaves, they see themselves on those plantations, they imagine themselves and their ancestors being pushed onto a ship, never again to see their homeland or their family. Likewise, it was an uncomfortable feeling to walk through a tourist entrance and visitor information center at the same spot that I would have been shoved into the camp, torn from my family.
Upon entering Auschwitz, there is a sign warning that children under the age of 12 should not visit due to the graphic nature of what visitors will see on their visit. Inside, there are bathrooms, a cafeteria, and a vending machine. At the entrance of many concentration camps there is landscaping, and flowers planted to welcome in guests. All of this makes complete sense from an outside perspective. Children should be shielded from horrors that they cannot process that could lead to trauma, tourists get hungry on a full day trip and need to eat, tourists need to go to the bathroom, and the grounds should look presentable for people who arrive. Yet seeing myself in the story of this place, all of these aspects of Auschwitz made me boil in anger. I thought of the children who had been thrown in gas chambers here. Were they sheltered from the scary things? I thought of how people often starved to death at Auschwitz, where they lived on under 700 calories per day, and yet here was a vending machine selling chocolate bars for privileged tourists who could not do a four-hour tour without a snack? I saw the outhouse with dozens of holes right next to each other in Birkenau, where in subfreezing temperatures with no clothes, prisoners were forced to defecate next to each other, inches apart with no privacy, and thought how nice it would have been had they had restrooms. I thought with outrage that the people who oversee tourism here thought that we should make this place look nice for tourists. I fumed that here I was, paying my own money for a guided tour (entrance to Auschwitz is free though) so that I could see where my people were slaughtered.
Arbeit Macht Frei marks the entrance to Auschwitz
When you begin your tour of Auschwitz I, you will quickly see the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, meaning “work will set you free”. This of course was a cruel joke by the Nazis to the prisoners, knowing that freedom was through the chimney of the crematorium. The original sign was stolen (but later recovered) by Neo-Nazis just prior to my visit, so I did not see the original one, as Auschwitz has become a place of pilgrimage not just for sorrowful Jews, but for Nazi glorifiers too. In front of the sign, it is not uncommon to see people posing and smiling for pictures and taking selfies. Again, this makes sense as it is a tourist attraction, but to those of us who see ourselves in this place, who know people who were tattooed in this spot, it is an insensitive desecration.
At Auschwitz I, you will see the mostly preserved buildings and a wall where several thousand Polish political prisoners were executed, but the most somber place is inside the museum. It is there that you will see a room full of 110,000 pairs of shoes, another room with thousands of briefcases and pieces of luggage, another room with tens of thousands of pairs of glasses, and exhibits of religious artifacts and children’s toys, yet most disturbing is the room full of hair, two metric tons of human hair. When you personalize it and think about the child holding her prized doll, which was snatched from her grasp by laughing men as she cried in fury and terror, the mother who had taken such pride in her hair that her whole life she had cared for and combed, only to have it be shorn publicly by jeering soldiers, and how each pair of glasses was worn atop a person’s nose, giving their face character and their eyes sight, the pain is crippling. Each pair of shoes was a person who was loved, who contributed something to the world, and whose final moments were panicked due to senseless hatred. In the Auschwitz I crematorium, where 600 people would be gassed at a time, there are claw marks dug into the rock walls from the desperate condemned, gasping for air, hopelessly trying to find an escape.
Yet the most emotional part of the journey for many is visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau, with its iconic train station and center platform, where families were torn apart, sent to work or sent to the gas chambers, as dogs snarled at them, soldiers barked orders at them, and Jewish slaves played music for them amidst the chaos. Most of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was destroyed in 1945 either by Nazis wishing to hide their crimes or by locals, who used the lumber to rebuild their leveled homes. At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the distance of the camp seems endless. It is surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences, and guard towers; it was not uncommon for people to commit suicide by throwing themselves on these wires, as the conditions were so miserable that the life expectancy for those who were not immediately gassed was only three weeks in the camp, with prisoners dying due to the harsh weather, starvation, exhaustion, disease, or being shot or gassed when too weak to work. On one of my visits to Auschwitz, I was walking with my friend, when he stopped and bent over, he picked up what looked like some pebbles. Upon closer inspection though, I saw they were not white rocks. No, they were pieces of bone that had rained down some seventy years earlier from the crematorium chimneys. Those crematoria burned 8000 corpses daily, and the smell and rain of fragments of ash and bone upon the prisoners knowing that those were their loved ones and soon to be them is unimaginable.
A visit to Auschwitz – or any concentration camp – is devastating, haunting, and terrifying; it will scar you, yet it is something we must do. For people who are not Jewish, it will force you to confront the questions of if you would be a bystander or if you would be like Oskar Schindler and resist evil, and for whom can we do that today? I hope my article will help you also remember that this is more than a tourist site, it is a place of personal pain to the person who may be walking alongside you, something that we Jews should remember as we visit places of suffering for others too. And for the Jewish tourist, it is a place where you will see your own story and what could have been of you had you been born in a different place at a different time. Visiting a concentration camp is obviously not the fun vacation activity that most of us want to do when we get precious time off to explore the world, yet it is one of the most important trips you can make. It is important to do so that we never forget what occurred so that we can prevent it from happening again. But perhaps most importantly, the six million number that we hear regarding the Holocaust is so unfathomable that visiting a concentration camp helps you see that behind that daunting statistic, each one of those individuals was a name, a memory, and a story. May their memories be for a blessing.
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