A Return to the Concentration Camps: Part II
***Catch up with the story: Read Part I***
After leaving concentration camp Majdanek, with Matisyahu’s hopeful song playing on the iPod, one of our trip leaders surprised us with an announcement.
“Tonight in Krakow, we’ll be going to the Matisyahu concert,” he said.
That evening we funneled through the synagogue’s single door and into a red and gold-painted interior, where the Orthodox reggae star took to the stage. He wore jeans and grey Nikes that had neon green swooshes. His tzitzis dangled from beneath a sweater. Matisyahu’s beat-boxing and melodic verses inside the synagogue were a brief hiatus from our tour of the concentration camps.
While singing “Jerusalem,” Matisyahu stopped and echoed what was on the minds of every member of my group: As a Jew, it’s nice to be able to return to Poland after the Holocaust, and it’s an honor to be here in the presence of a survivor.
“Leo,” some of the members of my group shouted, praising the Holocaust survivor who chose to return to the concentration camps with us.
Matisyahu pressed his graying beard to the microphone and began to sing the Shma, muttering a few garbled words after the prayer. Seemingly beset with emotion, he told the crowd sitting in the pews, standing in the back, hanging from the balcony, that he needed to take a few minutes backstage. It was a day where somberness and pride had found one another.
But by the next morning, some of that triumph dissipated when we visited the Jewish Community Center to hear from Jews who had decided to make Krakow their home.
One of them, a young religious woman, told our group that the word “Jew,” in Poland, is a typical insult. For example, if a professor gave too much work or if a politician cheated the people some Poles would say, “What a Jew,” she explained.
“My friends say, ‘It’s so cool to be a Jew,’” she added, but they’re talking about Jews like Woody Allen. The powerful Jew, like those from Israel, is seen as dangerous and evil.
When we left the JCC building, some people were inspired. “That was the most moving thing I’ve seen so far,” one friend told me. “My family is from Poland and it’s nice to see that there are some Jews left.”
Others from my group vowed, “Never again… Never again will I return to Poland.”
The next morning, on our way to Auschwitz, we stopped in front of the gates of Schindler’s factory. Leo gathered the group together. “We have two reasons for being in Poland,” he reminded us. “We’re here to remember the ashes… and to let [the Polish people] know that we’re still here.” That the Final Solution, in the end, went unresolved. Again, Leo started to remember the lost generations of our people, the millions that could have been, and his gravelly voice rose to a squeal.
When we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one and a half million Jews were murdered, we walked along the tracks, toward the gas chambers, and stopped before a lone cattle car. Thirty-five young people who could never clearly comprehend the atrocities stood with Leo the survivor, who, as much as he wanted to, could never explain what went on here. We scanned the fields of history’s most frightening site and listened as he told his stories of revolt, comforting himself and us with memories of resistance rather than the other thoughts that loomed in his mind.
When Leo entered Birkenau in 1944, he was forced to toss his tfillin, which are used for prayer, onto a heaping pile. But in order to get them back, he orchestrated a diversion—he convinced the other boys to have a wrestling match in the middle of Auschwitz. As the Nazis moved to break up the scuffle, Leo reclaimed his tfillin. While thousands of people were pumped from the bowels of the crematoriums each day, Leo stood in his barrack, wrapped in his phylacteries, and prayed. Though his holy contraband was eventually taken, and though he was whipped so brutally that he was forced to sleep on his stomach for several months, he saw his punishment as a reward, a reassertion of his faith.
And he continued to test Auschwitz.
“When I was marched to the fields to dig up potatoes from the frozen ground,” he told me as we traveled along the miles of barbed wire, “I hid in a pile of hay, instead.”
Another time, when a guard continuously pushed a fellow Jew into the mud, rather than stand there and bear the common sight of torture, Leo struck the German in the groin. The man doubled over and when he got back up, placed the barrel of his gun against Leo’s head. But he didn’t shoot, even as Leo ordered him to. The German just stood there and listened to the taunting of this reckless fourteen-year-old.
“I did everything to not survive this place,” he declared.
But despite his heroics, he lived a childhood of fear, torture, and imprisonment all because he was Jewish.
We marched through Birkenau, which was also known as Auschwitz II. Beyond the rusted barbs were acres of destroyed barracks that Polish peasants had looted for firewood after the war. Every few steps I’d stop walking and look both left and right. I tried to imagine the land filled with people, with Jews awaiting death or freedom, whichever came first. And though I had studied the Holocaust for years, voraciously reading memoir after tortured memoir, I couldn’t picture what Birkenau would look like filled with people. It was enormous.
We passed ponds that were grey with ashes and stood on fields fertilized with dead Jews.
The night before Auschwitz, I was speaking with a friend from the trip. In Majdanek, he told the cameraman, who had been following us for a documentary, not to film him, not to record his emotions. I told him that I wanted to feel like that. I wanted the camps to tear me open. Yet for some reason, I had felt numb walking through Majdanek.
“Put down the pen,” he told me. “Don’t take so many notes.”
“I don’t want to miss anything,” was my reply. But in Auschwitz I took his advice.
When we arrived at a field sown with ashes, Rabbi Elie told the group that America and the Allies could have bombed the tracks, preventing more than 10,000 murders a day. I walked closer toward the ashes, distancing myself from the others. We could have bombed the tracks, I kept repeating quietly.
My journal was in my bag and I stood there alone, staring at the grass fertilized with genocide.
A friend approached me with a candle that we were to light for the dead. I told her “Thank you,” and I was unable to disguise the sadness choking my throat.
We moved toward the area known as the Canada compound, which the Nazis had used to sort out the Jews’ possessions. We tried to get into one building, but the door was locked. Leo started to kick it down. The noise thundered through Birkenau. It began to drizzle. Leo was set on tearing the whole place down; but someone found another entrance.
A few people broke into tears as photographs on the walls, the first images we had seen that day of the victims, portrayed the innocent, the murdered who had painted the skies of Auschwitz forever dark.
Before we left Birkenau, everyone followed Leo, while I found barrack 18 in the woman’s camp—the place where my grandmother had spent more than a year of the war. At different times during the war, however, there had been two barracks labeled 18. At the time, I couldn’t be sure which one was hers, so I explored both. I stood inside the cement footprint of the vanished wooden one that now sprouted moss and weeds in place of bunks, and I traced my fingers along the brick walls of the second barrack, until I caught my reflection in the window. I smiled somberly as I turned to exit the concentration camp; unlike my grandparents, I was the only member of my family to enter Auschwitz and be free to leave.
At the smaller camp referred to as Auschwitz I, we ate in the dining hall. The food was strangely good. I cringed when I heard someone say, “I’m starving.” I wondered how the lunch ladies felt when they admitted: “I serve food at Auschwitz.”
After lunch, we entered beneath a replica of the infamous archway Arbeit Macht Frei—the original had been stolen at the end of last year, a foreshadowing of how Holocaust denial will become Holocaust deconstruction. The barracks there offered the same museum-feel as Majdanek, though they delivered greater quantities of atrocity. More photographs of the dead lined the walls and there were larger webs of tangled glasses. Prosthetic limbs had been stockpiled and a pool-sized pit contained metal bowls. There were mountains of hair and infinite shoes. Some shoes had been paired off as if to create semblance out of chaos. There was even a separate collection of baby’s shoes, ones that parents would have bronzed.
We entered into another gas chamber. Another crematorium.
After Auschwitz, we escaped to the tranquil Carpathian Mountains in order to comprehend the magnitude of what we had seen over the last week.
Some of us were angry. Some were silent. Some cried.
“Now what? Are we just going to go home?” someone in the group said with tears in her eyes.
“What can we do?” someone else wondered.
“My students don’t even know what the Holocaust is,” I told the group. “The one who came closest called it that ‘Jewish thing.’”
I left the mountains without answers, but also without the feeling of urgency.
When the trip ended, I continued my journey through to Austria and Germany and read the novel Exodus on the trains—the same sort of trains my grandparents had traveled on after the war, when Poppy pummeled a German soldier who called Grandma a ‘Jewish slut.’ I flashed the Star of David printed on the book’s cover at Austrians and Germans who were well into their 80s. At the younger generations, too. A reminder. A testament.
But, it was after the trip had ended that I realized how delicate memories and testaments truly are. I realized how the Holocaust—which had always been a continuous presence in my life, an enduring piece of history—could slip away so quickly.
Within twenty-four hours of posting Part I of this story, I received two pieces of news, one sadder than the next. First I was told that the barracks storing the thousands of shoes at Majdanek, which I had walked through a few weeks earlier, had burnt to the ground, destroying those artifacts that had paid tribute to the departed. Then I received a phone call. Grandma, the last survivor in my family, had passed away.
As we move further away from the Holocaust, as the number of survivors dwindles, stories like Leo’s and my grandparents’ will give way to a torrent of denial. It will only become harder to learn the lessons from the Holocaust. As time passes, the Holocaust itself will become like the Jews in Auschwitz. Sadly, it will lose its identity and become just a number—6 million.
Therefore, it’s important to take these lessons and stories from the Holocaust and use them to take action now, to prevent genocide now.
“Do you wanna know why I tell my story?” Leo said me inside of Birkenau. “When I was on the death march from Auschwitz, a man said to me ‘You’ll probably make it. But when you get out of here, tell the world.’”
Here are some websites that you can visit to learn more about preventing genocide:
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