by Annie Grimley '17
The emotional roller coaster of Europe officially continued on Sunday as we began our week with Auschwitz after a mellow Shabbat. This day was very personal for me and many others, as a relative of mine, Lucie Gottlieb, was murdered in Birkenau. From the very beginning, a dark cloud hung above my head. I tried to remain calm on the bus, but my eyes were drawn to the train tracks that paralleled our path to Auschwitz. The first part of the day was a tour of Auschwitz I, the part of the camp reserved for prisoners, led by one of the museum's guides. Many of us did not appreciate this part of the day for its focus on hard facts over individual stories, especially in such a disturbing place. At one point I ran through a particularly terrifying room full of human hair from Shoah victims. I waited outside for everyone else, trying to fathom the thought that my relative's hair might have been stacked carelessly in that pile.
When we finished Auschwitz I, we took the bus to Birkenau, the part of Auschwitz notorious for the extermination of over a million people. The first place we went was the latrine, which still bore a stench I can't quite describe. We were told many prisoners committed suicide by drowning themselves here, so much so that one would usually find at least a dead body a day. Next were the women's barracks. The building we saw smelled of sickness, and I could tell why: The bunks had three levels, lacked mattresses, and were meant to fit so many women that one couldn't roll over without crushing a fellow prisoner. Next, we made the long trek from the train tracks to the gas chambers in total silence. The air seemed to swallow us, and the wind blew spirits through the camp. Suddenly, if I looked hard enough, I could see my family and all those who had walked the path before me. As I was guided along the trail to death, I wept for those who never left the camp.
Next, we reached a small, eerily beautiful pond. It turned sinister when we realized that the ashes of thousands of Hungarian Jews were concealed in its depths. We sat around the pond and mourned. For many, this was the most difficult part of the day. Afterwards, we left stones on graves and went to see the remains of the Nazis' storehouses. In these buildings, they kept various items stolen from Jewish victims. We were told that it is still easy to find items lying in the dirt and warned not to take anything (it's now an offense that warrants jail time). You can decide whether we heeded that warning.
Finally, we concluded the day with a tekkes, a ceremony. A few classmates shared family stories about the Holocaust and lit memorial candles. At long last, we hauled our freezing limbs along the tracks and to the buses. It took a long time to warm up.
The next day was Majdanek, a camp that was arguably more cruel than Auschwitz and harder for some to visit. After a long bus ride, we walked into the creepiest place I'd seen in my entire life. Majdanek was mostly intact, which made it easier to picture the disgusting forms of torture the Nazis would inflict on their prisoners. We walked through a gas chamber and saw a large pile of bones and ash left by the Nazis. As I looked out into the distance, I could spot a town on one side of the camp and a cemetery on the other. We were told that the town's residents witnessed the atrocities and did nothing, which made me wonder why their dead had been buried with dignity and ours had been tossed out like trash. All I felt the entire time was seething anger.
Our last day in Poland, following a night in Lublin, began with a four-hour bus ride to Warsaw. When we arrived, we walked around a cemetery and saw various historic Jewish areas. The last site we visited was a double-sided memorial. One side depicted the orchestrators of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and symbolized the Jewish community's small victories in the face of peril. The other depicted Jews walking to their deaths in the camps and symbolized our devastating losses. On the latter side, there stood a small child who looked back at us and pierced our souls. His gaze sent a message: Enjoy Israel, but don't take it for granted. Don't forget me and the future I could have had. When we returned to Israel the next day, I kept his silent words in my head. The moment we passed over Tel Aviv, I felt a rush of emotions. I felt fortunate to have a country that would protect me unconditionally, yet sad that those who perished in the Shoah never got to see it. I thought of my family, the families of my classmates, and the countless others who were deprived of the view I had from the airplane window.
Just when I thought we'd escaped Europe, we visited a British Displaced Persons camp to learn about Aliyah Bet. The camp was disgustingly similar to the concentration camps we'd visited, and its presence in Israel reminded me that our journey as Jews never ends. We might escape danger one day only to face it the next in a new form. The difference nowadays is that we have the State of Israel, and therefore the ability to fight back. Our final stop for the week was Independence Hall, where Israel declared its independence. I felt proud and secure as we sang Hatikvah, but once again, I saw the little boy from the memorial, reminding me never to forget the past. I have no doubt that Europe has changed us and given us a better appreciation for Israel, but even so... See you never, Poland.