by Liam Shemesh '19
Week 3 took us across the Mediterranean to Prague and Poland, but before all that we visited Yad VaShem on Sunday in Jerusalem for a refresher course on the Holocaust. There we heard a survivor's account, which I found far more impactful than the museum itself.
We went to sleep early Sunday night as we were waking up at 2 A.M. to catch our flight to Prague, where we were met by some of our classmates coming from the U.S.. After a cramped flight we went straight into touring Prague, which is absolutely stunning.
Trdelnik (a hollow dough cylinder pastry) in hand, we walked the Charles Bridge and began our dive into the Jewish history of Prague. We had free time at the Old Town Square, which was especially useful for Jacob Mannes, whose luggage took a brief excursion to Barcelona. Tired and hungry again, we headed to dinner where we heard from the American ambassador to the Czech Republic. I'm sure he was interesting, but I can't say, as I was speeding back to the H&M near the town square to rescue my water bottle (check out its instagram account, @daddy.nalg). Finally, it was time to eat and sleep. Abba, my step count was 19,601, if you were wondering.
Tuesday afternoon's visit to Terezin marked our first engagement with a Holocaust site. Even now, looking back on all the horrible, horrible places we visited, Terezin sticks out in my mind. It sticks out because Terezin is an active town today. There, on the site of mass death, a quiet, sparse town goes through the motions of life. There the history was palpable. I could feel the death and suffering in the air. It felt like a ghost town, and yet I saw children running in the streets on the way home from school.
After Terezin and a seven hour bus ride to Krakow, we visited the Plaszow concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Buczyina Forest before it was time for what turned to be a relaxing Shabbat.
As I walked along the railroad tracks at Birkenau, all I could think about was what I was going to write in this blog post; what could I say to do this place—and the other places we visited—justice. I still don't know the answer and I think that, in many ways, it is an impossible task. Whatever I write will feel lacking and insufficient. But I have try, so I'll give it my best shot.
I can write about how these places just feel different. How despair emanates from them, and how my body absorbed it and took some of it with me. How much of that, however, is due to what I already know? I wonder if to the unknowing, Plaszow also radiates death.
I can't get the lumpy slopes of Plaszow out of my mind. The ground is hilly and unsettled; every uneven step you take sinks a little bit, as if the ground itself rejects what took place there. It's the same at the grassy fields of Birkenau. Every uneven step I took I couldn't help but think "someone probably died right here." Perhaps it's because of the season, but nothing grows there besides grass and grotesque shrubs and trees.
The trees in particular stand there having borne witness, and if not, they've stood over these sites for decades. They look unnatural. Their continuing life is an aberration at places that have seen so much death.
At Birkenau, where several members of my family were murdered, most of the barracks are mere ruins. There are rows and rows of what were barracks, but only the chimneys remain standing. To me they look like middle fingers pointing up to the heavens, because what I saw there is beyond humanity. Gas chambers and crematoriums are beyond humanity and beyond reproach. The chimneys stand as symbols of the destruction of morality and justice by the Nazis.
After several days, many of us have reached what I call emotional terminal velocity. It's not numbness, per say, but my emotions are maxed out. I'm exhausted, and at this point, mostly going through the motions. I'm taking in more and more awful things and filing them away for later. I can't process them now beyond a base level of sadness and disgust.
I'm ready to be out of this country. I can't wait to get back to Israel. I can't wait to have fun again. I think Ilan Gasko summed it up best when he said, "I've hated every moment of this trip, but I wouldn't change anything about it."