I have spent most of my life grappling with the Holocaust and needed to get inside that part of me on a deeper level as an adult. I wanted to visit the concentration camps. Tour the ghettos. Stand where the six million Jews whose lives were senselessly taken stood. Pray where they prayed. Eat where they ate.
I knew my recent visit would be a profound experience, life-changing at the least. After all, I’m now a mother; I see things differently than I did long ago.
And I was right. I felt as though I was chasing ghosts.
Or rather, they were chasing me.
I didn’t expect to stand where six million Jews whose lives were needlessly taken once stood. I heard the echoes of their screams and cries. I stood in their shadows. I sensed their presence every which way I went.
I started my tour in Warsaw, Poland, where I toured the Jewish Ghetto. I was eager to see a city where my ancestors once lived. It was an integral part of my soul-searching process. But curiosity led to fear rather quickly. The story of Jews in Warsaw is tragic and the numbers are staggering as 254,000 ghetto residents were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp over the course of two months in the summer of 1942.
Shadows of ghosts followed me. It was easy to imagine mothers and children dying in the streets or living in fear of being sent to concentration camps, which was inevitable. There aren’t many Jews living in Warsaw today, and it’s easy to understand why.
From there I went to Krakow, which put me right near Auschwitz and Birkenau, two living gravestones memorializing, not just the victims, but also the sins of those who pulled triggers and locked gas chamber doors. As a mother, I wondered what it had been like to be separated from my children at the gate, never to see them again. The Nazis kept very few children alive.
The two camps exterminated 1.5 million people, mostly Jews but also gypsies, Soviet POWs, homosexuals and Polish political prisoners, in a 20-month period between 1942 and 1944. As I walked through Auschwitz’s cell blocks, I stared at photographs the Nazis took, documents and artifacts like empty piles of hair, canisters of cyanide gas, piles of shoes, eyeglasses, shaving brushes and suitcases. My grief sunk in with every step. Each viewing became more painful than the one before. Jews were told to pack a suitcase of their most prized possessions to take on their “brief” visit. No one went in knowing they would never come out.
Birkenau has train tracks that go right through the entrance and end inside the camp. It was an even more haunting experience than Auschwitz, if that is possible, though both are grueling to witness, even over 70 years later. It was easy to imagine the starvation, sickness, beatings and executions and my only consolation was the many Israelis dancing and reciting the Kaddish to memorialize the dead. I joined their circles and they, in turn, put their arms around me offering solace.
After Auschwitz and Birkenau, Eastern Europe became one big cemetery. I couldn’t get the camps out of my mind, but darkness followed me even as I entered, Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city was haunted by the Jewish population which once filled its streets. Nazis took over its Jewish community in 1939 and started stripping them of their rights. At first it was a slow process but then one thing was taken away after another. Jews were forced to register all their possessions and assets as the Nazis took over Jewish businesses. They were banished from restaurants, public baths, swimming pools, movie houses, theaters, endured a curfew, saw their belongings being sold, were limited to how much they could withdraw from banks, and had to give up their driver’s licenses. Jewish children were banned from Czech schools and all Jews were forced to register with the local police. On September 1st, 1941, all Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David and all synagogues and Jewish places of worship were soon shut down.
At the start of the war, about 90,000 Jews lived in Prague (about 20 percent of the population). By the end, only 15,000 returned. The city is a living museum, and its ghosts still reside, following me everywhere – through the synagogues that still stand, through the Jewish cemetery where I felt their souls rise. Terezin is a short ride away – a concentration camp where thousands died, mainly from malnutrition and disease. Many drawings and pieces of art remain as proof of their captivity. Others remained there until being deported by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Memories of playing a child in a play called I Never Saw Another Butterfly about the children of Terezin flooded my mind. Standing in my character’s footsteps was brutal.
The ghosts followed me through Vienna, a stunning city with a tortured soul, through Budapest, where its Jewish population was relatively erased, across the Danube, landing in Munich, where much of Hitler’s final solution began. There images of Jewish women and children turned to Nazis in full uniform, and my nightmares worsened. As I boarded a train to Dachau from Central Munich, one of the first concentration camps that was used as a role model on how to conduct mass murder, it all felt too real – to close to home.
There is a sign that reads “Arbeit macht frei” when you enter Dachau. This means “work sets you free”. This language also appears on the entrance of Auschwitz and other labor camps. Inmates were taunted with signs like this as they entered but the truth is that very few came out no matter how hard they worked. As I stood in Dachau’s gas chamber and witnessed the carefully executed crematorium, it became more clear to me that the Nazis did all of this so systematically to kill millions of my people. I’ve always known this, but simply knowing this is different to bearing witness.
The ghosts did not follow me back to America, but I came back with a renewed purpose, both as a mother and as a Jew. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to share what I’ve seen, especially in the current political climate in America, and to make sure the Holocaust never happens again. Germans I met and spoke to reminded me that history repeats itself, as they, too, seemed fearful of the new political change about to take place in America. In addition, the recent news of escalated racial and anti-Semitic attacks is more disturbing than ever as are similarities of the Holocaust to the Syrian refugee crisis.
With history staring us down, there is more than a need than ever to gather our strength and say never again.