Nothing. Nothing prepares you emotionally, or physically, for your first trip to the death fields of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I have been working now with the Jewish community for a number of years. I deal on an almost daily basis with issues relating to anti-Semitism in Europe. I have written numerous articles about the Holocaust. I’ve been to Yad Vashem and a great number of Holocaust memorials around the world.
I have met with many Holocaust Survivors, and have heard first-hand their testimony of the horrors of the death camp. I have read copious more Survivor accounts, watched movies and documentaries, and have myself spoken about the Holocaust to audiences.
But nothing; absolutely nothing can prepare you for how every fiber of your being will be turned inside out, and then again, when you enter this singular most evil stain on human history.
I have started to write this article a number of times now, but on each occasion I am stuck under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Makes You Free) sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, somehow wishing, in vain, that if I don’t go through it, then perhaps it was all a nightmare and never really happened.
But it did.
I was fortunate, if one may say so, that my first time in Auschwitz was this week during the official International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as part of the Knesset’s historic delegation, which included almost half the Knesset Members.
I had gone there with a delegation of leading European Parliamentarians, in my capacity as Director of Research at The Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC), who together with the European Friends of Israel (EFI) organization, brought this delegation of European lawmakers.
They came to not only honor the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust, but also to show in a very clear sign their determination and willingness to fight anti-Semitism in Europe and support the democratic Jewish State of Israel against those who seek to attack and delegitimize us.
But back to the death fields of Auschwitz.
The first thing that strikes you is the weather. It is snowing, many degrees below freezing and brutally cold. But as I walk through, in my multiple layers of clothing, still unable to shake off the cold, my thoughts go back to all those who walked here during the Holocaust. They were not as fortunate. Most had barely the pajamas on their back, and instead of wearing heavy boots with two pairs of socks (which still weren’t enough), they had to walk either bare foot or in self-made wooden shoes.
Auschwitz, located near Krakow Poland, was the largest camp established by Nazi Germany. It was a combination of concentration, extermination, and forced-labor camps.
Although originally built to house Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz very quickly became the focal point for the Nazis’ wholesale and systematic slaughter of Jews. Of the 1.1 million people murdered there, approximately 1 million were Jewish.
You start to think how this was possible. First how a supposedly intellectual, civilized and cultural society believed that wiping out an entire race of people, and in the most barbaric way imaginable, was not only acceptable, but rather a goal to aspire to.
Then your mind crosses to the logistics, trying to comprehend how this was even physically possible.
Through a mixture of gas chambers, crematoriums, showers and death pits, you realize that what the Nazis had built was an incredible, expansive and meticulously thought-out infrastructure of death and destruction. No less than the extermination of every last Jew in Europe would suffice.
In Block 4, which now forms part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there is even a section titled ‘Extermination Technique’. I highly recommend it to anyone who denies the Holocaust or seeks to minimize it.
Walking through Auschwitz, it felt as if I was walking through some morbid movie scene. But this was not Hollywood.
The gas chambers, chimneys and crematoriums were all there. As were the nail scratches on the wall from those poor helpless and unsuspecting victims, desperately pleading for help as they gasped their final breaths in the Nazi ‘showers’.
The exhibits containing the shoes, hair and glasses were all there too, as was the ‘Shooting Wall’, where the Nazis would execute prisoners at point blank range. Men, women, children. Young and old. It didn’t matter.
Walking through the grounds, I began to feel enraged. All I wanted to do was scream. How could this happen? How could so much of society stand idly by as their fellow man was killed in the most intolerable way imaginable? How could we reach the absolute bottomless pit of human depravity?
But I was incapable of letting out even the barest of whimpers; in part still in shock at what I saw; too afraid that if I started to scream, I would not finish.
There are innumerable lessons and reflections one can draw from Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Many people, far more eloquent than I, including those who survived, can speak more eloquently and authoritatively on this matter.
But for me, there is one lesson above all and one experience from my trip to Auschwitz that will stand out above all else.
At one point as we were walking through the Camp, this unmistakable valley of death, I became separated from my group – but only to run into the delegation of Knesset Members & IDF representatives.
The sheer pride in seeing the democratically elected Parliamentarians of the Jewish State of Israel and members of the Israeli Defense Forces who ensure that when we say ‘Never Again’, we mean NEVER AGAIN, was truly inspiring & life affirming!