AUSCHWITZ a name that will forever be synonymous with the murder of innocents, a black mark in the history of humanity, shattered illusions of the myth that all people are naturally good. A place where children walked hand in hand with their parents to their deaths; where couples were torn apart never to meet again; where children became orphans, wives became widows and all childish innocence was lost.
Why should Jews go back to a place like that? “What is there to find in Poland?”, people asked me. At the time I had no answer – just pure curiosity, and the notion that in order to draw real inspiration one cannot just visit scenes of great triumphs, but one must also visit places of great tragedy, to really see the strength of a people, for did we not rise out of the ashes of the camps to become a nation once again.
On Sunday, the 1st February, 2004 a group of people from London, Manchester and New York set out to visit Auschwitz; some to see for themselves the images that they had seen in films or heard from their grandparents or parents, some to go pray and light candles for lost ones, and even survivors returning, to see that it was all quiet now, no more shouting of “Juden Raus”, no dogs barking on the platforms and the only crying today would be those crying for lost generations.
Everybody has their own pre-conceived notions of what a concentration camp looks like, everyone has seen the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” at the entrance to Auschwitz, but nothing is quite what you imagine, especially as I walked behind Mrs Grunwald, a survivor of Auschwitz returning for the first time since liberation, who pointed up and said simply, “We marched through here”.
They say in a lifetime your eyes will capture 28 million images, and those images either fade or stay. Picture rooms with empty suitcases of people long gone, hundreds of pots that were once used to make meals, piles of mangled glasses, and the shoes, so many shoes, adult shoes, small children and baby shoes. All these images shake you to the very core and tug at your heart, but all this pales into insignificance when you see the gas chamber, immediately recognisable due to the smoke stacks. It looks like a normal cellar, only this cellar has ovens, and scratch marks of desperate people on the walls, and these are the images that will never fade away.
We carried on to Auschwitz II, Bikenau. This is the camp where most Jews were housed (98,000 at one time) it has the platform where Mengele stood and played god, sending people to live or die, it has the stables where people slept fitfully by the thousands, the destroyed gas chambers where people died by the millions, it is the largest concentration camp of them all and soaked in Jewish blood. And on that waste land by those train tracks we prayed, said Kaddish, (a prayer for the dead), drank a toast to those gone but never forgotten, since we are a people who see life and G-d in all, and what more fitting tribute to our lost brethren than to pray on the very ground where the Nazis tried so hard to extinguish them.
You see the strength of all people who survived the camps, but for me a defining moment was standing in a barrack with Mrs Grunwald and her family, as this old woman wrapped in a shawl stood up, pointed to a bunk, her eyes shiny with tears and clutching a worn out tissue, said in a clear voice “That’s where we slept eight across”, and as she started to light candles for parents lost, brothers and sisters gone, she started to shake and cry, and like the rest of the people in that barrack in C lager, I found myself crying, too. We were crying for this lady who was lighting a candle, crying because we, the next generation, could never really relate, crying for those whom we never met and will now never know.
As I wondered outside to clear my head and blink away tears, I surveyed this vast graveyard, the sheer size of it, the train tracks, the rows and rows of barracks, the pile of bricks that were once gas chambers, the fields of ashes, the barbed wire fences, the ditches that so many young and old alike fell into to die, this grey bleak and cold place, I began to wonder that, here we are dressed, coats, boots two pairs of socks, woolly hats, yet still shivering. How did people in thin pyjamas, some with no shoes, manage this month after month and survive, and find the will to continue living? Maybe, just maybe after Auschwitz one ‘might’ start to appreciate those people we call survivors.
People say Poland is covered in Jewish blood and no one should ever go there, this might very well be the case, however everyone should go and see Auschwitz with a survivor, not to be depressed, not even to try and understand what people went through, because that would be futile, but to see that people who faced terrible tragedy and adversity came out with their faith intact and carried on living and bringing children into a world that had treated them so callously.
Everybody on that trip drew their own conclusions or vanquished their own personal demons, some will remember specific images, some will see it as a whole, I saw a place of death and destruction, but also life and rebirth of life, and the next time my grandmothers talk of the holocaust, I will listen with more patience because they are a symbol of all that is good, a symbol of real strength.