I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “Holocaust.” As the grandson of two Holocaust survivors and baring the namesake of my grandfather, Israel Fruchter, I suppose I must have been considerably young. Attempting to recall the initial image my mind projected of the genocide of six million Jews comes up blank.
For one week in March of 2019, I journeyed to Poland through Heritage Seminars with two-thirds of my yeshiva (Yeshivat Orayta), my father, and five other students’ parents, lead by Rabbi Yitzchak Rubenstein. Among the itinerary arranged for our trip were four of the six German death camps: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Chelmno. It was those four experiences that are branded into my memory with images that I can never forget.
I’ve never been to a death camp before. I did not know what to expect. Treblinka, I soon learned, held a dark story— one that many don’t know. Thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were shipped in cattle cars to the extermination camp over the course of nine months. Although the Jews of today are not the Jews of the Holocaust, I follow the idea of Elie Wiesel to not refer to the victims as “they.” When possible, I refer to them as “we” because they were a part of the Jewish people, and they always will be.
We were robbed, stripped, shaved, gassed, and burned by the Nazis. They stole our possessions and valuables that we brought with the impression of our resettlement; they stripped us of our clothing, our dignity, and our identity; they shaved us of all our hair; they murdered us in the gas chambers with Zyklon-B; then, they burned our remnants in the crematorium. Everything was carefully calculated and coordinated, this genocide needed to be accomplished efficiently.
I was mistaken: We were not men, women, and children— we were filthy, vermin Jews in need of extermination. Nine hundred thousand. That’s how many of us were murdered within the nine months that Treblinka was operating. I don’t even know what that means.
Our group entered the camp in silence. We walked along the railroad tracks, the same tracks used to transport Jews to Treblinka. My winter coat and extra layers of clothing could not keep me completely warm, I was cold. How were the Jews in this weather? All I knew was that I was cold.
Our footsteps crunched against the stray branches on the soil, but the deafening whispers of the woods could not go unnoticed: they witnessed anguish and they had secrets.
We reached the first opening beside the forest surrounding us; this was Treblinka, but nothing was there. I saw a large field with stones scattered everywhere, encompassing a large monument. The Nazis destroyed everything. The only things authentic were the train tracks, trees, and dirt. Now, stones were left to memorialize the lives of nine hundred thousand Jews.
Rabbi Rubenstein read the few memoirs available from survivors of Treblinka. He spoke about thirst and starvation— true thirst and starvation. In the cattle cars, everyone was compacted together like sardines, and each of them was deprived of food and water. Survivors recalled children slurping the sweat off their mother’s skin in order to hydrate themselves. I have a younger brother and I also have a mother. Could that have been them? I had not drunk in a few hours, I felt parched and thought that I was thirsty. I don’t even know what that means.
In a different account, a mother exited the cattle car with her baby coddled in her arms. Babies were a nuisance, how were mothers expected to follow an order with alacrity when they had a baby with them? A Nazi officer approached the two, grabbed the child by his heel, and swung him against a tree, crushing his skull as his fledgling blood soaked the ground. Then, he handed the mother her baby’s corpse with his impaled head and sent her to the gas chambers, death was waiting for her.
I wanted to scream and shout, to sob and wail, but any expression felt unnatural. My mind could not possibly visualize this horror, I merely heard about it, I didn’t live it.
How can I understand nine hundred thousand Jews? The number was just that: a number. Each of those Jews had a family, a life, and a future. I cannot possibly know what that means.
At the culmination of the second hour, we did what nine hundred thousand Jews could not: We left Treblinka breathing.
The following day, we drove through a Polish city and saw pedestrians crossing the street, commuters heading to work, and children playing with their parents. All of this was directly adjacent to the second death camp we visited: Majdanek. Once we stepped off the bus, we immediately felt the difference from Treblinka; this death camp was still intact. We saw bunkers across a large field, storage houses stretched outside of our viewpoint, guard towers lined the road, and barbed wire bordered the perimeter.
The lack of train tracks to transport Jews into Majdanek and the large distance between its gas chamber and crematorium were puzzling, it seemed inefficient. This was because Majdanek did not begin as a death camp, it slowly morphed into one. Most valuables collected at the death camps were brought there and processed as per its initial purpose. Seventy-five thousand Jews were murdered at Majdanek. Discovering this number only numbed my emotions. Again, it was a number that remained just that: a number.
The eerie stillness of Majdanek trailed behind us as we walked onwards, it was almost desolated with the exception of our group. We halted on the main road and Rabbi Rubenstein told us about Majdanek’s “Rose Field.” Its name sounded beautiful, until he enlightened us on the two reasons the title was earned: (1) Modesty is deeply valued in Judaism, and the Nazis knew that. They summoned young, Jewish girls and organized them into rows. They were forced to strip themselves of their clothes and thus their dignity. (2) Their abashment colored their faces a blooming red that contrasted their pale, frail bodies— just like roses.
A separate account recalled the Nazis gathering Jewish girls to organize themselves in the snow while barefoot. After a short time, their feet clung to the icy snow. Then, they were ordered to run, leaving a trail of bloody splotches against the pure, white snow.
I have three sisters. I could not possibly imagine, it was too surreal to grasp.
Upon entering one of the storage houses, a powerful odor of worn-out leather hooked our noses and we soon saw why: There were rows of caged containers bordering the ceiling, each one stuffed to the brink with shoes from men, women, and children. Majdanek was a default home to our possessions and valuables, about one million shoes were found at the camp. Each and every sole bore the imprint of a life and a journey, but each and every shoe was also indicative of a life cut short by the Nazis. In one of the containers, I noticed a dirty, white slipper among the dreary, brown loafers and I found it symbolic of the purity of every Jew that was brutalized, gassed, and burned by the filth of the Nazis.
In a later exhibit of the bunkers, Rabbi Rubenstein relayed the account of a young girl whose father died in her arms. She sobbed as his lifeless corpse collapsed into her body, but not for the loss of her father; her tears belonged to the person who had swiped a ration of bread from his hand before she could act. This was starvation. That could have been any of my siblings and that could have been my father. I would not dare to judge, nor can I begin to imagine.
We saw bunkers where Jews slept upon mattresses filled with their urine and feces, oftentimes awaking to the corpse of a friend or neighbor beside them. My tears could do nothing, so my ducts refused to produce them.
Approaching Majdanek’s crematorium, we sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” expressing the vibrancy of Jewish life in 2019 to contrast the destruction around us. We were soon met by an unassuming structure that appeared like a cottage where an elderly couple would reside. Its hulking chimney towered over us as we entered inside. The crematorium had five ovens, each was cramped, tight spaces. I then realized that corpses are not claustrophobic. Solemn moments followed as we tried to grasp the reality of where we were standing. Then we did something historically unique: Most Jews left the crematorium through the chimney, but we left through the back door.
As we left the crematorium, I saw a horrifically aesthetic skyline. Bunkers and storage houses stretched across the large field of Majdanek, and directly behind it was the colorful Polish City we previously passed. How can those people live beside an extermination camp and routinely go about their day? On one side, a people live, and on the other side, a people died.
Auschwitz contained a forced-labor camp, a concentration camp, and a death camp. When we headed towards the registration area, I smelled a thick, heavy smoke like a bonfire. How did it compare to the scent of scorched flesh that ascended the death camps nearly 75 years ago?
We began by visiting the exhibits at Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. “Arbeit Macht Frei” hung above the entrance gate to the actual camp, it translated to “Work Sets You Free”— a lie.
Our tour guide directed us to a grassy area where the Nazis organized a Jewish orchestra to perform. Their compositions were used for the Nazis to count their victims and to propagate the false narrative that Jews were merely being “resettled.”
We also heard the story of Shmuel Gagil, a young boy with an inherent fondness for music— specifically through his harmonica. The Nazis discovered that he attained the instrument in the camp and permitted him to play his music, so he used his mouth to perform a serene, melodic sound. He was ordered to do this by the entrance of the gas chambers. His passion was tainted by the poison of death.
The Nazis broke our souls by gifting us with false hope and tarnishing the purity of our music. They conversely broke our bodies with the treacherous living conditions in everyday life and the cruel medical experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele.
Different exhibits in Auschwitz had photographs of Jews during their “resettlement.” At times, I saw men around the age of my three older brothers. I was unable to connect their reality of the past to my reality in the present. Actualizing their fate beyond the two-dimensional display was impossible.
In a different display, there was a collection of luggage bags from Jews imprisoned or murdered in Auschwitz. Two bags in the same area had “Sara” and “Elisabet” written on them. Two of my sister’s names are Sara and Elizabeth. Could that make it feel any more real?
We concluded our time in Auschwitz I by entering a gas chamber and another crematorium. The gas chamber was later converted into a bomb shelter for SS guards, accounting for the absence of Zyklon-B stains on the wall. I only saw these rooms as exhibits because how could I possibly be in the same rooms where Jews were murdered and their corpses burned, not even 80 years ago?
Afterward, our group marched into Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous death camp where over one million Jews were murdered.
When we marched, silence drifted above us. Our phones could not capture that moment, only our eyes could. In Birkenau, the Nazis were capable of killing eight thousand people every twenty minutes, the equivalent time it takes for me to finish my lunch. We entered through the main gate, the same gate where Jews met their demise. This death camp stretched in all directions—it was an enormous plot of land. Further down the tracks, I saw a cattle car; my mind painted ghastly images from the words of survivors. Could I even react? Anything I reacted to was not nearly the reality, so my emotions sat still.
Mothers and children were consistently sent to the gas chambers. The noxious smell of scorched flesh had them believe they were approaching leatherwork, not that their lifeless bodies would be approaching flames. Undressing in changing rooms was a part of the false hope of life that the Nazis continued to perpetuate. They thought they were going to shower, but they were going to die. The Zyklon-B internally suffocated them, preventing their blood from receiving oxygen. Mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, and sometimes fathers were immediately sent to their crippling death in the gas chambers. They arrived by train, but they left by chimney.
Animals would receive more dignity and respect than we had. We were vile, rotten Jews, how could anyone humanize us? I cannot understand this. What could the Nazis have seen when they stared into the eyes of babies so young they could not even speak? Were their innocent eyes and natural smiles indicative of an evil? How could the Nazis cleanly shoot a bullet between the eyes of a baby?
Everything was complex in the death camps. If I could save one of my brothers or sisters at the expense of another, would I seize the moment? What makes their blood redder than others…my emotions? These were conflicts faced on a daily basis by the victims of Birkenau; it was a past reality that is estranged from anything I have ever known.
My father and I captured a photo of us on the tracks of Auschwitz, holding a photo of my late grandparents, Israel and Sara Fruchter, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. It felt organic. We will not forget them or their stories.
Death always lurked over their shoulder, strapped around the chest of a Nazi. One misstep and they or a loved one could be gone. Considering that each of them lost a significant number of members from their immediate family, death may not have always been thought out. My awareness fluttered like a butterfly, in and out of Birkenau—It was too surreal for me to know.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a place to kill people and a place to kill humanity, but we did not let that objective affect us. We exited the gates of Birkenau, my friends, rebbeim, and our parents, linked in arms, singing that the Jewish people were not afraid and that we have persevered.
Our fourth and final death camp was Chelmno, where two hundred fifty-thousand Jews perished. This was the first of the death camps erected by the Nazis, it was where they began their trial and error for the efficiency of extermination. At our first destination, we saw where the Nazis processed Jews and loaded them into trucks heading toward their second destination. During the five-minute ride, approximately sixty Jews were gassed—that’s around the same number of first-year students with me at Yeshivat Orayta.
There was a record from 1942 which explained how, on one occasion, the gas-van broke down on the highway while the victims were still alive; surrounding witnesses heard their broken cries before the truck exploded with live Jews inside.
Similar to Treblinka, the Nazis wanted to destroy any and all evidence from Chelmno; this took place at the second destination. They ordered the exhumation of any remaining limbs and body parts to burn in open-air cremation pits. Bones, however, were crushed on the cement and mixed with the ashes, but this was prior to a bone-crushing machine built to hasten the process.
Drops of rain pattered across Chelmno when we entered, I wondered if there were as many droplets as there were victims. Our presence met the tranquil nature of the death camp. It was so quiet.
Rabbi Rubenstein relayed the tactics of the Nazis to destroy the proof of their malevolent acts, specifically the use of the bone-crushing machine. He then knelt down and held what looked like a cracked, white pebble—it was human bone fragment. In order to scour for whatever dignity left of the deceased, we spent ten minutes collecting bone fragments that were above the soil; they were scattered along the ground like pebbles in a garden. After Rabbi Rubenstein determined which of our findings were actual bone, we proceeded to bury them in the dirt.
It is often said that death is the greatest equalizer, so why did it fail so miserably here? We all fear death, but we have the basic expectation of a burial and the remembrance by our loved ones. That, however, was not a luxury afforded by the victims of Chelmno or Treblinka. Each Jew that fell to the cruel mercy of mortality had a brother, sister, mother, father, friends, and aspirations. I have a brother, sister, mother, father, friends, and aspirations, yet I am unable to emotionally connect myself to the harrowing existence of their demise.
After the burial for the fragments we could find, we sang together, arm-in-arm, Jew-beside-Jew. Then we left Chelmno, a feat that two-hundred-fifty-thousand Jews would never know.
To Hitler and the Nazis, I had difficulty saying, “We won.” Six million Jews perished, millions of lives were eternally scarred, and countless families were eliminated. For such a hefty price, it is too easy to simply say, “we won.” This is what I will say: Departing from Poland, I returned to the Old City of Jerusalem where I am studying at Yeshivat Orayta for the year. Arriving at the Kotel, I met the other students that did not attend our Poland trip. In the Jewish state, over sixty Jews, all of whom are engaged in rigorous Judaic studies for the year, danced at one of the holiest sites of the Jewish people. Our mere existence is the greatest form of resistance. To Hitler and the Nazis, I say, “I am Sruli Fruchter, I am the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, I am a Jew, and I am thriving.”