Visit the Death Camps. Why?

Hitler took care of a few generations,” my mother, a Holocaust survivor used to say ruefully whenever I had a problem. What the statement lacked in subtlety it possessed in truth, because from the moment I was born, the number 6,000,000 was branded on my brain. The war’s impact on her psyche reverberated in her children.

And while I grew up with an awareness of what my parents had been through, the details of what happened to them remained undiscussed.

Personal history matters. But I knew less than I should considering how powerfully and personally the Holocaust impacted my life.

“What’s to know? Better not to know,” was the response I got whenever I asked my parents about the war.

“We lived through it — that’s enough,” my mother would say wanting to quickly shut the box lest any demons escape. My sister and I were aware of that box. We danced around it, on top of it, in spite of it. It was always present — a reminder that if we really wanted to know, it was up to us to look inside.

The few personal war stories that my parents shared were episodic — snapshots without real context — included the words “ghetto,” “lager,” “selection”— things that made no sense in our American childhood of comic books and Barbies.

Like most who walked away from the death camps, their stories of survival were miraculous. Eluding death by a hair’s breadth. Standing in one place instead of another. A distraction that somehow saved them. Destiny.

My father genuinely believed that survival was random. No prayer, no money — nothing was insurance. He’d describe it as if G-d, with a pointed finger, chose those who’d live and those who wouldn’t. In a world that made absolutely no sense, it was the explanation of randomness he clung to.

Visiting Poland was never something I wanted to do. On the contrary, I was never able to shake the story of my mother’s return to her childhood home in Lodz after the war ended. She and her two sisters, the only survivors in their 16 person family, had gone back to retrieve the money and valuables their brother had hidden in the recesses of a wall, in case anyone survived. Upon seeing them, their former neighbors said, “Hitler didn’t finish the job. You’re supposed to be dead like all the rest.” Quite a welcome.

Five years ago a cousin called to tell me he was going to participate in the 2014 March of the Living. The group would memorialize the six million in a march from Auschwitz to Auschwitz-Birkenau Poland on Yom Hashoah followed by a trip to Israel to commemorate Yom Hazikaron and finally to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. Was I interested in joining him?

“Travel to Poland? What for?”I asked. Bitterness and loss were all that came to mind when I thought of the country my parents spent a lifetime trying to forget.

Did I really want to walk inside cattle cars that transported Jews the Germans counted as “pieces?” Should I roam the Polish countryside, with its grassy hills meant to hide the mass graves beneath?

And then I remembered how clear my mother was about the greatest fear she had during the war.

“It wasn’t dying,” she said.

“It was that all traces of Jewish life and lives would be erased.”

So the question was, do I go?

“Don’t go,” my son said, worried about how I would handle such a trip.

“Do it mom. It’s now or never,” my daughter urged.

She was right.

As soon as I sent in my deposit, I knew I was doing the right thing.

Still, my mother’s voice played in my head. “Why? Why go?”

For one reason: to remember the people who were not only stripped of their humanity but of their rightful eternity, with no one to remember, light a candle or say Kaddish. I wanted to honor those in unmarked graves, to acknowledge their existence, pray for their souls, remember what happened and sadly, as history teaches us, could happen again.

About the Author
I am a Michigan-based freelance writer with essays published in “The New York Times” and “Detroit Free Press.” In 2009, University of Michigan Press published my memoir, “The Accidental Teacher: Life Lessons from my Silent Son." The book recalls the journey of raising my, now grown, son with severe autism.
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