If someone said to you, that a holiday they’d had a year ago was still causing them to ask questions and was instilling wonder, you’d probably think they were loony. Yet, nearly anyone you ask who’s taken a trip to Poland, to visit the sites where both the Jewish people lived and died, might tell you that their trip still lives afresh in their minds.
Nearly a year on, (This year’s trip is nearly back from Poland) I’m still battling the same questions of faith that I was facing a year a go (Mainly, “do I believe in God?”) and I’m still wondering about the times faced by so many Jewish people whom lived in Germany, Poland, and countries affected by the Holocaust.
Although battling faith, one thing remains certain. The people that suffered were my ancestors. Ok, perhaps not directly as my family links to the holocaust are very distant… but the Jewish people, from whom I “Belong”… Those whom many traditions, the actions I take day in and day out and the way I feel about things are somehow related to me.
A year ago, I decided to uptake a journey, Physically, mentally and emotionally – back to the places which were once some of the epicentres of Jewish life.
On arrival in Poland we Started our Visit “at the end”. We went straight from the Airport to a Cemetery in Warsaw. In many ways, a cemetery not much different to my Local Jewish Cemetery in London. Although this was the “end” for some people… this cemetery was to be the most peaceful rest for the bodies of deceased, I was to see over the next few days.
We visited the Last remaining part of the Ghetto wall in Warsaw, Strangely hidden between some flats… Almost forgotten. We visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, The Umshagplatz – Where the Jews of Warsaw were loaded onto trains. All of this so far, was the first day.
On the second day, we boarded a bus to Treblinka. Deep in the forest, Hiding away. Now it’s nothing but a memorial. A Memorial to the 800,000 Who died there. On arrival, we walked down a path, which ran next to slabs laid out in the place of the train tracks. I walked along the train tracks 800,00 were taken down, during the last few minutes of their innocent lives, packed into a cattle carriage. The memorial, 17,000 stones, in the fielded area which once was the Extermination Camp. Interlaced with a few photos of what once stood there… 17,000 even when shown in front of you, is a number you cannot fathom. Let alone 800,000. There was only one way out of Treblinka.
Day 3, we visited (Briefly) Lublin, and then Majdanek. This time, there was no lengthy coach ride from the town of Lublin to Majdanek. Majdanek, was in the suburbs. Imagine a Concentration camp in Hampstead or Tuffnel park. From the camp, you could see a main road leading into town. This of course means, that the main road could also see into the camp. I was unsure while walking round, not quite knowing how to feel. Stood in gas chambers. Walking between barbed wire. Standing in front of the ovens used to cremate the dead.
What I found the scariest in Madjanek, was the way it’s been preserved. It’s said, that within 24 hours, Madjanek could be operational again. Twenty Four Hours. One Day. We stepped outside the actual camp compound to the mausoleum filled with the ash remains of inmates. I didn’t like this. It was blowing around, there was smashed glass bottles and cigarette butts all around. However as I learnt, there are many different memorials and ways of marking the holocaust. This one was obviously not to my taste.
That afternoon, on the way to Krakow. We stopped in a tiny village, The name of which escapes me. We were presented with a building site. Literally a hard hat zone.. but we were taken inside none the less. We were inside a synagogue which was under restoration. A synagogue which in my mind, was the illustration synagogue of our past. On the walls were the (faded and mid restoration) Drawings and writings. The Gallery, high up, light and grand. And the ceiling, Vaulted. Due to the lack of lights, and the dust, My camera didn’t work, but the mental photos of a place of such important to my ancestors will stay with me forever.
Early that evening (After a hefty coach trip), we took a trip round “Jewish Krakow”. The Golders Green of Krakow. We looked from the outside at the synagogues, we walked through the streets… and we even managed to have a bit to eat in the “Jewish Style restaurant”.
That night, back in the hotel I wrote on facebook about my day. To which my distant cousin in America informed me that I had relatives who perished in Majdanek. The place I’d been stood earlier that day. The gas chamber which I had walked free from, had killed ancestors of mine, simply for being Jewish.
The next day was the hardest. Although not initially. We started by visiting the square where the Jews of Krakow were chosen for deportation. Another memorial… another strange one. We visited the gates of Schindler’s factory… and we looked at the faces which are now in the windows of the factory. The faces of those who survived. I overheard one of our survivors telling someone “You see them up there… third in… I know them…. I met them in a Deli in London”.
Next was something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain. A year on, and what I saw still plays havoc with my mind. We arrived at Aushwitz 1 and I was surprised at the sheer number of people waiting outside to get in. I was disgusted at the graffiti on the wall outside. I was unsure what to expect and what I would see or feel.
We entered Aushwitz through the famous “Gates of Hell”… Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Makes you free.
We were dragged at a pace which was far to fast to take it all in. Possibly for the best. Possibly for the worst. The way it has been preserved, to me, was too clinically. To close to a Museum, Too structured and too solid.
The conditions of Aushwitz, building wise, were not what I’d expected. Brick buildings. 3 floors high. Toilets, Stairs, Rooms. I was overcome with what to think, before being taken into one of the buildings. The building that contained the items left behind.
No photo can ever explain the feeling of looking through a thin pane of glass at the thousands of shoes, cups, bowls, suitcases, prosthetic limbs and the other items left by those whom perished at the Aushwitz camps.
I looked though one particular glass, and saw a pile of glasses. Glasses to me, a symbol of living. Without glasses (or at least my lenses) I cannot see. I am only half living. The glasses set me crying. Crying hysterically, yet without making a sound.
As we walked though the “museum that was Aushwitz” It was obvious to me the sheer amount of terror in the camp. Upon the “roads” of the camp, poles with hooks, used for hanging people. We walked down to the infamous death wall. Looking at the gunshots in the wall, but it was also heart wrenching to me, that we were stood between two of the worst blocks – 11 aka The Prison within the prison. and 10, the Medical Experimentation block.
Experiments took place that were too cruel to do to animals, yet were done to inmates without the blink of an eye. Just sitting here now thinking back makes me shudder.
We left Aushwitz and were allowed some free time outside to sit and eat lunch. I could not eat. I could barely drink I could barely think.
We boarded the bus for the short ride to Birkanau.
If only I knew what I was about to see. They say less is more. With Birkanau, this was certainly the case.
The coach stopped. We got out, and I looked. I stared. I rubbed my eyes and I stared some more. Left and right as far as the eye could see – Barbed Wire. I looked through the barbed wire. I could not see the back of the camp.
We started to walk though Birkanau. We walked and we walked and we walked… yet still were no where near the back. Birkanau felt to me a place so dark, It’s a surprise the grass grows.
The sheer size of Birkanau simply cannot be explained. 11,000 murdered every day. A Number I simply could not imagine. Quantities you cannot imagine, unless you stand there and experience it.
As we took a small wander though the vast amounts of rubble. I stopped and looked at the grass. 67 years after Liberation. The puddles still have a murky grey tint.
I wondered though the remains of a gas chamber. So planned, perfect, meticulous. Down to the art of a small grill at the doorway, so that those destined for the next world, wiped their feet on entry. Craziness to the finest degree.
(I fail to know what more to write here about Birkanau. Over whelmed.)
That night, we were taken to a Synagogue to hear the story of one of the survivors who was on the trip with us. I sat amazed, at the colours and the intricacies. The decor, the feel… There was something special. As we stood up to leave I started to sing (Perhaps prompted by one of the Educators!)… Am Yisrael Chai…. everyone joined in. The Children of Israel Live. As we left a Synagogue once belonging to those whom were murdered at the hands of the Nazi Regime.
We visited Buna-Monowitz the next morning (Aushwitz 3). It was simply a memorial. Another memorial, and to me… It meant little or nothing.
The next day was march of the Living. 11,000 people marched from Aushwitz to Birkanau. 11,000 the number of people killed every day in Birkanau. Yet it felt empty. Had you told me it was 1000, I’d have believed you. Even with 11,000 people in front of your very eyes. You can’t imagine how many that is!
We marched, led by our survivors to Birkanau. The streets were flanked with local people holding banners. We sung, we held hands. We did the death march which marked the end for so many.
Inside Biraknau we took part in a ceremony of remembrance. We said the Jewish memorial prayer… but the most moving of all we Sang the Hatikvah.
Translated It means “The Hope”. It’s the national anthem of Israel and a sign that Jewish life all over the world is still in existence. No matter how I feel with G-d. What I felt and still feel, is that although Hitler tried to exterminate a race. He failed to exterminate my race. The Jewish People still live. AM YISRAEL CHAI.
“As long as deep within the heart
A Jewish soul yearns
And toward the edges of the east
An eye to Zion looks
Our hope is not yet lost
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in the our Land
The Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”