Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious Nazi death camp. I decided to take this as an opportunity to share a personal experience about a trip that I took to Poland.
In 1992, I travelled to Poland and Israel as part of the March Of The Living. It's an annual trip that retraces the Holocaust through the concentration and death camps of World War II in Poland and then to Israel for redemption and celebration. I was still in high school when I took this trip and it remains one of the single most defining moments of my life. A seed of hate towards humanity was planted on this trip and I still struggle with it to this day.
The two entires below are from the journal that I kept while I was traveling.
Today was a very rough day. We got on the bus at 5:30am and left Warsaw. We were headed to Auschwitz for The March. It was a four-hour ride, full of laughter and happy times with friends. It retrospect, it seemed a little inappropriate to be celebrating life. Etka Goldenberg, on of the Holocaust survivors, was on our bus. She stood up at the front of the bus and started telling us stories about her survival. Her brother, 20 at the time, as well as her father were both murdered. She told us how it had left a lasting effect on her. She couldn't take showers, she couldn't sleep very well and always thinks people are going to sneak up from behind. She explained that she survived because she didn't give up.
We lined up for The March. Thousands of people from all over the world. We started the 2 - 3 mile walk that our ancestors took. It was the very road on which so many of them had died. I was actually in Auschwitz. I couldn't believe it. As we exited Auschwitz and headed toward Birkenau, you could look ahead and behind and see the thousands of people marching.
As we got closer to Birkenau, I felt very scared. Birkenau was where I lost it. It was incredible. I saw all of the chimneys left over from the barracks. It was all that remained. The barbed wire fence was still there. I went up to it and grasped it in complete pain as I stared off into the sea of people. Tears were streaming down my face. I was sad and so angry at humanity.
Today we went back to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We visited many of the barracks that had been restored. We visited the crematoriums and gas chambers as well. Inside the gas chamber, you could make out finger nail scratches on the concrete walls. There was a small opening at the top where they would drop the canisters of Zyclon-B gas. I felt suffocated and terribly freaked out. The crematorium ovens were dark and dusty. There were ashes still in the ovens. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Hundreds of thousands of people likely died in a single oven.
Block 4 was where we saw the hair brushes, razors and other toiletries that were taken from the prisoners. There were so many! It was overwhelming and I got upset. We then went to Block 5, which was the most difficult of them all. I felt a huge lump form in my throat as I walked down a 50-75 foot hallway with a few tons of human hair on both sides of me. Much of it had been spun into cloth. This was the hair that was shaved from the prisoners' hair. I started crying again. The next room contained shoes and luggage. The number of people who died in this camp was becoming easier to actually comprehend.
The most difficult of all the blocks was the one where they did the medical experiments. It's said that the medical experiments that were done on the prisoners set Auschwitz apart from the other camps. Some of the most unbelievable and terrible things were done to prisoners. The photos on the walls made me sick to my stomach. They showed mainly women, starving to death, sterilized and tortured. I had to leave.
It is of vital importance that we, as human beings, remember those millions of people (6 million of them Jews) that died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. We must never forget their struggles. It's also important to document survivors' stories. If you have relatives that survived, I urge you to speak with them. Their voices must be heard and their stories must be told. It is essential that future generations have these experiences to study. Most importantly, we must learn from this terrible human atrocity. If we don't examine how Hitler was able to rise to power and kill millions of people, then we are doomed. Sometimes I think that it's already too late. Until we can see past skin color, sex, age, sexual orientation and most especially religion, we will continue marching toward self destruction. When will we wake up to the fact that we are all one? I hope that I live to see such a day.