(photo credit: Reuters)
Sunday, January 26, 7 p.m.
I’m not leaving the house for almost eight hours, but my bag is already packed and I already have a pit in my stomach. To say I’m terrified of visiting Auschwitz tomorrow seems to belittle the actual terrors that took place there, but I’m still very nervous. People keep saying it’ll be an unforgettable experience, but I don’t know how I’ll be able to balance the strong emotions I’ll surely feel while I’m there with the need to take notes, ask intelligent questions and be generally professional.
People also keep telling me to dress warmly because it’s very cold, and I want to ask them if they really thought I didn’t know it’s cold in Poland in the winter.
Monday, January 27, 4:40 a.m.
The King David lounge at Ben-Gurion Airport is packed with current and former MKs, press, and machers (VIPs) ranging from Conference of Presidents leader Malcolm Hoenlein to Birthright alumni. A photographer snaps photos of people schmoozing, as the buzz stays respectfully quiet and people snack on the mini sandwiches and salads.
I talk to MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) about how we’re both going to Poland for the first time. He has survivors in his family and relatives who perished in Auschwitz, and he’s nervous and sure this will be a powerful experience for him. He wanted to sit alone and think, but other MKs insisted on socializing.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett also tells me this is his first time, flashing his rabbity grin when he says he was never sent to Poland in any of his officer’s courses in the army.
Nearby, MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) is slumped in a chair, asleep.
We’re on the bus from the Kraków military airport to Auschwitz, and all anyone can talk about is that the Wi-Fi isn’t working and none of us can report any information back to Israel. A Polish guide is telling us about the small towns we’re passing, but no one seems interested. An Israel Radio reporter asks him to stop talking so he can broadcast live.
“We’re all wearing three, four layers of clothing, but our imaginations are working overtime, thinking how people must have felt naked in this cold,” he says flatly.
The press has its own bus, separate from the MKs’ two buses. We were on the same planes as the politicians, but everyone slept, so it didn’t really matter. Looking out the window, all I see is snow. The temperature is -5° Celsius. Do we really have to get off the bus?
The crowd on the tour of Auschwitz is so big – even though we’re divided into groups – I can barely hear the tour guide. MKs are taking pictures by the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will make you free) sign at the entrance. It’s much smaller than I thought it would be.
Lipman is carrying a book by his great-grandfather, who was killed here, which he solemnly shows me.
He looks shaken.
We enter block 4. The sign in front reads “extermination.” The rooms are bare. I can only imagine what and who filled them 70 years ago.
Photos on the walls of hundreds of prisoners in the camp help me with the who. Jews from Amsterdam, Germany, Hungary, the guide tells us.
Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman wipes a tear from his eyes as we shuffle into the next room to hear about the “selection” process.
We stop in a narrow hallway with a photograph of Hungarian Jews’ bodies being burned, one of the only existing photos of cremation in Auschwitz, and a murmur goes through the crowd. Maybe shock isn’t the right word for it, since we all know what happened here, but our hearts collectively dropped into our stomachs. I know mine did, and I saw it on the MKs’ faces.
We reach a mound of hair taller than some of the snow banks outside and wider than all of them. The guide tells us the hairs’ various uses, while MK Rina Frenkel (Yesh Atid) freezes, gaping at it. She finally snaps out of it to take a picture and catch up with the group.
Crutches, prosthetic legs – hundreds and hundreds of them piled up. Everyone is silent.
“It’s just incomprehensible,” Lavie tells me. “I’ve been here so many times and it’s just...” She trails off.
And then come the shoes. A hallway full of them. We couldn’t count them if we were here all day.
“This is insanity,” MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) said. MK Meshulam Nahari (Shas) responds with what seems to be the word of the day: “It’s incomprehensible.”
On the way to another exhibit, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz listens intently to Tzipora Dracinover, who arrived in Auschwitz from Transylvania with her sister.
Everyone took scraps of beets and rubbed them on their faces so they’d look healthy, she recounted, with Canadian MP Irwin Cotler listening.
“Whoever came out of here alive – it’s a miracle,” Dracinover said. “I have grandchildren. They’re all Jewish and religious. That’s our victory.”
“Ani Ma’amin” (I believe) plays hauntingly in the entrance of the Yad Vashem building, but in the next room, Jewish children dance in black and white and sing Hatikva.
Later, MKs try to find relatives in the 4.2 million names Yad Vashem has collected.
“Look, it’s my father’s family! Moses in Romania,” MK Menahem Eliezer Moses (UTJ) says excitedly, as lawmakers gather around him.
“There are 70 names, I don’t know all of them, but I found my grandfather.
Yosef Moses, Efraim Moses.”
I want to find my grandfather’s family, Kornreich, but MK Hilik Bar (Labor) has family on the same pages in the room-filling book. I wait impatiently as the tour moves on.
He’s taking a while, but you can’t really rush a person in this situation.
Finally, I find nearly an entire page of Kornreichs, including my great-grandmother’s name, although she escaped to Israel. Must be a cousin. I take a picture to show my grandparents. And I lost my group.
No Knesset members in sight.
I wander around looking for people who look familiar and run into Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who also lost his group. I introduce myself and we make small talk. I know all about him, so he mostly asks about me and then interrupts to point out the gallows on which Rudolph Hess was hanged after the war ended. He asks me to take a picture of him.
Then I see my group getting on the buses. Turns out I wasn’t the only reporter to go off and explore, because I receive the least-sensitive SMS imaginable from the Knesset’s logistics team: “All press, report to the crematorium.” The journalists already on the bus laugh at the faux pas.
Entering Birkenau, we walk along the train tracks to the press tent.
It’s much colder here, because there aren’t buildings around us like in Auschwitz. It’s all empty except for barbed wire and a train car.
When we reach the heated press tent, next to the giant tent where the ceremony takes place, we hear what seems like a dozen languages.
I try, then, to focus on the ceremony.
Noah Kliger, a survivor and reporter for Yediot Aharonot, has a mix of dark humor, love for and pride in Israel that draws me into his story.
In a packed train, which was so full “the dead didn’t even have room to fall,” he recounted, a man speaking Yiddish in a Hungarian accent asked others to say Kaddish for his father.
“When did your father die?” Kliger asked. “Recently,” the Hungarian responded.
“Where is he?” “We’re sitting on him.”
Kliger concluded: “69 years after the hell of Auschwitz, we’re here as proud citizens of the Jewish state that rose from the destruction of European Jewry.”
My friend and I shuffle out of the tent toward the monument in Birkenau for a prayer ceremony, pulling our coats up over our faces to fight the biting cold.
Various Jewish and Christian leaders blow the shofar and read prayers.
At some point during the ceremony, I realize my feet are freezing, and start walking in place. My friend asks me what I’m doing, and I tell her I’m trying to keep warm, but she panics.
“We have to get out of here now, I can’t feel my feet,” she says.
“The ceremony will be over in a few minutes, just walk in place,” I hiss back.
She starts walking away, and I follow her so she’s not alone. We see a row of buses that look like they’re from the 1980s – not ours. We start walking toward where we think our bus should be, joined by someone who works with an NGO helping Holocaust survivors.
The NGO guy says: “Just imagine, this is the date that the death march began. It was this cold.”
“We. Can’t. Feel. Our. Feet,” my friend snaps at him.
A few minutes later, we’re all shivering and he says: “You know, if we get through this, we can say we survived Auschwitz.”
This time I snap and growl that he’s not funny. I’m freezing cold and in a concentration camp. This is no time for Holocaust humor, if there is ever such a time.
Roughly 0.8 km. later, we finally find the bus and must look like total messes, because the other reporters – almost all of whom are male – ask us if we’re okay and bring us hot drinks. There’s heat on the bus, but I’m still freezing.
“You’re cold, but imagine, people walked further than this in tattered pajamas,” a haredi reporter points out to me.
I curl up in my coat. Thank God I’m here with a coat.