No one in my family has ever returned - or wanted to return - to Poland since my grandparents fled after the horrors of the Holocaust; last week, I broke that tradition. Here is my story from that trip:
When Sabbath Returned to Krakow
As it is forbidden for a Jew to write on the Sabbath, this entry is told in the past tense.
Sabbath in Krakow was easily the most uplifting portion of my trip. Although the history of this country may be marred, Krakow is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been in. The river which runs along the town is teeming with life, surrounded by rows of gorgeous autumn trees and rolling hills of green. Couples take long, romantic walks along the borders of the river; parents, with children and pets in tow, gaze lovingly at one another while basking in the sun on a crisp, late-fall day. The tourists are happy, the locals are happy, my friends are happy. I am happy.
Starting Friday night, we hold services in an older synagogue whose days of glory have passed. Upon arrival, we find that we are not alone. There is a group of Israeli students there, the same group we have seen many times before. We greet one another, wish each other well, and my group eventually begins our services. Not long after commencing our services, there is a noise which is growing outside: another group of Israelis of more than one-hundred females have come also to welcome the Sabbath. All together, there were around two-hundred Jews sitting in this synagogue; a synagogue once only inhabited by spiders, cobwebs, and dust.
I have prayed many times on Friday night; in my mind, it is possible that no time prior has been as powerful as this time.
The rest of Sabbath was more of the same: we sang more than I have ever before, smiled more than I had in the past few days combined, simply enjoying the Sabbath as G-d has commanded us to do so. During the afternoon, we toured the town, visited more beautifully re-furnished synagogues and historic landmarks, and simply took in the sights, sounds, and feelings of Krakow. We were, at times, greeted by passersby with a friendly “Shalom” ("Hello" in Hebrew). It seemed as though the soul of the Sabbath infected the whole town; It was quite the remarkable feeling.
But more than anything, I was happy because I knew that I could be; with my looming trip to Auschwitz, I realized my happiness may be short lived. Only tomorrow will tell.
A Smile From Heaven
We have arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau accompanied by a survivor of the camp, Mr. Wiser (a name all too fitting, I would come to learn). The air is cold, the wind is intense; it is 0700. As we don our Tefillin (Phylacteries) outside of the bus and walk towards the barbed-wire border between the inside and outside of the camp, I cannot believe I am here, let alone standing on the outside. The place where so many were tortured, slaughtered, and subjected to horrors beyond the wildest of imaginations is standing right in front of me as a tourist attraction; I grimace at the idea that our history has become a museum. As I walk along the infamous railroad tracks, the same ones which escorted so many Jews to their deaths, I notice something that sends shivers down my spine: a smell. The air is filled with the smell of smoke, as though something had recently been burnt. Yet I see no pillars of black smoke ascending towards the heavens. It as if the pungent smell of our history has never gone away.
Or maybe I am just not used to it.
We finish praying, and briskly walk back to the bus in order to head to Auschwitz I. We finally arrive, and I am shocked. Auschwitz looks more like a college campus than it does a former concentration camp; I have begun counting the seconds until I can leave this dreaded place. Many Barracks are closed off. At one part of the "camp," there is what appears to be a swimming pool. However, I am told it is not so; the official museum sign says it is a "Fire-fighting reservoir built in the form of a swimming pool." I am flabbergasted; there is a diving board at the far end of this "reservoir;” there are ladders to climb in and out; the "reservoir" is built with decorative emblems on each side of the structure. Yet, I am told it is a firefighting reservoir. These are lies; blatant lies. There is a sign on one of the barracks with a very famous quote by George Santayana. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I wonder what happens to those who try to change it.
We return to Auschwitz II - Birkenau and begin our tour. I, myself, have a very personal connection to Auschwitz: my grandfather was a prisoner here for around a year or so. Coming here has made me feel guilty; I am wearing gloves, a warm coat, wool socks, boots. What did my grandfather have? Yet, more than that, I feel proud. I am proud because I know that, from above, my grandfather is smiling down on me; he beat the Nazi’s and here I am, wearing an Israeli flag on my back, marching through Auschwitz with a Torah. As it says in Jeremiah 31:16, “And there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their own borders.” If only the so many others who did not make it out could see us now; and yet, I feel like they indeed do see us.
What are described as "barracks" are not truly so; they resemble horse stables. The bathrooms are not so; they are simply rooms with many holes in the ground. Once again, I am overcome with great senses of confusion and anger; how could this happen? The smell of death still lingers in the air. It is painted on the walls, nailed into the floors, and yet I walk; I am a single soul among the many.
What was our crime? What was our wrongdoing? What could drive a people so mad as to go about hunting down every single one of us? I want to cry, but I cannot; I have no tears. All I feel is pain. A pain that starts in my heart, and infects my limbs. My hands are trembling, my breathing is heavy; I am bursting at the seams with anger, about to explode. "WHY!?" I want to yell, but I cannot. I simply feel powerless. Here I stand, a Jew, all of 70-or-so years later, and I mentally collapse. Maybe it is just not for me to understand.
We arrive at the former crematorium. I know this place, but not because I have been here before; my grandfather was part of the Sonderkommando: a group of Jews forced to work in the gas-chambers aiding in the "cleaning" of the chambers after usage. However, I believe the Nazi's did not understand one thing about us: no matter how hard you scrub, no matter how many times you paint, you will never be able to remove the heart and soul of a Jew. I stand over and say a prayer of remembrance; it is quiet, it is cold. But who am I to complain? The dead deal with the cold every night.
We start singing in Hebrew: "And purify my heart in Your true service," a song, the story goes, that Jews sang whilst in the gas chambers, face-to-face with death. We begin to dance. Mr. Wiser enters the circle and receives the Torah that has also accompanied us on our journey. A tear forces its way out of my eye; never before I have witnessed something so beautiful. As we sing and dance with all energy in our souls, out of the corner of my eye, I see them. They are dressed in black, and they are walking quickly. I have prepared myself for this moment, as I knew it would come. They are the camp guards, coming to tell us to stop singing. When they arrive, we continue singing, while Mr. Wiser's daughters calmly explain to them they have no right to tell him to stop singing, and I cannot help but agree. Who are they to tell us we are too loud? Who are they to tell us that we cannot sing where the memories of our brothers and sisters are forever trapped?
Do not tell me to be quiet: I pray in place of the six million who no longer can.