Trip to Auschwitz

auschwitz barbed wire 29 (photo credit: Leslie Schachter)
auschwitz barbed wire 29
(photo credit: Leslie Schachter)
A couple of days ago I took the bus from Krakow to Auschwitz. The inevitable awkward feeling of requesting a bus ticket to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, was almost as surreal as actually being there. I felt I had to go, not to educate myself; I already knew enough of what took place there. I needed to go more out of a sense of respect to all those who perished there. Walking past the barracks, large red brick houses, it was hard to believe that all of these horrible things really happened, and only just a few minutes away from the next village. After passing under the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the entrance to the camp, I somehow gravitated towards the crematorium situated at one extremity of the camp. The stark simplicity and coldness of it was really shocking. I looked at the lavish floral settings adorning the ovens, all the tools used to implement the incineration of thousands upon thousands of bodies, the small door at the back used for collecting the ash and bones. I saw scratch marks etched by human nails on the walls of the gas chambers in the next room, trying not to imagine the horrible deaths that took place inside. There were several exhibits set up in the former barracks covering many aspects of life and death at Auschwitz, including deportations, extermination, experimentation and torture. I didn't want to see all of them because I knew full well what gory images I would discover. I went to one exhibit that housed a history of the Jewish armed resistance, as well as a memorial room, where at the push of a button I could hear the prayer for the memory of those who perished sung in Hebrew. The entrance to the house featured a mezuzah, which was installed by Ariel Sharon less than one year ago. There were plenty of high school students who came to visit the camp. Some were Polish but most were from all over Europe: England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc. I know it's so important to teach people about the atrocities of the holocaust so that it will never happen again. I also know that most students, especially Polish and German, are so far removed from Jewish life, from the vibrant communities that established themselves over centuries in their respective countries, that the idea of the Jew has been objectified and turned into nothing more than a victim. I met a German fellow when I was in Tel Aviv who explained to me about how he learned about the Holocaust. It's funny meeting people in hostels in Israel. You tend to ask them why they are here (Israel), as if you were cell mates in prison. "What're you in for?" "Me? I'm a Jew." "Oh, well that explains it." "What about you?" "Well…" There are so many reasons for people to visit Israel. It's always interesting to meet those unaffiliated with any particular religion. So this German - he was about 35 - told me that 20 years ago someone gave him a tape of Yiddish music. He said that he was so inspired by the life and joy expressed by those lost souls that it stuck with him to this day. It occurred to me that all these young students who come to visit a concentration camp as part of their high school trips know more about the Nazi oppressors than the ash and bones of those poor souls left behind. This past week I roamed around Krakow's old town, as well as Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. I visited the Krakow's castle, numerous churches, some museums and some pubs, the amusement park and Zakopane, a beautiful town nestled in the Tatra mountains. I met up with my dear friend Johanna from Sweden, and we stayed with her friend Maciek (Mah-chek). He took us to his hometown of Tarnow, 70 km from Krakow. It's a nice little town, roughly 120,000 people. Had he not mentioned it, I would never have known about the vibrant Jewish community that thrived there for several hundred years until 1939. At that time, the Jewish community made up literally half of the town's population. Walking through the little streets and the town square, one would never have suspected it. All that remains now is a bima (podium) constructed of four red brick pillars and a canopy in a deserted park near the main square. A small plaque has been installed atop the gate to the park, explaining that the synagogue was set ablaze by the Germans on Nov. 9th, 1939, exactly a year after Kristallnacht took place in Germany. I know that Jewish history and/or Jewish religion are not part of the main curriculum in Europe. I just wonder what can happen when all people know is that a particular people were persecuted, slaughtered, gassed and burned, and all survivors have left. So far, in my research here, I've made contact with a few members of the tiny Jewish community here in Krakow. I've been invited to both seders in Kazimierz and I look forward to learning more about the renaissance of Polish Jewry.