Behind the wire at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos
For Jews all over the world, Auschwitz- Birkenau, established by the Germans in 1940 has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The direct reason for the establishment of the camp was that mass arrests of Poles were increasing beyond the capacity of existing “local” prisons. Initially, Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp, similar to the type the Nazis had been setting up since the early 1930s. It functioned in this capacity until 1942 when Auschwitz- Birkenau was built and became the largest of the death camps.
En route to Auschwitz-Birkenau we stopped at the memorial site of Plaszow – a forced labour camp built on the site of two Jewish cemeteries. By 1944 it had become a concentration camp, housing about 25,000 (mainly Jewish) residents of Krakow. The camp was run by the notorious Amon Goeth whose reign of indiscriminate shootings and beatings was depicted in the movie Schindler’s List.
We then passed by Schindler’s factory and the remaining portion of the ghetto wall, now a series of arched concrete slabs redolent of gravestones. This was followed by a visit to the old Jewish quarter where we saw the old Synagogue and the old Jewish cemetery which curiously, was not destroyed by the Nazis. We also had the privilege of visiting the Galicia museum which holds an interesting and very beautiful photographic exhibition depicting the history of the Jewish community of Galicia (Poland and Ukraine), home to 75% of Europe’s Jews in the late 1920’s. It is a moving portrayal of both life and death of the Jews of this area and era.
Viewing the wall of death. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos.
All that we had learned, heard and read over our lifetimes as Jews, did not prepare us for Auschwitz-Birkenau – the gas chambers, the wall of death and the dormitories, where medical experiments on women were conducted.
Many old dormitories have been converted into museum display units for human hair, suitcases, brushes, spectacles and prostheses. We found the sight of mounds and mounds of hair to be most confronting with images of the people whose hair it was coming to mind. The many labelled suitcases gave each Holocaust victim an identity and transported you to those brief moments of panicked packing of a few precious possessions to prepare for a journey they could not, in their worst nightmares, imagine they were about to undertake.
After days and days of grey skies, the day of the March was sunny. There were so many groups of people of different ages from all over the world. Some groups were very festive, celebrating life, while others were very pensive as we completed the 2.8km walk between Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The March is designed to contrast with the death marches which occurred towards the end of World War II. When Nazi Germany withdrew its soldiers from forced-labour camps, inmates – usually already starving and stricken by oppressive work – were forced to march hundreds of miles further west, while those who lagged behind or fell were shot. The March of the Living, in contrast to the death marches, serves to illustrate the continued existence of world Jewry despite Nazi Germany’s attempts at their obliteration.
At one stage during the walk, we heard the sound of a large dog barking. Although there was nothing sinister in this, we found it chilling as it brought to mind images the of Nazi’s vicious guard dogs. As we walked into Auschwitz-Birkenau along the iconic railway tracks, with our survivors John and Henry next to us, all the horrific images of the victims traveling to their deaths were front of mind.
Frank and Shirley Lowy. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos
During the ceremony, there were messages of strength and hope. Frank Lowy spoke about the murder of his father in Auschwitz-Birkenau because he would not let the SS take his tallit and Tefillin. He died protecting his faith- “they could break his body but they could not break his spirit.” Click here to see the live address.
The Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, Lt. General Benjamin Gantz, whose mother was a survivor of Bergen Belsen spoke of the next step in the “march of life.” “From the destruction of the Holocaust we grew stronger as a nation, we grew stronger as a people.” He also resolved that “we will not forget, nor will we allow it to be forgotten.”
Ronald Lauder, son of Estee Lauder and an American philanthropist who has created a foundation to rebuild Jewish identity around the world had a message for the thousands of young people who participated in the March – “I lit the fire for the one and a half million young people who perished. You are our future.” Six memorial flames were lit during the ceremony – one for each one million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
After this, our Australian MOTL group held their own ceremony, where several students gave moving accounts of their own grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust. Against the backdrop of the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the students who had not had a Bar mitzvah when he turned thirteen, was Bar mitzvah’d – a very uplifting event to be witness to.
Talia Vidor, March of the Living 2013 participant. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos
Tali Vidor – a student in our group reflected on the circle of life amongst all this death and destruction. “Birds still fly and snow still falls and trees still grow”. It is truly indicative of the triumph of the human spirit.
We overnighted in the town of Tarnow which, before the war, was home to 25,000 Jews. This number increased to over 40,000 when the ghetto was formed in 1940 and by 1943 all the residents had either been murdered or sent to Belzec or Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We learned that Belzec was the first extermination camp using gas/carbon dioxide to murder 500,000 Jews in its 13 months of operation. Only 3 people survived. There are no remains of the camp, only a memorial completed in 2004. Only first names of those who died are listed, depicting a people stripped of their identity. The memorial is made up of fields of rock bordered by twisted metal displaying the bleak years that the site was used as a death factory. At the memorial site, survivor John Gruschka reflected on the closure he had finally felt when he had said Kaddish for his mother the previous day at Birkenau – where she had perished 74 years ago.
Driving to Warsaw we had time to reflect on the three camps we visited as well as many other memorial sites. At each of the three camps we held memorial services and heard testimonies from students whose family members had lived through or died in the Holocaust. What struck me was how deep and personal these stories were and how the horrors of the Holocaust had impacted on their lives. It also gave me hope. Out of all this darkness will come a generation of young people who will not only remember the past but will continue to fan the flames of the future of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora.
I’m going to leave you with a quote from one of our MOTL students Seth Wolff:
“Let us not forget those who perished within the walls of Auschwitz, those who were stripped of their belongings or personal identities, those who were unable to protest or fight back and those who had loving and caring families. Even though the years continue to pass, we will never forget those who lost their lives in the events of the Shoah.”
Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos
Our group now heads to Israel where we will participate in the Yom Hazikaron Service and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.
Ian Sandler is the Chief Executive Officer of JCA