Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Today, (6/26/15). We went back to Birkenau and Auschwitz I. On the way, Alex shared another Eva story. Apparently, in the frames after the part of the liberation video that is usually shown, when you watch the end of it, Eva sticks her tongue out at the camera and laughs. Knowing Eva as we do, none of us are surprised.

When we arrived at Birkenau, we had the choice to go on the guided tour or explore on our own. I did a little of both. One of the things I had noticed is that for me, going on a tour is fascinating as far as the information you receive, but it doesn’t allow everything to really hit you.  Walking around with other people, rushing through exhibits, etc., isn’t conducive to reflection and understanding the gravity of the situation and this place.  I wanted to allow myself time and space to truly be impacted by what is here.  So, I opted to keep my headset on when I was with the group and wanted to hear what was being said, but also have the freedom to walk away when there was a shot I wanted or time I needed.

Szymon returned us to the barracks showing the living conditions of prisoners. 100_4484He shared that people in Birkenau considered Auschwitz a spa. Though people in Chelmno considered Birkenau a spa. It’s all in your perspective. Looking through the barracks, I was amazed to see a bird sitting at the window seemingly looking out. It sat for a minute, gazing out through the bars, then flapped its wings.  I was reminded of two things:  First, Mia Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  In it, she shares some of the horrors of her childhood and explained how much she was touched by beautiful things as an escape to the terrors around her.  Second,  I was reminded of an interview in Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah.  A woman recalls her experience being on one of the cattle cars and peeking out of the top window and seeing birds fly by.  She remembered envying them their freedom.

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

After the barracks, I left the group to go around  a bit on my own. Eva was back at the foundation of her former barracks, and there was a small group around her as she again told about her days in the camp.  She pointed out the remains of the stove they used too cook “organized” (stolen) potatoes on (End of the bricks where the flowers are sitting in the picture).  The girls in the barrack used to take turns standing guard while one of them cooked.  It was only after the liberation a friend had told her, “How did you manage to not get caught?  Boiled potatoes have a smell.”  Eva was surprised, so she boiled a potato to see, and sure enough, the girl was right.  Eva speculated that it might be because Dr. Mengele admired people who were strong and resourceful.  He despised pathetic people, so perhaps he had told them to not interfere with those who had managed to acquire something to help themselves.  Another group member asked if Eva had ever seen the giants or dwarves Mengele kept.  She said she had seen both.  Mengele was trying to figure out what caused all kinds of genetic mutations in his quest to create the master race.  He also practiced different methods of sterilization on some of the twins and other subjects.

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Then, it was time for our candle lighting at the Victims’ Memorial. When we arrived for the celebration, we found Eva sharing her story with a groups of Israeli students, all draped in Israeli flags. She challenged them to never be a bystander, to never give up, and about the power of forgiveness. As she shared her story, one sweet girl sat with years running down her cheeks. “It’s alright,” Eva said, “I made it. And you will too.”
Finally, Alex was able to drag her away, and we went to the monument. One by one, each of us lit a candle and shared who we were lighting it for. Eva lit hers in memory of her family, Alex in honor of the grandparents he had never known. It was an incredible time to hear which aspect of the Holocaust was memorable to whom.

Remembrance

Remembrance

Team members honored their own family members, members of resistance movements, those still surviving in countries affected by genocide, and those who sacrificed their lives for others. I lit mine in memory of Maurice Eisenstein’s family (a member of our Chabad community whose whole family perished in the Holocaust), the Ten Boom family and others like them who risked their lives to hide Jews and paid the ultimate price. After that, a rabbi with us led us in the mourner’s Kaddish. Definitely a moving time.

Then, we left Birkenau for lunch at Art Deco and then to Auschwitz I.

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Here, we went to see the typical barracks. Then, we headed to the Museum dedicated to the memory of the gypsies.  This was another fascinating area.  One of the coolest things was the artwork on the wall.  There was a painting by a prisoner that was actually done on the wall and protected by glass, but there was also an art display by a prisoner whose art talent literally saved her life.  Additionally, it was fascinating to read the stories of a number of children who had escaped.  It may just be my imagination, but I could almost tell from the eyes of these children which ones would succeed.  They had a defiance and a determination that looked different than the others.  What courage it must have taken, just like little Eva, to have the will to survive that will help you do whatever it takes to stay alive.

Children's drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

Children’s drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

A difficult area to visit was the Yad Vashem exhibits.  This was an incredibly well-organized exhibit that really makes the experience real for those who visit.  One of the things nearly every member of our group mentioned was the room with children’s drawings.  A number of children drew images from the camp–some ghastly like hangings or shootings, some beautiful like hearts, stars of David, and a bird singing–ironic in light of my experience that morning.  Another one that touched me the most was the image of a little girl sitting alone on the train platform with a suitcase with the word Terezin, 1943, and a number on it (Possibly a relative’s prison number.)  Another was the image of abandoned toys.  It’s very interesting to view an atrocity though the eyes of a child.

Book of Names room

Book of Names room

Another area that was extremely moving was the book of names room.  In three languages, it states, “The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”   Then, it quotes Psalms 139:16, “And in your book, they all will be written.”  Like no other area, this room strikes you with the sheer mass of people who were murdered,  I took the opportunity to look up my friend Maurice’s family, as he had mentioned they had been wiped out during the Holocaust.  I thought I might find a relative or two.  There were two full pages (3 feet of type each!) with name after name of people with his last name.  It was horrifying to see the devastation of this one family.  Another team member had found that her family name had three pages.  It brought home the fact that the Holocaust truly wiped out entire family lines!

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

When we returned to the hotel, a group of us were scheduled to head into town for a musical Sabbath service.  So we caught a cab downtown for a little over $4.00 total for the four of us, and waited for the service to begin.  We had previously had dinner here, and it was a cool venue.  The group here is really a grassroots group trying to interest seekers and make traditions more palatable for a younger audience.  With my normal experience in Judaism being with Chabad, it was WAY different.  They had a female rabbi, played instruments throughout, and didn’t recite the normal prayers, though there were people who did it.  However, the music was well done, they had Siddurs available for the visitors, and Kiddish was sensitive (both wine and grape juice) with the most amazing hallah I have ever tasted.  Just not what I’m used to.

When we arrived at the hotel at 10:30 PM, Eva was just heading into the lobby.  She sat on her walker and shared with us–stories from her past (returning to their family home to find it abandoned and neglected.  She teared up discussing her mother and how it felt to realize by the tall weeds and neglected appearance that her parents were never coming back.  But, she soon changed to the humorous as well, laughing through the tale of her husband getting trapped in his new used car because he didn’t know how to get out without setting the alarm off.  We laughed and cried and just thoroughly enjoyed being in the presence of Eva Kor.  Finally, we headed back to our rooms, shocked to discover it was midnight, and we had spent an hour and a half sharing with her.  What an incredible time!

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