“You have made me so rich, O God; please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue.
Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.
At night, too, when I lie in bed and rest in You, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer. Amen”. – Etty Hillesum
On September 1st 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and thus began the second world war. Less than a month later, Warsaw surrendered and the Nazi victory was all about complete. On November 1940, the Jews of Warsaw were transferred and confined into small ghetto within the walls of the city. The ghetto population increased to 45,000 and the conditions became unbearable. The streets were full of starving children. The diseases and poverty were rampant. Some kilometers away the gas chambers were designed to kill 600,000 people every day.
While stories of Auschwitz seem more fiction than reality to many, to most people, this place, is one of those places they would rather forget. Most of my polish friends have never visited Auschwitz, and they are not planning to, they say it’s a place that reminds them of the past they would rather pay to forget. On the 68 year of celebration after the liberation, I watched a survivor narrates of his time in the consecration camp. That evening was a turning point in my life. I wrote in my journal some lines that will remind me that this would be one place I should visit. Atleast before I die.
By late 1941, Hitler decided that the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated, so Birkenau, originally intended to house slave laborers, was re-purposed as a combination labor camp / extermination camp. Prisoners were transported there by rail from all over German-occupied Europe, arriving in daily convoys. By July 1942, the SS were conducting “selections”. Incoming Jews were segregated; those deemed able to work were admitted into the camp, and those deemed unfit for labor were immediately killed in the gas chambers.
The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with small children, pregnant women, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be completely fit. Mengele, a member of the team of doctors assigned to do selections, undertook this work even when he was not assigned to do so in the hope of finding subjects for his experiments. He was particularly interested in locating sets of twins. In contrast to most of the doctors, who viewed undertaking selections as one of their most stressful and horrible duties, Mengele undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune.
He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire … And then, next to that, … the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay. As I walked inside the camp I wondered, I wondered what kind of man would send small innocent children to death while he goes back home and put his own children to bed.
For me, a trip here is something I cannot explain. This is a very emotional trip, filled with silence, soul searching and most times tears. People visit here in their thousands everyday, but it’s always a silent tour. No talking, just marmar. The trips are very well organized, with a bus ride from the city of Krakow and a tour guide. You are provided with headset and you are able to hear what your guide is saying clearly. I saw pain in the pictures on the walls, pain of prisoners in their uniforms, labeled with a small triangle and a number. I saw where they slept, small rooms where they crowded with not enough restrooms and air, I saw what remained of their belongings, their spectacles, all crowded in a large room, two tons of women hair cover two large rooms, this is just the remnant of what the Nazi germany looted from them.
They robbed them of everything, they robbed them of their homes, families, personal belongings, the hair on their heads and the clothes they were wearing. All this was shipped to germany, to be sold. Tons of gold were melted from their ornaments. And after they took so much from them, they choose who they would kill, women and children. And for those who still had the health and strength they robbed them of that too. They worked 12 hours, without food. Their labour was free, painful, sweat, tears and blood, everyday. At night they were crowded in small rooms, they died from suffocation and starvation. Some slept standing all night……some made it and others didn’t.
The pain of those who died here is still here, it hasn’t gone away. I don’t know if it will ever go away, it’s been 72 years since the liberation and for me it’s been 4 years since I desired to come here. I am also in pain, I see their faces and in the quietness of this place, I can hear their voices. The place where some of them were hanged still smell of death, the sight is still fresh. You can see the crystals flying in the gas chambers, denying you air as you suffocate to death. Its been many years, they say time heals all wounds, it doesnt.
After the warsaw ghetto uprising, Jewish fighters continued to defy the Nazis. Over 30,000 Jewish fighters fought in resistance units in the ghettos, forests and death camps. They fought all throughout Poland and Europe until the final defeat of Nazis in 1945. Emmanuel Ringelblum letter to his fallen friend described his emotions on this painful moment.
“Peace go with you my friend, maybe we shall meet again. The thing is the dream of my life has come true. Self defence in the ghetto and Jewish armies has become a reality. I have lived to see the magnificent heroism of Jewish fighters in battle” Emmanuel was killed days later. In his last letter, the warsaw ghetto historian described the spirit of Jewish resistance…..”To live and die with honor” Unlike other brutal foes…….the resistance fighters lived and died in honor.
Many of those who had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, those I have gotten the opportunity to talk to, can’t describe their experience other than that of sadness, emotions and reflective. And like many of my Polish friends, it’s something they would rather not talk about. Something they wish they would forget. But there are some wisdom words that greet you when you enter Auschwitz…words from George Santayana. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat“
To the memory of men, women and Children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lies their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.