Irony, it is the one word that keeps coming to mind as we toured Birkenau and then Auschwitz today. Take away the history of these two places, and the setting could be idyllic. Birds were chirping, flowers were blooming, the weather was comfortable, new houses are being built nearby, all things that could mask the sinister history of these camps.
The power of these places is driven home when looking down the railroad track at Birkenau where so many Jews ended their final trip with a short walk to the gas chamber and the crematoria. These facts kept the scene from being comfortable in any way.
The students, Mary and I were shown dormitories converted from horse stables where 400 would be stuffed at night. These were the fortunate ones who were allowed to live, even if they endured hunger, disease, and the other blights of living in such close quarters under such adversity.
We saw the killing fields and the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau, followed by a memorial service at the monument, which attracted folks from many groups, countries, and languages. Kaddish Yatom and Hatikvah are universal.
After lunch we were shown the camp at Auschwitz. This camp has been kept in more or less the same condition as it was at the end of the war. We were privileged to see the new Jewish exhibit which has only been open for about two weeks. It was very moving to see, especially the children’s drawings which have been painstakingly re-drawn on the walls of the exhibit.At the end of the tour we were shown the gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz, which are the only ones we saw today that were intact. It was a chilling end to a somber day.
It is difficult to guage how the chilling aspects of this visit will impact the teens. As expected, there were some tears, especially from those that lost family members in the Shoah. I believe that the total effect of this visit may not sink in with them for several days, weeks, and maybe even months. The campers were appropriately respectful and mainly quiet throughout the day, fitting with the somber mood of the moment. But, back on the bus, where we are now, they are back to their animated selves. I think the events will impact them over time.
We are all so thankful that Shabbat awaits!
by Harry Levy
President of the NAC
L’Dor V’Dor 3 Chaperone