~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~
A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death. For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.
July 13. Our last day in this beautiful, revitalized city of Krakow. And like the city, the Jewish community is also trying to revitalize. There is even a Jewish Cultural Festival coming up in Krakow. Our non-Jewish young Polish guides here have certainly been passionate about not letting the past die, as were our German historians encountered on our trip. Gusia takes us to the Jewish Community Center, and Jakub gives us a guided tour in the new Jewish Heritage Museum. He reaches 12,000 schoolchildren, doing outreach, and works with others to resurrect desecrated Jewish cemeteries. As he puts it, it is Polish heritage as well as Jewish heritage. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was the center of European Jewish life. In fact, at the end of the 18th century, 75% of the world’s Jews lived in the former Galicia, once part of Poland, Ukraine and the Austria-Hungarian empire. Still, in most places in Poland there is nothing left of what was. Out of what was once millions, today only between 12,000 and 14,000 Jews call Poland home. Let’s not forget that after the war, Jewish survivors were not exactly welcomed back by their neighbors with open arms. And the Communist regime conducted its own purges of Jews as well.
All the more reason to embrace the work of Gusia and Jakub and other dedicated Poles.
July 14. Bus ride is long, from Krakow to Belzec (pronounced “Bel-zich”) Memorial site. Five hours. Imagine what it was like traveling in a packed railcar. Well, we can’t.
I carry a letter with me written by my friend, survivor Ariela, who, like many friends is supporting me in my travel here. It has been in my pocket for weeks. Ariela was 11 when she was liberated with her aunt on the train near Magdeburg, from Bergen Belsen. She too had been in the prison at Montelupich in Krakow.
A little girl.
In a political prison.
So, I am kind of quiet as we approach the memorial site. Ariela’s mother, only 36, both of her grandmothers, her grandfather and two aunts were murdered here in 1942. Her father, other grandfather, and uncle were murdered in Auschwitz, where we were two days ago.
From the USHMM:
“In November 1941, SS and police authorities in Lublin District began construction of a killing center on the site of the former Belzec labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections and proximity to significant Jewish populations in the Lvov, Krakow, and Lublin districts of the Generalgouvernement. The facility was finished in the late winter of 1942 as part of what later would be called Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. Belzec began operations on March 17, 1942.”
“Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars, with 80 to 100 people crowded into each car, arrived at the Belzec railway station. Twenty freight cars at a time were brought into the camp. Arriving Jews were ordered to disembark. German SS and police personnel announced that the Jewish deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables.”
“Initially, men were separated from women and children, though in later months, as transport arrivals became more chaotic due to increased awareness of the victims of what would happen, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries could not always implement this segregation. The Jews were forced to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started an engine located outside the building housing the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was funneled into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with deportees in the next 20 freight cars. “
“Groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners were forced to sort the victims’ possessions and clean out freight cars for the next deportation. Camp staff periodically murdered these forced laborers, and replaced them with newly arrived prisoners. In October 1942, German SS and police personnel, using groups of Jewish prisoners, began to exhume the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. By late spring 1943, the camp was dismantled. During June 1943, the remaining Jewish prisoners were either shot in Belzec or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed. After Belzec was dismantled, the Germans plowed over the site. Soviet forces overran the region in July 1944.”-USHMM
Open air ovens. Rail track. Machine. Bone fragments. Powder.
The women in our group enter the memorial for a private ceremony. The seven men walk the perimeter, near the hillside. The memorial project leaders were told that during the Operation Reinhard actions, some of the locals would picnic on the hillside behind us as transports pulled in to discharge the terrified and doomed victims.
They would watch.
After the German attempt to destroy the site and hide the evidence of a half a million gassed and cremated, the site would be rifled for gold, pockmarked with shovel pits by the local population.
Surely those Jews had gold with them, when they were killed.
When Ariela came here in 1993, it had reverted to forested hillside.
I unfold the letter and step out into the volcanic type rocks imported here to build the memorial. I am setting up my own memorial.
After the touring of the memorial (though “touring” is the wrong word, perhaps “witnessing” is the right one), I am lost in thought. I had kept the letter to myself. Alan asks, gently, if he may see it. It gets passed around in the back of the bus on our way to the hotel in Lublin. After what we have seen today, I think it makes an important impact on all.
Later, Alan sends his photograph of me placing the letter on the memorial, to Ariela. She is touched and writes back:
I want to thank you with all my heart for what you did for me, by taking my letter and putting it on the ground where my mother’s bones are spread. When I saw the picture, I cried. It is already 71 years but my heart still has feeling, for all my family. My father asked in his last letter from jail that I should pray for him, and believe me that I do.
Ariela went on to marry and have a wonderful family. Her beloved husband, another survivor, passed a short time ago.
Yes, it was another tough day, but somehow I feel like we are making a difference by coming here. I come with no agenda other than to see what happened, though obviously I too feel a personal stake in it all.
Sometimes, when I’m working on the woodpile or resting on the tailgate of my truck, I wonder why I was chosen to connect Holocaust survivors with their “angels”. Like this little girl with her liberators. And from there, to journey back in time to uncover what happened here.
I suppose I could have just let things be.
But I couldn’t leave things alone.
It certainly seems that one thing builds upon another for a reason, and though we may not know that reason, it is there. Our actions reverberate across borders and through time.
So I’m here to make another special connection.
Maybe from little girl to mother.
So no one forgets.
And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues.