~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.
After the tour of Auschwitz I, we have lunch on the bus in the parking lot, then drive the three kilometers through town to Birkenau.
There it is. The entry tower. The iconic symbol of evil.
We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.
Dozens of long narrow women’s barracks, brick, still stand, albeit some braced with wood on the gable ends to keep them from toppling until they can be re-pointed. A. indicates that historic preservation here is a major concern.
The rest of the camp is many square kilometers of row upon row of foundations and brick chimney stubs, surrounded by the menacing curved and tapered concrete concrete posts dotted with white insulators and strung with miles of parallel lines of barbed wire. In the summer of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families were deported here, the rail lines came right into the camp.
Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.
Our guide leads us along the path through the camp that leads to the gas chamber and crematorium. We walk in in silence along the roadway, the only sound the crunching of brick fragments and gravel underfoot.
It appears to have been paved with brick, slave labor, though in some spots it is hard to tell anymore. No one speaks, and on and on we walk. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. I’ve been on battlefields that are smaller than this site.
Finally we reach the end of the camp where the kitchens stood. A round concrete ring rises out of the earth, maybe 6 feet in diameter. Someone finally speaks and asks A. what it was. A giant flowerpot. She tells us also that they were placed near the entrances of the gas chambers. Flowers at the gas chambers.
We turn left, and keep walking past interpretative signage. It seems like we are walking outside of camp perimeter. But we are not. Beautiful woods appear and we are walking on the edge of the woods with the camp to our left. We stop near another sign and rest for a moment, allowing the others to catch up. Then our guide calls our attention to the photo on the sign, showing Hungarian mothers and children doing the same thing we are doing. Halting and resting. And a short path through the woods will take us to the ruins of the gas chamber/crematorium Number Five.
We are resting at the spot they rested at, 20 minutes after walking, immediately after disembarking of overcrowded transports that had been traveling for days. Here they waited, anxiously, as their turn to approach the chamber would come. But the victims of the transport ahead of them had to be removed from the chamber first. Some days in the summer of 1944 these victims were backed up for hours.
I pick up a rock from the path and carry it with me past the ruins. At the ashfield there is more signage and a memorial asking visitors not to walk through the field. I place my stone on the memorial, looking down to watch where I step. But it is probably a futile gesture-this whole place is an ashyard, a graveyard.
“So many Hungarian Jews were killed in the Auschwitz camps during that period that the crematoria were incapable of consuming all the bodies, and open pits for the purpose were dug.”
We turn again, and walk past the remains of crematorium Number Four. To the disinfection center for those selected to be worked to death. Again, a system. Disrobing. Wading through disinfectant. Shower. Uniform thrown at you, mismatched clogs or shoes.
E’s mother spent two years here. Her grandmother and the little ones were selected upon arrival. Her mom’s beloved sister was murdered in the quarry after slipping while carrying a large pot of soup in the ice and snow with three other girls. Today is a hard day. I want to comfort her, to carry her pack for her. I feel helpless. There is nothing I can do.
At the Soviet memorial constructed near the two destroyed gas chamber/crematoria at the end, we have a remembrance ceremony. Kaddish is recited in Hebrew. I read it aloud in English. With tears, E. tells us that she feels her grandmother smiling down on this extraordinary group of dedicated teachers. A lump rises, again. I swallow hard and try to blink back the wetness I feel welling in my eyes. Damn, I almost made it. Glad for the sunglasses, even though there is no sun.
“A Warning to Humanity.”
We light candles, turn our backs, and walk out, which provides another twenty-minute stretch of personal reflection. We have toured the epicenter of evil. We have been here, we try to process-but we just cannot. We need the individuals to speak to us. And like E’s family, they do.
At the close of the disinfection center exhibit there are hundreds of photographs that had been discovered years after the camp was abandoned by the Germans. Pictures of loved ones who perished here.
For me, like the personal home movies of pre-war life for the victims at the exhibit at Auschwitz I, this is what has the most meaning. So I will leave you for now with a few close ups.