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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-two Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

*************************************************************

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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My friend Elaine wrote this. She just returned for the umteenth time taking dedicated Holocaust educators to learn from some very heavy authentic sites in Europe.

The daughter of survivors, Elaine is special person, known by many, who guided me to the places that she writes so hauntingly about. The day we went to Belzec, the men were grouped apart from the women for the first time, nearing the end of a very emotional trip. I remember being confused about it at the time, but Elaine needed to share with the beautiful girls on our trip. I get it now. A year later, I was still processing, and wrote a related post way below. It literally took that long. I still am processing, which is a part of her essay, below. Though I don’t pretend to equate my experience with any other human being’s, I think it is a universal truth that it’s never over.

Thank you Elaine. Matt

By Elaine Culbertson

In the winter my book club read a book called This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. It’s about the aftermath of the Civil War, particularly about death and dying and the business and customs that sprung up as a result of so many deaths.

At the time I was reading it, I never made the connection that struck me today. Here it is: after the Civil War, a new industry of mourning developed. Families searched for their loved ones on battlefields and in mortuaries; they paid for bodies to be shipped across many state lines (hence the idea of refrigerating the body and more stringent embalming practices were instituted); they saved relics of loved ones including hair and made jewelry from it; they placed markers in places far away from their home burial plots; they placed notices in newspapers hoping to find information about missing combatants; they held ceremonies for people they could not find, establishing markers all over the then US to the Civil War dead. Both sides, North and South, were engaged in this, but the Northerners, being the victors, had the upper hand and could dishonor the dead bodies of the Southerners and claim that they were missing when in fact they had used mass graves, in some cases, to dispose of the dead. The book fascinated me for its scholarship, its directness, and its beautiful writing, but I did not know why it resonated as it did.

Humans need to remember and honor their dead. The mourning period has no defined end, especially when there is no closure. Those distraught family members who could not establish a real burial spot lived with the hope/dread that the dead might not really be gone or that the suffering was not over. Believing that they are dead but not knowing of their fate is an interminable condition of anxiety. Going to Auschwitz and Belzec, one day after another, was like the extended funeral I have been living my entire life. I never knew any of them them but they have loomed large in my life. To be named after them, to be told I look like them, to hear stories about them, and yet not to have the ability to end the mourning period, or perhaps abbreviate it and pack it away for a while, is the legacy of survivors and their offspring.

Even as I write this I find myself moved to tears thinking about those lonely places. While cemeteries are supposed to be peaceful, those places are restless and painful, hardly consoling. I don’t mean the bustling barracks at Auschwitz, but the quiet windy Birkenau where we were pelted with hail. I mean the scorched earth of Belzec where nothing can grow. No matter how many kaddishes are said there, it will never be enough. There aren’t enough stones to commemorate those who died in either place, and although I stood in front of my grandmother’s name, I don’t have a sense of being able to say a true goodbye. I can walk away, but I can never leave.

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Elaine is a former high school English teacher and school administrator. She is the Chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, and the director of the The Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, an intensive three-week living and learning experience in Germany, Poland and Israel for U.S. secondary school teachers who are committed to teaching about the Holocaust and Jewish resistance. Visit their website at www.hajrtp.org, especially if you are a teacher interested growing in this life-changing experience.

***

Matt’s 2013 Belzec experience the day Elaine took him and the group there.

And the cycle, the mystery, the life continues. Belzec.

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This week I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel again back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, our teacher travel study group has 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.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

 

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

 

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.

 

Vastness

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.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

 

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

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.

Selected.

Selected.

 

The Walk.

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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.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

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.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what we do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

 

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.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

 

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.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

 

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

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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.

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To Life.To Life.

*****

From National Public Radio:

A Holocaust Survivor, Spared From Gas Chamber By Twist Of Fate

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, International Correspondent, Berlin

January 27, 2015 3:40 PM ET

 

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth.

Jack Mandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor from the Polish city of Gdynia, poses in front of a photograph showing him as a youth. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.

Some 300 Holocaust survivors were at Auschwitz on Tuesday, along with several European presidents and other government officials, to honor at least 1.1 million people who were murdered, 1 million of whom were Jewish.

Among those killed there were Jack Mandelbaum’s mother and brother. The Polish-born Mandelbaum survived, spared at the last minute by an officer of the dreaded SS who yanked the teen away from his family and sent him instead to a forced labor camp.

Last week, Mandelbaum flew from his Naples, Fla., home to Berlin, to help open an exhibit on the children of Auschwitz, and to tell his story.

“I’m a person of action,” he says. “Anger doesn’t get you anyplace. Hate doesn’t get you anyplace.”

In August 1939, as the Nazis were about to invade Poland, Mandelbaum was 13 and living in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Mandelbaum says his father worried that the port would be attacked, so he sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in the countryside.

He promised to join them six weeks later, but he never arrived. About a year later, he sent them a postcard from the Stutthof concentration camp.

“I guess he didn’t want us to worry about him, so he said he was OK,” Mandelbaum says.

He never saw his father again. His sister later died on a forced march to another concentration camp.

Prisoner 16013

Then, before dawn on June 14, 1942, the SS came for what was left of the family.

“They banged on the door and everyone had to come out in five minutes, and there was a lot of shooting and crying, and people didn’t know what was happening because they had to rush out,” Mandelbaum recalls. “Many people were even in their bed clothes. And we were lined up in the market square, and then we were marched to a local brewery.”

An SS officer there began separating people to the left and to the right. Mandelbaum says he clung to his mother and brother, who were sent to the left. But the SS officer saw in his documents that Mandelbaum had worked as an electrician’s helper.

“He grabbed me and pushed me to the other side,” Mandelbaum says. As for his family, he says, “The people who were to the left were sent to Auschwitz to be gassed. I never saw them again.”

To the Nazis, he became prisoner 16013 and spent the next three years at seven concentration camps. The first was Gross-Rosen, where prisoners worked in a granite quarry.

“There were so many prisoners,” he says. “We were in a big barrack, it had a concrete floor, it had no beds. And we were lined up like herring on the floor, so when one person turned, everybody else had to turn, it was so tight.”

Food was scarce, and the daily meal amounted to a single piece of bread and what Mandelbaum describes as soup made out of grass.

He recalls emaciated prisoners stuffing paper into their mouths to fatten their cheeks so they’d look healthier to the guards assigned to remove the weak for extermination. His own weight eventually dropped to 80 pounds.

But Mandelbaum says he refused to give up hope. He poured what little energy he had into work, hoping it would eventually lead to his release.

Suddenly, Freedom

“We had a good life before the war. I went to a public school, I had good clothes and good food and a nice apartment,” he says. “My dream was to go back to this life and be reunited with my family and my sister and my brother, and that sustained me.”

It also helped that he didn’t know the Nazis were trying to slaughter all Jews, something he says he and other prisoners learned only after liberation.

Their sudden freedom, too, was a complete shock, Mandelbaum says. “We didn’t know anything, only on the morning when we woke up and the Nazi flag wasn’t flying and the guards weren’t there.”

Unlike at Auschwitz, Allied soldiers did not free them, as his camp was in a no man’s land between the fleeing Nazis and advancing Russians. He and a friend from the camp grabbed an abandoned horse-drawn wagon and left as quickly as they could.

“We came across a women’s concentration camp and they were still locked up, so we actually became the ‘liberators’ of the camp,” he says, with a laugh.

Mandelbaum was 17 when the Holocaust ended. He says he returned to Poland several times to see if he could find his family but failed. He did find an uncle living in a hamlet near Munich.

The following year, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas City, Mo., where he married, had four children and became a successful importer of ladies’ handbags. It would be 16 years before he began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, something he says he decided to do after talking to one of his neighbors.

“He asked me what kind of sports did I play in the concentration camp, so all of the sudden it just opened everything up, how little people knew what was going on, and this was when I started to speak in different venues about my experiences,” he says.

That desire to educate people brought Mandelbaum, 87, to Berlin last week. He says it’s sad to see anti-Semitism on the rise in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but he hopes he and other Holocaust survivors can make a difference.

“You know, when we were in the camps, we would always ask, ‘How can the world stand by and let this happen?’ ” he says. “So it’s a matter of being vigilant, a matter of trying to do as much as you can in order to enlighten people [about] how dangerous it is when you become a bystander.”

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/27/381876276/a-holocaust-survivor-spared-from-auschwitz-at-the-last-second

*****

 

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Yesterday I introduced what will be a series of posts under the heading of ‘Seventy Years’, marking the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II and discovery of the magnitude of the most horrific crime in the history of the world, the Holocaust.

Today I travel back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, sharing some of my personal observations and photographs on the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops 70 years ago this week.

*****

July 12.

So the day that all of us in our teacher travel study group approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s. (The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.)

On to the tour.

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

This is the Core.

*****

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Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Now, it is Seventy Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth.

And for the rest of humanity-

How much have we learned?

How much have we forgotten?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

*****

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

*************************************************************

Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

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~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.

 

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July 12.

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.

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Main entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. USHMM

Main entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau . USHMM

We follow the guide up the stairs in the tower. From here we can see the sheer vastness of the camp.

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Women's Barracks. Auschwitz II.

Women’s Barracks. Auschwitz II.

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.

 

Vastness

Vastness

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.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews. USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

View of the Ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau Showing the SS Selection of Hungarian Jews, USHMM.

Following the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews  were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

 

The Walk.

The Walk.

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.

Selected.

Selected.

The Walk.

The Walk.

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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.

 

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

Flower ring as we make final approach to the chambers tucked into the wooded area nearby.

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.

Waiting. For what we do not know.

Waiting. For what they do not know. Exhausted from deportation and “travel”. We now know who they were. Yad Vashem.

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.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

They waited here. Some days, in the summer of 1944, for hours.

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.

 

The secret sonderKommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

The secret sonderkommando photos. Where the bodies were burned in open air.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

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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.

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To Life.

To Life.

To Life.

 

 

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~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.

 

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July 12.

So the day that many of us approach with a bit of apprehension is finally here. We are on the bus from our hotel in Cracow to Auschwitz, about 40 miles to the west south west.

Yesterday we arrived in Crakow from Prague, taking the night train on a sleeper car.

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Rolling southward one of our tour leaders points out an impressive large building on the top of a hill that looks like a five star hotel. Built after the German invasion in 1939, it was a rest and relaxation villa for Wehrmacht officers rotating off the Russian front to unwind for a bit, as industrialized mass murder was unfolding every single day less than an hour away.

 

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM

Hocker Album- Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss, Josef Kramer, and an unidentified officer. —USHMM.

So, to introduce some of the major players:

I don’t make it a habit to showcase the perpetrators on this site, but in this one incredible photograph, taken at Auschwitz, you can see some of them above. Hoss was hung at Auschwitz  following his trial after the war. Kramer was executed by the British after his stint presiding of the horrors of Belsen after his transfer there. Of course, smiling Dr. Mengele escaped to Argentina and died in a drowning accident in the late 1970s.The pictures in this photo album surfaced only a few years ago and were studied by my friend archivist Rebecca Erbelding at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can read more at the weblink above if you like.

On to the tour.

 

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Soon we see the road signs for Oswiecim, the small Polish town at a railroad hub that has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Poland. Most of the world knows it by its German name-Auschwitz.

The bus lumbers into the overcrowded parking lot and docks in the slot. The driver kills the engine. And it begins to rain as our other leader, E.,  relates the story of her mother’s family, the idyllic childhood in this beautiful prewar country, a young teen when the nation is invaded, the oldest of four children. No one on the bus makes a sound. It is now raining very hard.

 

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What is this place? Our guide A. is a top notch scholar, and she leads us on a day long tour that is hard to put into words.

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We begin at Auschwitz I, the first camp. This place is centrally located, a railway hub dating back to the turn of the century.

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The first prisoners, after it is converted from a Polish military facility, are Soviet POWs and Polish prisoners and other “security risks” who will be worked to death slowly expanding this camp, and the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau. She walks us through the exhibits and the displays at the various blocks. Block 4 is the “Extermination Exhibit”. We think about the words, the language. Extermination- as if the victims were vermin. Over 1,100,000 were killed here, most of them Jews.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

The Hub. The tentacles during the Holocaust.

We see the map with the spiderlike rail lines radiating inward to Auschwitz like tentacles, from northern Poland, from Germany, Hungary, as far south as Greece and as west as Paris and the Netherlands. In the summer of 1944, tens of thousands were murdered here, per day.

 

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

This place is ALWAYS crowded.

 

We see again the large scale terra cotta model of the process, which the German engineers had perfected  at Auschwitz II-Birkenau- the arrival of the transports, the undressing rooms with signs admonishing bewildered people to hang their belongings carefully and to remember the number of the wall pegs where they left them for quick retrieval later. The shower rooms that could fit in some cases entire transports, which were in fact the hermetically sealed gas chambers. The Germans above with their gas masks, waiting for the proper temperature to be reached through body heat, just the right humidity to be achieved before dropping in the pellets so the gas released would work more effectively. The anguished death throes of the thousands of naked figurines assault our senses. The process is not complete until the corpses are carried out by the sondercommando slaves, defiled for any gold fillings, the hair shorn from the women, the bodies then burned in the open air behind or cremated in the ovens.

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But the tour is now just beginning.  Minutes before, we were looking at a terra cotta model. And now in Block 5 we will be presented with the evidence. This is an exhibition, after all. Exhibit A is about to slap us in the face. Hard. It is a room, 50 feet long, with nothing but human hair piled several feet back and as many feet tall. My heart skips a beat.

What are my eyes perceiving? Now we see a photo of stacks of bale bags, carefully labeled, packed and stacked, awaiting shipment back to the Reich for use in various products for the German war effort. Slippers for submariners so they can walk quietly aboard ship to evade Allied sonar. Stuffing for the seats of German pilots.

We shuffle on in silence with hundreds of others past the spectacles, the pots and pans, the suitcases carefully labelled by their owners with chalk on the orders of the perpetrators, again, for “quick retrieval”. And the shoes. Sorted. Case after case of women’s shoes. Men’s footwear. And then the children’s shoes.

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Our knowledgeable guide takes us into Block 27, the new exhibit on the Shoah. This is a temporary relief of sorts as now we see faces, film and stills, of pre war Jewish life, projected on the walls. We hear songs and voices.

Book of Names. people cry again.

Book of Life. people cry again.

At the end is the Book of Life, containing four million names compiled thus far. A moving moment when E. and others in our tight knit group find entire pages with the names and dates of family members murdered during the Holocaust.

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Girls. Shorn, beaten,  and photographed.

Girls and boys. Shorn, beaten, and photographed.

 

 

This is the Core.

This is the Core.

 

And now it is on to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

 

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