Posted on March 29, 2012 by Lauren Schuchart
(The fifth in a series of 5 posts detailing my heritage trip to Poland… originally posted on my blog)
Righteous Among the Nations
In a world where morality no longer existed, where any action could lead to one’s death, there were people who stood out for risking their lives for the sake of another human being.
Prior to my trip to Poland, I don’t think that I understood the magnitude of this. I wondered why more people didn’t help, why more people didn’t stand up to say “this is wrong.” I didn’t fully grasp the amount of bravery and courage it took to save another’s life.
We had the opportunity to hear from a woman whose family did just that. When she was a little girl, her mother decided to hide a Jewish girl in their home. By doing this, her mother took many risks. But by doing this, she saved this little girl’s life, who grew up to have a family of her own.
In another post, I talked about numbers. When we think of the Holocaust, we think of large, unthinkable numbers. Six million people killed. 1.5 million children killed. 500,000 killed at just one death camp. But what about thinking about the number one?
Our tradition teaches us that if you save one life, it’s as if you save the entire world. In the case of our speaker, her family didn’t just save one little girl, but all of the generations that would come after her.
These few heroic individuals teach us that even in darkness, there can be a flicker of light.
|Photo credit Daniel Shibley
The sign outside of Oskar Schindler’s factory. During WWII, Oskar Schindler saved over 1,100 Jews, and all the generations that would come after them.
The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of
On the fourth day of our trip, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the German concentration camps. This was the site of the Nazis “Final Solution,” in which they planned to completely annihilate the Jewish people.
While 90% of the people killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews, there were other targeted groups, including Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities.
|This sign says “Work Will Set You Free.” I was surprised to hear that most of the people brought to Auschwitz never actually saw this sign, because they were taken directly to the gas chambers.|
|Empty canisters of Zykon B in the Auschwitz museum. These pellets of poison were found to be the most efficient way to suffocate people in the gas chambers.|
|Block 10 was the medical experimentation block. Prisoners were chosen to be a part of special medical experiments, causing excruciating pain and torture, and in most cases, leading to death.|
|Picture by Daniel Shibley
10,000 Poles were executed at this spot
|Electric fence. Some prisoners chose to electrocute themselves on these fences rather than bear their fate in the camp.|
Trains from all over Europe brought shipments of people to the Birkenau extermination camp. That’s what the people were treated like: shipments. Traveling for days in cramped cattle cars, with no food or water, they were dropped off about a mile from the entrance to the camp. They had to walk from the train tracks to the entrance of the camp, disoriented, scared, and unsure of what would happen next.
Our group was dropped off in this same spot, and made the same walk that our ancestors did. Our teacher encouraged us to not just walk, but to walk upright, to walk with dignity, to walk in a way that the Jewish people weren’t able to walk for so many years.
This was a very powerful moment for me. As we walked, I looked around at my friends, my community. The person walking in front of me, a dear friend, is intelligent, quick-witted, and hilarious. She loves to play the banjo, bake desserts for her friends, and is currently earning her PhD. The person behind me, who I greatly admire, is patient, kind, and curious. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and is currently training for a marathon.
I don’t claim to understand the thoughts and feelings of the people entering the camp, not even a little bit. What I came to understand during this walk, however, is something that I couldn’t fully grasp by simply looking at a photograph.
Each person that entered that camp was an individual, with unique gifts, aspirations, fears, idiosyncrasies, hopes, and dreams. Each person was a mother, a child, a brother, a teacher, a friend, a leader, a lover. Each person was truly someone to someone else.
Birkenau is the extermination camp just down the road from Auschwitz. I was blown away by the sheer size of this facility. It was, quite literally, a killing factory.
This was designed with only one factor in mind: how to murder the most amount of people in the least amount of time and with the least amount of resources.
|Heading into Birkenau. The train tracks you see here were built towards the end of the operation of Birkenau. Using this track, the trains could bring people directly to the gas chambers, rather than wait for them to walk there.|
|A cattle car.|
|Entrance to Birkenau from the inside.|
|A destroyed crematorium. Many of the Nazi-facilities were destroyed in an effort to cover up what happened.|
|An eerie sunset in Birkenau.|
Am Yisrael Chai: The People of Israel Live
How do I sum up my trip to Poland? What did I learn? What am I taking away?
I really want to sum up my trip to Poland in a way that is positive, that sees the silver lining. But, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to do so. I left Poland feeling bitter, angry, and depressed. I left feeling haunted by what I saw, and the scenarios I imagined in my head. I left with many big questions that I still haven’t confronted.
Witnessing such an unthinkable atrocity, one of the biggest failures of humanity, is something that I won’t ever forget. I not only feel responsible for making sure this tragedy isn’t forgotten about, but also making sure that something like this never happens again.
With all of this horror and destruction, it’s important for me to remember that it wasn’t total destruction. The Nazis fell short of their goal. The Jewish people, while terribly scarred, continue to live on today. I felt this fact very strongly as we left each concentration camp, as we said prayers at graves, as we laughed on the bus, and as we boarded the plane to Israel.
― Elie Wiesel
Pardes trips to Poland are run in partnership with Heritage Seminars. The Claims Conference has provided trip scholarships for qualifying Pardes participants, as well as subsidies for program components directed at Jewish educators.