Becoming Kosher and Orthodox in Budapest and NYC

On Seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau
2010/06/27, 3:49 pm
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As you can see, this is going to be a departure from the typical themes on this blog.

A week ago Thursday night, D. reminded me that we were  supposed to plan a visit to see Cracow, and the area where my father’s family lived, including Auschwitz. Given that our schedules were pretty much filled for the rest of July, we decided that we would plan a lightning trip to Poland, and leave the following Monday. Thus entailed a flurry of activity all day Friday, stopping for Shabbat, and resuming all day Sunday. There were moments of high drama and emotional roller coaster rides, for example:

-Find a dog sitter on 2 days notice, who will stay with our beloved Greyhound in our apartment.

-Find a hotel, preferably Kosher, in the old Jewish section of Cracow.

-Find a rental car with automatic transmission, as I haven’t driven a manual since the Flood; and 95% of all cars here are manual.

-Buy  Kosher snacks for the trip (5-6 hours each way).  (The snacks can always be enjoyed, even if the trip did not materialize!)

-Write up instructions for the dog sitters.

-Learn to use the new camera we bought!!!

But we did it all, and off we went, around Noon on Monday.

THE CONCENTRATION CAMP AUSCHWITZ sits on a small side street in Oswiecim. You come into town, follow the signs (they all say “Museum Auschwitz”, rather than “Death Camp Auschwitz” or “Concentration Camp Auschwitz” – I wonder why?? You pass  a row of small, neat houses, with lawns, and flower boxes, and then suddenly you are there – the  parking lot . My first impression was that we have entered Disneyland-on-the-Vistula.  Dozens of buses and hundreds of cars! Walking into the Visitor’s building (which was outside the the gates during the Holocaust, and served as the Administration building for the Nazis). I was impressed by the huge number of tourists, school and tour groups from all over the world. There was a very efficient system set up (by the Germans???) to handle ticket purchasing, guided tours, and introductory video. I will say that it was not commercial at all, but very businesslike, given the large numbers of visitors. The “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate is much smaller than one would think, maybe 15 feet across. Still, it was chilling to see it. The original sign was somehow stolen a few weeks ago, and a duplicate one was put up. Too bad they didn’t have this lax security during the Holocaust; the camp would have emptied overnight.

Many of the barracks contain exhibitions. All of the exhibitions are heartbreaking.  Half of a room taken up with a huge pile of women’s hair; a 6-foot high pile of glasses and spectacles; a room full of shoes; a collection of Talesim; a room filled with suitcases, all of them with neatly hand-printed names. addresses, contacts, etc., since the Germans told the inmates to make sure they print neatly so they can get their luggage back!

There are documents in glass cases showing how meticulous and detail-oriented the Germans were. There are pictures and maps and displays. One can easily spend two days in Auschwitz just going through these exhibits. You see and begin to understand what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. The typewriters, files, cabinets, furniture, that all played a part in this. The ledger books, train schedules, receipts – so much documentation, but not enough. There can never be enough documentation. But there is nothing here to tell me where, when or how my grandparents, uncles, cousins, died. There is nothing to tell me about how they lived here; were they resigned to death or did they maintain their optimism? Were they strong or weak? Did they recite the Shema? The answers to these questions are not in the “Museum”.

THERE IS A CONSTANT COLD WIND that blows over Birkenau. You feel it as soon as you arrive, and it stays with you chilling you even when the temperature was in the 80s. Here are the famous train tracks and the gate. And soon you see the space where the selections were made, and then you walk the “left” path to the crematoria. We realize we are walking on the same ground as my relatives, and it is horrifying. We pick up some stones from the tracks, in a weird reversal. Instead of leaving stones on a gravesite, we are removing them. But it makes sense. We will keep these stones forever. (Click on images to enlarge).

Figure 1. Tracks going out from Birkenau - an infinity of freedom

Figure 2. Tracks going into Birkenau - an infinity of death

Among the tidal waves of emotions and sensory overload, one prevailing image arises: the ENORMITY of this place. It is huge. The barracks go on for acres, perfectly aligned, one after the other almost to the horizon. Each barrack (originally built for the German cavalry and designed to hold 52 horses) contained 800 people. And there were hundreds.  Here is a close-up of some of those barracks. Now imagine 200-300 of these layed out in a perfect rectangle over a couple of miles.

Figure 3. Barracks

And at the end, far back at the edge of the birch tree forest, far back at the edge of hell, the remains of the gas chambers and  crematorium, one of three. It is being “restored” and when I first heard that I wondered exactly what it is being restored for?

The steps are still well-preserved, but the rest of the building is being reconstructed. This was the final destination of my relatives.

Just a last thought. Maybe it’s still the gloom from this visit, but it can happen again. And when Al-Qaeda, or the Arrow Cross Party of Hungary, or some American Paramilitary Christian organization, or or some other group comes crashing through the door, we are all Jews, regardless of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform.

Yitzgadal V’Yitzkadash Shmei Raboh