I’d been dreading my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau for months. It would be the hardest part of an already-difficult group trip through Poland and the Czech Republic I’d signed up for on a whim before my 24th birthday.
Auschwitz was the biggest of the Nazi concentration camps, where some 1.1 million people died there before it was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, 70 years ago today. I’d learned about the death camp in Hebrew school, seen pictures at the Holocaust memorial in Israel, and read Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night.”
But I knew the visit would bring a painful reality to my abstract understanding of the Holocaust, when six million Jews were exterminated by Nazis.
Like many of the 40 young, Jewish New Yorkers on my trip, which was organised bya nonprofit that ran programs for alumni of Birthright Israel, I did not have relatives who died in the Holocaust. (Mine had escaped the anti-Jewish pogroms of Russia, arriving at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.)
Even so, my stomach turned at the idea of seeing the stacked bunks, the abruptly ending railroad tracks, and the “Arbeit macht frei” gate I had seen in so many photographs.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived on that crystal clear day in March 2009 was the sheer size of the complex. It stretches farther than the eye can see, covering more than 15 square miles. And it was clearly designed for evil efficiency, with its railroad hub, gas chambers, and ovens laid out in a row, a twisted assembly line.
At Birkenau, the death camp, we followed the path taken by so many prisoners, who arrived by the thousands in cattle cars from all over Nazi-occupied Europe. It led nearly a mile down a dirt path surrounded by barbed wire; on either side, hundreds of decrepit brick chimneys rose from the ground, the only remains of the wooden barracks that were torched by fleeing Nazis as the Soviet troops approached.
We paused in a green clearing, a cool respite from the dusty stretch. Then we were told: This was the last stop for prisoners before they were ordered to undress and handed a piece of soap for a supposed shower. Then they were marched into the gas chamber and hit with Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide.
When our guide explained that Nazis would bring prisoners to this birch grove 200 at a time, I was struck with a horrifying thought. That was the number of guests at my Bat Mitzvah, 10 years before. That was all my friends and family huddled among those trees, naked, waiting to die. When I pictured it like that, I got it. It would have been all of them, and it would have been me.
The afternoon was spent at Auschwitz I, the main camp (now a museum) built in a former Polish army barracks. We walked beneath the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gate and past the block where the notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele performed experiments on prisoners.
Some of the barracks had been converted into exhibitions, filled with the possessions of the prisoners. One entire room contained piles of leather shoes; another, eyeglasses. The leather had faded over time but a few red shoes stood out. I saw one shoe with a small heel, not very different from a pair I had recently purchased. There were thousands of suitcases, display cases filled with human hair, even stacks of artificial limbs.
Before departing, we stopped in a memorial near the bombed-out ruins of the crematoria back at Birkenau. The walls were covered in photos, mementos left by those who perished at the camp. A friend paused by a portrait of a young woman and I heard her say, doesn’t she look a lot like Julie? People wandered over and started to nod.
Staring solemnly into the camera, with her hair pinned to hear head, she did look like me, perhaps a few years younger. I didn’t know her name or her age in the photo or where she was born. But the feeling was overwhelming: That would have been me.
When I think now about the Holocaust, I picture these two things: my Bat Mitzvah guests in the woods and the solemn girl with the familiar face. It’s impossible to comprehend the death of six million Jews. But those two visions make it a little more real.
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