Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The concentration remains perhaps the most potent symbol of the Nazi Holocaust, the massacre that cost the lives of six million Jews and millions more communists, homosexuals and other minorities.
In March 2007 I visited Poland with a Jewish group to trace the history of that time, to look into the past and the past of many members of my community. Below I share my experiences visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, Madjanek and countless other sites where the Nazis carried out their genocide.
I write this having just walked out of Birkenau concentration camp, the culmination of a four day visit to Poland. It has been an incredible and enlightening journey for me, one that I hope many people of my generation will be able to undertake.
We were a group comprising of people of various ages and backgrounds; British, Australian and South African, religious and secular. All different, yet all the same. United by a common desire to connect with our heritage and to seek a better understanding of the atrocities of the past.
In the four days I have spent in Poland I have stood in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek, I have walked the streets of Warsaw and Lublin and I have heard first hand harrowing stories of lives uprooted by the Nazis. I am exhausted, both physically, and mentally. But even more so, in a way that I did not anticipate, I am uplifted and I am inspired.
Most of all, I am proud. I walked out of Birkenau along the train tracks, where so many arrived to meet a tragic and horrific fate. I walked straight down the middle, between the tracks, a free Jew able to choose both my literal and metaphorical steps. For me, this was a symbol of defiance, in complete contrast to those who came in cattle trucks, stripped of every human dignity, never to make the return journey.
That sense of defiance has permeated my time in Poland. I had found Warsaw, my first stop, a grey, cold, broken city, with little to recollect the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life. Krakow was the complete opposite, a place that they had tried to destroy, but that had survived and remained alive.
We spent the weekend in the old district of Kazimierz, home to many of the Jews before they were exiled to the ghetto. The weekend had coincided with the anniversary of the death of a reknowned Rebbe (religious leader), so the place was flooded with thousands of Hassidic Jews in glorious fur Shreimels, come to visit his grave and commemorate his death.
Krakow is but a fragment of what it once was, a ghost town of empty houses and synagogues, the remaining testimony to centuries of life there.
There are synagogues on every corner, an insight into just how vast the community once was, and it saddened me to see these places mere shadows of their former selves. Yet, praying on Friday night in the one still active synagogue, with groups from across the world, was a poignant and inspirational experience.
What I have left Poland with is an overwhelimg sense of triumph and victory. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, and sought to obliterate every last remnant of Jewish life in Europe. They stripped away everything the Jews had, the massive stacks of shoes and piles of hair are just one heartrending example. But they still did not suceed. Sixty five years on, Birkenau is in ruins.
Poland has brought a new admiration and appreciation of what heroism really is. During the trip we encountered bravery in many forms, at Schindler’s factory or speaking to an elderly Polish woman whose husband was killed 67 years ago to the day for helping ghetto Jews.
We heard stories of resistance, both spiritual, for example celebrating the festival of Succot in the camps, or the physical uprising in Warsaw. For me, this is heroism it its finest incarnation.
The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said ‘each person must see themselves as if the entire world were held in balance and any deed they might do could tip the scales.
If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that one person really can make a difference. And, even more so, that we must.