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|Our Belsize Square trip to Krakow and Auschwitz|
Nothing we have learnt about the Holocaust -- all the pictures, footage, personal testimony -- comes close to experiencing the 3D close-up of pure calculated evil. Because it is impossible to express in words the variety of emotions, I won’t try. These are merely my observations and I am certain they are not unique.
Last year 1.4 million people visited Auschwitz, four times more than five years ago. That is roughly the same number who died there, according to latest estimates in what has been a hotly debated subject. Our 35-strong shul group had nearly every minute of our 48-hour visit filled. We arrived immediately after Pesach and left just as the huge crowds representing the ‘March of the Living’ annual educational and commemoration programme poured in.
We started with a walking tour of Kazimierz, the pre-war Jewish area of Krakow, a city where Jews once comprised 25% of the population. The historic quarter houses the grave of the great 16th-century Rabbi Moses Isserles, known as Rema and the birthplace of the 20th-century cosmetics queen, Helena Rubinstein.
Next morning en route to the camps, a stop at a former synagogue in Oswiecim, whose 7,000 Jews, settled since the 16th century, made up more than half of the small town they called Oshpitzin. It was cleared of inhabitants and renamed Auschwitz when the Germans decided to build a major camp complex there. The occupying Germans used synagogues for stabling and storage, so buildings were left intact while the interiors were destroyed.
Then the camps themselves, Auschwitz and, two miles away, Birkenau. On our return to Krakow, a play performed in Polish by two young women about discovering their Jewish roots and their decision to return to their faith. Through accompanying translation panels, we followed their shock when told by a dying grandmother that their Jewishness had been hidden from them. We learned of their struggle to grasp their new identity from a vibrant Russian Progressive rabbi, Tanya Segal, who spoke to us about this legacy of Communism.
On the final morning, a guided tour by Dr Edyta Gavron, head of the Centre for the Study of the Jews of Krakow, of the Oskar Schindler enamelware factory, now turned into an excellent exhibition. We walked through winding corridors showing Krakow before the Germans invaded, the marching of the Jews to the ghetto, the indignities they suffered; in Schindler’s office, touching the desk on which he signed the papers that saved over a thousand of his Jewish workers; walking on the wooden floor which creaked so loudly from 35 pairs of feet that the sound seemed like voices crying out or was that my imagination?
Our Belsize Square shul was founded in 1939 by German Jews who saw what was coming. Many lost their families, immediate and extended. On the coach trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, a little under 30 miles away, some of our group took the microphone to explain their connection to the camp, in this their first journey there.
We heard from the man whose grandmother he never knew was murdered there. Having finally ascertained the date of her deportation from Holland, where she had fled from Germany and her arrival at Auschwitz, he felt he could finally say Kaddish and achieve closure.
The great-nephew of one of our founding members told us how his late great-uncle had joined the British army and, after Germany’s defeat, was assigned to the unit which tracked down Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Hoess living in a barn under an assumed name, and arrested him.
Later we saw the gallows where Hoess was hanged, next to the gas chamber and crematorium, just yards from his house, gardens and swimming pool. Hoess’s evidence at the Nuremberg trials was crucial to the Allies’ understanding of the Nazi extermination programme.
We heard from the widower of a woman who, along with her sister, was given at great risk to a couple who lived near the camp, when the girls’ parents were taken away to die. The two baby girls were hidden with the Christian couple for the duration of the war, their Jewish identity concealed. After the war the orphaned girls came to the UK.
Many years later this man and his late wife went back to find the Christian couple. The woman was still alive (today she is in her late 90s) and pictures of “her” girls were still on the mantlepiece. They subsequently arranged for her to join them at Yad Vashem for a ceremony where she was named a Righteous Gentile and had a tree planted in her name.
We heard from a man who left Berlin as a child in the nick of time with his twin brother. A cousin who was due to leave 12 hours later was doomed when her train was cancelled. As a twin, our speaker shuddered to think what experiments the infamous Dr Mengele would have performed on him and his identical brother.
We did not hear from one man who made it out of Germany on the Kindertransport. When I asked him why, he said the pain was too great. He knew and remembered the family members who died there.
The weather was appropriate for such a visit: cold, windy and rain-swept. The front gate was of course familiar, though the Arbeit Macht Frei sign is a replica after neo-Nazis removed and cut up the original, which has since been recovered. We were told it will be displayed but not in its original position.
Our Polish guide, like all others at Auschwitz, was not Jewish. After 15 years of leading tours, her voice shifted between the factual and emotional. She often referred to her “mentor” survivor, one of a dwindling band. With today’s huge visitor numbers and variety of languages, multi-channel headphones stop tours from drowning each other out. Silence and respect prevail.
What can you feel but numbness, standing in the gas chamber, looking up at the vents through which Zyklon (Cyclon) B gas was dropped, looking up at what appear to be desperate fingernail scratches on the walls, made just seconds before death and the ovens into which they were shovelled?
In one of the low red-brick barracks, behind different sealed glass displays, were thousands of shoes, spectacles and suitcases marked with the owner’s name and address. Similar items are to be found in other Holocaust memorials. But unique to Auschwitz are tons of women’s hair, all lengths, colours and styles, shaved after death and cleaned to remove tell-tale traces of cyanide poisoning. We saw a sample of carpet made from it by the Germans, who used women’s hair for felted cloth and rough textiles.
Initially, the rabbis wanted the hair buried in accordance with Jewish law. But because of the extraordinarily deep effect it has on viewers, a deal was struck. The hair will stay on display until it has completely disintegrated, a continuous and natural process, and will then be buried. Those tons of hair hit hard, as did the huge pile of baby shoes.
We stood outside the building where Mengele experimented on twins. We went inside the building where gas was first tested on Russian prisoners-of-war. The ever-efficient Germans found that twice as much gas was needed to avoid a two-day delay before removing bodies, so adjustments were made in the poison’s strength and the building’s ventilation system, just in time for the first Jewish arrivals.
We went into cells the size of a telephone booth, where four people were forced to stand all night and then labour during the day until they died of exhaustion. An alternative punishment was a “crawl space” with sealed door and no light or ventilation. If you didn’t suffocate, you went to work the next day. Most suffocated. We walked through the execution yard, where the condemned were put against the wall and killed with a single shot to the head. We stood under the gallows. We felt the weight of the atmosphere.
Birkenau was another experience altogether. Unlike the relatively built-up Auschwitz, this camp, as far as the eye could see was vast, flat and barren, except for well separated red-brick buildings. These housed the prisoners, nine to a five-foot-wide bunk, three-bunks deep. Much of the ground is now covered with grass but when it was inhabited, there was no grass, only constant mud, due to the high water table.
The pathways we walked were deep with slippery mud, made worse by the continuous cold and blowing rain. Yet we couldn’t help but imagine how this must have been for those who did not have our warm clothes, waterproof coats and shoes.
At Birkenau, only the brick buildings remain. We were told the Germans dismantled the semi-prefabricated wooden sheds when the wood was needed for the war effort. But the foundations are still there and the heating stoves remain. The stoves rarely worked because there was no fuel. Under German health and safety regulations, stoves had to be supplied but not fuel.
One wooden building was reconstructed. It was the wash and toilet house, the only place guards never entered because of the smell and disease, so it was there that secret meetings and prayers were held. The toilets consisted of a long concrete block with perhaps 20 holes cut through, and parallel trenches below. Time to sit on each hole was limited because so many were waiting to use them.
We walked the length of the camp, to where those train tracks, which began in cities across Europe, came through the front gates, ending within feet of the gas chambers. Only rubble remains now because the tracks were blown up by the fleeing Germans. It was here the selection was made that led to either immediate death or the possibility of living a little longer. It was here we said Kaddish and listened to Rabbi Stuart Altshuler chant El Male Rachamim.
When I mentioned to people that I was going to Auschwitz, a number said they didn’t feel the need to; they know what happened, they’ve seen the pictures and movies, it would be too emotional, and so on. Everyone needs to make their own decision but my choice was to finally see this killing factory at first hand. I also felt a responsibility to see how so many who had no choice had suffered and died and to say Kaddish for them.
Auschwitz and Birkenau are deteriorating with age and the elements. It will cost millions to preserve the sites. We were told of the issues by Dr Jonathan Webber, who moved as Professor of Jewish Studies at Birmingham University to be Professor in European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and sits on the International Auschwitz Committee. Some say let nature reclaim it, others contend that it needs to be preserved, so that the evil that happened there and the people who suffered are never forgotten.
Our contacts with these authoritative guides and speakers came through our co-leader with the Rabbi, Dr Antony Polonsky, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University, a shul member who has been honoured by the Polish Government for his research on Polish Jewry. Our smooth arrangements were organised by synagogue administrator Henny Levin, a fellow-participant. We owe them all our thanks.
One final note: while much was made of Poles coming to terms with the past and honouring the country’s Jewish heritage, it became clear not all feel the same way. On our last morning, after leaving the Schindler factory, now turned museum, we walked though the wartime ghetto, now marked by a plaque in a section of the wall. A short distance away, recently written in large graffiti along the length of a neighbouring building were the words Cracow Jude Gang - “Jews out of Krakow”.
Reflections by Larry Miller. With contributions by Ruth Rothenberg