This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
This morning, as I put on my boots, a few crumbly pieces of mud sprinkled onto the floor. The mud had travelled home with me from Birkenau. Stuck between the ridges of my physical sole, it was only a small vestige of the powerful experiences forever imprinted on the deepest places of my spiritual soul.
On that rainy morning, our group of 100+ survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps, and their families, departed the hotel in a caravan of mini-buses. As our hour-long ride drew to a close, the tension mounted. Many of us turned to look at the faces of the survivors to read their cues. We understood they had to set the tone for this experience. While this is considered a state museum, for our survivors, it was the place that irrevocably changed the course of their lives and their families forever.
And we began….
One family; survivor grandmother, two daughters, and eight grandchildren, linked arms and walked in stride together under the sign that falsely claimed “Arbeit Macht Frei.” In freedom they walked through the gates, each representing a family of their own and great-grandchildren of this survivor, too numerous to make the trip.
Our Polish guide began recounting the historical facts of the camp. We walked through the buildings, former barracks–now museums–which explain the mass killing of the Jewish people. We wove our way through the buildings, listening to the guide who hesitantly explained the innumerable piles of glasses, braids of hair, cups, plates, shoes and religious articles.
We came upon the room with pictures of Hungarian women arriving at Birkenau. One survivor searched for faces she might recognize and shared, “We were told, your parents will be back on Sunday on their day off from work.” She began to cry as she said through tears, “We were children, we had no idea of the lies. We didn’t even say goodbye.”
We continued, out the door to the sight of executions and roll calls, where gallows stand.
One of the survivors spoke of the terror that these public hangings instilled, and the hours standing in the brutal cold. She said, “I never understood why it took so long. We were rows of five. All you had to do was multiply, but they tortured us.” Another added, “We had to carry the corpses of our friends back from the daily slave labor so that our morning and evening numbers matched.”
Finally, we arrive at the pinnacle of the genocide, the gas chambers. The guide explained the brutal and methodical way in which the Jews were led to their death. One survivor, clasping his well-worn siddur, grew antsy. He was waiting for a break in the guide’s remarks. Finally, not being able to hold back anymore, he cried out in Yiddish, “Oy der babas and dem Mamas, the kinder, the heiloghe yiddin.” He cried for his own mother, “Oy mamale, how you suffered.”
At that moment, standing outside the door to the gas chamber, he began to recite Kaddish. It started with a bellowing cry of “Yisgadal v’Yiskadash Shmei Raba.” As tears flooded his eyes and his emotions poured out, the crowd around us grew. It ended with a tear-filled, barely audible “V’al Kol Yisrael, Vimiru Amen,” and the resounding responses of “Amen” echoed throughout the camp.
We entered the gas chambers in silence. Here was no talking allowed.
We were meant to hear the voices of those who were eternally silenced. And as I touched the damp cement walls, I thought of the women who nursed their children to bring them comfort, of the young children who clung to their parents’ legs, and of the pain in the hearts of the elders who despaired at not being able to shield their families from these horrors. As we exited, a reporter asked a survivor, “How did you keep your faith?” She responded, “Those of us with faith were the lucky ones, we had something to give us hope and hope helped keep us alive.”
We continued to Birkenau, where most Jewish victims were slain. Upon arrival, the survivors asked questions. “Where did Mengele sit?”; “Which directions did the trains arrive from?”; as if trying to orient themselves and understand their experiences. “It feels so different because there is no mayhem. When we arrived, there was the loud screaming of the guards, the sky was ashen, the stench unbelievable, and no one knew what was happening.”
They searched to find the barracks where they spent those wretched days or months during the war. One survivor asked, “How could this be it? How could we have fit six people in this space? It seems so small.” She continued, “You can’t imagine what this was like, because I lived through it and even I can’t believe it.”
We walked toward the bombed out remains of one of the gas chambers. It is preserved in its state of rubble. In the waning minutes of daylight we lit candles to commemorate. One of the survivors gently lowered the metal chain meant to keep the visitors back from the rubble and stepped forward so she could place her candle directly on the steps where her family was led to their death. She is not a visitor.
Here, perhaps symbolically, as the group organized for Kaddish, one of the survivors passed the siddur to a member of the second generation. “This time you say it,” the survivor urged.
It was dark by the time we left, and we travelled back in near silence. I turned to a survivor sitting next to me and asked how she was feeling. She responded with a slight smile, “I fulfilled my purpose, I finally got to say goodbye to my family… they were all lost,” she cried. “I said goodbye, I lit a candle, and I said Kaddish. Now I never need to go back again.”
This journey left an indelible imprint on the crevices of my soul. Alongside the deep suffering is bravery and courage, memory and eternality, hope and continuity. Over and over the survivors made their message clear: “Tell our story”; “Don’t let people forget what happened”; and as important, “Don’t forget to go on living”; “Keep the Jewish people’s story and traditions alive”
Anat Barber is the assistant-director of Capital Gifts and Special Initiatives at UJA-Federation of NY. In that capacity, she co-leads the Community Initiative for Holocaust Survivors, through which UJA helps meet the needs of vulnerable Holocaust Survivors in New York, Israel and around the world. She lives in Riverdale with her family, and is the child of Teaneck residents Sarah and Shlomo Barber, both of whom are children of Holocaust survivors.