On April 14th 2004, Leon and I embarked, with trepidation, on a trip back into our past. Our journey was part of the annual MOTL project — a carefully planned 2 week program of intensive Holocaust education in Poland and Israel.
This year the MOTL attracted 7000 teenagers from 45 countries and, for the first time, a group of 45 adults from Australia.
This group, of which Leon and I were privileged to be a part, was organized specifically for descendants of Holocaust survivors by the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne.
We were accompanied by a film crew, educators, psychologists and 3 Holocaust survivors who were making the trip back to Poland for the first time in 60 years accompanied by their children and grandchildren.
In 2 harrowing weeks we visited the cities of Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw, stood on the killing fields of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and Chelmno and said Kaddish and lit yarzeit candles in numerous empty synagogues, forests and graveyards in a country where Jewish life and culture had previously flourished for over 1000 years and yet is no more.
At each place we heard testimonies of survivors, read commentaries of victims, wept, questioned God, raged against man’s inhumanity to man, and tried, in some small way, to imagine the unimaginable.
Standing on the ashes of my people, I felt no triumph over the fact that we Jews have survived Hitler’s attempt to destroy us. Rather, all I felt was despair over what was destroyed. I wept for a way of life that is no more, for the happiness of youth that was denied my parents.
My parents shared no fond memories of their lives in Poland pre 1939. Their tales were not of happy family gatherings, fun filled outings or peaceful tranquil days. My parent’s memories were of cruelty, torture, suffering and loss. Their memories are forever my memories and I, like all children of Holocaust survivors, have carried their pain with me all my life.
Poland…. what can I say about Poland, the country of my parent’s birth??
In 1939 10% of Poland was Jewish. In most Polish towns they constituted more than 1/3 of the total population. Warsaw, the capital, had 393,950 Jews living there. Lodz, my parent’s birthplace, had 202,000. Only in New York, where 2 million Jews lived, were there more Jews in a single city.
Jewish life, culture and traditions flourished in Poland. Chasidism, Yiddish literature and theatre, Bundism, Zionism, major movements in religious learning and secular culture all blossomed there.
Yet, by the time Nazi Germany had been defeated in 1945, 6 million of Europe’s 8 million Jews had been slaughtered, 3 million of them from Poland.
Since there are now less than 20,000 Jews remaining amongst Poland’s 38 million, there is little illusion about rebuilding a large Jewish population. However, Poland’s response to the Holocaust has changed in recent times. Today Poland is a burgeoning republic and American philanthropy is in the process of discovering Poland.
There are numerous forums and groups whose mission is to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue, and during our trip, we had many discussions with Poles on ways to eradicate prejudice and stereotypes. We met several non Jewish Poles of good will who are participating in the cultural revival of Judaism and challenging their society to confront its history of anti-Semitism.
There can be no more poignant way of honouring those who perished in, or suffered, during the Holocaust, then to remember and connect with the extraordinary world that they shaped and that shaped them. We cannot recreate the pre war past, but pilgrimages to Poland are one way to recover and reconnect with a land and a legacy from which many Australians descend.
That is why I urge, as many of you as can, to make this worthwhile trip.
Speaking for me personally, all I can say is that going to Poland was an incredibly emotional and difficult journey. There is no way of understanding the Holocaust…. The sheer number of victims challenges easy comprehension, and all that you see violates every fundamental value of decency and humanity.
Against the 8 million Jews who lived in Europe in 1939, the Nazi bureaucracy assembled all the concerted skills and mechanics of a modern state…. the police, the railways, the civil service, the industrial power of the Reich, poison gas, soldiers, mercenaries, criminals, machine guns, artillery and, over all, a massive apparatus of deception. All this, with the expressed desire to destroy in entirety every Jewish man, woman and child, so that there would be no future Jewish life in Europe.
My journey therefore, was to pay tribute to the strength, courage, dignity and human spirit of my parents and all their fellow Jews who suffered, endured and yet somehow survived this unimaginable horror to build a new life for themselves on the other side of the world.
I stand in awe of my parent’s heroism and hope that, in some small way, my trip did honour their memory and the memory of the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins that I never was to know.
I now would like to give you a pictorial view of our journey
This photo was taken in Krakow at the beginning of the tour. The 45 adults that comprised our group were mostly from Melbourne with Leon and I from Adelaide and one gentleman from Perth. Our ages ranged from 19-84
All accommodation, tours and meals were organized by the MOTL organization based in America.
In this photo we are all wearing our MOTL rain jackets. All 7000 participants received these jackets, plus T-shirts, water bottles and backpacks, so as you can see, we were an easily identifiable group as we travelled thru Poland.
This was a carefully planned and meticulously executed trip with an extremely intensive educational program coupled with sightseeing. The program was based on 2 fulcrums…the Holocaust and the State of Israel, and was aimed at highlighting the passing of Jewry from near destruction to regeneration.
Our 7000 strong number consisted of 1500 Israelis, 1000 Americans, 850 Hungarians, 500 Canadians, 220 Belgians plus significant numbers from France, England, Sweden, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Panoma, Brazil, Greece, Austria and Romania. Amazingly there were 700 non Jewish Poles.
One of the most interesting aspects of interacting with the group was that, as we all became closer and closer thru our shared experiences, I was finding that MY story as a child of Holocaust survivors was exactly the same as the other participants. Someone would say ” my mother said this” or “my father did that” and I would say ” that is EXACTLY what my parents said or did.”
And, the most common phrase that I heard over and over again that I discovered all our parents said was ” The Poles were worse than the Germans”
These photos are all from Krakow.
Krakow was the least affected of Polish cities by the Nazis and in some quarters it is called the “New Prague”. It is a very beautiful old city that has retained its timeless beauty.
At one time, between 1305-1609 it was the capital of Poland.
The Jewish population in 1939 was 56,515 and the city was an important Jewish, religious and cultural centre. The first Jewish publishing house in Poland was in Krakow and after WW1 there was a daily Zionist newspaper.
On March 21st 1941, the SS moved the entire Jewish community of Krakow, most of whom lived in this area, into a cluster of 329 buildings in a poor suburb to form the Krakow Ghetto. This square is also where most of the movie “Schindlers List” was filmed.
This small stretch of the ghetto wall still stands and was built by the Nazis, ironically, to resemble Jewish gravestones.
We passed by the Schindler factory but were unable to go inside, as it still is an operating business.
Please note the old Pole standing in the background of this photo. Our group was on a walking tour thru the old city and, as we passed thru the old Jewish market square, the old man spat at us.
75 km west of Krakow is the town of Ozwiciem. Freedom from persecution and the opportunity to make a better life drew Jews from central and western Europe to settle here in the first half of the 16th century. It was not a remote village in Eastern Poland, but a large town at a main railway junction with links to every capital of Europe.
Pre 1939, 7000 of Ozwiciem’s 12,300 residents were Jews.
This photo clearly shows how the city of Ozwiciem was in fact the centre of a trade route and how the Germans used this fact to maximize their efficiency in the transport of Jews from every centre in Europe.
This is a photo of Leon praying in the only surviving synagogue in Ozwiciem. Before the war there were 12 synagogues serving the community. During the Nazi regime the interior of the synagogue was completely destroyed and all its furnishings lost.
It is almost impossible to reconcile the image of a thriving market town with the violence and terror of the nearby place that has become known as Auschwitz.
During WW1, stables just outside of Ozwiciem were converted into Polish barracks and it was these barracks that Heinrich Himmler decided, in 1940, to make use of to serve as a concentration camp for “enemies of the Reich”.
From a relatively small area located on a swamp, Auschwitz, the German name for Ozwiciem, would be expanded into 3 camps, each with a different function. It would cover 440 acres, and house close to 200,000 prisoners.
Auschwitz I was a prison.
Auschwitz II was the killing factory.
Auschwitz III — Monowitz was a forced labour camp opened for the construction of a massive synthetic oil and rubber factory for the IG Faben-Buna works.
ARBEIT MACH FRIE PHOTO
This is Auschwitz 1, which remained a concentration camp housing political prisoners and “criminals” as defined by the German authorities. The first prisoners were 728 Polish political prisoners and they were brought to Auschwitz 1 on June 4th 1940.
In Auschwitz 1 belongings, photographs and documents recovered from the site are all presented. The tones of hair, piles of suitcases, shoes, toothbrushes and, as shown here, the prayer shawls, serve as a poignant testimony to the sheer scale of atrocities committed.
It is important to note that although the term Auschwitz has gone into our terminology as being synonymous with the destruction of the Jews, it is in fact Auschwitz 11 – Birkenau where the majority of killings took place.
The first experiments with Zyklon B, previously used as an insecticide, took place at Auschwitz1 in September 1941 and these photos are inside that first gas chamber.
This is the opening in the gas chamber where the gas pellets were dropped down.
This is the only crematorium at Auschwitz 1. At Auschwitz 11 the killing machine was perfected and there were 4 enormous gas chambers with their attached crematoria.
In 1941 a second camp Auschwitz 11 – Birkenau was added to the existing complex. Located 4km from the original, Birkenau contained 300 barracks and buildings on a site stretching over hundreds of acres.
Soon after the Wannsee Conference on June 20th 1942 when Hitler rubber stamped the wholesale extermination of European Jewry, it became the biggest and most savage of all the Nazi death factories. It was at Birkenau that 12,000 Jews were being gassed and cremated every 24 hours.
This is a view from the top of the SS watchtower. The train tracks leading directly into the camp still remain.
I am standing on the site of the selection process.
Although I have lived and breathed the Holocaust almost from the day I was born, nothing prepared me for what I saw when we arrived in Birkenau.
What Birkenau lacks in exhibits, it makes up for in overwhelming size and solitude, and most in our group found Birkenau a far more distressing experience than Auschwitz 1
It is not just the raw statistic that 1.5 million Jews died here. It is rather the stupendous scale of the complex, the sprawling crematoria, the electrified barbed wire that affects your emotional equilibrium and hits you with a devastating blow.
I was looking at the site of grotesque horrors yet even I could not believe what I was seeing.
I can only quote Eli Weisel who survived Auschwitz. He said;
“We shall never understand. Even if we manage to learn every aspect of that insane project, we will never understand it”
I heartily agree with Eli Weisel’s words…. For all that I have read and seen on the subject of the Holocaust, I understand it less and less.
The gentleman speaking into the camera was a member of our group. He was a former inmate of Auschwitz and he is here recalling some of his experiences in these vast unheated barracks. The barracks housed approximately 1200 people, tightly packed on wooden pallets with the latrines running down the middle.
20 people slept in each of these spaces barely 6 feet wide.
With the Soviets advancing, the Nazis attempted to hide all traces of their crimes. Gas chambers were dynamited and living quarters levelled. This mangled shell of the crematoria can only hint at the true level of horror. Beyond the crematoria lies a lake, still a cloudy colour from human ash.
According to the census of 1941, Hungary had a Jewish population of 725,000 representing 4.95% of its total population.
Jewish settlement in the area of what is now Hungary goes back to Roman times. Hungarian Jews felt very Hungarian and were willing partners in the struggle of the Magyars to strengthen their language and culture.
This counted for very little however when on March 19th 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary. The Holocaust Machine went into overdrive and 437,402 Jews were deported in the incredibly short time of 7 weeks from 55 major ghettos and concentration centres. This was the fastest rate of any deportation of the Holocaust. Most of these Hungarian Jews were gassed in Birkenau shortly after their arrival.
It is interesting to note that the Germans in 1944 were already losing the war, yet, instead of directing their manpower and energy to fighting the Allies, they could think only of their frenzied plan to exterminate Jews
This photo, of an arrival at Birkenau, of a shipment of Jews from Hungary in June 1944, for me sums up in many ways, the horror that was Auschwitz.
An elderly man with his back to us, stands at the head of the line, leaning on a stick. We can only guess at the horror of his 4 days in a sealed wagon on his journey from Hungary to arrive here in Poland. Yet here he stands, anonymous, alone, awaiting his fate. We, with the advantage of historical hindsight know he is doomed. The German formula for immediate liquidation was anyone over 40, infirm in any way, children under 16 years of age and mothers holding babies.
German soldiers are smiling and milling around, behaving as this in all in a days work to them, which tragically it is.
The German officer at the head of the line casually flicks his finger to the right and we immediately know the fate of this anonymous elderly man.
He is to join the other anonymous Jews huddled in the top right hand corner who already have been selected and are walking to the gas chamber
Within the hour he will be dead and as the Germans kept no name of those who were killed immediately on arrival, there will be no record of his passing, no knowledge of his life, his family, his hopes his dreams.
Can anyone who did not witness this event ever really understand its enormity?
Will the depth of evil perpetrated on this anonymous Jew and millions like him, ever be grasped, in all its range of horrors, by ordinary decent people?
THE MARCH OF THE LIVING
One of the most powerfully uplifting moments of our trip was the army of 7,000 people from around the world, who marched the 4km route from Auschwitz 1 to the gas chambers of Birkenau, clad in blue and white, waving an armada of Israeli flags and delivering an unambiguous declaration of Jewish unity, Jewish survival and Jewish life.
On this day the energy of the group changed completely and the focus, for one glorious hour, shifted from suffering to regeneration.
This walk of solidarity, all of us arm in arm, celebrated for one brief moment, the fact that, against the odds, the Final Solution did not succeed. I was overwhelmed with pride and felt joined together by an unbreakable chain to my people.
The words ” Am Yisrael Chai” was on everyone’s lips. We had resurrected the spirit of our past and the light of Judaism continued.
This symbolic march has been organized by the American based MOTL organization whose program began with a handful of participants in 1988. Australia joined 4 years ago and the aim for 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, to attract 18,000 students.
The Second part of Miriam’s Presentation can be found in the Book of Life under the heading “Miriam Zimmet – Descendants of the Holocaust, Poland”