Like so many other baby boomers, my parents did not speak to me of their experiences during World War II when I was a child. They both had slight German accents, I knew they had left Germany because of Hitler, and I saw the numbers on the arms of so many of their friends. I knew something bad had happened to them and to their friends, these kind and gentle people, who treated me as if I were someone special, a precious life.
As a teenager, I read books that had been recently published and began to learn of the horrors my parents’ friends had lived through and somehow survived. I asked my parents questions, but the answers they gave were limited, as though they were trying to protect me from this knowledge that could somehow hurt me. For a high school paper I interviewed two of my parents close friends, and though they told of starvation, and forced marches through the snow, I felt that they too were trying to protect me. Or perhaps much was too painful to call to mind.
Then I read Night, by Elie Wiesel. And I was no longer protected from the facts. I read Elli, by Livia Bitton Jackson that was so painful to read that I couldn’t begin to imagine how she had the strength to survive. But she did. I read about the fact that some Jews who survived the camps returned home only to be shot and killed by the people who had taken their homes and didn’t want to give them back. I knew that Kraków was one of those places.
Kraków is near Auschwitz. I was almost afraid to go there. We walked through what was once the Jewish section of town and saw three synagogues. One dated back to the 1500’s and is now a museum. Another, nearly as old, is in use, and the day we were there, people were praying inside because it was the holiday of Simchat Torah, the day Jews rejoice in reading the very end of the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and immediately reading the beginning of the first book of the Torah, Genesis. I sat in the women’s section, because it was an Orthodox synagogue. A group of Israeli high school girls joined us. That was truly a joy to see. The third synagogue was newer, built as a reform synagogue. Another group of Israeli students was waiting to go inside.
My heart was still aching though for the 3,000,000 Polish Jews who perished in the holocaust. And our next stop was Auschwitz.
As we drove through the picturesque countryside, I thought of those Jewish people from Kraków and all over Europe, who rode in trains, with no windows, no doors, no seats, no toilets, for whom this trip was their last.
We took a wrong turn, and first went to Birkenau, 1 1/2 km from the main entrance to Auschwitz. I was wearing socks and shoes, exercise pants under my slacks, three layers of clothing under my coat. It was windy, and I was cold. I thought of the forced marches, and my parents friends marching barefoot with only a thin layer of clothing. How cold they must have been.
Thankfully there were few people at Birkenau when we were there. I was struck by the vastness of the place. Most of the buildings were gone, so one could really see how enormous the place was. We went solemnly into a couple of buildings, and scanning the horizon could see some of the the chimneys where the ovens had been. The death factory. I silently said Kaddish.
We got back into the car and found the main entrance. We parked in a lot across the street, but I was not prepared for the parking lot near the entrance. It was 9:00 a.m. and I counted 12 huge tour buses, 12 medium sized buses, and several taxis. Hundreds of people were milling around waiting to get in. I got in line to get entrance tickets, told the lady that we did not need a guide, and to my surprise, the tickets were free. After the long security line, we were inside and walked to the infamous sign that says “Arbeit macht frei”. I shuddered. Here I was surrounded by people and heard Japanese, French, English, Spanish, German, Polish, and other languages I didn’t recognize. Some of the barracks had been made into museums which told about what had happened there. There were so many people in every room listening to their guides that I could barely pass through. While I could have easily spent an entire day there, we did not have the time, and left to drive to the city of my mother’s birth in what was once Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw, Poland. Yes, I was nervous about going to Kraków and Auschwitz, but I am glad that I went.