My sister-in-law, Haley, is in Poland right now. She’s a television producer, and she’s over there working on some sort of fancy TV thing that is most assuredly beyond my understanding. The other day she toured Auschwitz, and she sent back an incredibly moving email about her experience that I would like to share with you. She was kind enough to let me post it on the blog; it’s long, but it’s well worth your time.
Sunday my coworker Lindsey and I went to Auschwitz. It’s a 3 1/2 hour drive from Warsaw but we had a driver from the film company take us – and we paid him. It was much easier than taking a train to Krakow and transferring. It probably would not have been possible in one day.
When we arrived, there was a very distinct smell. I have heard about this but I guess you never believe it until you get there and to be honest I actually forgot about it – and was taken aback when I got out of the car. I am not sure exactly why the smell is there… but my imagination went a little wild. I expected my entrance through the gates to be traumatic – but it was not. There was too much chaos with all of the tour buses and language barriers. There were groups from all over the world – probably 1-2 thousand people… and they were so “matter of fact.” – as if they were going to a museum. Yes it is a museum – but obviously much more than that for us. I didn’t want to force my emotion and I was finding it difficult to take it in, as I had hoped, on my own. I wished all of the noise and camera flashes would have just stopped for a moment so I could put myself in the shoes of our Jewish ancestors who had entered these gates sixty something years ago.
Our first part of the tour took us through Auschwitz I… the original death camp. We were escorted through barracks, the same ones from the war… although the Germans had tried to destroy much of the incriminating evidence – Gas chambers etc. But one gas chamber remained and we walked through it.
There were three distinct moments for me. The first was walking into a room, where on one side was a glass wall, behind it – filled with hair. It was the hair of women who had been killed in the gas chambers. After being murdered, the Nazi’s brushed their hair, shaved them bald and then sent it back to Germany to be sold as rugs. This hair that remained was tested positive for the gas that killed them…
The second moment was probably the most gut wrenching of all. We were brought into a room filled with suitcases. The suitcases had names and addresses. They were all very similar looking… Brown with white writing. I’m guessing they put their addresses on their luggage thinking they would eventually reunite with their belongings. I became obsessed with reading the names – so much that I lost my group. I looked high and low – reading them all… Greenberg, Eisenberg, Goldstein, Aaronson etc… All of these names connected with me, somehow, to this very day. I knew what I was looking for, hoping deep down NOT to find it… And then, as I reached the end of this display wall, I saw “Alfred Israel Berger” – Instantly – It was like someone had punched me in the stomach. This was my name – our name. Although the city address was Berlin, Germany and our family came from Hungary. Nonetheless – my emotional connection remained the same. Still, I did not cry because the tour was moving so fast. I took a photo and ran out of the barrack.
My third moment was at the end of the tour when we walked through the gas chamber. Oddly, I got a sick feeling of nervousness walking in, irrationally thinking “what if they close this door behind us” – as the Jews were also tricked into entering this place of inhumane death. We all know the worst part, which was that they actually believed they would be entering a shower to clean themselves. These SS guards were so manipulative, they even handed the prisoners soap.
Our next stop was Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau. It’s three miles down the road… and about 20 times bigger than Auschwitz I. It was built because the Nazi’s needed more space to house all of the Jewish prisoners… they couldn’t keep up with the work. They also wanted to profit off of this mass murder – by stealing everything the Jewish people owned and shipping it back to Germany – along with supplying gasoline and other materials coming from these camps. The people who were spared instant death were put to work in these camps and it was the Jews themselves who built this next new camp – the place where they would never leave, and eventually die.
Walking into Birkenau was significantly more meaningful. This is the quintessential “entrance” shot and where the Jews were separated from their families… The long train tracks that split the camp and the most horrific looking barbed wired fences, everywhere… This tour was shorter – mainly due to the fact that it has not been turned into a museum, like Auschwitz I. The reason – the Nazi’s destroyed the majority of this camp before the Russians came. They’ve reconstructed a few barracks from the men’s side to show tours what the conditions were… and some of the insides were still intact – as well as ALL of the frames of these buildings. It’s almost worse to just see the frame… the emptiness… the baron view. Another opportunity to imagine. There was actually one original barrack that showed how they slept, with the beds lined up. The sickest part was that they put these bunks (sleeping up to 8 people) on angles so they could fit more prisoners in one room. Their heads on a higher slope than their feet. Most people slept on top because the ones on the bottom bunk would soil themselves… as they were only allowed to use the bathroom twice a day…. when they awoke and after they finished working.
Walking away from this experience was a little confusing. I thought I would be an emotional mess and I wasn’t. As I walked down the train tracks from the farthest point in Birkenau – I stepped on each and every track. I was getting closer and closer to the exit. It took 15 minutes. We walked slow, and talked little. I stepped on every one, consciously… And this is where I had my realization. The realization that this was the next step, and actually the most important step of my personal Jewish journey. None of this was a surprise. I’ve been studying it my entire life… from Temple, to college, to Tel Aviv University – to visiting every Holocaust museum in the world – to Schindler’s list, The Pianist and The Reader. It was all a part of my education. And to most of the people there – it could have been their first encounter – as the only Jews I could pick out were the young Israelis – who by the way were carrying Israeli flags, which I thought was awesome.
This tour was my way of giving everything from this awful time, context. I stood on the ground. I walked up the steps of the barracks. I looked at the walls. I looked at the cracks, the bricks – the little things – more than the photos – more than the hair – more than the ovens. I pictured the feet of our Jewish relatives walking, sleeping, starving. I noticed the weather and how the ground changed with the rain, the sky. I looked at the fences and the barbed wire and the view outside. These were all the moments that became irreplaceable to me. Moments I will hold onto the rest of my life, sharing with my husband and future children and my family and friends.
I know that was a lot but I’ve actually saved the best story for the end. The next day I went right back to work. I’ve been working with about 10 people from a film company here… a few of which I know nothing about…but they all knew I was Jewish (as you all know, I like to share that with people) and that I planned to go on this voyage. Our wardrobe stylist and her son/wardrobe assist asked me about my experience and I went on to give them a rather generic but respectful answer.
Then, very casually, the stylist said something in Polish. And her son translated – “her father, my grandfather, was in Auschwitz, as a Polish prisoner, but escaped.” At first, it sort of went past me. I asked how he escaped. I asked how he survived. I asked how he died, just a few years after the war ended. They told me he died of a disease he contracted from eating grass in Auschwitz… grass that was laced with poison (probably from traces of gas they used to kill people in gas chambers).
I eventually asked why he was imprisoned – knowing they were not Jewish. The son then asked his mother. And he translated back to me – “for helping Jewish people, and bringing them food.”
That moment was overwhelming. I am overwhelmed with emotion just writing it. I was eating lunch at the time and stopped immediately. Just meeting these people and this woman and her son. A woman whose father died when she was just six.
For the next three days – she treated me like I was her daughter… her knowing the impact it had on me. She saw it in my face – my tough “TV/Director” demeanor changed with her from that moment on… She hugged and kissed me for two days and I did the same. It was an incredible moment and I will probably write her a letter before I leave here.
I hope you were able to read this all the way through and thank you for letting me write it down. I don’t think I fully processed it all until now. :)
And so the journey of our people continues…
I love you.