June 30th, 2019, proved to be one of the longest days of my life. The morning started with a bag unpacked, a suitcase unable to be zipped shut (and 4 pounds over the limit), piles of wires and chargers waiting to be untangled and sorted, and mostly, an overwhelming sense of fear for what my next four weeks would look like. This day would begin my four-week venture to Prague, Budapest, parts of Poland, and Israel to study the Holocaust.
My interest in learning about the Holocaust stems from my mom, who is involved in Holocaust education. I was often exposed to this history growing up, but it was hard for me to understand it since I was so young.
I began to learn about the Holocaust in more depth when I was in third grade. My teacher assigned our class a book report on a person of our choice. I was so excited to choose: my first chance to do what I wanted in a school setting. I remember running out of school that day into my mom’s car, not even waiting for a second to say hello before I loudly asked who I should do my project on. After a little discussion, I selected Anne Frank.
Who Was Anne Frank? is the book that changed my life. Ever since reading it, I have continued to be fascinated by Holocaust history and have taken many opportunities to learn more, including through travel.
When I was in 8th grade, I joined the international organization BBYO, which is a non-profit organization for Jewish teens. The organization seeks to, as the organization’s website puts it, “build the Jewish identity of teens and offer leadership development programs.” Although being at Blair took me slightly out of the loop on what my chapter is doing, I was still able to sign up for travel opportunities, including the journey that started with the longest day of my life.
In June 2019, a group of 13 kids from the New York area flew to Prague to meet another 40 or so members, who were mostly from the MidWest, to study this difficult history together. We were introduced to one another and set the groundwork for creating a safe space to learn. We were told we did not need to hide our emotions, setting the stage for us to all be very open from the beginning— we knew what we had in store for us in the coming days.
Our first introduction to a Holocaust site was a memorial of bronzed sculpted shoes on the edge of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungry. It is a place that honors the Jewish men, women and children who were murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. Hungarian Jews were ordered to take their shoes off at the water’s edge, where they were then shot— their bodies falling into the river and carried away by the current. I was shaken by what I saw. I realized that I was standing where innocent lives were taken, and I was fine, yet they were not. After a few moments of silence, we stood as a group to sing the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer that honors those who have passed away.
These discarded shoes seem so simple but are so powerful. Sadly, we were going to see a lot more forgotten shoes in the days ahead.
After spending three days in Budapest, our next stop was Poland. We traveled to both Krakow and Warsaw, and though some days were fun, we also witnessed some of history’s most horrific events and sites.
On July 7, a bus full of almost 50 of us teenagers from around the US rolled into the parking lot at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. It was very weird, to say the least. The only way I can describe it is to say it is like entering a bubble. The weather was gorgeous that day in Poland. In the morning, we walked around beautiful streets filled with life and people while we prepared ourselves for what we were about to see. The whole drive was pretty too. There were trees and scenic roads and sunshine— everything was green, but when we pulled into the almost 1-mile radius around the camp, everything changed. The sky became cloudy, gloomy, and grey. Everything seemed dead: the trees, the grass, even the air.
We walked into the camp through the notorious arch that states, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI,” which translates to Work Makes You Free. This sign mocks Auschwitz’s true purpose.
Over a million people visit the site each year and what is interesting about Auschwitz is that it has become a museum and memorial. Every barrack holds photographs and exhibitions and each walkway has a sign depicting its intended use. But even with the museum feel, one can sense it is truly a place of pure evil.
If you know me at all, you know it’s not often that I am at a loss for words. However, on this day I was. I had never before felt such incomprehensible shock over what I was seeing. You read the number. You see the charts. You learn the names of those who were murdered there. I have been fortunate enough to meet survivors and hear their stories. But even with that knowledge, you can only begin to imagine a number so big. You can only learn so many names.
It is hard to understand until you see it in front of you. Until you see the displays filled with piles of glasses
Or the stacks of mugs and cups
Or the abandoned shoes that surrounded visitors on all sides of the walls as you walked through the corridor.
Each of these exhibitions reflected the prisoners’ hopes for the future and belief in better days to come. Instead, these items became the remains of lives cut short by hate and fear.
I remember looking around at my group. We were all still strangers bearing witness together, but I will never forget the look on some of their faces when we reached the hair.
Words do not do justice to how I felt looking through that glass at the clumps of detached hair. Hair brutally shorn from arriving prisoners. Hair that had once symbolized a person’s humanity. Pictures are not allowed in that portion of the exhibit, but I am unsure about whether I would have wanted to take one anyway. It seemed too disrespectful, and that hair had experienced enough trauma and disrespect.
At the end of the tour was a small white room; it was a room previously used to hold children. It now contains a giant book. Each page documented hundreds of names of those murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There were thousands of pages, and I was just holding a small portion of it.
Walking out of Auschwitz, we were all in shock. We sat down for lunch outside of the gates on some dead grass. They gave us bagged lunches, but no one ate them. We mostly sat in silence.
We quietly got back on our bus to drive towards Birkenau, another camp that was a part of the complex Auschwitz system. Birkenau served as the killing center of Auschwitz.
Our bus drove next to the train tracks. The tracks that transported over a million Jews and thousands of Sinti and Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Polish Citizens to where they would be murdered.
I’m not sure what I was expecting at Birkenau, but it was definitely not what I saw. It was not a museum, like Auschwitz, nor a memorial like we had seen on the river in Budapest. It was just a massive section of land with blown-up brick buildings scattered across it. We learned that the wooden barracks were destroyed and used for firewood after the war.
We saw cattle cars and barbed wire fences. The electricity to the fences had been turned off. I remember thinking the same thing I felt on the Danube River: I was standing where these innocent people stood, yet I was fine, and they were not.
It was very cold at Birkenau, more than it had been at Auschwitz. As a group, we huddled together while our guide explained each nook and cranny of Birkenau. We visited some of the remaining barracks where Jews were forced to sleep huddled together on straw, the filthy latrines, and the partially destroyed crematorium and gas chambers where over a million people were murdered, including children.
Some people cried the whole time we were there. Some stood in shock. But everyone kept quiet. Even though we were a group of 50-ish teenagers, everyone felt touched in some indescribable way. I recalled my mother telling me that on her first visit to Auschwitz Birkenau in 1995, she found a piece of human bone near the crematorium. That made it hard for me to look at the ground there.
We gathered around a blown-up gas chamber to sing Israel’s national anthem, “Hativkah,” “The Hope.” We each knew every word. Everyone sang loudly and proudly to honor all those who had perished right where we stood. It was a moment I don’t think I will ever forget.
After Auschwitz-Birkenau, our entire group needed time and a safe place to recover. It’s funny that after seeing the most disturbing sites you will probably see in your entire life, Auschwitz Birkenau, the tour guide takes you someplace happy. On my trip, we went to a small little coffee shop that had crepes and coffee. It was the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Although these sites were hard to see, I will never forget what I learned. Learning about the history of the Holocaust is important, but it is crucial to learn the lessons that its history conveys: To respect all people, to stand up for what is right, to speak out against injustice, and that silence helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. I will always remember the stories and the sites, and I will continue to live in a way that honors those who were lost. I will remember and tell, and educate those around me to make sure it never happens again. לזכור ולספר