Bearing Witness

The teenagers of today are the last generation that will be able to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust; they are the last generation that will look down at the forearm of a survivor and see a number tattooed into the skin that was meant to erase it’s bearer’s name and identity. Their children will not be able to sit with Holocaust survivors as we can today, and listen to their stories, and so it falls on their generation in particular to bear witness; to ask survivors for their stories; to visit the places where the concentration camps once stood, and to see with their own eyes the places of horror that the survivors describe, so that they can tell their own children the stories that the Holocaust survivors no longer can.  I had the privilege of accompanying my sister Tara over the past 9 days on a journey to bear witness.  It seems fitting to begin the description of my experience with the words of the Director of the Auschwitz Memorial in his speech earlier this year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation:

“Today it [Auschwitz] no longer awakens the demons, it awakens the conscience. And this conscience accuses each and every one of us…it would seem that the world should stay different for good; that no one should be innocently killed. It would seem that no longer today can hatred be propagated and that no one is going to try to change borders by force. It would seem that indifference and passiveness should stir disgust. We have, however, so many times seen that remembrance has not yet matured in us. Our future is routed in remembrance, and when we forget, we are not destroying an image of the past, but the tangible shape of our future. Never again is not a political program, but a personal decision. It means never again because of me. Never again in me. Never again with me.”

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As we picked up speed, gliding along the tracks in a modern, luxurious train car, the tall commercial buildings and bustling industrial plants of central Munich melted into rolling green pastures and towering mountains on the distant horizon. Looking out the window of the train, my eyes were drawn to the sight of wooden train tracks running parallel to us, tracks which I realized were the ones once used to transport tens of thousands of my people on the final journey of their lives to the Dachau concentration camp. In it’s 13 years of operation, 33,000 people died at Dachau of starvation, disease, cruel medical experiments, gas chambers, and mass executions.   Out my window, both the beauty of the scenery and the remnants of the horrors of the Holocaust were simultaneously visible. In many ways, it served as a metaphor for Germany, which while today is renowned for it’s democratic, tolerant culture, is a country still haunted and deeply affected by it’s tragic, not-so-distant past.

Entering the Dachau Concentration camp, we passed under the sign promoting the notorious lie that prisoners of the camps were led to believe: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work Will Set You Free.  In the following 3 photos you can see the entrances to the Dachau, Auschwitz, and Terezín Concentration Camps, all with the same lie posted above their entrances.

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The exhibit at Dachau is housed in a former prisoners’ barracks. There, we learned about the harrowing history of the camp. We learned of women that were forced to serve as sex slaves for the SS – I imagined the horror of watching a woman I loved being torn away from me, knowing she was going to be used as a sex slave.  We saw the hooks that were used to hang prisoners by their wrists, which were tied behind their backs, for one hour at a time, sometimes more, for imagined infractions.  We learned of 2’x2’ solitary confinement cells in which one had room only to stand, and not to sit, in which the minimum sentence was three days during which time no food or water was provided.  We learned about the cruelty of medical experiments performed on prisoners for the sadistic entertainment of the SS doctors, many of whom had no actual medical training. The people the Nazis subjected to these tortures were not soldiers – they were regular people. Men, women and children, whose crime was only their religion, nationality, sexual preference, or holding beliefs that countered those held by the Nazis.   We saw photographs and read first-hand accounts that spoke of the unimaginable cruelty that the Nazis inflicted on their fellow human beings.

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Here are prisoners waiting for the beginning of the morning roll-call. Each morning and evening, even when temperatures dropped far below 0 degree Fahrenheit, when the roll-call began, the prisoners of the camps were forced to stand at attention with their feet together, their hands at their sides and not in their pockets, and their heads facing slightly down, at times for hours at a time, until the guards could account for every single prisoner, both dead and alive. It was not uncommon for prisoners to freeze to death or die of exhaustion during roll-call.

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Our final stop at Dachau was the gas chambers and the crematorium. This is a picture of a crematorium, in which the remains of thousands of murdered human beings were burned.

As my sister Tara and I passed before it, we stopped to say Kaddish and to bless their memory. As I began to read the prayer out loud, the words became caught in my throat as emotion overtook me, and tears, now flowing freely from my eyes, distorted my vision, such that I could no longer see the words. Each of us helped the other when the words wouldn’t come, and in such a manner, together, we made it through the prayer. After paying our respects at the memorial to the murdered victims of Dachau at the far end of the camp, we walked back in silence to the train that would take us back to Munich along the barbed wire fence that runs along the entire perimeter of the camp.  When the camp was operational, the fence was electrified with a deadly voltage.

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As I looked up at the sky, the ominous clouds that hung over the camp seemed natural to the place, like a permanent scar on the face of the landscape. Hundreds of people that were interned at Dachau threw themselves against the electric fence, choosing to take their own lives rather than continue to suffer in the horrible conditions of the camp. I was reminded of the chilling words of Primo Levi in his book, “Survival in Auschwitz:”

“Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.”

The next stop on our trip was Poland, where we learned of the vibrant Jewish community built up over centuries that was almost entirely wiped out during the holocaust. Over 3 million of the 3.3 million Jews living in Poland at the time of the Holocaust were murdered, the highest percentage of any nation in Europe. The Nazis hid all their extermination camps as far as possible from Germany in an effort to hide the mass-murder they were systematically carrying out from their population.

In Warsaw, where the Jews had comprised 40% of the entire population before the war, as many as 460,000 people were locked into a ghetto under inhumane conditions that encompassed only 1.5 square miles.

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In this photo from 1939, one can see a member of the Gestapo laughing as he watches a fellow Nazi shearing the beard of an arrested Jew in an act of public humiliation.

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When the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated, most of the Jews were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. This photo shows the deportation of women and children in May of 1943. The child’s face is haunting. As a Nazi points a gun at his mother and him, his face betrays both fear and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

One of the most significant landmarks for me in Poland was the monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Knowing deportation to Auschwitz meant almost certain death, they vowed to go down fighting. With the help of the Polish resistance, they smuggled weapons into the Ghetto and fought to the last man and woman.

On a small grass hill where the Ghetto once stood today stands a monument built from the ruins of the bunker at 18 Mila street, where on May 8th, 1943, surrounded by Nazis after 3 weeks of struggle, over a hundred people were killed or chose to take their own lives, refusing to perish at the hands of their enemies. As it is written there,

There were several hundred bunkers built in the Ghettos.

Found and destroyed By the Nazis, they became graves.

They could not save those who sought refuge

Inside them, yet they remain everlasting symbols of the Warsaw Jews’ will to live.

The bunker at Mila street was the largest in the Ghetto. It is place of rest

Of over one hundred fighters, only some of whom are known by name.

Here they rest, buried where they fell,

To remind us that the whole earth is their grave.

Bowing my head, I removed my dog tag from my neck, and reaching out slowly, touched the metal against the cold stone that marked their final resting place. During the hardest moments of my training, I had often thought of their courage in the face of certain death, and drawn strength from their legacy. I imagined what it must have been like to look out the opening of the bunker that once stood where I was then standing and see hundreds of superiorly armed Nazis, and know that death was imminent. My sister and I stood together and said Kaddish in their memory, and for all those who had fought against the Nazis.

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This monument, directly across from the Resistance museum, pays tribute to the fallen fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Poland was the only country under Nazi rule where almost from the beginning of the occupation, the punishment for harboring Jews was execution for the guilty party and his/her entire family. Despite this order, righteous gentiles and Polish resistance fighters gave refuge to Jews, nobly refusing to sacrifice their humanity in the face of Nazi barbarity. No less than 20,000 Jews were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto by the Polish resistance.

At his factory which has become a museum, I learned the story of Oscar Schindler, a Nazi party member and prominent businessman who rescued nearly 1200 Jews from the grip of death. His story is immortalized in the award-winning film “Schindler’s list.” Under the pretense of wanting to continue to use the Jews in his employ as cheap labor, he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the commandant of the Plaszów concentration camp to allow him to buy his Jewish workers from him and send them to his new factory in the Czech Republic to prevent them from being deported to the death camps. Today more than 5,000 Jews – the descendants of those he rescued, are alive because of Oscar Schindler.

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The above photo pictures the men and women saved by Schindler and their decedents leading the funeral possession after his death in 1974.

Unfortunately, despite the bravery of some, countless Poles proactively participated in the Nazi genocide.  Accounts of this complacency were seemingly omitted from the Polish narrative of the war, as neither the museum exhibits nor our 3 tour guides addressed the rampant Antisemitism and complacency that defined Poland both before, during, and after the Holocaust. While Poland was notorious for the role it’s population played in the extermination of Jews, this phenomenon was not unique to Poland. Nearly half of the victims of the Holocaust died not at the hands of the SS, but rather were murdered in cold blood by their neighbors and thrown into unmarked graves outside the cities and towns they once called home.

Our final stop in Poland was the Auschwitz Concentration camp, the site of the largest mass-murder in modern history, where over 1 million people were massacred in the gas chambers, and where hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease, or were summarily executed. Many of the SS guards who worked at Auschwitz housed their own families in luxury apartments a few hundred feet outside the camp where they spent their days torturing and killing innocent people.

At Auschwitz, people were worked until they were no longer deemed useful, at which point they were sent to the gas chambers and then burned in the crematoriums. The average weight of the survivors of Auschwitz was 60 pounds.

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This photo pictures several hundred-people lined up before a selection. The nonchalant body language of the Nazis pictured suggests a banality to the task they are about to carry out – almost as if they are about to open the tryouts for a High School Sports team. One smokes a cigarette, while another stands casually with his hands on his hips surveying the people in front of him. During these selections, Nazi doctors calmly pointed right or left and without emotion or shame, sent hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children to their deaths.

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I took this photo at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the same location where the selections took place in the photo above. 70 years later, I felt the haunting presence of hundreds of thousands of people who were sent to their deaths on the very spot where I stood.

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This is a cattle-car that was used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Hope is the last thing to die. In this photo you can see a woman hurrying with her children to what she was told would be warm showers, after which she believes, or wants to believe, that she will be able to get them food and water. It is widely accepted that everyone in this photo was murdered in the gas chambers less than an hour after it was taken.

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For me, these abandoned shoes drove home the scale of the horror of the Holocaust. Each pair of shoes had walked a different path to a road that ended at Auschwitz, and was worn in by the various experiences that shaped and defined the man, woman, or child who had worn them. Auschwitz was a work camp – without shoes one could not work and thus one could not remain alive, and so these shoes are the final piece of evidence of the death of tens of thousands of their owners who perished in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

The ruins of the gas chambers and crematorium are the site of the most solemn memorial at Auschwitz. In an area no larger than a football field, over a million people were murdered in a systematic genocide. Our guide recounted that only a single person was ever known to have survived the gas chambers. The 12-year-old girl, badly wounded, was shot immediately upon her discovery by the Nazis, as was the prisoner, a doctor in his former life, who had tried to save her when he found her alive.

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At the site of the crematorium, we encountered half-a-dozen groups of Israeli teenagers draped in Israeli flags.

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We were told that each year, tens of thousands of Israeli High School students come to Auschwitz to bear witness, to pay their respects to the fallen, and to sing Israel’s national anthem. They stand as living proof that from the ashes of the Holocaust rose a strong Jewish nation, one whose Defense Force ensures that if the world one day forgets it’s promise of “Never Again,” we will never again find ourselves defenseless. The “Right of Return,” the law under which I became an Israeli citizen, states that any person who was Jewish enough to be killed by the Nazis is Jewish enough to become an Israeli citizen.

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This photo captures several high-ranking Nazis on a summer retreat in July of 1944 as they take a break from mass-murder. Two of them served during different points as the commandant of Auschwitz, and one served as the head doctor of the camp, responsible for the cruel and senseless medical experiments that took place at Auschwitz. In their eyes, one detects a light heartedness, and not the slightest bit of remorse.

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A second photo captures the same retreat, this time with “SS Maids,” as they were called, smiling and laughing. The men in this photo were instrumental in carrying out one of the cruelest and most inhumane genocides the world has ever seen, yet in their eyes and expressions, one can find not a trace of sadness or self-doubt. After the war, tens of thousands of Nazis escaped punishment, and in many cases even those who were convicted of murder were never executed, but were instead promoted to high ranking positions within the Communist governments that ruled Eastern Europe in the decades following the Holocaust.

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When we had been in Germany at the site of the Nuremberg trials, we drew a small bit of comfort in learning of the justice bestowed by the allied Military court in 1946, which found 12 of the Nazis who were instrumental in the mass murder of the Holocaust guilty of countless crimes against humanity. 11 were executed after the verdicts were passed, while one committed suicide in his jail cell. Almost inexplicably, despite the vast evidence compiled against them and the testimony of hundreds of eye witnesses, all of the men charged pleaded not-guilty.

In Prague, the final stop of our trip, we visited the Terezín Concentration camp. Terezín was constructed to demonstrate to the Red- Cross the supposed humane conditions under which Jews were being held to “protect them” from the horrors of the war, some of the poetry, writing, and artwork of those interned there survived, and today serves as a testimony to the true conditions within the camp, where 33,000 people died of disease and starvation. Of the 144,000 people that passed through Treblinka, my Great Uncle Deeder and his father among them, 87,000 were deported, of which only 3,600 survived the war.

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March 6, 1943. F. Bloch “Goodbye before Leaving,” presumably pictures a man saying goodbye to his wife before she is deported to a death camp.

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1939, B Fritta. “Night Transport in the Ghetto.”

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B Fritta “Film and Reality” contrasts the Terezín that was shown to the world via the Red-Cross visit with the true conditions under which it’s inhabitants lived.

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  1. Fleishmann. “Meeting area for Deportees.” Only 4% of people deported from Terezín to the death camps survived the war.

As I finished writing this on the flight back from Europe, I began to come to terms with what I witnessed over the previous 9 days. My overwhelming feeling was one of shame and disappointment; I have not done enough to prevent genocides in my own lifetime, several of which still rage today. I have taken the first step to remedy that with a large donation to Jewish World Watch, a charity that seeks to prevent genocide – if you are moved by these pictures and by these stories, I would urge you to donate as well, that we may keep the promise made in 1945 to those who suffered in the Holocaust of “Never Again.”

When we forget, we are not destroying an image of the past, but the tangible shape of our future. Never again, is not a political program, but a personal decision. It means never again because of me. Never again in me. Never again with me.”

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2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Thank for taking the time to write this stirring, emotional and informative recount of your trip. You are an amazing young man and I learn valuable lessons and gain important insight every time I read your words. I will go to Jewish World Watch right now and pass this writing along to my children.

  2. That Tara asked for this experience as her ‘senior project’ – Dayanu
    That you would firmly commit 8 months in advance in the midst of your busy and uncertain life, to accompany her, learn with her and share this experience- Dayanu.
    But your beautifully written piece that concludes with your commitment to do more – after your service to the IDF and the reserves which was/is in itself well above and beyond your duty to our heritage and humanity, makes me proud beyond my wildest dreams or my capacity to accurately or intelligently communicate it. Kol Hakavod to Tara and you for your commiitment to education and tikun olam. You continue to give us hope for an ever better future. Love Dad.

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