Of course, the same holds true for those who sang on their way into the gas chambers. The first camp we went to was Treblinka. The entire camp had been destroyed so there was absolutely nothing to see. This made it hard to connect with what happened there. The only thing there is a small museum with information on how the camp worked – oh and stones. There were stones everywhere, marking where the borders of the camp were and where the train platform was. A huge monument marked the spot were the gas chamber once stood. The rest of the vast clearing was barren. Well, not quite barren- there were 17,000 other stone monuments. Yes, 17,000 stones, each one commemorating a town or shtetel where people had come from.
We had come to Treblinka at night, but as far as my flashlight shined stone monuments surrounded me. It was sickening to think about Nazis sitting nearby drinking coffee or looking at the animals in the zoo on the grounds, while citizens of entire towns were being killed out a few yards away. There is no way explain the feelings that whirls inside when you know that you are standing in the place where 1 million people died simply because they were Jewish.
Visiting Auschwitz and Majdanek was bit different simply because they still looked like concentration camps. Auschwitz I had been turned into a museum. The biggest thing I got from the museum was a bit more of an appreciation for the number 6,000,000,000. One of the barracks was filled with piles of things behind glass – anything that was taken from the prisoners: brushes, talleisim, prosthetics, makeup, cooking utensils, suitcases, and what seemed like endless amount of shoes.
And to think, people packed only the most important things. Each person came with only a tiny suitcase. These piles showed a tiny fraction of what was collected from millions of Jews who passed through the camps. The piles of ordinary everyday stuff helped to make the point that these prisoners were people; every one of the six million killed was an individual. At one point during our trip a friend retold something that really brought this point home. She had once heard someone refer to the six million who died as six million and one. The person answered the quizzical looks by explaining that once you say six million and one everyone starts thinking about that one- the person who made it six million and ONE. Was it a man or woman? Was he young or old? Was he a doctor, lawyer, grocer? Did he leave behind a family, children? What was he thinking as he took his last breath? We need to think of each of the six million kedoshim in this manner.
The last thing that we saw in Auschwitz I was the small gas chamber. Again, there is absolutely no way to describe what that was like. The room was completely empty except for a tiny monument, some flowers, and the pipes that carried the gas lining through the walls. At first, all I could think about was the people who died with the words of Shema on their lips in the very place I stood. In most cases they had no clue what was coming, they were completely unsuspecting. And as we as a group declared the yechidus of Hashem by saying Shema the words were said with tears and a newfound understanding of what they mean. As we made our way out, I felt such an appreciation for my life. All those who passed through the doorway during the Holocaust were not as lucky – they had already passed on to olam haemes.
The room right next door to the gas chamber was the crematorium. The long brick ovens sickened me. Strangely enough what I thought about when I saw the ovens was the poor souls who were forced to dispose of their brethren in such a horrific manner.
From there we made our way back out of the camp. We walked in silence. As we made our way to the buses, I saw everything through completely different eyes. The walk back to the bus seemed miles long – miles lined with the horrors of millions of people’s lives.
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