I used to think that silence was something to avoid. Something awkward. The sign of a lull in a conversation. But today, I experienced a different kind of speechlessness. I watched as my friends sat apart from one another – not talking – on the steps overlooking the crematorium at Birkenau. For the first time, I felt comfort in silence. Nobody had to speak because the tears and silence said it all.
After experiencing Majdanek yesterday, I believed that Auschwitz I and II could not be more traumatic. I had become sick to my stomach at Majdanek, and I even left the group for a few minutes to close my eyes and force myself to take deep breaths. As we set out on the hour-long bus ride to the town of Oswiecim, I promised myself that I would handle Auschwitz I and Birkenau better than Majdanek. I vowed not to fall apart in my hotel room again once we returned.
As we began our walk into Birkenau, the largest and most deadly sub-camp of Auschwitz, I felt as though I was in a black-and-white photograph. I marched on the train tracks and approached the large brown building that was the entrance. I had seen that building in photos of Birkenau, and I felt shivers creep up my spine. We shuffled in single file, overwhelmed at the sheer size of the facility. Nobody was talking to each other, but we held hands. Soon, we passed a giant field of brick chimneys – the barracks that had housed families had been destroyed by the Nazis as they fled, and all that remained were hundreds of chimneys. We walked past the women’s camp, a cable car on the rail, and the ramp used for the selection. I wanted the sadness and anger to wash over me. I wanted to feel the tears, but they just wouldn’t come.
And then the tears came. Our group stood in a circle next to the destroyed gas chamber and crematorium and sang. As I powerfully belted out the song, Ani Maamin B’emunah Sheleima – which means “I believe in God with full faith” – a thought suddenly crossed my mind. I wanted to yell at everyone who’d called the Nazis “dehumanized” throughout our trip here. People claimed that the Nazis were so far gone that they didn’t have an ounce of morality in them, but that couldn’t be true. Clearly they knew how despicable their gas chambers were, which is why the facility now lay in broken piles of rubble – scattered and broken piles like the ashes of my people in a mound at Majdanek. The Nazis destroyed their gas chambers before the Red Army could liberate the camp, apparently attempting to protect their reputations.
After we finished singing, teacher Ruthie Skaist and principal Reb Noam Weissman handed out letters that our parents had written to us. I wasn’t expecting to be able to connect to my parents all the way from Poland, and I welcomed the surprise. Crying even more, I sat alone at the foot of the gas chamber and read my letter, which reminded me of my responsibility to speak up for my people. My dad wrote to me about my relatives in America, who, along with most American Jews, did not lobby and fight for the Jews in camps – despite the rumors that reached America. Although I was surrounded by silence, I vowed to myself that if I needed to fight for my people, I would. Whether it was BDS or violent anti-Semitism, I wouldn’t make the same mistake that American Jews during the war did.