The train tracks just ended. They entered the plaza underneath a brick archway and then just stopped. I had never seen train tracks just end before, as every time I had ridden a train, usually with my grandfather, they always continued on somewhere else.
And they didn’t need to go anywhere. Their purpose was not commerce, leisure, or adventure. It was death. I was standing on the platform on which hundreds of thousands of Jews stepped on their way to the gas chambers at the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was on a six-week trip to Europe and Israel with about 40 other kids my age, most of whom I knew, as many of us had attended the same Jewish sleep-away camp each summer, Camp Joseph and Betty Harlam, in northern Pennsylvania.
I don’t have any pictures of my time visiting the concentration camp. I found pictures of the Czech Republic (our preceding stop) and Hungary (our subsequent stop), but none from Polish town about an hour west of Krakow. It was the same place where, according to my Polish great-grandmother, many of my ancestors were herded into gas chambers where they inhaled Zyklon-B poison gas, died, and then their flesh and bones were turned to ash in a crematorium.
Because I don’t have pictures, I struggle to remember all of what we did, but I do remember a few things I’ll never forget.
I’ll never forget walking underneath the sign to the entrance of the camp that said “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free. To the Nazis, freedom for Jews was death, and in many cases, the Jews worked until they died.
I’ll never forget walking through the brick buildings, now turned into museums, containing piles of hair, clothing, luggage, eyeglasses, gold teeth, trinkets, and money that was taken from their rightful owners. Each pile, behind glass, was several feet high and several feet wide.
I’ll never forget the iron trays of the crematorium, which to that day still contained the ash of the bodies it burned.
I’ll never forget listening to a survivor of Auschwitz stand with us and describe what it was like to be back in the same place where he lived under Nazi rule just 55 years before.
I’ll never forget walking along the train tracks, underneath the brick guard tower at Birkenau, and standing on that platform where so many Jews would be murdered minutes after their arrival.
I’ll never forget participating in a Jewish service, led by a rabbi, and saying prayers on the very same train platform that the Nazis used to try to vanquish the very act we were doing. And I’ll never forget that the sun started to peek through the clouds as we were doing it.
I’ll never forget standing on top of a mass grave, sunken somewhat as the flesh of the dead had rotted away, and finding small bones, mostly the small bones of fingers, hands, toes, and feet that had risen to the surface. “Take one with you,” our guide told us, “so we can bury them in Israel where they belong.” I took one, put it in my travel pouch, and buried it under a tree in Israel a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, that’s all I’ll remember. But as I said, I’ll never forget.
Recently, my wife and I started watching The Hunters on Amazon. I had no idea what it was about, though several of our friends had recommended it without giving away the plot. By the end of the second episode, we had watched reenacted scenes from the Holocaust, including many of the horrifying yet true examples of how the Nazis tortured Jews.
My wife was shaken.
“This is really messed up,” she said. She had seen Schindler’s List, she noted, yet this was especially moving.
I wasn’t as affected as she was. “When you grow up Jewish,” I told her, “you’re taught about this at an early age and it is something that stays with you.” I described how many of my ancestors, who didn’t leave for America in the 1920s as my great-grandmother had done, died in the Holocaust. I told her about my visit to Auschwitz, including everything I mentioned above.
Many scenes in the show are disturbing, of course, but I had seen worse. I had seen it first hand, and while I don’t have any pictures from that time, I’ll never forget.
No one should ever forget.