From Auschwitz/Birkenau to Jewish Life in Krakow

It’s hard to say where to start. Today I visited the place I’ve always wanted to go but also dreaded going. Today, we went to Auschwitz – Birkenau.  But before I go into this post, Jonathan Orenstein, the CEO of the JCC here in Kraków, reminded us that while we define Auschwitz, we do not allow it to define us.  For if we only focus on the tragedies of the Holocaust, then we forget to embrace the living and the potential for continued Jewish growth.

We started early in the morning with our drive from Kraków to Auschwitz, the town of Oswiecim.  Interesting note about this town: 60% of the town was Jewish and they were all murdered immediately and the rest of the town people were pushed out.  Therefore, the people living in Oswiecim  were mostly Nazis.

We entered Auschwitz I first.  This is where you see the famous sign,   Arbeit Macht Frei,  work will make you free.   An interesting fact about the sign, besides that it was stolen twice, is if you look closely at the “B“ you will notice that it is upside down.  The prisoners of the camp who were forced to make this sign did this on purpose as a way  of saying this was not true, it was like a secret message to the incoming prisoners.

Auschwitz I was a work camp. However it was there that they developed and perfected the message of extermination of the Jews.  It is there that the only gas chamber from Auschwitz still exists. This was a small gas chamber and crematoria that was used to perfect the method and on the political prisoners. It was surreal to walk in and through the building and then out the door again.

Yad Vashem created a very powerful exhibit that includes the pages of a very very long book with over 4.2 million names of those Jews who are murdered in the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, because so many went straight from the trains to the gas chambers, their names were lost when they were murdered and their bodies turned to ash.  A few of us were able to find names of family members that we were not sure we would ever find. Including our family who we learned the right way of spelling Zayonchik.

After visiting a number of the barracks that are now museums, we headed out to Auschwitz II/Birkenau.  It is in this camp that one says the gate of death, the train tracks that lead directly into the camp into the selection platform. There the head of the camp would look at each prisoner and turn his thumb either to the right or to the left declaring if the person will live or be sent directly to the gas chambers. There are rows and rows of brick chimneys in the field showing where many many barracks were situated. These barracks were made from wood and since the ground is swampland, over the years they have collapsed. However there are a few that have been restored in order to give the visitor an opportunity to visualize the conditions the people lived in during their short time there.  The lifespan of a prisoner in this camp was about three months.

We walked along the platform toward the forest where on either side were the destroyed gas chambers and crematoria. One can still make out where the changing room was followed by the turn 2000 people at one time would take into the gas chamber and the crematoria adjacent. The numbers are staggering and it was a well thought out methodical machine for killing the Jewish people. I don’t know how anyone can deny the Holocaust happened after seeing this along with the 2 tons of hair that are on display and the piles of shoes, glasses and belonging left behind by those who entered Auschwitz. The hair was used in every day products including woven into fabric that was then sold to the Germans for making clothing and other items.

We found a spot on a small set of stairs facing into the woods. We lit three yahrzeit candles for the men, the women and the children and together had our own memorial service. We cried, we sang, we held on to the flame.

Ron, our tour educator, spoke about how the word Holocaust is not the right word. The word means a holy burnt offering or sacrifice. This was something that was considered holy. The Holocaust is far from holy. Shoah, the Hebrew word is much more appropriate for Shoah means completely consumed by fire. And standing in this spot, you could hear the silent voices of those who remain nameless and were consumed by fire.

We slowly walked the one kilometer from the gas chambers, along the train tracks to the front of the camp. Unlike the 1.5 million who were murdered there, we were able to walk out. But we walk out with the knowledge that we must not only never forget, but also take action so that this never happens again!

We arrived back in Krakow a couple of hours later, they have Friday rush hour traffic too. We took an hour to collect ourselves and change for Shabbat, because now we needed to go from death to life and light.

We joined together at the JCC in Krakow where every day they have someone else come in who has discovered they too are Jewish. There are no guards, there are not fences or closed gates. The sign at the entrance says, “come in and say hi!” And so many do! There is Jewish life in Krakow and we got to be a part of it.

Jonathan Orenstein, the CEO of the JCC spent time talking to us about the 11 years the JCC has existed. Had we made this trip 10
years ago, we would have only gone to Auschwitz and then left, never knowing that there was still a Jewish presence here. It is vibrant and very much alive! Last year, the JCC opened the first Jewish kindergarten class in Krakow since World War II! Every Friday night there are Shabbat services and a Shabbat dinner. And we got to be a part of it!

I was honored to lead services with Student Rabbi Mati Kirshenbaum. The service was in Polish, Hebrew and English. My Polish can use some work! But I am happy to say, I got the Jews of Krakow “rolling!” Yes, we sang Roll Into Dark Roll Into Light and even the oldest of the Krakow Jewish community did the rolling hand movements with me! I like to leave a mark!

After services we joined together for an amazing dinner. There are many non-Jewish volunteers who work at the JCC and love to be a part of these events. They are all so welcoming and gracious. It is as if the entire Krakow community wants Judaism back! And they are bringing it back.

Before we had to leave, a woman came up to me and told me I had to sing one more song. So why not a Yiddish L’Chah Dodi! We sang and clapped and laughed together.

So from the ashes and a difficult day we have been rejuvenated and reminded, it is not the fire that consumes, it is the fire that gives of light and warmth! Shabbat Shalom!

3 thoughts on “From Auschwitz/Birkenau to Jewish Life in Krakow”

  1. What a poignant experience. I’m glad you and Steve Friedman are sharing your pictures and thoughts.

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