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Poland Trip 2022 Sunday: Auschwitz-Birkenau

By Esther Cabot

I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied because today is the last day of our trip and there are still names I don’t know, still survivors to remember. I visualize the Belzec row of survivors’ names, לובלין, ליבטש ,לעמבעריק, and know that they are blurred in my mind. I am not satisfied because I don’t know how to relate to the Polish people I’ve interacted with. Are they the children of the perpetrators we encountered at Jedwabne, our fellow victims at Majdanek, or righteous gentiles from Krakow? Am I not allowed to see the beauty of Tiktin, where in a world without the Holocaust, my friends could have grown up? This week should not have been satisfying. I should not have felt satiated by my lunch while watching Jewish people starve and eat animal-like off the floor in The Pianist.

We started the day at 4:30 AM. As we walked through the snow-coated trains tracks of Birkenau (Auschwitz 1), many of us began turning to each other—against our better judgement—to complain about our cold toes. The story of Night rang in our ears, of a sixteen year old boy with only a blanket around his swollen foot as protection against the wintertime death march. To further transport us into the time period at the prisoners’ hour of death, at Crematorium 3, we heard a testimony describing Poles singing their national anthem and Jews crying out their parallel: התקווה. They no longer prayed for פרנסה or the health of their families because their families were gone. And so too, we soon realized, were their identities. At Canada Command, items were taken from Jewish owners’ suitcases to be sorted and sent to Germany but as we were reminded again at the Auschwitz 2 exhibit, each item had a life behind it. The red pair of heels wasn’t a shoe, it was Hannah’s first dance. The green floral bowl wasn’t a mug, it was Joshua’s morning coffee cup. While this week brought understanding and awe at the strength of prisoners to rebel, it equally brought anger towards the men behind it all. To Hitler’s favorite Odolio Globnocnik, to the “laka” Kurt Franz (who lovingly looked back on his “Beautiful Years” in Treblinka), and to the sadist Franz Stangl. As I write this, I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning their names since it seems that history has given the evil men enough notoriety. Yet, over this week, we have learned both about the Banality of Evil and the Banality of Heroism. There are archetypes like Adam Cherniakov and Chaim Rumkowski who made tough decisions while leading the Jewish people. And there is also Janusz Korczak, Fredy Hirsch, Rav Meir Lau, and the Aish Hakodesh who always remained loyal to their congregation. I want to mention Korczak’s story in particular — he founded an orphanage in 1911 with his partner Stephana. Although he was offered to go to the Aryan side when the ghetto started, he swore he would not leave his children; he kept to his word, even into the gas chambers. At the end of our tour of Auschwitz Birkenau, we sat in a circle and those who had (or have) survivors in their families told their stories. One story about Rav Brown’s mother struck me in particular. He spoke about friendship and family and said how once, when given half a piece of apple, his mother immediately split the piece into four to share with her friends. She was starving at the time.

More than anything, the Poland trip has taught me that human beings have the potential to do good or evil, and they are judged even when humanity would seem lost to them. 900,000 men and women went straight to the gas chambers, without a chance at heroism. G-d willing, I hope that the 28 girls on this trip, the ones back home, and the Jewish nation in its entirety choose the heroic path, of chesed, of family, of sharing what they have even when what they have is nothing.