Day 7 (Part 2): Stories That Guide Us Through Auschwitz

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A sign in front of barbed-wire fencing at Auschwitz. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

By Gosia Glouszek

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again,” says the inscription in Barrack 4 of the Auschwitz I concentration camp. This thought stays with us throughout the three hours we will spend at Auschwitz on this Sunday afternoon.

From the very beginning, we are struck by the irony and the atrocity of this place. We enter the camp through the same gate that thousands of people did 70 years ago. The sign above it reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means, “Work Gives You Freedom.” All the victims knew that was just a cruel joke–the only way to find freedom was to die. Through that gate, prisoners had to walk everyday to go to work, accompanied by the music of the camp’s orchestra.

Our guide, Tomasz Michaldo, made the history of the camp come alive through the tales of several inmates. He told us of Samuel Gogol, a young Polish Jew from Warsaw, who arrived in Auschwitz and heard the sound of a harmonica playing. Samuel played the harmonica well and so he really wanted to get one for himself.  But in Auschwitz, the only currency was food, so he starved himself for a few days so he could collect some pieces of bread to exchange for an instrument. He bought the harmonica and was soon chosen to join the camp’s orchestra. One day, when he was playing, a train carrying a new set of prisoners arrived. Among the crowd, he noticed a member from his own family. From that very moment, Tomasz tells us, Gogol decided that he would always play with his eyes closed.

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A sign in front of barbed-wire fencing at Auschwitz I. Photo by Bogdan Mohora.

People of different nationalities, from Athens to Oslo, from Witebsk to Berlin, were sent to Auschwitz. Most of those who died were Jews as well as many Poles and Romas. Some of them were sent here just because of their ethnic origins, sexual preference or political convictions. Some were deported for even small offenses. “Sent to Auschwitz for absence at work,” “for listening to a foreign radio station,” “for smuggling food to a Jewish ghetto” – we read on the personal files of the deportees.

The absurdity of this place continues to stun us. Someone from our group asks our guide about the new trees, which were planted between the barracks. He answers that there were trees here originally, and that the Nazis simply wanted to make this place look beautiful. They also planted flowers, but these were often eaten by starving prisoners. The house of the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, was situated just behind the camp’s fence. He lived here with his wife and five kids, surrounded by a beautiful garden and a pool. Their friends visited each weekend and said that this place was paradise.

In another barrack, we see the pictures of Jews standing on a ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau and marching toward the gas chambers. A young Jewish girl from Hungary, named Lisa Jacob, found these pictures in 1945 in a temporary camp in Mittelbau-Dora, Germany. In the line of prisoners, she recognized her younger brothers, aunt and other relatives. They all died in the gas chambers.

Life in the camp meant hard choices. One saved life could cost the loss of another. Haim Rafael was a member of the kommando made up of mostly Jewish prisoners and were responsible for collecting the belongings of those who had just arrived at the camp. After the war, our guide relates, Rafael returned to Auschwitz  to celebrate the anniversary of the camp’s liberation. There, a woman approached Rafael and said, “I don’t know if right now I should hug you, or just slap you in the face.” The woman told him that she arrived at Auschwitz with her mother and new-born baby. Haim took away not just her luggage; he also grabbed her baby from her and handed the child over to her mother. He knew a young woman had a chance to survive, an old woman and a child didn’t. The woman survived Auschwitz and now lives in Israel with her new family.

There are no words to describe this place or the enormity of the suffering, pain and sadness that took place here. There’s also no “appropriate” way to revere the victims, says our guide. Many Jews who survived the camp said they couldn’t pray any more, that they had lost their faith. Others thought saying a prayer was the only thing they could do.

We end our visit to Auschwitz with FASPE faculty Ari Goldman telling us a story of his friend, Leo Chester who decided to say kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning, every day of his life in remembrance of all six million victims of the Holocaust. Leo did this till he died. Ari then recited  kaddish to commemorate him and all those who suffered here.

 

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