By Priscilla Thompson
Oświęcim, Poland — David Goldman has visited Auschwitz at least 30 times in his life. FASPE’s founder remembers his first time vividly.
“It was very sad, I had no one to share it with,” David said. “I called my parents on the phone, but they didn’t know what I had gone through and there was no way to explain.”
Nearly two decades later, David has shared the experience with hundreds of FASPE fellows — students and young practitioners of law, business, medicine, religion and journalism. For the 2016 fellows, today was that day.
In the early morning with suitcases in tow, we boarded a charter bus in Krakow bound for Auschwitz. The sun shone over the brightly colored homes that sprinkled the Polish countryside as we made the hour-and-a-half long journey to the site of the WWII concentration camp at Auschwitz, the German name for the local town of Oświęcim.
The tour began at the cast iron gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” — work brings freedom.
“After a few hours spent on the other side of the barbed wire, they knew — this was a lie,” said Paweł Sawicki, our guide and spokesman at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum.
“It starts with a speech,” he said. “You will work here. You will die here. The only way out is the crematory.”
We walked down tree-lined gravel roads and entered many of the camp’s original 22 brick buildings that were packed tight with other visitors; Auschwitz has become a popular tourist attraction.
Each building we visited revealed a new horror.
Our eyes scanned the Nazi’s neatly organized documents and photos of newly arrived Jews from across Europe. Pawel said many were killed within hours. More than one million people — almost all Jews with the exception of some Poles, German homosexuals, Roma and others — would die at Auschwitz from 1940 to 1944 as the function of the camp expanded beyond its origins as an army barracks.
Soon, we were face-to-face with not just pictures, but all that is left of the people who died here. These barracks are filled with personal items that Jews had been told to bring with them when they were transported to Auschwitz.
Before we went in, Pawel cautioned us: “Remember, this is only 12,000 brushes or 8,000 dishes of the millions,” he said. “At the same time, remember each of these items represents an individual person.”
Our first encounter with human remains came when we entered a room containing, behind glass, the hair of untold thousands, shaved off the heads of prisoners upon entry into the camp. The Germans intended to use the hair in the manufacturing of cloth.
The adjoining walkway had 80,000 individual shoes and suitcases, much like the ones we brought with us on the trip.
But these suitcases are identifiable by more than their size or unique color. They have names and addresses scribbled in bold white paint across the front.
“People were told to sign their suitcases. Because of this, we have their names,” Pawel said. “Sometimes the suitcase with the name is the only evidence that this person existed. These people don’t have any tombstones in the entire world. These suitcases become symbolic tombstones.”
As the tour wound down, we arrived at Block 27 where we viewed a permanent exhibit called Shoah, or “destruction,” created by Jewish people and the state of Israel.
Upon entering the corridor, we immediately heard the soft melodies of the prayer Ani Ma’amin, or “I believe.”
“I believe and even though the waiting of the Messiah may take a long time. I still believe,” Pawel translated from the Hebrew.
In the next room Jewish life is celebrated in videos that dance across the walls depicting happy moments before the Holocaust. In one, a family is having dinner and in another a different family is spending a day at the beach.
The exhibit concludes with a room devoted to memory. Spanning thousands of pages, the names of 4.2 million Jews names are recorded — all the known victims of the Holocaust.
A dozen pages at the end of this directory include only this inscription: “Psalm 139:16 And in your book, they all will be written.” It is a reference to the Holocaust victims whose names may never be known.
After a grim visit to the crematory, FASPE journalism instructor Ari Goldman led the group in the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer for the dead — for those who had perished at this site more than 70 years ago.
The bus ride to the Center for Dialogue and Prayer near Auschwitz for lunch and reflection was a quiet one. As we gathered to discuss what we had witnessed, some of us had tears in our eyes. Most of us were silent.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon learning about Oświęcim, a town of roughly 40,000 people where Jews had lived for more than 800 years. David Goldman told us stories of Jewish resistance and struggle in the town, and of a survivor who lived there alone. The last Jew in the town, Szymon Kluger, died in 2000. Goldman led us to a vacant site where an impressive synagogue had stood before the Nazis destroyed it. We walked through the reconstructed Jewish cemetery.
Over dinner, law fellow Maritza Martin spoke for many of us as she struggled not just with the sadness she felt, but also with the beauty of nature at Auschwitz.
“I hear the birds and I wonder if the birds were here then or if the sky was this color,” she said. “Picturing everything that went on there, it was just so hard to imagine so much suffering because that place has the potential to be so beautiful.”