[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]

College Student Shares
Study Trip Memories

By Alison Golub
Brown University

Right here, in this terrible place,
our bodies are surrounded with fear
by the time we stand on the same ground,
which is a big awful grave.

And she is the witness, with her the sky,
for the hell and explosions that came here in time.

And here the history belongs to the present,
and inside all the silence we are moved.
The noise of the trains, lines of people walking,
shouts of mothers torn from their children,
tiny bodies, skeletons of human beings,
fear in their eyes, their pain wasn't silence.

The death industry was open,
smoke of crematoriums went here up the sky.

Another "selection," lines of "numbers,"
smell of death, hills of bodies.

And right here everything stopped marching,
only the time kept on going.

We are back, tens of years later,
to feel the memories of darkness and hell.
To the place shadows of people were killed,
and the dignity of human beings was torn
in ways of humiliation and methods of torture,
abuse and horror, terrible things.

And to here we arrived,
and the silent sky can be our witness.
And to here we came back,
to the horrible ground by our feet.

Like sons to a proud nation,who haven't cracked,
to cry and loudly say
to the same hands who spilled the blood:


And the memories of our dear brothers:


And to us, sons of the survivors of the Holocaust:


This poem was written by Sagi Porat, a tenth-grader at the time, in Kiryat Motzkin, Israel. He recited it at a ceremony in which I participated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, March 1994.

You may be thinking, "I know about the Holocaust. I've seen Schindler's List; I've gone to "Daniel's Story"; I've read the books; I've heard the stories.

I thought I knew all about it, too. But I wanted to go one final step: after all the seeing, the hearing, I wanted to touch it, to smell it, to live it, I did.

The morning our Holocaust study expedition was to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau was dismal as usual. Throughout the three-hour bus ride, it was the first time I had ever experienced complete silence from our group of five Americans and thirty-five Israeli high school students. The anticipation of the coming day was frightening for all of us; the emotions and the realization we would undoubtedly have would deeply and profoundly affect us. I was genuinely terrified of how my body and mind might react to the horrors I was about to see, and I was in tears before I even left the bus.

When we stepped down onto the soil of Auschwitz and saw the famous archway announcing, "Work Makes You Free" in German, we were all struck with the irony of the statement. We realized that our ancestors had entered through this very gateway and perhaps believed the phrase to be true.

We entered the camp reluctantly but determined to control ourselves to, when necessary, force ourselves to see and know everything to which we wanted desperately to stay ignorant. I saw the train tracks, the loading and unloading platforms, the endless barbed-wire fencing, the watchtowers, the bunkers, the chimneys, the crematoriums. This was no museum, no re-creation. I was staring straight into the face of evil, exactly as my ancestors had. I saw, in my mind's horrified eye, a "fresh" transport of Jews arrive; I saw them all herded out of the cattle cars; I watched as they walked though the gate and smelled the stench of burning flesh and felt the ashes of their fellow Jews settle gently onto their shoulders. I saw the disbelief in their faces, all of their faces, and the pleading, desperate eyes turn to the sky to ask, "Where is God? How can He let this happen?"

Before we could see too much, we were shuttled in to a room to watch a movie, one of the old newsreel types I had seen a thousand times before. I almost felt as if I were back home, watching it with my Sunday school class. But then it struck me with force enough to knock me over: I was here. I had just tread the ground that these people were being dragged over in this film. I had just seen the very buildings in which these people may have stayed. There was no longer that peaceful, comforting detachment that I had taken advantage of so often at home. I could not escape now; I could not hide from my rapidly-surfacing emotions.

Suddenly, the violence, the bones, the smoke, it all attacked me. For the first time in my life, I wasn't thinking only of my immediate family, my personal bloodline. I was now just as related to my race as a whole, not only the individuals from whom I was directly descended. I felt the pain of losing over six million mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers; now they were all my own. The revelation was like nothing I had ever experienced before; the connection, the relationship to my people was finally there, and a wave of agony and anger almost debilitated me.

After the movie, we were ready to begin the tour of the grounds. The original barracks were actually redone inside to serve as museums, and this was the bulk of the tour. There were about eight or nine buildings, all filled with different artifacts and information, but only two of them will stand out in my mind forever. Whenever I close my eyes, I see what I saw there, and I taste the memories.

It was the bunker marked "Number 7," and it looked no different from any of the others. I ascended the steps heavy with anticipation, but there was no way I could have prepared myself for what lay inside those doors. We entered a hallway lined with endless rows of framed pictures, face after face after face, all looking directly at me. There were men, women, and children, all dressed in the characteristic striped uniform -- a six-digit identification number on the left side and some with a very oversized, humiliatingly garish yellow star on the right. The only difference from one picture to the next was so subtle that we barely noticed it; it was their eyes. If we looked too quickly, they all appeared the same; that was the Nazis' goal. But their eyes . . . every one of them was trying to tell us something. Some gazed hollowly through the picture, with nothing but pure hopelessness. Some of the prisoners posed almost proudly; these were the ones who still had some reason to live, be it simple faith in humanity or an undying determination to survive. Others pierced us with their stares,bore into our very cores, and pleaded with us, "Help me, please . . . remember me; remember my struggle, my life, my identity."

We climbed a set of stairs and opened a door into a large room. On the right was a blank wall, and on the left, just panes of glass. Beyond the glass was a huge mound of what looked like steel wool. I had no idea what I was looking at until I put my face up to the glass and stared hard. Then it materialized before my eyes: hair. Seven tons of hair. We were told it was just a fraction of what the Nazis had saved, but it seemed bottomless. I just stared, disbelieving. Every little pile, every wisp, had a story behind it. Every one was a person. And THEY had taken that away from all the rest of us. The Nazis had not only exterminated millions of families and bloodlines, but they also took something from every generation to come. Every Jewish child, born from 1930 until the end of time, has lost a part of his or her heritage that will never be recovered. This is the greatest tragedy of all.

The next room was oblong, with the same separation in the middle, but behind the glass was shoes. They seemed to be worn through to the bare threads; most had lost whatever color they might have had. They had probably just fallen off their owners' feet, or perhaps had been kicked off during a last, desperate struggle. I could not keep the scenarios from rushing into my head; it was as if every shoe had a moment to share with us, and simply looking at them brought that moment to life.

The next room was filled with eyeglasses. The next was toothbrushes, shaving brushes, hair brushes. Pots, pans, crutches, wheelchairs. Just pile after pile after pile. Clothes, baby shoes, hats. I cannot find the words to express my anguish in those rooms and today. The feelings and the connections that were at times forced upon me will stay with me wherever I go, whatever I do. I will never be able to escape what I saw, even if I want to.

The last room held suitcases; the impact was immeasurable. Each case had a name clearly printed on it. It was painfully obvious that these people had prepared diligently for what they had thought would be a vacation, a trip to some undisturbed, peaceful asylum. But instead, their bags had been thrown here.

I searched each suitcase for the name, the name I hoped I wouldn't find. Emotions surged through me: dread, hope, fear, uncertainty. I never found my family's name, but maybe I would have if I had tried harder. Yet I had reached that point, the moment when I asked myself, can I make it through this? I learned how much the human mind can tolerate before total self-destruction. I was there, to the edge, to that split-second in time when I felt like if I stayed where I was for one more instant, I would lose all bearing on reality. I had to get out, to get away, to run from the pain. I just couldn't have withstood the knowledge, the realization, the connection.

As I think back even today, I still wonder. What if I had stayed just a minute longer? What if I had seen just one more suitcase, one more artifact, one more "exhibit"? I will never know, but I may never want to. Because I've seen that connection. I watched a teenager, a mere child, drop to his knees under the unbearable weight of his emotions when he found the barracks where his grandparents stayed. I felt the agony in my friends' faces when they saw the crematorium where their great-uncles and aunts perished, and I have experienced the helplessness of knowing that there is no possibility of comfort. I have seen these things, and I have lived the pain. I'll remember it for as long as I live, and I will carry on the fight.

[ Nozyk Synagogue ]
Doors of Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw
Damaged by Arson in 1997

Copyright © 1997-2005 by iEARN. All rights reserved.

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