The Horrors of an Efficient Holocaust

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
Trip End Aug 05, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lori, Lenny and Judy have direct, unfinished family business here in Poland. Lori's mother and grandmother were born in Jaroslav and fled from the Germans with their family into Siberia and survived the war there. Lori’s father survived Auschwitz, but he saw his mother and three younger siblings taken away to the gas chamber. Lenny’s family was from Kielce and his great grandfather got Aryan papers for his grandmother and his (then very young) mother who lived out the war, in part, as house servants to a Nazi household, with his mother not finding out she was Jewish until she was 14. The rest of Lenny’s family was killed in Treblinka. Judy knew her family was from Tarnow and has even arranged to meet a surviving 5th cousin back in Warsaw.

For each of them they are playing the role of the first member of the family to go back to Poland since the war.

As a teenager, my studies included reading Elie Wiesel’s books, watching grainy films of corpses being bulldozed into pits, and seeing the liberated emaciated survivors in their striped clothing displaying the tattooed numbers on their arms. I managed to compartmentalize the horror of what happened even as I knew the facts. I was always squeamish at the thought of traipsing around the death camps and killing fields of Europe and even when in the past 8 years three of our kids took teen trips to the area, I avoided delving deeply into their experiences.

When I started this blog I presumed that my grandparents avoided talking much about the family and towns that they left behind in Europe because of survivor guilt or simply because the fog of war made them lose track of their relatives.

I know realize there could be an additional reason – they might not have wanted to burden me with the feeling that as a Jew I can be despised no matter how I act and to carry the emotional baggage of needing to live my life in a manner that would "davka" show the Germans that they hadn’t won.

In Tykocin, we learn how the Gestapo rounded up 1400 Jews on August 25, 1941 and marched them to the Lupochowo forest 5 miles away, killing anyone who failed to keep up. We take the bus along the same route in silence, and we are amazed at the distance they needed to walk, many in their fine shabbos clothes. We get off the bus and, on a beautiful summer morning, we walk haltingly deep into the forest. We get to three very small, fenced off sites in a clearing and we begin to read the Nuremberg testimony of Rivka Yosselevscka detailing how in another forest just like this one she was forced to march naked to the edge of the pit, look down into the bodies already fallen there and receive her own bullet and then, miraculously, realizing she was not dead, crawl out of the bleeding, moaning mass of human remains and begin a Shoah survival odyssey.

In this way the Nazis and their Ukrainian henchmen of the Einsatsgruppen eliminated the 500 year old Jewish community of Tikitin IN ONE DAY!

Stunned, we get back on the bus and head for Treblinka. We learn that over the course of a year the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands Jews this way, emptying out the Polish and Russian countryside, yet German efficiency experts felt that it was taking too much time and with 5 million Jews to kill in the former Pale of Settlement it would take too many bullets. Another way had to be found. Within weeks, Germans designed the death factory and built three of them in the Eastern Polish forest. Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were opened for business in the summer of 1942.

Factories run on efficiency with a principle of turning low value raw materials into highly valued products using ingenuity, effective management, incentivized labor and marketing, while protecting your intellectual property.

The Talmud teaches that he who saves a single life, it is as if he saved the entire world.  

In the upside down world of the Nazis, implementing the Final Solution was a human body processing problem. They took infinitely valued human beings and within minutes took them from cattle cars directly to undressing rooms, into gas chambers, collecting the hair and gold teeth from the bodies and reducing them to ashes in a crematorium. All of this diabolical work was overseen by 20-40 Germans, supported by 60 or so Ukrainian armed guards. All of the “work” was done by 500-600 Jewish slaves with an incentive system that said the punishment for errors is execution on the spot. The marketing was done to convince the Jews that they were being sent to work camps. Even as late as 1944, Elie Weisel reports that no one getting on the trains from his area of Hungary had any clue that instant death awaited them. In a little over a year, nearly a million Jews had been “processed” at Treblinka, a tiny clearing in the middle of nowhere in the Polish woods.

I wasn’t prepared for the reality of a death camp. I had pictured a vast camp with barracks, where only the weak and frail were “selected” for immediate death. Here death is instant, unavoidable, complete – whole communities are gone only hours after they board the train with no trace and no witnesses.

There are hardly any visitors the afternoon we arrive. There are no remains of the camp. In its place is a memorial that has 17,000 one to three foot stones marking every Polish Jewish community wiped out by the Nazis. All you see is a seemingly endless array of stones with town names on them. If every stone stood in for only one person executed, it would be a unimaginable horror. But these stones were for each TOWN!

I am stunned by all this death and destruction. Who will tell the victims’ stories? Who will teach the world? How had I affected my kids by allowing them to travel here? Lenny finds the monument for Kielce and he lights a candle and we say Kaddish. It clearly is not enough.

Wednesday morning we go to Majdanek. This is a slave labor camp that only “happens” to have a death factory. It covers a large expanse and it has many barracks and facilities that are intact. Here we get our first look at a functional gas chamber and crematorium. Majdanek was built within sight of Lublin – no secrets here – and it was used both for Poles and for Jews. It seemed to be purposefully situated to scare the hell out of the Poles and make sure they didn’t side with the partisans or hide Jews. We get a look at the inhumane barracks life.

More than 150,000 people were imprisoned here and 80,000 of them including 60,000 Jews died here as a result of slave labor conditions, purposely starved and beaten. In the wake of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the revolts at Treblinka and Sobibor, the Nazis realized they could no longer fully control the Jews here. On November 3, 1943 the Nazis executed 18,000 Jews dumping their bodies into two large pits. It was the largest single day of killing during the Shoah.

At the end of our “tour” we climb to the top of a Soviet era monument and we see an immense mound of human ashes where we say Kaddish. We have clear view of the city from here and there are several other tour groups around, including a group of 100 Israeli teenagers. 5 Israeli Haredi men approach us and ask if we can make a minyan for them to say a Kaddish also. We join the Israeli youth group and watch their closing ceremony, including a dance number by leotard clad girls, Hebrew poetry readings, mournful songs and guitar solos. We close by singing Hatikvah together

Ironically, seeing the “real thing” amongst a big group of Israelis and with a throng of tour busses makes me feel a little better. First, I found it interesting that we as knowledgeable Conservative Jews could have a “foot in both camps” - play a klal yisorel role for both groups by making a minyan for the Haredim and appreciating the dancing and singing of the Israeli girls. I had a real sense of being the “vital center.” Second, seeing that this trip is a rite of passage for secular Israelis lifted my burden, somewhat. The victims’ stories would be remembered – it would not fall “only” on my shoulders to ensure “never again.”

Friday was our day at Auschwitz. We started by davening at the restored shul in the nearby town of Osweicim and we arrive around 10 am. Auschwitz is Majdanek times ten. It is an extremely hot day and we will be here for nearly 8 hours. Our intention is to follow in the footsteps Elie Weisel and Primo Levi and their families from arrival to selection, to instant extermination and cremation for the children, mothers and old and to the processing and dehumanization of those selected to work until they died from starvation, disease, cold or exhaustion. Over a million Jews who were processed at Auschwitz died, including 340,000 of the 405,000 that survived the first selection and got their numbered tattoos. In essence, the choice once you got off the train was an instant death or a slow death.

Where Treblinka was primarily for the instant liquidation of Polish Jews and Majdanek was primarily a slave labor camp for Poles – Jews and others – Auschwitz was designed to handle vast quantities of Jews from all over Europe. It was located because of its central location on the European railroad grid and Jews from over 10 different countries were delivered there. Major sorting and warehouse facilities were operated for collecting the luggage, eyeglasses, clothes, shoes, hair, brushes and even prosthetics of victims. A huge expanse of barracks was built to house all the “slow death” victims. We walk through the initial processing center where the naked Jews had their heads shaven, their arms tattooed, where they received their shower (with real water) and where they were given their striped uniforms. If they arrived on a “lucky” day they might get an undershirt, underpants and a pair of socks – which in many cases was the difference between living and freezing to death.

Yael leads us in reading survivor testimony on living conditions – the fighting for food, the effects of starvation on the body, living without showers or the ability to go to the latrine for 12 hour stretches. Evil on a scale that is unimaginable.

We walk around the 4 death factories – the undressing, gas chamber and crematorium facilities that processed 1500 living human beings into ash every few hours. We learn how even here, the death operations were put to a halt by a revolt of the Sondercommando, who although they were all executed for their revolt, succeeded in finally closing down the gas chambers towards the very end of the war.  

It is a busy day at Auschwitz. The day we arrive, August 2, is the day that the Roma People commemorates their Auschwitz experience. Hitler marked them for extermination also and 20,000 perished here. Also there is another Israeli youth group, led by a survivor with a tattooed arm. We listen in to him telling his story and join them in Hatikvah at the end. I have a sense that I am witnessing and end of an era. The very few remaining Auschwitz survivors are almost all over 85 years old. How many are left that can hop a 4 to 10 hour plane ride and a 3 hour bus ride and trek around for hours in the hot sun  with a group of 100 16 year old Israeli kids?

After 6 hours at Auschwitz Birkenau II, we hop on the bus to go to the smaller Auschwitz I camp, where the official museum is. Here our Polish guide walks us through the museum exhibits and we see the mounds of hair, shoes, eyeglasses etc.. collected from the victims. We see the site for medical experimentation. We end up in a room that has 4 million names and hometowns of known Shoah victims.  There are over a dozen Leifers. Who knows if they are connected to me or not?

It is a very tough day. We get back to the hotel at 6:15 pm and shabbos is starting at 7:30 pm. We make a decision to be done with Auschwitz and not to “process” it by talking about our feelings during shabbos. As David Kraemer said, “Auschwitz had already ruined enough Shabbatot. We shouldn’t let it ruin another one.”

That evening we joined the Krakow Jewish community at their renovated shul and had a Kabbalat Shabbat service with extra spirit.

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