Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

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Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

“We can do evil. We can stand by and do nothing. Or, we can do good.”Eva For, Survivor

No matter how much you have read, how many documentaries and movies you have watched and how many Holocaust museums and other tragic sites you have visited, nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz, Birkenau. I will never find the right words to describe it.

We entered through the main gates of Auschwitz One which was a labor camp. The words Arbeit Macht Frei are clearly seen on the cast iron fence. The direct translation for this is work sets you free. 

I walked through the gate completely numb. The one thing that I was not expecting was the perfect blue sky, warm sunshine, and bright green grass.

Auschwitz One was occupied by the SS in 1940, where the first prisoners, mostly Polish and Soviet, were deported and killed. It was where the Nazis started the experiments with the Zyklon B gas. (canisters and pellets of Zyklon B – pesticide used to kill prisoners, gas chamber)

The old red brick buildings and people taking photos make it really hard to believe that at this place human beings were cruelly tortured and murdered.

The “museum” is a path where each building (or block with its number, to be more precise), has been given a particular name to show the visitors the horrors that took place during the Holocaust with pictures, signs and explanation panels.

There are buildings dedicated to the extermination plan and gas chambers, to photos and records of the prisoners and to the monstrous medical experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele . There are other buildings where you can see mountains of shoes, personal belongings, suitcases with names, artificial limbs, crutches, wheelchairs and human hair of the victims. My eyes focus on a tiny kid’s shoe, a suitcase with the name Eva Hecht clearly marked on it and a woman’s artificial leg. Every item tells a story of a family torn apart and a life taken away. My numbness gives way to too many emotions.

Birkenau is the mass extermination camp a few miles from Auschwitz.

The train tracks lead into the camp and stop at the mostly destroyed crematoria.

The Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done in 1945. 

The camp is huge.  The many barracks and group latrines were empty and clean.

The chimneys go on forever. 

I walk these paths of hell and I feel nothing. I feel no pain and no ghosts of the over one million people killed there. I feel no evil. I just feel empty – like the emptiness of the camp that I was looking at. I hear the guide talking but i’m enveloped by my own numbness. I say the prayer for the dead at the memorial to the Holocaust victims there.

I say it again in my head at the memorial where some of the ashes are buried in a pit.

There wouldn’t have been any grass. There wouldn’t have been any wildflowers.  It would have been freezing, covered in snow in winter and muddy and miserable when it rained. The air would have been filled with smoke and ash at all times.  Even on a day like today, when for a few minutes they could close their eyes and feel the warm sun on their face, it would still have been the worst place on earth.

Auschwitz Birkenau asks as many questions as it answers. As a quote on the wall at Auschwitz says: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. George Santayana

. I had to go and see it for myself and pay my  respects to those who died here.

 I had to go and see this and hold on to these images.

 Our world is filled with hate and my visit to Auschwitz will always remind me that it can never happen again – to anyone. 

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem

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Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem

“A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.’
Kurt Tucholsky (quote on the wall as you enter)

Yad Vashem is Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. I had been here many years ago. I knew what to expect. I went again now because I am going to visit Auschwitz in the spring. It was a winter weekday afternoon and the museum was not as crowded as usual. No photos are allowed. I knew what to expect and yet I was once again newly affected by the inhumanity of systematic cruelty.

The Holocaust History Museum was designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, and occupies over 4,200 square meters. This museum takes you on a journey through in-depth displays telling the story of the Holocaust. There is a ten and half hour guided audio tour. You choose what you want to listen to. In many cases, the photos are enough.

Yad Vashem, means “a place and a name” in Hebrew and comes from the Book of Isaiah. It refers to the millions who were not given the dignity of a Jewish burial with a specified burial plot.

The chilling Hall of Names is a memorial to each and every Jew who perished in the Holocaust, housing an extensive collection of over two million “Pages of Testimony” – short biographies of each Holocaust victim, with room for six million in all.

Yad Vashem also recognizes and honors a number of non-Jewish people who helped save Jews during this bleak period. These heroes are called The Righteous Among The Nations.

The Children’s Memorial is located in an underground cave, enveloping you in darkness.

As your eyes adjust, you can make out flames of light representing the 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust.

Recorded voices call out the names and ages of these innocent souls. A few days later there is another school killing spree in the United States.

I return to the hotel. On Israeli news that day, they report that Poland has passed a law making it a criminal offence to suggest that “the Polish nation” was in any way responsible for the murder of six million Jews. I spent a long time in the Polish section of the museum as I will be going to those places. There were photos of Polish people “colluding” and stories of Jews being reported by their neighbors. Three million Jews died in Poland – more than any other country.

It is impossible to visit the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and not be moved, horrified and ashamed. How does this story relate to the present? It began with words, indifference and silence. Indifference and inaction never help the victims. It is our responsibility to speak for the children, the elderly, the abused women, the poor and the refugees. “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.”

Fly safe,

JAZ

Jewish Amsterdam

Jewish Amsterdam

“And my conclusion Is, since I had been on very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t really know their children.” Otto Frank after reading Anne’s diary

One of the most famous residents of Amsterdam is Anne Frank. Every school age child in the United States has read her diary. It has been translated into 67 languages and sold over thirty million copies. She became the voice for those who did not have a voice. The secret annex where Anne, her family and friends had hidden for two years became a museum in 1960.

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The Anne Frank House was at the top of my list of places to visit in Amsterdam. I was much younger than Anne when I read her diary for the first time. Her yearning for love, freedom and peace were very real to me. I wanted to be just like her.  When I saw the bookcase in the house,  it changed from a story to reality. People move slowly and quietly through the annex. The rooms are dark and empty. There are quotes from the diary, pictures on the wall,  an exhibit that tells what happened to the residents  and at the end is a beautiful film which tells how her story affected different people’s lives. There are no photographs allowed.  I was mostly in my head reliving the parts of the story I knew so well.

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I took a walking tour of the Jewish quarter with Jeanette Loeb.  http://jewishhistoryamsterdam.com  Her knowledge of Jewish History in Amsterdam is extensive and I was lucky to find someone who gave such a comprehensive tour. She has a lot of background information and interesting stories about the places we visited  – especially about the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam.

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The Portuguese Synagogue is Amsterdam was built in 1675. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews in Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism. Many escaped to Amsterdam for freedom of religion. The interior is a single very high, plain, rectangular space with wooden benches built in Dutch Protestant style by Dutch architects.  It survived the Nazi Invasion unscathed because they were going to use the building. 

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The Hollandsche Schouwburg was a popular theatre. In 1941 the Nazis changed the theatre’s name into Joodsche Schouwburg, or, Jewish Theatre. After that, only Jewish actors and artists were allowed to perform there – for a strictly Jewish audience. Between 1942 and 1943 Jews from Amsterdam and surrounding districts were obliged to report at the Hollandsche Schouwburg before being deported. It became a transport center. The Jews were transported to the Dutch transit camps in Westerbork or Vught. These were the last stop before they were herded into trains bound for one of the extermination camps. It is now a memorial.

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Jan Wolkers, a famous Dutch artist and writer, created a  holocaust monument in the Wertheimpark in Amsterdam. The monument called “Broken Mirror”, is made from glass panels and reads “Auschwitz, never again”. It covers an urn filled with ashes from Auschwitz. The mirrors are supposed to reflect that air, sky and the world around us, will never be the same again. it has been vandalized several times. 

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 The Stolperstein Memorial  Project was designed by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.The stolpersteins  (which means stumbling stones) are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of the Nazi regime. The idea was to commemorate them in front of their last chosen place of residence. It is the largest memorial project in the world covering several countries. Demig felt that you have to make a decision to visit a holocaust memorial but with stumbling blocks, you can look down and see them at your feet. It is not a memorial to six million but to individuals – one plus one plus one.

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The Jewish Historical Museum has a permanent collection about the history and culture of the Jewish people in the Netherlands as well as temporary exhibits.  They were currently showing the Amy Winehouse exhibit curated by the Jewish Museum in London. It shows unseen photographs, favorite outfits, her collections, influences and passions and of course her Jewish roots.  I loved the videos of her singing.

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 My mother  who lived during the holocaust used to have one question about politics. “Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” Amy Winehouse is definitely good for the Jews bringing a younger, hipper clientele to the museum.

Fly safe,

JAZ