Looking back at her own family's heritage, a Family Travel Forum member visits Poland's infamous concentration camps, reflects on human nature, and connects with a relative who is a survivor.
My Aunt Jane rang me one day and asked if I’d like to accompany her on a one-day tour of Auschwitz, organized by one of London’s Jewish groups. I immediately said yes to the opportunity, as I had no idea when I would ever go myself, and welcomed the chance to go there with family.
Several of my extended family are camp survivors. My mother’s first cousin, Lotte, was brought to Auschwitz in 1943, processed, tattooed and disinfected, then sent to a labor camp in western Poland, near the Czech border, where she spent the next 26 months. She survived, and is still a hale and hearty woman living in San Francisco near her daughter and two grandchildren.
A few days before the trip, Aunt Jane rang to tell me she was ill and to urge me to go alone. Our group of 230 (older couples, a few parents with teenage children and many young businessmen, most of them without their wives) filled an entire charter plane. After a two-hour flight we arrived in Cracow, Poland, then boarded five large buses to the camps. As we pulled up to Auschwitz, I felt an anticipatory dread mixed with excitement. Would this be orchestrated pathos or would a genuine experience be possible while being herded around with this large group?
Auschwitz was actually two camps: Auschwitz 1, where the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign hangs, was basically a processing center; Birkenau (a.k.a. Auschwitz 2) is where Jews were sent either for labor or cremation.
Auschwitz 1 is now a museum of organized exhibits, with clearly marked signs, display rooms of barracks and latrines, a re-created crematorium, gas chamber and rooms of ‘artifacts’. By artifacts I mean a room with a mountain of eyeglasses, a room with what looked like acres of shoes, display cases of children’s clothing, a pit filled with pots and pans, another with hairbrushes, and so on. But the display that got to all of us was the hair. A room lined with cases full of hair, hair in clumps, long hair, some still in braids or long plaits that wound down someone’s back. In that same room was a display of cloth that had been made from the hair and used as a felt lining for clothing. In a photograph of the hair storage room discovered when the camp was liberated, we saw large bundles, wrapped in paper and neatly labeled, that amounted to seven tons of hair.
As I looked at these piles of belongings, lists of names, photographs of people, I felt myself getting numb. In that moment, I felt I understood a little of everything: that the capacity for numbness, for being unable to comprehend what is before you, is exactly what permits people to survive. It is a deeply human, self-protective mechanism. It is also, unfortunately, the very same capacity that allows people to do what the Nazis and others have done, namely, to distance themselves from horror, to see objects as just objects and separate them from their meaning, and then to make their owners into objects as well, so that everything loses meaning.
Then I walked into a room filled with suitcases stamped with names, origins, birth dates. As I walked down the aisle, there before me was a suitcase that read: “M. Frank, Holland, 1915.”
Was it my family? I didn’t know, but it was no longer a remote object, but very deeply personal.
Birkenau, Auschwitz 2
Birkenau affected us very strongly, for although Auschwitz 1 was moving, we all felt it was somewhat sanitized, too neatly wrapped and displayed. When one reads about Auschwitz, the numbers are completely unreal. Between 1½ and 2 million killed; storage rooms with over 800,000 women’s dresses, 350,000 men’s suits, seven tons of hair. When we arrived at Birkenau and climbed the guard tower, the numbers started to make sense.
Birkenau was huge, stretching out in front of us, endlessly it seemed. Row upon row of barracks, several hundred of them, each held about 1000 people. Some of the barracks were used for storage, for kitchen areas, others were for “living” with mud floors and wooden bunks that slept eight in a space for three. Over 100,000 people lived in Birkenau at any given time, with thin cotton clothing, no underclothing, no coats, no blankets. The railroad tracks ran down the center of the camp, and in the far distance, literally at the end of the line, were the crematoria, or what was left of them two completed destroyed, two in ruins. The Nazis attempted to destroy as much evidence as they could when they fled, burning and blowing up buildings, destroying records and forcing those who could to march away with them.
At Birkenau, there are simply buildings or the remains of buildings. We walked into a few of the barracks, then made our way slowly down to the crematoria ruins. Outside one crematorium is a small pond, with a few simple commemorative tombstones which explain the pond is full of the ashes of Birkenau’s dead. It was there that we held a short service, reciting the mourner’s kaddish, which is a prayer that all Jews wish to be said over their graves, and that people say on the anniversary of a family member’s death. We held that service for all of them, and at the end of it, the rabbi blew the shofar, the rams’ horn, which we hear usually only on the High Holy Days. And there, in the world’s largest graveyard, it was a sound of survival for us all, blowing into the wind in that place of death, and it made me cry to hear it.
We all wandered about slowly after that. I stood by the pond thinking about Lotte, failing to imagine what her life had been like. In the distance was a sight that again brought tears to our eyes: a group of Israelis marched along, proudly carrying the Israeli flag. What feelings of triumph we had, seeing that flag carried by the young!
Our day was almost over. We got back on our buses and went into Cracow’s remaining Jewish quarter. Before the war, there were 70,000 Jews in Cracow, or 25% of the population. After the war there were 2000 and today, less than 200. Earlier that week, some graves in the Jewish cemetery had been defaced. We went into Cracow’s one functioning synagogue, walked around the quarter, drove by and looked at Oskar Schindler’s factory, then went to the airport.
Am I glad I went? Absolutely. Do I think others should go? Absolutely, preferably parents with children old enough to understand that there is real violence in the world, then and today, and that violence is not guns and explosions, but something far worse: indifference to human beings, objectifying of human beings, thinking that we are special or different from others. For it is only that kind of thinking which permits all other behavior to occur, whether then, or now…in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia or Texas, at the back of a pickup truck.
This is human nature, and we have to examine it closely and recognize it in us all.
As soon as I returned home to London from my Daytrip to Auschwitz, I called Lotte in San Francisco, and happily, reached her. Here is some of her story.
Lotte’s Jewish family was from Germany, as are mine. They had left Germany quite early, in the mid-1930’s, and moved to Amsterdam, where her father reestablished himself in a new life. As things started to look dangerous, they began making preparations to leave. Her mother became ill with cancer and was unable to move. By the time she died, it was too late to leave Amsterdam and the family was captured by the Nazis.
On March 10, 1943, Lotte and her family were taken by the SS. Her father and younger sister were taken to Sobibor and gassed. She and her older sister both survived the camps, her sister in Bergen-Belsen, Lotte in a labor camp on the Polish/Czech border. They were in their early 20’s at the time.
Lotte worked in a Telefunken electronics factory 12 hours a day, because during the selection process she had claimed (falsely) to be an electrical specialist, thinking it would get her work. She had to walk two hours each way to and from work. She said she had about three hours of sleep a night on a wooden bunk in a rough wooden barrack with mud floors. Some of the lucky prisoners had a little straw mattress, but they were full of vermin. Somehow, Lotte lived through 26 months there without ever getting sick. (If you became sick, you usually died.) There were no crematoria, the Nazis simply carted the bodies away and dumped them in mass pits somewhere.
At the end, as the Nazis fled west towards Germany, Lotte was put on one of the Death Marches. It was January, 1945, the middle of winter in Poland. She started out in her thin cotton dress, rags on her feet and nothing else. For 10 days they walked, day and night, without food. If you couldn’t walk, you were shot on the spot. Eventually, in Czechoslovakia, they were put into an open car on a cattle train. They continued moving westward very slowly, as they had no real destination since the Nazis didn’t really know where to go. All who died were thrown over the train car railings.
When I asked Lotte why they didn’t just kill everyone, she said they had no orders to do so and without orders, they wouldn’t do it. Lotte remarked that, eventually, you lose interest in eating because you get so weak you can’t even think about it, much less do it. She couldn’t have eaten at the end; the muscles in her face had stopped working so she could not open or close her mouth. Her feet had turned completely blue. Lotte didn’t think they would ever be okay again but they were.
Eventually, the Jewish prisoners reached Hamburg, Germany and spent their days in a snow-covered meadow. One day, the Danish Red Cross came and said they were taking some prisoners to Sweden. No one believed them, but they were telling the truth. Lotte was put on a train to Denmark, then to Sweden, suffering from typhus. During her six-week quarantine, she began her slow return to good health. She remembered the Swedish doctors said they had never seen such emaciated and damaged people, unlike today, when even the general public has become all too familiar with these horrors.
By then, the family knew of her survival. My father had some family in Sweden, who were wealthy and had had quite a different War experience. He contacted his cousin Klaus, who came to bring Lotte to dinner. She was picked up at the camp in a chauffeur driven car and taken to their luxurious home for a lovely meal. And during the meal, when she was telling them some of her story, Klaus’ mother said to her,”You must have done something wrong for them to do that to you.” Lotte was so stunned she didn’t know what to say.
Lotte went on to a full recovery, in every way. She is a warm, tolerant and loving woman, with no trace of bitterness, much beloved by the entire family. She was married to a husband who died young, she raised two children, had cancer twice and a heart attack and she’s still going strong.
When I told her about my trip to Auschwitz, she said she had never gone back to the camps and never would. To this day, she says she avoids situations that will bring back certain memories. Smells, for example: She will not go into restaurants where ribs are served and even the roasted bone on the Passover dish is problematic. Although she was only in Auschwitz for 48 hours, the smell of the crematoria has never left her.
She will not go into a store having a sale, where there are crowds pushing and shoving for items, for it reminds her of people grabbing for food. The longer she lives, she added, the more unbelievable it all is, so that nothing can ever convey what the experience actually was like.
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