The bus was silent as we drove down the road, a rare occurrence for the group of 43 teenagers with me on USY Poland/Israel Pilgrimage. As I got off the bus, my jaw dropped. Even after almost a week of traveling through Poland, every sight still put me into a state of shock.The ground was covered with lush, green grass and yellow flowers.The sun was shining and the sky was a beautiful shade of blue with only a few clouds.The rows of barracks were well built and well maintained. If not for the barbed wire and the watchtowers, Birkenau would have looked like a pleasant and cheery Jewish summer camp.
Looking from the top of the tower at the main gate, I was utterly overwhelmed. The barracks seemed to go on for miles and I could not even see all the way down the train tracks. In my mind, images of thousands of emaciated prisoners and SS soldiers with guns filled the camp, but in reality the camp was nearly empty. It felt like I was in a typical Holocaust movie, watching the scene play out all around me.
As we finally entered the camp, I could hardly breath.For many, this had been the end of the journey; they entered and never left. I walked into a barrack and saw the beds that hundreds were squeezed into and the scratches of names on the walls, desperate attempts to try to be remembered. I tried to picture myself being forced to use the dehumanizing bathrooms, simply a big room filled with rows of cement with holes. However, even at this point in my visit, the exact location where countless victims of the Nazi regime died, it still felt like history. It was not until I arrived at barrack 26 that this history became reality.
Someone had actually lived in barrack 26. Not just a number or a statistic, but a real person. Had this person not survived, I would not have been able to be standing next to my best friend, holding her hand, as we looked through the window. The Holocaust was no longer something that I studied in class, heard about from a survivor, or knew took the lives of my distant relative. I was able to develop my own personal, tangible connection to a story that impacted the entire Jewish people.
After making my way through the camp, all the way to the crematoriums at the end, my group began our walk back together on the train tracks. Our excitement about leaving Poland, a country previously filled with “[the] tired, [the] poor, [and the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and our appreciation for the fact that we were about to go to Israel, “the golden door,” led us to break out into song, and we didn’t stop until we reached the bus on the other side of the gate. I have never been more proud to be a Jew, a member of a people with such a rich history and such a bright future. It is my privilege to say that I walked out of Birkenau singing, smiling, and, most importantly, alive.
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