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MUJAM > Trip to Poland

An extract from Ben Pask’s diary from his trip to Poland…

Over the summer holidays I was privileged enough to have gone to Poland for a few days on the AUJS Poland Heritage Tour. While I was there I wrote a diary and since Holocaust Awareness Week is coming up, I thought I would share parts of it with everyone. For all those who are interested in going on AUJS Achshav at the end of year, I recommend the Poland trip as an ad-on, because it is not very expensive compared to what you could be paying for it and I found that it made the experience easier going with friends. 

“We took our bus to the Jewish cemetery. We saw a small wall of gravestones that were destroyed. We also saw a mass grave surrounded by gravestones with a stripe two-thirds of the way up to symbolize how their lives were cut short. Every morning in the Ghetto people would collect dead bodies off the streets and take them to the cemetery.
“In the cemetery there was a vegetable plot and Jews used to smuggle food from there into the Ghetto. Some even chose to live in large graves, where the gravestone hid them from the Nazis. Then at night they would go out to go to the toilet, get food, etc., so they wouldn’t get caught. We heard a story of one family who at night heard the German’s footsteps and tried to hurry back into their grave, but they were caught and killed.
“After we went to the Ghetto wall. The Jews built it for the Germans thinking that it would benefit them. We saw an Umschlagplatz, which was where the Jews gathered to get on trains to Treblinka (Jews were told that they were going to resettle in the East). All I could think about there were little kids standing there waiting for their death.
“After this we went to Mila 18, the only existing bunker where the Jews hid during the uprising and later committed suicide, as opposed to capture by the Germans.”

“Today was tough. This morning we went to Tykocin, a small town which before the Holocaust housed a Jewish majority. It had originally been apart of Soviet territory, but then the Germans took it. They had apologized for the Poles for taking the Jews possessions only a couple of days before. After another few days though, they took all 2,500 Jews into the forest (men by foot, women and children by truck) and shot them all. There were 3 mass graves out in the forest, but it’s just so hard to imagine. In the actual town we visited the Shul, which is kept in tact although no Jews live there anymore.
“Treblinka was terrible. At the entrance there are train tracks. They would continue on past the station only so the Jews would think that it continued on to the East. Except for those who would be chosen to help get people off the train or sort possessions, the others would have to strip and walk towards their death, the gas chamber. It is just so hard to comprehend that 800,000+ people perished there, especially because none of those buildings are there now. The Germans pulled them down when they left. There were just stones with the names of towns whose citizens perished there, along with blank ones for those we don’t know of. There is also a massive monument. I kept trying to picture what was going on 60 years ago. What I was thinking of was all those lives that weren’t born because of those who perished, because of those fucking Germans. I feel now that I have to mourn not only for those who died, but for those who weren’t born as well…
“I didn’t feel the intensity of Treblinka until we left. On the bus I looked out the window at the snowy fields and thought, ‘What happened there 60 years ago? Was someone being shot?’
“In Chavurah I thought about the coldness of Treblinka and only then could I picture people walking to their death. It was so dark in the camp, which I think intensified the feeling. I feel so scared at the moment – living in the Diaspora, of another Shoah. I hate the Diaspora; I want to live in Israel.
“I am scared of going to sleep at the moment – I will have nightmares…”

“This morning our first stop was the old cemetery in Lublin. I don’t find the cemeteries emotional, probably because we have cemeteries at home. Keren said that the fact that there was proof of a Jewish community there before is emotional, because now there are only 4 Jews left in Lublin.
“Our next stop was Majdanek and that was shocking. The monument at the beginning symbolized how easy it was going down (shallow tamp), but how hard it was to get back up (steep stairs with a blocked view of the light). As you got higher, you could see the light, and getting to the top symbolized freedom.
“Inside the camp was terrible. It was just so hard to believe that this was where people were gassed, where people were murdered. In a room we went in the Germans had dropped in cans of Zyklon B. There was a little room where one German would look in through a peephole to see if everyone was dead. People in our group were crying in there. I wanted to tell them ‘it’s alright’, but it wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t. There were blue marks on the ceiling from the gas. We went into a cabin that had some sort of museum in it. There were uniforms in there and things which were stolen from the Jews. What really upset me (and always will) were photos of people and underneath an explanation of what happened. I felt a shudder inside me whenever I saw ‘died at Majdanek’ underneath. We also went into a cabin full of stolen shoes, and 3 which showed living conditions inside the camp.
“After that we went to the crematorium. It was awful. I wanted to look around the different rooms inside, but I felt to scared. Outside was a big monument that was filled with ashes, covered by a dome. It really smelt bad – the ashes of hundreds of thousands. Majdanek was so terrible, I never want to go back.”

“This morning we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was disgusting. They were selling posters there – it made me sick. At first we watched a short video in the theatre. Then we went inside the camp. It didn’t look anything like Majdanek – someone described its appearance as similar to a college campus. But then we went inside buildings. There were museums inside the buildings. What we saw was horrifying; models of gas chambers, examples of living conditions, photos of people. Down the corridors were photos and names of inmates. I looked around for any of my family members who were murdered in Auschwitz. There were other pictures of really skinny people. Underneath it said their name, their weight before they entered the camp and their weight after being in the camp. One person came into the camp at 75kg and went out at 25kg. It was horrifying. There were piles of prisoners’ possessions as well, including hair. In the pile of suitcases I saw one that was labeled with my great-grandmother’s maiden name…
“We went down to blocks 10 and 11. Block 10 was where Mengele performed his experiments and block 11 was the prison inside the prison. In between the two blocks was what is known as ‘The Death Wall’. This was where they lined up prisoners and shot them. After these blocks we went to see the gas chambers. Although they are shocking, Majdanek was so much worse to be at, purely because of the surroundings.
“After Auschwitz 1 we went on the bus for lunch, then we had a short ride to Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau). The conditions there were shocking – i.e. communal bathrooms. It also felt really grotty because it was so muddy. I felt emotional inside Birkenau because I was thinking, ‘This is where my great-grandmother got off the train. This is the path she walked to her death.’ The gas chambers and crematoriums in Birkenau were destroyed. After we saw their remains we said Tehillim, Kaddish and sang the Hatikvah. One of the strangest feelings I will ever have is leaving Birkenau, it was truly confusing…”