Visit to the concentration camps in Poland

An impression and feelings of a child survivor after visiting the concentration camp where his parents perished.


Tswi J. Herschel

The bus thunders along fields, meadows and farmsteads. The landscape is like a picture.
The grey tones are strengthened by the dark sky from which a steady rain falls. The land has been ploughed over and is ready for the winter. The little houses and farms are straight out of “Fiddler on the roof” made of grey stone or wood. Smoke rises from the chimneys. The color of the smoke and its smell reveals that people are using lignite. Time has stood still here. With just a little imagination, you can go back to the time of the “Shtetl”, the hub of an extensive Polish Jewish community. With a rich and advanced Jewish culture. The dreadful catastrophe has swept away everything in its murderous path leaving a terrible void.
It is cold in the bus. The heating doesn’t work. Frozen to the bone and with our coats on we regard the countrified panorama. The windows are steamed up on the inside. The rainwater runs down the windows in streams. It is quiet on the bus. Hardly a word is said. We are new for each other. The only thing that connects us is the same destination. Our company has been formed by the wish to visit those places which play such an important part in our lives. Not a day goes by when we don’t feel the lack of warmth of our blood relations and our feeling of identification with them.
Trees wearing their glorious autumn colors streak by. The greyness of the sky and the landscape are in complete contrast with the nuance of the red, dark brown and yellow of the withering leaves.
Towards the end of the afternoon we reach our first destination - Birkenau. On leaving the bus, the cold takes our breath away. It is already getting dark and under the threatening storm clouds we take the road on which so many miserable people took their last journey fifty years ago. Through the gate of the main building, along the railway to an area between the two blown up crematoria where the monument can be found. It is as if the camp has no borders. Its enormity is far beyond the imagination. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children - Jewish, gypsy, Communist and freedom fighters, met their destruction here.
The fate that awaited them could no longer be evaded. The battle was unequal. Depersonalized and bereft of all human honour, their lives were abruptly taken away.
Auschwitz is like a terrible nightmare, far from reality. The truth is unambiguous, hard and cruel. Tens of thousands of glasses, pots and pans. Suitcases with the names and birth dates of the deported, false limbs in all sorts and sizes are the silent witnesses to the immense drama that unfolded here.
A glass case filled with two thousand kilos of hair, women’s hair. Between the strands, here and there a plait can be made out, some intertwined with ribbons.
Mountains of shoes: red, brown, black, white, for the left foot, the right foot, and winter and summer shoes all mixed up together. Senseless and cruel.
The chimney of the crematorium indicates where the murder machine did its deed. On entering the gas chamber, your heart rises in your throat. This room doesn’t seem real. There is no atmosphere; the emptiness is reflected in our spirits. We stand quietly in a circle and whisper. We look around us nervously and feel completely empty.
The ovens loom threateningly. There is an irresistible urge to touch the stones from which they are constructed. Constructions with open devouring mouths gawk at you.
To look at all this is unreal, to understand, impossible. The cruelty and immenseness of it all makes one feel sick and give you a feeling of helplessness. The unanswered question constantly repeats itself: “Why, Why !?”
Like lost souls, far removed from reality, we wander around with expressionless faces and with an empty heart. The reality of it all is confirmed. To be confronted with the naked truth with our own eyes tears at our hearts.
The incomprehensible has become even more incomprehensible. The enormity and the factory-like nature of the murder machine are immeasurable and cannot be comprehended. They are like a fourth dimension.
The sun blinds us when we go outside. Its warmth caresses our bodies. The affection for each other strengthens us to enable us to finish the journey. Our feelings don’t have to be explained. A slight touch, a look of recognition and understanding are more than words can say.
The district through which we are travelling is golden yellow in the late autumn sun. Our bus follows the road in the direction of Poland’s eastern border to the Sobibor camp. A bond is formed with our fellow travelers. We exchange stories. The landscape rolls past and we can see farmers working in the fields. Only we are not concerned with our daily activities. We are trying to come to terms with our past in order to know, to see and to digest so that we can continue on our way and be able to exist.
The road goes through thick deciduous forests with open stretches here and there. Slowly all conversation stops. The tension is palpable. The realization that Sobibor is not far away makes us all quietly pensive. We listen attentively to the words of a report by a survivor about his arrival in the Sobibor camp.
The bus stops at the car park near the camp. We rise slowly from our seats and without exchanging a word, go outside. Each one of us with our individual thoughts, walking in the direction of “die Rampe”, the unloading platform.
Our footsteps follow the footsteps of our murdered loved ones, our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and other relatives. The rails reach the buffer. The end of the rails, the end of the train journey, the end of life itself.
Sobibor is made real by being able to look at this with our own eyes. The way from the platform to the place where they met their doom destroys any feeling of reality in us.
Sharing their feelings of fear, hope for a better future, being able to see each other again, is simply unimaginable. Emptiness engulfs us, impotency takes over and cuts like a knife to the very quick.
At the pile of ashes, the “graves” of our relatives, we spoke their names when our emotions allowed us to do so. Our voices were soft, muffled and heavy with grief but we believed they sounded loud.
Together we said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, hardly able to speak, burdened down with pain and so moved, it made our bodies and hearts ache.
The camp of Sobibor is far away from the inhabited world and has disappeared from the face of the earth. Trees have been planted here so that there is no trace of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of innocent people having taken place here. The wind blows through the branches of the new forest. The only thing to be heard is the whispering of the trees. There are no birds - it is silent, deathly silent.
Just as silently we take our leave of this vale of tears.
The murder of our relatives and of others burns our very souls. Chastened we return. The wound has not healed nor has it worsened. The grief has been somewhat softened by our visit to this place where our loved ones with so many others who shared their fate had to bow their heads and give up their souls to the destructive sword of murderous hate.
Tswi J. Herschel, October 1994

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