A LETTER FROM MY COUSIN
My cousin Barbara Rosenberg visited Auschwitz with her husband and a group from her London synagogue in March 1997. This is her account of that trip.
I am still recovering from my visit to Poland earlier this month, and since returning I've read and re-read your account of your trip to Auschwitz, and only now do I understand what you meant when you said you found it far more difficult to return to the flatness of everyday life. Going in a large group was a very different experience, as you will soon see, but I don't think I would/could have gone alone as you did. Our guide, who is now the assistant-director of the museum, was extremely sensitive (in fact, she is the only person I've heard who could make Polish names sound like music) and we were given plenty of time for private reflection. I have certainly come back a different person.
The first part of our trip was Warsaw. It was cold and gray, and the people are miserable and unhelpful. We saw a few places of Jewish interest, including Korchak's Orphanage. (Thanks for the info. re: Korchak on the website - I'll look into it soon). The main purpose of our visit was naturally in Krakow which already had a better vibe to it. I am sending you a copy of the article I submitted to our shul newsletter, which tells you about it from my viewpoint.
SUNDAY, MARCH 2ND
This day was the focal point of the Maidenhead Synagogue trip to Poland. Forty-one of us met at the appointed time on the coach, not quite knowing how to feel. The first part of the day was interesting and enjoyable. We visited the Old Synagogue built in 1407. With its wonderful 'market place' atmosphere. I could picture the men huddled in little groups, davening, chanting, talking, singing. We bought a blue pastel impression of the synagogue in the adjacent Judaica shop to present to Laurie who had organized this memorable trip for us. We were then whisked away to get to the next place. This was the Remuh Synagogue (built in 1553 by, and named after, Rav Moshe Isserlis) It is still in use today as was evident from the left-over kiddush in the foyer! It had rows of seats and a larger ark and like the previous synagogue, the bimah was enclosed in a wrought iron 'cage'. The unusual Ner Tamid was behind blue glass in a recess in the wall. We walked into the large cemetery in the grounds and saw the grave of the Isserlis family set apart from the rest and surrounded by a fence. Thousands of Polish Jews made their annual pilgrimage to this tomb on Lag B'Omer right up until the 2nd World War. One wall had been bombed and the damaged grave stones had all been made into a 'mosaic' wall, like a giant jigsaw. We ate our lunch in the coach to Auschwitz - to brace ourselves for what we were about to witness. Our guide, Wanda, met us and she very sensitively gave us the information. We walked under the infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gateway towards the brick barracks which now house the Auschwitz Museum. I had taken for granted that it would be a cold, gray, desolate day. Ironically, it was sunny and clear - the only beautiful day of the trip. For once the warm sun on my back did not make me feel good, and I wondered if a day such as this could have lifted any of the victims' spirits. I doubted it. As we went through the exhibition rooms, they became progressively more gruesome, from the stark rooms at the beginning, containing maps and documents, and a model of the people entering the gas chambers, to the final one, called the Death Block, where we saw the starvation cells, the gallows and the execution wall. The middle blocks contained the personal belongings, and photo's of the prisoners. No amount of reading and looking at photos, or watching films, could have prepared me for the impact of that enormous glass cabinet containing human hair - 2 tons of it. Then the cabinets of suitcases bearing the names and dates of birth meticulously painted on many of them, the show-case filled with spectacles, the piles of toothbrushes, hairbrushes, mountains of shoes, the clothes of the murdered children, pots and pans, artificial limbs. The list goes on and on, each time striking a fresh blow to the shocked viewers. Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, we were led down the stairs into the gas chamber and reconstructed crematorium oven. But we came out at the other side into the sunshine! Most of us were too stunned to talk, and stepped grimly onto the coach for the short ride to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
This is a complete contrast to Auschwitz I. We climbed the watch tower (Gate of Death) to get an idea of the scale of the place. It is vast!. We looked down over the endless rows of barracks, punctuated by countless chimneys. We stood in front of the four tombstones erected to commemorate collectively those one and a half million people who had been murdered there and recited Kaddish in the eerie silence that surrounded us. We saw the ruins of the underground gas chambers. The devastation was a memorial in its own right. We stopped at the inscription, "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. Where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe" This was repeated in all the languages spoken by those who had perished. We walked from the end of the line back to the Gate of Death. Four hours after we had arrived, the coach took us back to the hotel where we immediately went off into a private room for the "Reflections of the Day" led by Jonathan. We read some Holocaust poetry, recited the prayer for the six million and lit the six memorial candles. Then we were invited to share our personal thoughts. Some were too overcome to speak, and some were inaudible. But the whole experience provided a much-needed release of the pent-up emotions of the day. Many of us had not known each other before, our ages ranged from 20 to 70+, most of us were Jews by birth, some, Jews by choice and some not Jewish. We'd been born in Britain, Europe, America, Canada, South Africa, but many of us were linked by the fact that our relatives a couple of generations ago ended in the same place.
Some of the recurring themes were:
- The overall feeling of gratitude to have been able to do this in a supportive group, particularly this group, and most said they wouldn't have done it alone.
- This has to be passed on to the future generation, and people should be encouraged to make their own journey to pay homage.
- Anger at man's inhumanity.
- Those who had not lost relatives have been permanently affected by the Holocaust.
David expressed eloquently what some of us must have been thinking, but were not able to articulate. "Was my grandmother's hair in that pile? Did I see her spectacles there?"
Some very raw emotions were revealed and made us feel so close to one another.
Having swung to one side of the pendulum, it was time to go the other way on our last evening together. We all climbed back onto the coach and, still somewhat subdued at first, admired the illuminated castle on the opposite bank of the Vistula on our way to the Ariel Café. It is listed in the Jewish Travel Guide and our spirits lifted the moment we entered the cozy atmospheric little restaurant. Fortified by the cherry vodka, and greatly cheered by the Klezmer band that arrived to entertain us, our party became increasingly merry, and eventually pushed back the tables in an orgy of wild dancing and singing. We were alive! - in a Jewish restaurant!! - in Poland!!!
At midnight some of the party were sensible and took the coach back to the hotel in readiness for an early start the following morning. Many of us did not want the evening to end, and walked back into the old town. Yours truly, normally a teetotaler, must have consumed a year's worth of my alcohol intake that night! Sixteen of us came rolling back into the hotel at 3.30 a.m.
I had not been looking forward to this trip, and certainly never expected to have any fun - but we did have some good laughs, and the camaraderie that developed as we made this dreaded pilgrimage together created a very special bond between us.
After undergoing a mood swing from rock bottom to almost euphoria I have felt strangely disconnected and very weary since returning home, and haven't really wanted to talk about the trip to anyone who wasn't there with us. Hopefully I've been able to convey some of the experience in this page out of my diary, which I am now sharing with you.
Ken, I think that gives you a good idea of how the day was for us. I look forward to hearing from you some time.
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