Everyone has a breaking point. It is the point at which you simply feel you cannot take anymore. You cannot cry more, you cannot feel anger and you don’t want to feel sadness. You feel that your heart hurts, and you don’t want to feel that either. I watched those who accompanied me on a trip to Poland two years ago. Each had their breaking point, some had more than one.
I didn’t break in Chelmno beside the grave of a little boy, though I thought I would. He was only a small infant when he died sixty years ago. His remains were hidden under a staircase and unearthed only recently. Chances are that his parents hastily buried him before they too went to their deaths. It was with anger that I stood beside the baby?s grave, and it was with sadness that I left it. He only lived a short time, modern science says two or three days.
Alone he remained, until he was reunited with his parents some 61 years later. When I first learned about the Chelmno baby, I asked where he was reburied, and was shocked to hear that they’d buried him in Poland. What right did they have to bury him there? He should have been brought home. As a parent, it is what I would have wanted for my child. But the Poles would not allow it, I was told, and that angered me more. Who are they, after all they did and all they did not do, to determine where a Jewish child is buried?
At Chelmo, I felt deep anger. Anger at the Germans who had murdered this little baby, only three days old. Fury at the church that towered nearby, that witnessed the daily murder and was used by the Germans when they couldn’t kill Jews fast enough. And pain. Sadness because a world allowed this to happen and pain that only a woman can feel at the thought of a woman giving birth and then losing her child. Perhaps it is a pain that even another mother can’t understand. I tried imagining a woman, just three days after giving birth, who was taken with her infant and killed. Despite all these emotions, I didn’t break in Chelmno.
I didn’t break in Maidanek either. Like Chelmno, it was very close. I was overwhelmed by the piles and piles of shoes. More than 800,000 shoes. Each pair represented a life, a story, a person. So many lives…but there too…I knew I had to continue, see more, learn more, feel more.
There were many places that I didn’t break. Cemeteries and forests that hid mass graves. The children’s forest…that holds the graves of hundreds of Jewish children, and their parents grave on the other side of the hill. Everywhere, I observed, I took pictures, I was deeply saddened, and committed to seeing and understanding what happened in each place. It was a learning experience, this was why I came to Poland. To see, to feel. It took days to build up to the point that I felt I couldn’t stand being in Poland for even another moment, time to understand that the evil that remained was stronger than I was, stronger than I could ever be. In Israel, the evil cannot defeat us, but in Poland, the evil is all that remains for a Jew. Poland is a beautiful land…but not for the Jews.
I wanted Poland to be cold and dark. I was shocked to find it warm and sunny, filled with forests and green fields and streams. But there was a coldness that I felt down to my bones. The green fields didn’t hide the blood and bones. It didn’t even bother me when a drunken Pole yelled out “Auschwitz” as if that were the worst curse he could think of…and it probably was. The Jews are all dead (except a few…who don’t understand why they remain, who welcomed us and smiled sad, confused smiles…and then watched us go). There were places I cried, places I felt a deep anger and a deep hatred. I argued with myself, reminded myself of then and now, the realities are different, hopefully the people are too. It worked for a while. Then they took us to Birkenau, to Auschwitz.
I broke in Auschwitz. It was so vast, so evil. The sun was shining beautifully, tourists from South Korea came and asked some of the Israeli girls (carrying the Israeli flag) to pose with them. Evil can be ignored when you only see the buildings, the broken rails, the decaying barracks. What harm could have been done in such a place? Fields of green grass, not a cloud in the sky. A cafeteria at the entrance and clean bathrooms. Post cards and books and film and candies can be bought in the “museum” entrance, all cheerfully manned by smiling Poles. Our Polish guide laughed and flirted with the bus driver. She was happy…employed for another day in a country where the people need work.
Some of the Israeli girls in our group smiled into the camera as the South Korean boys took their picture, and I was ashamed for them all. It wasn’t my place to tell them, and yet I was one of only a few mothers on the trip, so quietly, in Hebrew, I asked them to remember. “We are in Auschwitz,” I said to them, and that was all it took. They understood right away.
This was a place of ugliness, of death, of evil. You have to look past the green grass and the tall trees. Back to a time when it wasn’t green, when it was so cold, explained one survivor, that the water from the brief shower the Nazis permitted them to take in the morning, froze on their bodies when they were forced to run back to their barracks without clothes. We saw the communal toilets…just a long slab of cement with holes in it…all meant to degrade, to dehumanize, to humiliate. I almost broke there, but not quite. I thought I could manage the rest, after seeing that. It couldn’t be worse than that, I thought.
They took us to the collection rooms. Mountains of hair. Prayer shawls. Suitcases with names of those who came, but didn’t go and a hill of artificial limbs.
Which sick minds, I wondered, required the collection and sorting of these items? If you haven’t seen it, you can’t imagine the horror of those rooms. And yet, even if you do see them, you still can’t know the stories behind each item.
The anger was back, disgust stronger than ever. I could defeat Auschwitz, I told myself. I’d come here strong and aware and I would defeat this place of evil. It wouldn’t break me. They took us out along the path that millions had walked. I remembered what our Israeli guide had told us the first time he took us into a gas chamber, just a few days before. “Remember,” Haim said, “remember, you are going to come out.” I came out.
But what we were seeing was all wrong. There was no grass growing in 1944, explained the survivor that came with us. The inmates of the concentration camp, those who were not murdered immediately, would eat the grass. There was so little to eat, he said, and so the land was cold and barren and empty, not like what we were seeing at all. The crematoria have been destroyed. They are only rubble now. You can only imagine that the crumbled cement and twisted metal once served the Germans well. Moshe, our survivor, talked about his mother, and the train that he was on…that should have come to Auschwitz, but had to turn around because someone had destroyed the tracks. He took out 7 small cards engraved with the names of his family and placed them on the ground. Then he took out a bag of soil from Israel and spread it next to the cards.
I didn’t want to bring soil from Israel to place at Auschwitz. It is a custom that some follow – to take holy soil and place it on the graves of Jews buried outside of our land. The soil serves as a marker – here lies a part of our people. But I couldn’t bring myself to place our soil in that land, and so I brought with me a picture of the Western Wall. It was taken during my son’s bar mitzvah and I thought of it as a way to show my son’s great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, that their descendent had found his way home. They died in Auschwitz, but my son, who carries the name of one of them, the great grandson of four of them, was alive and strong and tall and handsome…in Israel.
They gave us a few minutes to stand beside the rubble of one of the crematoria by ourselves. Some recited Psalms. Others talked quietly. I took out the picture of my children, the one I’d carried with me throughout Poland. It was my rope to sanity. I took out the picture of my son’s bar mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall, the Kotel. And then, amid the twisted metal of the destroyed crematorium, under a small overhang that I hoped would protect it from the rain, I tucked the picture behind a metal bar pressed into the cement.
I stepped back, realizing for the first time, that I was really going to leave it here. The Kotel, the last remnant of the holiest site in Judaism, where we’d celebrated my son’s bar mitzvah, an everlasting symbol of our past…and the rubble of the crematoria, another symbol. I thought of my mother-in-law, who’d been put in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. I don’t know if it was that one or one of the others, but it hardly matters. She was lucky because she was taken out at the last second when the Nazis realized they needed more women for a work detail. I thought of my grandfather, who’d lost his mother and sisters here, where I was standing or very close by. I thought of my husband, who had never known the special love of a grandparent, because Hitler had a plan. It was very hard to leave the picture there.
I looked at the rubble of the crematorium, all that is left of the nightmare and there, in the place that had known such horrors, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wanted to go home, away from this place. I had reached the breaking point. I couldn’t stop crying. During the days before we’d come to Auschwitz, I’d tried to comfort several girls, as I tried to comfort my own daughter when I saw she needed it. Many times, I hugged one of them, offered them some tissues, told them to think about home. But this time, it was the girls who came to me.
For a moment, I thought of retrieving the picture. Maybe I shouldn’t leave it there. I knew they’d throw it out the first time they came to clean the place. What would they care? The Poles call Auschwitz a museum and as good curators they’ll want to clean the place. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t leaving the picture for the Poles. I was leaving it for Raiza and Shmuel, for Shaye Zev and Benyamin Elimelech, for Esther Chaya. I wanted them to have it.
May they long be remembered, and may the names of those who put them there be erased from all time … not the memory of what they did, but all that they wished to accomplish, all that they wanted, all that they planned. May their identities as individuals be blurred by the collective evil they inflicted upon so many.