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My Trip to Poland: The Reality of Being Jewish

by Maya Kriseman

Treblinka's memorial in winter. Stones are symbolic of the Jewish towns that had their people exterminated at the camp. Photo courtesy of Little SavageIn Spring 2007, I decided to go study abroad in Israel.  Being a Jew, I felt that there was no better place to spend a semester.  When Pesach break came around, I was offered a unique opportunity to go to Poland through the Jeff Seidel group.  I must admit that the idea of spending my spring break in concentration camps did not exactly excite me, and I was hesitant to choose that over my initial desire to go relax in Turkey.  However after much consideration, I realized that this was an opportunity that I should not pass up and out of respect for our past, I needed to go.  Poland proved to be an experience like no other.

When we arrived in Krakow, the weather was very different from the sunny clean air of Israel.  It was cold and dreary with no sun, and the people had an unfriendly demeanor.  We met up with a bodyguard in the airport because even today Jewish groups do not go to Poland without a bodyguard.  How sad.  We went to go see Plaszow.  It used to be a labor camp during WWII, but everything was destroyed and now you can only see grass and a huge memorial.  The saddest aspect of Plaszow was not even that thousands of Jews that were killed here, but today people picnic on this memorial ground, a clear indicator of the indifference towards the horrors of WWII.  This place was depressing, and we could all sense a very obvious shift.  The city itself looked miserable.  As we drove through it towards our hotel, the city was dark and weathered.  Near our hotel was an old synagogue, and here people already began to break down as they thought about the fact that they were praying in the same synagogue as the perished Jews who prayed there 65 years ago.  The only reason the synagogue was even there today was because it was used to store bodies during the war.  The following day, our group took a tour of the city.  The boys were asked to cover their Kippas for safety reasons.  However, it still did not prevent our group from facing anti-Semitism.  As we were walking, we saw a Star of David graffiti on the walls and at first thought “oh how cool.”  We later found out that the Star of David was used as the letter O in the name of a soccer team that Poland hates, so just like they hate the Jews, they hate the soccer team.  Walking in Krakow, I had seriously never felt so uncomfortable before in my life.  I was scared walking around the city.  And there are different types of fear.  There is the kind where something bad might happen because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time and become an easy target.  And then there is the feeling that something bad will happen specifically because of who you are, and you will be attacked because you are hated.  I definitely felt the latter.  It was the first time IN MY LIFE that I felt that I needed to hide who I was, and it disgusted me.  The following day, the discomfort of being in the city continued.  As we were walking out of a museum, this little boy stares down David (the chaperone) who is very obviously Jewish and spits at him.  Then he pulls out a plastic gun and pretends to shoot at us.  And what is the SADDEST thing about this is that it was a little boy doing it, not an elderly person.  That means the hatred was passed down from generation to generation.  We ended up running into the little boy again, and he spat at us again.  I have never felt such hatred in my life.  You can feel the people staring you down in the streets.  That night we had a debriefing for Auschwitz, the first concentration camp we were going to see.  We discussed why Jews are hated and how does being in Poland make us feel.  I shed my first tears that night.  Being in that city literally felt like death.  It was cold, rainy, and gloomy.  I hated the way Poland made me feel.  That night I was really nervous and scared about going to Auschwitz the following day.  I had trouble sleeping that night.

The following morning, we went to Auschwitz 2/Birkenbau- the extermination camp.  We arrived there before anyone else, and it was completely deserted and dreary.  I did not know what to do with myself.  On one hand, I felt guilty for not really feeling anything staring at the empty barracks, and I felt that I should have.  On the other hand, I also felt guilty when our tour guide told us one of the Holocaust stories, and I cried.  Who was I to cry when I did not experience the horror myself?  The scariest thing about this camp is how incredibly HUGE it is.  It is massive.  I never expected this camp to be so large.  Even picturing it now makes me feel sick.  One and a half million people were murdered in Auschwitz, with 2,000 people being killed simultaneously in a gas chamber in about 15 minutes.  Can you even fathom that?  I tried to.  Just imagine.  To me it was seeing every single person at my high school during the course of all 4 years.  If they were in Auschwitz, ALL of them would be dead in 20 minutes.  All those friends, all those teachers, all those parents…everyone gone in 20 minutes as if their lives meant nothing.  Now do it over and over and over again.  It is sickening how little life meant here.  And what is worse is that killing them was not enough.  After the gassing, the Nazis made the Jews that were not sorted to die yet carry out the bodies and peel them apart from each other.  Then they would take them into rooms and pull out any gold teeth and dissect the people to make sure that they did not swallow anything valuable because God forbid anything is overlooked or that these people die with ANY decency before they are turned into ash in the crematorium.  For the people who were not gassed, the horror was even worse.  These people had no food and no water.  Life was so horrible that one of the best jobs was cleaning the toilets.  Toilets were filled with diarrhea and had to be cleaned with bare hands.   These people who were in charge of cleaning it felt lucky because they smelled SO badly and were SO prone to catching disease that the Nazis would not go near them.  We then went to Auschwitz I which was originally just a detention and deportation camp for POWs.  There is a barrack number 10 which was known for its despicable experiments.  The doctors wanted to find out things about twins, pregnant women, and disabled people.  They would operate on them without anesthesia; they would cut off men’s genitalia; they would submerge people in ice cold water for 30 minutes to see the effects.  Then there were just torture chambers where they had starvation cells (just leave them in there until they died from no food) and standing cells (they would put four guys in a very tight space where they had to stand for 12 days-clearly no sleep, no food or water), and so on.  What really made it personal though was when I walked into a room, a large room.  And behind the glass was hair-hair that was shorn from people after they were sent into the gas chamber.  There was sooo much hair.  The entire space behind the glass was filled with hair.  And the most disgusting part of all of this is that there are houses all around Auschwitz.  How can anyone live outside a death camp?!?!  These people just do not care.

The next day, we went to another extermination camp: Majdanek.  After spending the ENTIRE day at Auschwitz, I was drained.  So when I arrived at the camp, and I saw the sun shining, and thank God, I saw a bunch of Israeli flags being held by Israeli students (several groups had come), I just felt happy.  I was happy that despite the attempt to destroy us, here we were.  Despite Hitler’s claims that the only thing that will be left of the Jews is a museum, here were all these Jews, with their own language, with their own country.  It was like a big (and pardon my language) FUCK YOU NAZIS AND FUCK YOU POLAND!  We’re still here!  Seeing that, I felt such pride.  And it made me so angry that I felt I had to hide being Jewish, even though I only felt it for four days.  I told myself then that I would never allow myself to feel that way again.  Despite my uplift in spirit, there are some things I want to mention about this camp.  For one, not a single Jew survived in this camp.  If they were not transferred to another camp, then they were killed.  There was a room filled with nothings but shoes, thousands…and the room reeked, and you see all the children’s shoes, and it just breaks your heart.  At the very end of the camp is a huge memorial to all those who died in Majdanek.  In it is all the ash that was found in the camp from all those people who were cremated.  The monument contained 7 tons of ash! 14,000 pounds of human ash!!  Can you imagine how many people are in there? You could even see an occasional piece of bone.  It was a horrific site.  And again the horror of this extermination camp is that it is located right off a highway.  Anyone who drove by in those days could see what was going on.  Today, again there are people living all around the camp, and there was even a person walking their dog right outside the fence of the camp, and I saw a girl riding her bike INSIDE the camp.  It was simply appalling. 

The last extermination camp we visited was Treblinka.  850,000 Jews were killed here; 300,000 of them were children.  The only survivors were a result of an uprising where 600 tried to escape.  Only 100 of them made it past the fence using the fallen bodies of those trying to escape as a bridge to cross the fence.  Out of those, only 50-70 made it.  So out of 850,000 people, about 60 people survived.  This camp was definitely the most powerful camp.  Everything had been destroyed, and there were no barracks to look at.  Instead there was just a huge memorial with 17,000 stones.  Each stone represented a village that was destroyed by the Holocaust, and the larger the stone, the more people that perished in that village.  It definitely helped us visualize the numbers.  There were Israelis there doing a memorial service, and at the end they sang “Ha Tikvah”- Israel’s national anthem.  It was a moving experience.  After this camp, we went to the Jewish Warsaw Cemetery.  It was not destroyed during the war because they needed a place to put all the dead bodies.  The cemetery is ironically very beautiful, and within it is a mass grave where 100,000 bodies lie.  That night I went to Shabbat services in Warsaw.  As I was going to the synagogue, I saw all these Jews from March of the Living, from France and Panama and Australia and Mexico and so on, and we were all here walking freely in Warsaw!  It was crazy!  To think just 65 years ago, we would have all been behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Despite the fact that Jews are no longer outwardly persecuted in Poland today, the rampant anti-Semitism continues.  I had the fortunate experience to have lunch with young, Polish Jews.  I asked the girl sitting next to us if she faced a lot of anti-Semitism in Poland, how we felt it.  She was shocked and said that she never feels it.  But then again, she also told me that her parents did not even tell her that she was Jewish until she was 8 years old (probably old enough so she knows better to keep quiet).  She said that if you are Jewish, you do not tell people because the Polish do not like Jews.  But there is no anti-Semitism?  When we tried to explain to her that in America, you do not have to hide being Jewish, the look in her eyes told me that she could not even quite grasp that idea.  It was very unfortunate.  She probably does not even know what it is like to not be hated.  Just like I did not know how exactly it felt to be hated until I came to Poland. 

I thought going on this trip would be really depressing.  Instead I was just infuriated and disgusted.  I have never felt so angry before in my life nor so uncomfortable and out of place as I did in Poland.  We spoke with a Holocaust survivor (who was 88 pounds when he was finally freed), and he said the worst thing that the Polish people did was to not be neutral.  He said he did not expect the Polish to risk their lives to save the Jews, but they could have kept quiet if they saw a Jew.  Instead, the Poles would inform on them and send them to their deaths.  And for what?  A kilo of sugar.  He said 1000s could have been saved simply if the Poles did not say anything.  Today, Poland is the only European country to have not officially recognized the existence of the Holocaust, and most of it happened in Poland!  After so many years, the hatred still remains.  It is truly an atrocious situation.  When my group finally returned back to Israel, we were beyond ecstatic.  We cheered as the plane took off from Poland and cheered when it landed in Israel.  I will never return to this awful place again. 

However, when ultimately faced with the question about whether people should visit Poland?  Jews and non-Jews alike.  I say for my generation and for those after me-most definitely.  Although I really HATE the idea that Poland is actually prospering from our suffering because people are paying for flights and hotels and buses and food in Poland in order to see the camps, it is so important for people to see what happened.  And to see what is happening!  There is so much suffering in the world RIGHT NOW!!  And people just turn a blind eye!  “Oh we don’t want to get involved, it’s not our problem.”  Well humanity is everyone’s problem, and it is simply disgusting how people act.  I like to believe that there is an inherent goodness in people, but when you see and hear about events going on around the world, it is hard to imagine that such cruelty can exist.  History most definitely repeats itself, and it will simply be foolish to think that it will not if things do not change. 

Ultimately, I am glad that I chose to go on this trip.  It gave me a reality check of the world: a two-fold reality.  One is that I must never forget my Jewish roots, and likewise, I must pass on my Jewish pride and heritage to my children.  Jews will probably always be hated for one reason or another, and therefore, it is vital to make sure that we remain strong and united to ensure that we not be destroyed.  My other reality is that the world is cruel, and therefore, it is up to good people in the world to make it livable.  If someone has the sources to help anyone in anyway, they should.  Otherwise what is the point of life, if all you do is breath. 

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