I spent my whole life going to Camp Ramah in the Poconos in Lakewood, Pennsylvania. For the last 10 years, camp was a part of me. However, this is my first year not spending it with the Ramah movement and because of that, I've been reflecting on the opportunities this camp has given me.
When I completed my time as a camper at Ramah Poconos, the next step was to travel to Israel with kids from all different Ramah camps throughout North America. Hesitant as I was, I still decided to go on this trip. I took the extra step and applied to the week long journey to Poland to explore the country and it's death camps; the still present remains of a horrible act that we only read about in books.
The opportunity to see and feel.. and even touch what my ancestors had to live through during World War II was impossible to pass up. As someone who has been extremely interested in the Holocaust since a young age, I would have been a fool to pass up this once in a life trip.
After a nine hour plane ride, I landed in Warsaw (my first time in a different continent). It was early morning and there was no time for jetlag. We were off to see the most famous Jewish cemetery in Poland and explore the remains of the Warsaw ghetto. The day came to a close as I prepared myself for my visit to our first death camp the next day.
When I was imagining what the death camp would look like, Treblinka was not what I had in mind. The entire camp was destroyed at the end of World War II and there were no remnants of what the camp may have looked like. Instead, an artist was commissioned to come and create an art piece out of the camp that would honor the individuals whose lives were lost on those grounds.
There are no gas chambers, there are no barracks. There aren't even any remains of train tracks that were used to bring people to the camp. In the place of all of these things are sculptures and stones of remembrance. One enters the camp by walking along the massive wood panels created to resemble those of train tracks. From the loading dock, where people were then sorted into groups and torn away from their family members, there is a massive structure with human faces carved into the top. Beside the structure there sits a stone which reads "Never Again" in several different languages. The rest of the camp resembles the picture above. There are rocks of different shapes and sizes as far as the eye can see. Each stone represents the name of a city or town where someone at that camp came from. To me, that was the most powerful part of my entire trip to this camp.
Rocks as far as the eye can see. Each rock representing a city or town.
The Holocaust is a heavy subject and learning about it in history class is not an easy thing to do but viewing the death camps first hand gives you an unfathomable feeling.
The next stop on my journey was the Majdanek concentration camp. The most twisted part about my trip to this particular camp was its proximity to the city. The entrance to the camp is located along a major highway in Lublin and the barracks where prisoners lived could be seen from the window of the bus. When I stepped foot onto the grounds of Majdanek, it was as if the pictures from the textbooks had come to life. Lines of barracks were all I could see and the same barbed wire fences from the Holocaust remained on the outskirts of the camp.
I spent my time at Majdanek exploring each and every barrack. Some had been turned into museum exhibits to educate visitors on the atrocities of what occurred in the very spot they were standing in approximately 70 years ago. Of all the barracks I visited, those filled with the bunkbeds and shoes of prisoners were some of the most powerful. Running my fingers along the cages that held the shoes of prisoners I felt a rush of sadness come over me. However, I was lucky enough to find solace in those individuals I was traveling with.
With the flag of Israel draped across our backs we approached a massive dome which sat on the outskirts of the camp. Unaware that what we were about to witness would hit us like a wrecking ball to the gut, we climbed the stairs to the top, each step allowing us to see more and more of what sat beneath the dome.
I reached the top and knelt beside the wall. What I had just witnessed caused me to lose all feeling in my legs and I was unable to move. There are no words that can accurately describe the size of this dome or the contents of the dome but I will try my best to paint an accurate picture in your mind. The dome, approximately 20 feet in diameter, and the bowl that rested beneath the dome was so deep that I could not see the bottom.
It was not until you stood on the edge of your toes and looked over into the bowl that you were able to see that this bowl was filled with the ashes of those individuals who died within the walls of this concentration camp.
After moments of reflection and a short prayer service we left Majdanek and headed home. That day was only the beginning of what I was going to experience in the forthcoming days.
On Sunday, June 30th 2013 I awoke with a mixture of feelings. June 30th is my best friend's birthday, but it was also the day that I would be going to Auschwitz (arguably the most well known concentration camp during the Holocaust). I was unsure of how to feel the entire day. It was a day filled with sadness and the tears of my friends who I had traveled their with but also a day of happiness and joy for a friend's birthday.
This is the point where I would like to pause and take a moment and give a brief history lesson about Auschwitz, because if I didn't know this going into my trip to Auschwitz then you, the reader, may not know this as well. Auschwitz is located in Oświęcim, Poland, an hour outside of Krakow. There are two Auschwitz concentration camps.
The first camp, called Auschwitz, is home to the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gates (pictured below), but is not the Auschwitz concentration camp that is known as "the killing machine". Auschwitz I was designed by the Germans to resemble a small town. The barracks at the concentration camp were designed to look like mid-century European apartment buildings. They were two story buildings made out of brick, instead of wood. A large portion of this camp has been renovated and all barracks open to the public have been transformed into exhibits as part of the museum. The only area of this camp that is open to the public and hasn't been altered since the Holocaust is the gas chambers. Visitors to the camp can enter the gas chambers and stand in the same room where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. The stains of the deadly gas that was used to exterminate these people still remains visible on the walls.
After my time at Auschwitz, I got on the bus and traveled some ways down the road to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest death camp during the Holocaust. The train tracks that were used to bring in prisoners are still intact and visitors have taken it upon themselves to place stones and other memorial objects along the tracks with powerful messages inscribed on them. Once inside the massive entrance to the camp, I was blown away be the sheer size of it. A large path that stretched as far as the eye could see separated the women's side of the camp from the men's. Many barracks were destroyed by the Germans at the end of World War II and only the foundations remain, however there are a handful that are still standing. The entire camp housed approximately 200 barracks.. in the front section.
Yes, I said the front section. Auschwitz-Birkenau was so massive that the camp was split into three different sections. The main front section was used for housing prisoners, the back section was used for the storage of the prisoners belongings and the side section was where transport prisoners were taken upon arrival to the camp. The back section of Auschwitz-Birkenau is lined with pits that are filled with algae covered water where the ashes of prisoners were dumped.
There is no feeling more haunting than standing beside a pit of water that was filled with the ashes of your ancestors.
At the conclusion of the war, the Nazi's bombed the camp in attempts to destroy the remains and any proof that the Holocaust ever happened. They were successful in destroying the large majority of barracks and the gas chambers (pictured below), but they were not successful in destroying the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation and they have not destroyed the necessity to go and visit these camps and see the truth of the Holocaust for yourself.
There is no "easy" part of a trip to Poland to see the death camps of the Holocaust. Nobody said that this trip would be easy but it was necessary and it was moving. As a young adult who has traveled to these places and seen them firsthand, I urge everyone, not just Jewish individuals, to travel to Poland and experience these places for themselves. It will not be easy, and I will not be fun, but it will change your perspective on many different things but, most importantly, it will change your perspective on the meaning of life.
See more photos from my trip to Poland below.