Maureen Sharon – Berkenau and Auschwitz, 2007

The tour bus drove us right up to the entrance to the Berkenau Death Camp.  The train tracks leading through the wooden gates were very clean, and pea gravel filled the space between the wooden slats connecting the metal tracks.  The sound of tourists chatting could be heard, along with the laughter of small children.  There were many large signs complete with photographic “proof” that the holocaust indeed took place.  These were posted to illustrate and explain the history of this place and the role it played during WWII. 

I wondered how many of those “touring” this site really understood the gravity of what they were seeing. Our group was given time to wander about; but we were scheduled to have a formal tour of the neighboring camp – Auschwitz, rather than of Berkenau.  I picked up a few stones from Berkenau to take with me.  In the Jewish tradition, one leaves a stone or rock on top of a gravestone after visiting a loved one or ancestor.  I thought it would be quite fitting to use a stone from the death camp for that purpose. 

 At Auschwitz the black gates with their harsh signage still managed to shock.  “Arbeit Macht Frei.”  Such a cruel lie.  Walking through that gate gave me an eerie feeling that I wasn’t really there; it must be a dream; it couldn’t be true that each step I took was on the very ground that brought countless Jews towards torture, starvation, unspeakable cruelty, and merciful death.  The sound of birds chirping in the trees seemed very loud.  I heard insects buzzing.  Ants crawled in the dirt.  A tiny piece of dandelion fluff wafted near my nose, carried aloft on a tiny breeze.  Were those actual butterflies flitting by lawns and landscaping?  How could such innocent creatures exist here? 

 I felt emotionally overwhelmed, and I swear I felt the presence of those whose lives ended in this place.  There were souls all around me; I thought that I was walking right through their protoplasm.  I did not feel them to be unhappy…not crying, nor moaning, nor particularly sad.  They were simply there to witness those individuals who came on this day to walk these pathways, sidewalks, corridors, dormitories, museums.  As I did so, I felt numb. 

 In this unemotional state, I walked robot-like wherever our tour guide led.  A young, very pretty woman with sparkling blue eyes, dark brown short hair, simple shirt and tailored blouse managed to convey the nature of each part of this horrid “work and death” camp. She did no in a matter-of-fact voice, not passing judgment or dramatizing the events of the past.  Images of the women and children who were part of holocaust history decorated walls of rooms. 

 In other buildings cases filled with shoes taken from prisoners stretched from one end of the barracks to the other – many hundreds of feet of glass-enclosed corridors.  Imagine the number of people (from infants to the aged) who wore those shoes – new, old, dainty, or durable; well-worn or barely-worn; black, brown white, red, and navy; belonging to scholars, doctors, housewives, shopkeepers, librarians, and perhaps one or two shoemakers?  Then there were cases with eyeglasses, human hair, clothing, remnants of the treasured belongings brought by people who had hoped to survive. 

I didn’t want to walk into a reproduction of one of the many crematoria, but walk I did.  Those who died insisted that I see everything.  Grass-covered beams opened onto the lawns surrounding the paths.  Were those openings used to release the gas once it had done its job?  The trees had been planted by prisoners.  The “gardeners”, of course, did not survive – but the trees are strong, healthy, and thriving today.  They will live for hundreds more years.

 As we came through the exit doors from the crematorium, I fell into the arms of another Jewish woman in our group, and we cried on one another’s shoulders, holding tight to each other.  The photos I took that day at Auschwitz show the people in our tour group.  There are only serious, sad, disbelieving expressions on all the faces. 

 It was eerily quiet on the bus as we headed to the Qubus Hotel in Krakow.   After our return home, looking at some of the numerous photographs I took, one of them stood out for its incongruity.  It was a picture of Barry R sitting on his cane/chair right in the center of the train tracks.  He is wearing a baseball cap on his head.  It is a terrific reminder that “that was then – this is now.”  We are merely tourists looking at harmless remains of the events that occurred in the 1930’s.

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