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Auschwitz-Birkenau (Day 5)

Kids celebrate Hanukkah

Reflections from Sydney Miller and Hannah Loftspring…


Although our day began at Auschwitz, there was something I heard at Birkenau that set the mood for what I am about to say. I overheard a discussion about how the word ‘sad’ was an insufficient & quite frankly inappropriate term to use to describe the mood & story behind the Holocaust. It led me to be able to understand something I was thinking about earlier: why haven’t I cried? I cry at sad movies & everyday things that sadden & upset me, but the events we are learning about cannot be described as sad, but with words so much more powerful that I cannot even begin to think what they may be, as Peppi said, a new language would need to be invented. I think that it is of the utmost importance for as many people as possible to experience what we have on this trip and be to submerged in this knowledge so that as many ideas as possible can be put forward & we can begin to try to understand the intensity of the Holocaust. I know I speak for many when I say everyday I hear more & more unfathomable information that leaves me in awe.

Today we visited Auschwitz 1 and 2 (of the 3 main camps and 40+ subcamps of Auschwitz) in addition to where 1.3 million innocent Jews were sent. Amid all of the confusing emotions, I know exactly how I felt when our tour guide told the story of Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz. He fled & hid in Germany, and even changed his name to avoid being found & tried, but a brilliant Jewish officer was able to track him down & soon after, Hoess was hanged at Auschwitz, in the same place where he led the most gruesome events, as well as where his kids were raised. My faith was restored knowing that, despite the heinous events the Jews underwent, some of those who were responsible were not let off of the hook, but only 10% were actually tried.

As we moved through the camp, it began to hail & pour down rain, then the sun came out soon after. I felt this was appropriate weather as it symbolized the attempted downfall of the Jews, then the bright comeback; I mean here we all are, part of the Jewish population that is back to the same number it was pre-war. As the Holocaust spanned over multiple years & there were more camps than we can imagine as well as ghettos, it is important that it not be forgotten, & those involved wanted to ensure that. Prisoners inside Auschwitz  took illegal photographs that were discovered after liberation. They photographed the despicable acts such as soldiers forcing women to undress, then mocking them & their bodies in attempt to strip them of not only their freedom & clothing, but dignity as well. Attempt after attempt was made to make the Jews feel worthless. They used words like “extermination” & gassed them with Zyclon B, a pesticide meant to kill pests. I chose the word ‘attempt’ to describe these crimes because today we are here to say that our community was strong, and they resisted & fought & no dignity was lost despite their harmful attempts. The retelling of heinous acts continued as we learned about the trials that took place for prisoners of war and internal camp prisoner “crimes,” but I don’t think  they deserve to even be called trials. They were less than a minute long & rarely was anyoone found innocent. As punishment they were placed into “punishment cells,” some were intended for suffocation with little to no air flowing in, some for starvation, and 4 others held 4 people at a time & you were made to crawl into a small opening near the ground & then stand for hours upon hours in the dark, crammed, before going to work the next day for 11 hours.

Tomorrow, on Yom Hashoah, we will return to Auschwitz, and march along with 12,000 other Jewish teenagers from the gates of Auschwitz into the killing center of Birkenau, honoring the 6 million murdered, yet also celebrating life. To be a part of that is another experience that I cannot put into words, & I wish that all of my Jewish friends & family as well as strangers from around the world could participle to prove once again that there was an attempt to destroy innocent, wonderful people, but it was only an attempt. We have grown once again into a strong community, now with even more appreciation for who we are. We cannot mourn enough for the lives lost, but we cannot celebrate enough either for our presence today.     -Hannah Loftspring, Sycamore HS


Real. If I had to choose one word describe our experience today it would be real. As we approached Auschwitz, we got out of the bus and you could tell the mood of the group had shifted. As we went around and all gave a quick word for what we were about to endure, there was a common theme. Some words people gave were uneasy, scared, nervous, etc. We had all heard about the atrocities that ocurred at this camp and we  weren’t sure how we were going to feel. Once in the camp, we started with the gas chambers. Immediately, this sparked something. As people entered the room and felt the energy from the walls, where 700 people were killed at a time, I watched people begin to break down. For some reason, this had a stronger impact than when we went into the gas chambers at Majdenek.

We continued to go on the tour and contrary to usual, none of us were having side conversations. We felt the heaviness of the thousands of people who had perished  here. One of the buildings we went in (formerly a bunker), had items that belonged to the Jewish people. It was seperated into categories, room by room. The first room we went in was full of hair. A huge glass display just piled high with hair, hair from the Jewish people that they cut off. I felt sick looking at this, our tour guide couldn’t even go into the room. We then went into a room filled with shoes, and I mean filled. Staring at the piles, 40,000 pairs of shoes, I could make out one pair of shoes, among all the grey. It was a little strappy white  sandal. I saw one and then another one a few feet lower and I was moved. When I had seen shoes in camps before, I hadn’t noticed pairs until today. This made me think of the woman that wore these shoes. It made me think of all the life that once filled up the space in these shoes. Other rooms had items that the Jews had packed in their suitcases, like teapots, plates, and even shoe polish. The Nazis had taken their most prized possesions, as if taking their life wasn’t enough.

After a few hours spent at Auschwitz, we then spent several more hours at the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Birkenau. Walking into this camp, we were all silent. Compared to Majdenek, this place was huuuge and I mean huge. To imagine all the terrible things that occured here was so hard for us all. There are train tracks running through the  camp, which brought 4,000-6,000 people per day. Of those, 90% were sent straight to extermination, which meant your chance of survival here was very low. There were rows and rows of bunkers that held the Jews, keeping in mind this was only 10% of the arrivals. People were sometimes given a chance to live in this camp by getting jobs. One job a woman had was to clean the litrine, which was rows of holes in concrete benches, called “the bathroom,” and even though this was a terrible job because thousands of people had to use just a few spots per day, she said it was good because the Germans never came in there (too disgusting for them) and that she didn’t have to be outside (and the harsh elements in just a striped uniform). There were also unspeakable acts that were commited unofficially and randomly. (WARNING: the following is graphic) One story that our guide told us was about a 16 year old boy who came to the camp and on his first day was raped by the Kapo (the senior prisoner who is assigned as a gaurd) and as he was being raped the kapo was shoving bread down his throat. This boy said even though it was so painful, he didn’t want the Kapo to stop feeding him bread because he was so crazed with hunger. After the kapo was done raping him, he stole the boy’s hat, because if you didn’t have your hat in role call in the morning, you were shot, and the kapo didn’t want anyone to hear of his unspeakable act. This boy was desperate, so he stole somone else’s cap and eventaully survived this camp. Although there were many other stories and heartwrenching things we learned today, we all stayed present and leaned on each other throughout. We ended off the day by stating what our individual revenge would be against these terrible people, and mine is marching tomorrow in and out of this death camp (the opposite of what the Nazis wanted, 2 generations later) in honor of all of those who can’t because their lives were taken by the Nazis. We’re showing our empowerment by marching with 12,000 other teens from around the world tomorrow, and even though you aren’t participating in this with us, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you could do to display how humanity overcame this hateful attempt to wipe an entire population out. Just remember- we’re still here.  -Sydney Miller, Sycamore HS

During our journey, we’re sharing a few highlight photos per day in our daily blog, yet to see ALL of our photos (many per day), go to our shared album here.

Cross training. Young woman exercising with dumbbells.

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