I didn’t know what to feel as we approached Auschwitz Birkenau. There was no dramatic music or flashes of tears or terror. I felt a more subtle kind of fear. The kind that starts as a small chill at the bottom of my spine or as a fleeting shadow when I’m home alone. It was eerie and silent but haunting none the less.
I realize how that there are stories, beyond the black and white photos that history books never told me. They never seemed to explain the way that gravel crunches under worn shoe soles, or how electric fences reach farther than my eyes can, even in the highest watch tower. They never spoke of the cramped crooked bunk bed or the old blank slabs of concrete in the gas chambers. They only spoke numbers. And while numbers are powerful and dynamic, to non-mathematicians, zeros can never really convey the same messages as powerfully as a 12 foot tall room full of mismatched shoes or walls full of family pictures with no owners. Numbers never explain lives or ambitions, memories or friendships. They just document the number of deaths.
Visiting Auschwitz made it real. It made the Holocaust more than a textbook page or a distant disaster. It turned numbers into faces, masses into individuals, stories into emotions and fears. More than painting the Holocaust as part of humanity’s story. It imprinted the Holocaust as part of my own.
-Julia, high school participant
Wow today was not what I expected. We made the journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau! I had may expectations of what the camp would be like and how I would react to being there and boy was I wrong! The first thing we did was go up into the watch tower where you can over look the majority of the camp. The second I looked out the window I felt a surge of panic run through me. You could feel the people there. It was like everything was going to turn black and white and I was going to start seeing the transports, SS, suffering, etc. I was terrified. I just felt like they were there…the energy at least. Knowing that I was walking the same grounds where people were taking there last breaths was heartbreaking. When we entered the building where new transports arrived, there was the wall of pictures. There was a picture of a little boy and it seemed like he knew I was there connecting with him. I thought of my niece and was overcome with extreme sadness and anger thinking if this were to happen to Gayla or anyone in my family…..I would go absolutely insane. Today made me realize what my family truly means to me; they are my everything and I love them unconditionally. I know now that I cannot live without them.
On a happier note, I have connected with so many people on this trip so far and have made life-long friends. Plus the concert cruise on the Vistula River was an experience I’ll never forget. Dancing for hours while a German Swing band played was so amazing!! I am looking forward to what the rest of this trip has to offer and I am ready for it!
-Chelsea, college fellow
Today is Monday, and yesterday we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Helen woke up early this morning, packed her suitcase and rolled it out of her Crackow hotel room. She announced to us that she didn’t want us “to fuss over her anymore” and that she would be fine and had “important work to do.” Her plan for this new day and our long bus trip through Galicia, Southern Poland, enroute to Lublin was to have one-on-one conversations with as many of our students as possible. She wanted to find out how they were doing after the long day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She wanted to help them with their individual feelings. Helen also wanted to know about each of their families, each of their own life journeys.
Fuss over her we had. July 1st was very hot. The walk at Birkenau was very long. I was very nervous about taking my 91 year-old friend back along this path of relentless treachery, this trail of tears and loss.
So, we pushed her to keep sipping more water, we gripped her more tightly, we insisted she sit down at every opportunity. Helen put up with all this fussing, all the sweaty hands on her. Helen teased us that we were drowning her with the sips of water, and as we guided her into her portable aluminum chair before she started her retelling along the paths and in the buildings. She joked that she was being treated like the Queen Mother (she actually said “Mother Queen” but I knew what she meant!)
Yet while she is indeed our royal, the nobility in our midst, she is also our teacher, and that is what Helen did at Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 1, 2012; she taught.
We stopped by the cattle car sitting on the tracks and she described the misery of the wretched three days she and her family spent from Satu Mare, May 22-24, 1944. She described the chaos of the arrival, but in a much abbreviated version than she had done a couple of days earlier when we were in Berlin at Grunewald Rail Station from where so many German Jewish families were sent to their deaths. She told me after that day in Berlin that she wanted to get her tears out of the way there, so that she could be strong for our students the day we were to visit Auschwitz, for they would need her strength then.
When we were in one of the barracks, and again in the latrine/washroom, Helen described daily life in this prison, the struggle for bread, the efforts to stay clean, the desperate need to avoid selections. Helen modeled teaching at its best…the teacher as learner. Why were those of us brought on those late transports from Hungary not tattooed with numbers? Anna, our guide who many years later had grown up in the town adjacent to this place, told her that the Nazis did not bother with numbers for them because they did not plan on keeping them alive for long. The trains were bringing in too many for the crematoria to handle immediately. The wait for death was to be short.
Helen looked at the absence of a number on her arm, listened, and seemed to file that new knowledge away with all the other degradation she experienced. She went on to describe the joy of finding family upon arrival at Birkenau. She described how they avoided selections, moving from barracks chosen, based on information she got sneaking outside at four in the morning from someone who worked a job privy to those decisions. All these stories and more she told us this day. This seemed to be her comment on her death sentence.
Details emerged from Helen’s memory with startling clarity and coherence. Helen made no judgments as she sat by the formerly electrified fence and told with deep sadness of the many who threw themselves against it to end their suffering. She understands the role of chance and luck and makes no claims of heroism. Instead, as our group experienced a brief ritual at that killing fence, a ceremony that involved our connections with family and friends and how they sustain us, Helen got up from her chair and walked to one tearful student then another to put a hand on a shoulder, to embrace, to take some steps along the fence, arm in arm, and talk. And then to continue the journey.
Rabbi Peretz has inspired us with many stories, including Hassidic tales about the Tzaddicks. In Jewish tradition, especially here in Poland, these are people known for being spiritually balanced. Others come to be around them so that they can re-establish their own balance. To help us understand this, Rabbi Peretz has us circle up and then stand on one foot. As we begin to teeter, we can reach out and steady our self on the shoulder of our neighbor. Only then are we balanced.
So Helen Farkas is our Tzaddick. We stand around her and lean on her, even when it looks like we are the ones holding her up. We find again our balance as we walk behind that old lady rolling her suitcase out of her hotel room the day after Auschwitz. We follow her lead and our gratitude is beyond measure.
Jim McGarry, faculty
Posted by Admin on July 3, 2012