Can you hear the prayers of the children, aching for home, for something of their very own? Empty eyes with no more tears to cry, turning heavenward toward the light. For when darkness clears I know You’re near, giving loving arms away from harm.
After my first day in Oswiecim, I was unsure how to feel. Having spent several hours at Auschwitz I, now very preserved and museum-like, I was shocked that I did not cry at all that first day. I thought maybe it was due to the distance in history between myself and when these atrocities occurred. I assumed that as a Jew, the Holocaust narrative would feel close to home, but in Oswiecim, I felt sad but disconnected. I thought maybe I should visit Srebenica, an attempt at genocide that I actually remember happening. Maybe that would reach deeper.
After that first day, I did not return to Auschwitz I, instead spent the most of the daylight hours for the four days at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. On the third day in Oswiecim, the second day at Birkenau, the tears finally came. In the women’s barracks, the first barracks I saw from the inside. The moment I walked in, it all erupted in me. And I realized, yes, it would be interesting to see Srebenica and Bear Witness to something I remember, but the distance in history means very little in actuality. Acts of atrocious inhumanity are acts of atrocious inhumanity, and not much has changed in the world in the last seventy years. Birkenau is a perfectly appropriate place to Bear Witness for all the crimes against humanity. We were told a story about a woman who was punished by being forced to spend the night outside, naked, in the middle of the winter (she did survive), but inside the barrack there was a fireplace. Where is the line drawn when monsters are deciding what basic human needs can be afforded to people seen as cockroaches? As I cried for the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through that moment, I was also crying for the woman of the Argentine Dirty War whose captors fed her a full hot meal to bring her back from the brink of death, only to send her back to the torture chambers afterwards. I was crying for the grandchildren of the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through; the grandchildren so traumatized by the experiences of their forebears as well as the terror in their own lives that they have felt forced into exposing another group into inhumane circumstances that we as Jews should be all too familiar with. I was crying for the disenfranchised disabled people, sexual minorities, and lower class Americans still kept apart from the “desirables” even in a free country. I was crying for everybody everywhere across history whose identity and livelihood was stripped from them for illegitimate reasons of hatred and fear.
More of such thinking and crying and Bearing Witness continued as we visited the children’s barracks, met survivors, visited the crematoriums and ash fields. After a full five days in Oswiecim, it was time to move on to Krakow and Warsaw to visit the old cities, and try to get a sense of what life might have been like there pre-war. Or even if there had not been a war. I found Poland to be cold and uninviting. I had fun with new friends I met on the retreat, saw some interesting sights (museums, monuments, etc) but spent the second five days in Poland eager to move in to Vilnius.
My great-grandparents, like many American Jews, came from Vilnius, or Vilna as they called it. It was once the Jerusalem of Europe, overflowing with Jewish culture and life, integrated in with Lithuanian culture and life. The Jews were generally accepted and embraced in Vilna, allowed to thrive and prosper there (relatively speaking). By the time I got there, sixty-nine years after the city rid itself of its Jewish residents, all signs of us were gone. I found the city generally to be far more welcoming, beautiful, and friendly than any of the Polish cities I visited, and most people seemed eager to express their anger toward what the Nazis did to them, their wish for peace with their past, for a Jewish life again in Vilnius. But as I passed church after church, every other block had a church from any given decade over the last five hundred years. But the entire country of Lithuania has only two functional synagogues left. People lined the streets, straining to hear the mass coming out of the church of the Gates of Dawn, but the Jewish Community Center of Vilnius has to pay ten men to ensure that there is a minyan at the Choral synagogue every Shabbat. There was not much even memorialized for the former Jewish residents of Vilnius. The old ghetto is unmarked, the Jewish Museum is about four rooms. After I visited these four rooms the curator gave me directions down the street to the “Holocaust exhibit.” It was not a Holocaust exhibit. It was a museum dedicated to the slaughter of Lithuanian nationals by the Soviet occupation following the Nazi occupation. Though fascinating, important, and equally horrifying to any other crime against humanity, it is not the Holocaust. This misunderstanding was likely due to the language barrier, but to me it felt a reinforcement of the silence surrounding the Lithuanian involvement in the murder of our people. If it’s not discussed, if we group together different atrocities as one, then blame cannot be placed. And I’m not looking for someone to blame, really. It’s been seventy years; let’s move on. But my fear is if responsibility is shrugged around and never accepted, than the lessons history has to teach are not fully learned.
After reading all this sadness and anger I experienced during my two weeks abroad, it may sound like I didn’t enjoy the trip. On the contrary, it filled me with such inspiration to continue to Bear Witness. Continue to teach others how to Bear Witness. And in this way maybe the next time we say, “Never Again!” it might be true.