By Lizz Goldstein
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. [We need a source]
[We need an intro to explain why and with whom–group, individuals–you made this trip]
After my first day in Oswiecim, Poland, I was unsure how to feel. Having spent several
hours at Auschwitz, 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 historical distance between my present life
and when these atrocities occurred. I assumed that, for a Jew, the Holocaust narrative would feel
close to home, but in Oswiecim I felt sad and disconnected.
After that first day, I did not return to Auschwitz, instead I spent the daylight hours of the
next four days at Auschwitz II–Birkenau. On the third 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. Birkenau is a perfectly appropriate place to bear witness for 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. I cried for the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through at that
moment. I was crying for the grandchildren of those women–the grandchildren so traumatized by
the experiences of their forebears. 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 visit the old cities of Krakow and Warsaw and try to get a
sense of what life might have been like there pre-war. We saw some interesting sights–museums,
monuments, etc.--but I spent the second five days in Poland eager to move on 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 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 Jews were gone.
I found the city generally to be far more welcoming, beautiful, and friendly than any of
the Polish cities I visited. Most people seemed eager to express their anger over 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–I was struck by the realization that 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 memorialized of 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 to the “Holocaust exhibit” down the street. 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 as
horrifying as any other crime against humanity, it is not the Holocaust. This misunderstanding
was likely due to the language barrier, but to me it felt like 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. I fear, if responsibility is
shrugged off and never accepted, then the lessons history has to teach are not fully learned.
Although I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger during my two weeks abroad,
the trip filled me with inspiration to continue to bear witness and to continue to teach others how
to bear witness. And, in this way, maybe the next time we say “Never Again!” it might be true.