Before World War II, there were just short of 3,500,000 Jews in Poland. Today, there are 16,000. This was not a natural attrition. This is not the product of voluntary population movements. Between September 1939 and the end of the war in 1945 the German Nazis murdered 3,000,000 Polish Jews. Poland left the USSR in 1989. Since then, Jewish students from all over the world have made journeys to Poland in what is becoming a rite of passage. I had never been before, and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go on a trip with 48 fantastic sixth formers and 3 inspirational colleagues. The mighty pens of Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel and Victor Frankl have struggled to describe the indescribable and conceptualise the events of the darkest period of human history. Below are my attempts to make sense of what I saw and what it means to be a human, a Jew and a teacher in the world’s largest graveyard.
We landed at Warsaw airport and went straight to the Jewish Cemetery. Warsaw is a surreal city that barely hangs together. It feels disjointed and somehow flat, with wide spaces between ugly apartment blocks surrounded by brown grass and bare trees. Our guide explained that by the end of the War, the city had been reduced to rubble by the Nazis, with only a handful of buildings left intact. Almost fifty years of USSR governorship lent it no favours, with aesthetic town planning not being high on the Soviet list of priorities. To me, the city felt dystopian, badly built as it was on the rubble of a previous civilization. The Poles have not had an easy 100 years and, whether or not that was deserved, their capital epitomises those scars.
The Jewish Cemetary
The cemetery is enormous, boasting some 250,000 graves from the early 1800’s and onwards. During the war it was a kind of no man’s land and saw its share of violence throughout various uprisings, with a number of the headstones pockmarked with bullet holes. After the war the cemetery fell into disrepair, the stone melding with the trees and becoming part of the all-pervading brown undergrowth. It has recently been restored but the dereliction and neglect is palpable; the naked trees blending with the stones in a unified and haunting whole.
We saw a number of notable graves and stopped for a while by the monument for poet Janusz Korczak. There is a children’s monument nearby, amply draped with wreaths, flowers and lanterns. Like many Jews, it is my custom when visiting deceased relatives to leave a stone on the grave. I don’t know where the custom comes from – probably something to do with memory, permanence and temporality. I could only find a very small stone, roughly cut; maybe a marble chip. I’d never thought about the size of the stone before but it felt fitting. A small stone for a monument to small people.
There is a new museum in the middle of the historic Jewish ghetto. It is a very beautiful building dedicated to the thousand years of Jewish life in Poland and the award-winning exhibitions are highly informative. We sat for a while in the plaza outside and discussed what we had seen beneath an enormous Soviet monument to the Ghetto uprising. Behind us, tourists posed for selfies.
There is a small monument at Mila 18, the site of the last stand of the heroically suicidal Ghetto Uprising. It sits in a courtyard between a number of blocks of flats, which was our first experience of the unsettling phenomena of Poles living normal lives in places of death and destruction. The same is true of the Umschlagplatz, the courtyard from where 300,000 Jews were transported to the gas chambers during the dissolution of the Ghetto. There is a small memorial there, but behind it is a kindergarten and one of my colleagues recalled having seen children playing there in the past.
The next day we traveled to Majdanek. On the way there, our guide spoke to us about the events leading up to the occupation of Poland and the Holocaust. I cannot commend our guide, Tomasz, enough. An academic and genealogist by trade, he was an expert in the history of the entire region, ranging back some 1000 years. He was erudite and highly knowledgeable not only when describing specific events or contemporary politics but also when discussing meta-historical issues like how the Holocaust has been perceived and revised by different schools of history, philosophy, psychology and how it continues to be addressed today.
Nothing can prepare you for Majdanek. To get there you drive through the city of Lublin. You pass pizza shops, cafes and apartment blocks. You take a left, pass an apartment block and then suddenly, it’s there. An enormous field stretches in front of you, fronted by a large concrete monument. Squat black wooden huts, barbed wire fences, and guard huts are all clearly visible. In this place, surrounded by pizza shops, cafes and apartment blocks, hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles and Soviet POWs were enslaved. Almost 80,000 people were killed in this field, 60,000 of them Jews.
Tomasz explained what the site was and we went into the first wooden bunker. This crude building was our first experience of a gas chamber. Small holes in the roof betray ports for the application of deadly Zyklon-B gas. The walls are stained with vivid blue marks; the tell-tale “Prussian Blue” remnants of this weapon of death, murderer of so many people.
Do I believe?
In front of us was a group of religious, orthodox males. I am orthodox myself, but the school I teach at is pluralist. As we got to the gas chamber this group were just in front of us, singing Ani Ma’amin – I Believe. Orthodox Jews are expected to believe certain things, and one of those is to believe, that though he may be delayed, the Messiah will come one day – that this world of darkness and evil will one day be redeemed. It is a powerful tune and it was a powerful moment but though I know both the tune and the words, I did not join their voices.
A great paradox struck me being in that place, in that room, which surely must be both the hardest and the easiest place to believe in a better future. If you believe that God governs history, that God has a plan, then however deep the despair, all is not lost. Hope still exists and suffering is not meaningless. This suffering was not for nothing. But to maintain such a belief is also to flirt with the fact that perhaps God intended for this thing to happen, in that place, in that room. That an all-good God could intend such a thing strikes at the heart of any who would lay claim to an ethical religion and theology. Far easier to believe there is no plan, no design, no grand narrative.
On the one hand, despair and meaninglessness. On the other, hopefulness, but also intent and complicity. Faced with such a choice, the soul must surely be torn.
There is a little known Jewish law called me’ilah – sacrilege. In short, it involves using an object dedicated to God for you own purposes. So if I’m a classical age farmer, I can dedicate my sheep to the temple in Jerusalem. If someone shears that sheep and uses the wool for clothes they have committed me’ilah. It’s not a law that’s particularly relevant any more as there is no temple, but I vaguely remember reading a debate about the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This wall supported the base of the Second Temple and is now a popular prayer site and it is common for people to lean on the rock of the wall when praying. But if the wall was part of the temple, it was dedicated to God, much like the sheep was. Though I cannot remember the final ruling, the logic was that leaning on the wall gives a person physical benefit – small respite to weary feet – and must therefore be me’ilah.
In one of the barracks, Tomasz was talking to us about the living conditions in the camp. I went to lean against the wall and out of nowhere the area of law discussed above surfaced in my mind. I immediately backed away from the wall. I did not, in any way, however small, want to benefit from this place. But then how could I walk its stones and breathe its air? I felt dirty and cloyed by the place. It was in my hair and in my clothes. The primitive construction of the barracks contributed to my sense of dirt and…tawdriness. I felt debased, primal. Crude.
Ashes to Ashes
At the end of the camp is a crematorium where thousands of corpses were burnt to ashes and dumped in the field behind. In the late 60s, an enormous mound of ash was excavated and a domed roof built above, but with the sides open to the elements. The controversy of this monument is worthy of note. In the Jewish tradition, bodies must be buried. Any other treatment (including cremation) is taboo to almost every Jew on the planet. So this pile of ash, striking though it is, disregards taboos that those slain will have held to dearly.
One of my students expressed his distaste to me afterwards. He said that the whole point of the concentration camps had been one of dehumanisation. Cut the inmates’ hair, give them identical outfits, ignore their individuality. To then leave their ashes, a tangled pile of non-existent corpses, continues this work of dehumanisation. They are not humans, they are unwitting participants in a memorial; little more than an evocative work of art. But nothing is simple when dealing with such things. He also said that seeing the mound was the first thing that brought the reality of the camp home to him. Its suddenness, its size, it forces itself into your psyche.
Indeed, there are no easy answers.
No Jews Here
The next day we drove down to Krakow. En route, we stopped at Tarnow. Tarnow had around 25,000 Jews before the Holocaust and, like many other cities in Poland, now has none. There is a plaque on the wall to commemorate those lost in the Holocaust. It doesn’t mention Jews. Tarnow is also notable as the starting location for the first shipment of people to Auschwitz. 720 non-Jewish Poles are commemorated with a small monument. There is no mention of the Jews who died at Auschwitz.
There is a large and ornate building opposite the monument. Before the war this was a communal centre for the Jewish community. Following a law change it now belongs to the Jewish community of Poland. Small as the community is and bereft of large resources, they rent it out now and it houses some small businesses and a restaurant, all bedecked with graffiti.
On our way out of Tarnow we stopped in a small, smart village with small, smart houses. About 75 metres behind the main road we went into a small clearing in yet another bare wood littered with brown leaves. The clearing is a popular site for local dog walkers and ramblers. It also features a number of monuments for the over 10,000 people shot there.
One of my students asked me where exactly the bodies were. Everywhere, I said. Imagine the whole school lined up outside for a fire drill. Now multiply that by ten. In this small clearing, perhaps 100 meters by 100 metres, that many people, Jew and Christian alike, lie beneath the leaves.
The World’s Largest Graveyard
Like many Jews, whenever I leave a cemetery I have the custom to ritually wash my hands as a symbolic act of purification after contact with the dead. After the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery I dutifully washed my hands. When I realised just how often I would be walking just feet above corpses, shot, hanged, strangled, burned and buried I stopped bothering. On every street and in every forest lie the unmarked graves of the murdered. My contact with the dead was ceaseless, so I did not wash my hands. At the end of the trip, when I finally got home, I washed my hands again.
The next day, we went to Auschwitz. I held preconceptions of Auschwitz. I had been told by others that whereas Majdanek feels untouched and preserved, Auschwitz feels very much like a museum. Auschwitz is extremely busy, has registered tour guides, extensive security, bag checks, signs prohibiting flash photography and toilets which charge two zlotys for admission. Whereas Majdanek could be a fully functioning concentration camp within half an hour, Auschwitz is now full of exhibitions and is a very popular tourist destination.
When I got there myself, I did not actually feel that way. The overriding feeling for me was one of walking in an alien world not my own. One of being ever so slightly out of step with reality. Theoretical physicists and sci-fi authors alike tell us about multiverses and alternative realities and, walking the streets of Auschwitz, I felt like I had entered one. The large red-brick barracks and wide cobbled streets make the place look like a holiday resort or residential development. The exhibitions are well hidden in the barracks themselves and, a bit of barbed wire excepted, one could walk the streets and not have any indication of what happened there. And yet Auschwitz is synonymous with evil. Slave labourers were shaved, tattooed and crammed into the barracks. They were regularly shot or hanged in the street. At the end of one street is a gas chamber and crematorium. At the other end is the prison where inmates were tortured and experimented on. This is no holiday resort.
I have by now seen many pictures of the various articles taken from Auschwitz inmates to be sold on for profit. Shoes, suitcases, spectacles and clothes. But nothing can prepare you for actually seeing it. The scale is unimaginable. The first exhibit I saw was human hair, collected from tens of thousands of inmates. A mass of hair; mostly brown, with some blonde streaks. The hair would be spun like wool and sold as fabric.
In another room there was a small cabinet with baby clothes. A dress, a coat, some tights. Some tiny shoes. My daughter turned one the week before I went to Poland. Seeing that cabinet was difficult.
They Knew What To Do
In another room, there is an enormous stack of paper. A3 sheets of paper are bound vertically, arranged like folios so you can stand by them and leaf through. Written on them in small font are four million names. These are the Jews that Israeli Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, has so far managed to document. Two million still to go.
I went to the stack and starting looking for my family name as it was then: Bokser. It looked like there were about a hundred names there. It’s not a common name but I don’t know if those Boksers were relatives. I looked up and saw the students I was with doing the same, searching through the stacks for their families’ names. That hit me very hard. No one had told them to, no one had said this is what you should do. Automatically, without instruction, they had sought out their family. There was something very tragic about that. I don’t know exactly what. People that age should not have to confront mortality at all, let alone so close to home, let alone as something so natural, so expected.
Birkenau is a sub-camp of Auschwitz, one of 46. The main museum I described above is called Auschwitz I, and where Auschwitz I feels like you are walking ever so slightly out of step with our universe, Birkenau feels like you are walking at right angles to it. The first thing that hits you is the immensity. The field stretches as far as the eye can see. The museum have rebuilt around ten wooden barracks at the front, and the ruins of hundreds more can be seen beyond, behind, in every direction. Initially, this was all there was, a concentration camp designed to hold over 200,000 slave labourers to be hired out to surrounding businesses. After the Wannsee conference in 1942 a death camp featuring gas chambers and crematoria was built on the end of it.
Cattle car trains would arrive at the platform in Birkenau. 2000 prisoners would disembark from where they had been packed in to cramped, soiled and freezing cars which they might have been in for over two weeks. Sometimes, one in five were sent by Mengele or other doctors to go work in the camp. The remaining four would be sent directly to the gas chambers. Other times, they would all be sent directly to the gas. Around 950,000 Jews were murdered at Auschwitz, most of them in Birkenau.
The efficiency of the process is the product of deranged minds from another dimension. Every aspect of the camp was honed to mechanise the process of death. To illustrate, over 430,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the camp in the space of around ten weeks. Ten weeks. On average that’s 256 every hour – day and night – for ten weeks.
Tomasz stopped us on the platform. He said he often takes survivors on private tours, sometimes with their families, sometimes alone. When they are alone, they do not disguise their emotions. When they are with their families they try as much as possible to remain stoic. Without fail, family or no, they all break down at the platform. If they survived Birkenau, they came to this platform and were selected for work. This will have been the last time they saw their “old” family, who will have most likely been taken straight to the gas. Revisiting that place with their “new” family is too much to bear.
After we had visited the rest of the site we held a small ceremony. A number of our students, admirable in their resilience and bravery, recited some poetry. Walking back down the tracks to the bus I was ready to go home. I wanted to leave that place and to leave that country.
It is by now well documented that not everyone behaves with the appropriate decorum at sites like Auschwitz. On our way into Birkenau two students from a large Israeli group were doing backflips on the train tracks, timing their jumps together so a friend could catch that perfect picture. I pointed them out to one of the Israeli teachers who went and put a quick stop to it. Our students were understandably outraged. One of my students is Israeli and was walking the tracks with an Israeli flag around his neck, a symbol of his defiance and resolve to improve the lot of the Jewish people. I could hear him furiously muttering and swearing behind me, calling it a busha – an embarrassment: “I wear my flag not for them, but for my country” he said. I wonder if those back-flipping boys realised that, had they been on those tracks just 75 years ago they too would have been soon to the gas.
Later that evening one of our students said that it wasn’t fair to judge them. Perhaps this was their way of commemorating and symbolising their defiance as opposed to gratuitous self-promotion on social media. To apply the principle of charity even in such circumstances demonstrates a moral clarity and compass that I was certainly lacking. But I was also not in the mood for nuance.
A Monumental Country
The next day we toured the small ghetto in Krakow. Again we saw pizza shops, cafes and blocks of flats where thousands of Jews were systematically dehumanised and eventually sent to their deaths. Some of the shops have plaques on the outside. A number of the students told Tomasz that not only did they not understand how someone could live or work there but that it was actually wrong. These places should surely be left as monuments to the dead. Tomasz replied that if every such site in Poland were to be left untouched as a monument you might as well fence off the entire country and put a plaque on the gate. The entire country is a graveyard, and the entire country could be a monument.
Righteous Among The Nations
We finished our trip at Schindler’s factory, immortalised in Schindler’s List (if you haven’t seen it, you should). Though I had been ready to leave the previous day, I am glad we finished there. Schindler’s story, like so many others, shows that even in that place, the world’s largest graveyard, hope and goodness can prevail. Between 1939 and 1945 evil and darkness were in the ascent. But even in that time, good people, at enormous risk to themselves, fought against those cloying and suffocating forces. They showed that our species is capable of great evil, but it is also capable of great good.
I didn’t know whether to publish this. But the process of writing has been cathartic to me, and, if you have made it this far, I hope helpful and meaningful to you. As I sign off with tears pricking the corners of my eyes I pray that we all have the strength to honour the dead and to build a brighter future.
יהי זכרם ברוך – may their memory be blessed
I know this has been a long post, and I have left much unsaid. If you have a further interest in this area of course feel free to contact me directly. We are also now blessed with thousands of first-hand accounts from the holocaust as well as popular and academic works. I highly recommend Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The absolute best holocaust primer is certainly Art Spiegelman’s Maus.