Written and photographed by Ethan Shohet
For many people, high school is a time to find their passions, interests, and develop character, before further evolving these interests and engaging with others during college. Comparable to any other student, I developed an interest for sports, gaming, and going out with friends, amongst other activities. One aspect, however, was missing from my life which I had never realized until high school came to an end and I moved away to college, where I had a chance to reflect on my upbringing. I had very little connection to my Jewish heritage, and although my parents instilled a level of values within me, I did not have a true understanding of what it meant to be Jewish, and the weight that carried to people who experienced tragedies such as the Holocaust. At that time, I did not know I would be traveling to another country to learn the entirety of my religion and the history behind it.
As senior year of high school came to an end, my father decided to sign me up for a program called March of the Living. This program is run by an organization that marches across a large part of Poland, consisting of a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau with thousands of individuals representing Jewish culture once a year, every year, as a remembrance of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. It is a reminder to the world that although our people were damaged and distraught, the living still walk and continue the traditions and beliefs of our religion, despite Germany’s attempt to eradicate the Jewish people.
Hesitant to take the two week long trip given that I did not know a single person within the delegation, I took a leap of faith and packed my bags for the thirteen hour flight to Poland. The first part of the trip was spent in Poland visiting Nazi concentration camps, museums, and roaming Warsaw to learn about its history. The most emotional part of the trip was taking tours inside gas chambers and other rooms used to exterminate Jewish people. These areas had a silent but eerie feeling knowing that people like yourself had perished in the very place you stood. The second part of the trip was going to Israel to see how the culture has changed and to experience the people within the Jewish state.
Our first stop was arguably the most well-known area related to the Holocaust, Auschwitz. It is located in Oświęcim, Poland. Collectively, Auschwitz alone accounted for 1,000,000 Jewish deaths during the Holocaust, showing the major thought put into the systematic design of the camp to effectively kill a human being. First, we were taken to the front gates, where a train would bring in hundreds of Jewish prisoners. Immediately, Nazi personnel would begin separating families by women, men, and children. Many times, children and women were misled into thinking they would be getting food or showers, but were immediately killed off in large cremation chambers resembling fireplaces. This was because they were of no use to the Nazis if they did not provide physical strength needed for slave labor. After this “weeding” process, the remaining prisoners were taken to their living quarters. Our organization as a whole took hours touring these facilities, which resembled large wooden barns. Sleeping areas were large wooden boards; bathrooms were large cement structures within the barns with holes in the grounds, most of which were rarely ever cleaned. These living environments themselves caused massive diseases, flus, and sicknesses to quickly spread amongst the Jewish prisoners, slowly killing them or weakening their body’s health, regardless of Nazi intervention.
Many people have a common misunderstanding of how Jewish people were truly exterminated in these camps. Although gas chambers were a common method, there were several other inhumane methods the Nazis used to murder innocent people. In the minds of the Nazis, they wanted to optimize the process and make killing as time efficient as possible while reducing the need for cleanup and other residual factors. They treated Jewish people as products manufactured within a factory. After touring the living facilities, our group was taken to several areas where the killings actually occurred.
We started with the gas chambers, where the immediate impression was of distinct blue stains all over the floors and walls. This was due to the use of a chemical called Zyklon-B, commonly used in killing rodents. Nazis would drop pieces of this chemical down the air-shafts of the chambers, which would then cause a chemical reaction in the rooms, resulting in a complete lack of oxygen. Inevitably, every person in the room would slowly and painfully suffocate, when they had believed it was time for a shower. This method was used so often that many of the walls were almost completely stained a dull-blue color.
From here we were taken into cremation chambers, which to me was the most inhumane use of industrial equipment I had ever seen. Upon entering the building I noticed a permanent burnt smell, likely the ashes of those who lost their lives being brushed up off the floor. Straight ahead were rows of coffin-like beds that slid in and out of brick ovens. Bodies were placed into these beds, pushed into the large fire chambers, and the ashes were collected and piled up outside, another psychological effect on prisoners who were still alive. The entire killing process only took a few minutes per person, and could be done non-stop throughout the day with very little clean up. Nazis created a manufactured and efficient process to exterminate a body, hence why the death count in Auschwitz is far above other camps. People who attempted escapes or did not conform to the Nazis agenda were either shot on sight or used in torturous science experiments run by commanders in the camp. Auschwitz is known as the largest death camp in the history of Holocaust and continues to have a saddening environment even today. However, another camp in particular resonated with me: the Treblinka extermination camp.
Treblinka is located north-east of Warsaw. It was an extermination camp that was responsible for approximately 700,000-900,000 Jewish deaths during the Holocaust, as it was located in a German occupied area in Poland. The most startling fact about this camp was how intact all areas of the camp are. Living facilities, chambers, and other extermination areas, as well as Nazi living quarters, all look like they could still be in use. It was not destroyed when Germany’s rule came to an end. It is often theorized that the camp itself is so unblemished that it could be up and running within 72 hours. Touring this camp gave a much truer and realistic image of what these people were experiencing because nothing was destroyed, compared to Auschwitz.
As a reflection of what we had experienced in Poland, we were enroute for a week-long stay in Israel, specifically moving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After the emotional impact of the prior week in Poland, we were given a chance to unwind and truly enjoy the Jewish state as whole. Visiting landmarks such as the Western Wall, I felt truly connected with the people I was traveling with, but more so with the people currently living their everyday life in Israel. The utter amount of acceptance within the state is astounding. In areas there are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, even atheist people living amongst one another, in peace. Traveling in street markets such as the well-known Carmel market, and tasting the true cuisine and culture of the Jewish people was refreshing given the authenticity of the culture flourishing. This was by far the most enjoyable moment as it was a significant environmental shift from what we had been surrounded by in Poland. Moving between street markets, restaurants, and live musicians in the streets, it was truly an experience that will not be forgotten. Many people on the trip, who I now consider life-long friends, decided to permanently move the Israel and join the army to further support their people and uphold their desire to stand strong against those attempting to eradicate our beliefs and traditions.
As the trip came to an end, and we made our way to the airport for a long plane ride back home, I began to reflect on what I experienced. From the suffering and literal extermination residue I had seen, to the happy and extravagant people in the state of Israel, I left with a simple thought: understanding your past helps you empathize for the experiences of the future.
Photos, top to bottom:
Radegast Train Station near Lodz, Poland
Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel