Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Remembering the time I spent in Poland in the gas chambers, on the rail tracks and with brave Christians that saved Jews from death. Here are some images and memories I dug up from an old blog post recounting that experience:
Boarded the plane immediately for a long flight to Poland. We were about to stare evil in the eye.
Having Tania and my four children near me made this pensive flight more bearable. My family slept, read and laughed over the next 12 hours. Tania finished "The Hiding Place" by Corrie ten Boom. I had finished it the week before and now was reading all I could to understand the mindset of the Germans, Poles and those rounded up during the seemingly never ending years of the Holocaust. I have never had more nightmares.
I didn’t want to step on that blood soaked land. The sun went down and rose again just as we were about to land. I had slept very little and I was getting sick. By the time we landed I was feverish and exhausted. My body was playing self-defense.
We dropped my family off at the hotel. The children slept for a few hours and then went to the zoo. The adults however would not see their pillows as we had much to do.
Our first stop was the only operating synagogue in Warsaw. It was as rainy, cold and as gray as I had imagined a former Soviet country. I met with the Chief Rabbi of Poland. We had an amazing conversation. And while I was still 18 hours away from the gates, Auschwitz loomed over all of us.
Later, I met with local university students to talk about history, the future and courage.
Always being rushed, never having enough time, I slowed us down again in the Warsaw Ghetto. I couldn’t get over the size of the wall. I tried to imagine the people, sights, sounds and emotions on both sides of that wall. I don’t think there is a better example of the theory of “out of sight, out of mind” --- at least for those on the other side of this wall.
We reflected at a memorial to those lost, ironically, built out of the stone cut for the intended use by Hitler commemorating his Victory. The Lord has a way of making all those who work against Him and His people into Haman of the Old Testament.
Tired, emotionally spent and with my neuropathy finding it’s own again, we arrived at the airport where we had landed just eleven hours earlier. Tomorrow promised the best and worst of humanity.
The first thing you notice in Warsaw is how new everything is --- and also how many ugly gray buildings from the communist years still remain. This is not a country that has seen much prosperity or happiness, at least politically speaking. After the Germans occupied and destroyed the country, their own people and almost all of the Jewish population, they were freed by Stalin’s thugs. They then turned around and did the same thing just with a different attitude and uniform. People still feel the strings a soviet puppet.
Yet the new generation is glorifying the old ways once again. The number of Soviet images you see around out number --- by FAR --- the number of clubs or public images of the Founders in Philadelphia (not including those paid for by the state.)
Freedom is so rare in the history of this planet --- most humans have never tasted it. And those who enjoy the most freedom now are oblivious to not only its scarcity in human history but how fragile and fleeting it really is. Men are at their best when free and closest to the backside of real want. Today, the meaning of want has been carelessly reduced to ‘free wifi’ or the latest Apple gadget. The empty ‘things’ we want are now referred to as things we need.
I wanted to find people who have lived the difference. And I did.
I was expecting to meet two people today before the tour of the camp that understood the difference between want and need --- and also understood duty, honor, compassion and faith. One was a little old lady who just wanted to tell her story. She wanted no credit, no pats on the back, no money, no glory, no nothing --- except to be heard.
She was even hesitant to have her picture taken --- which explains why many of our pictures of her came out like this:
She saved her first Jewish person when she was just 16. Jewish people were only allowed to eat under 300 calories a day, that’s equal to a little more than a bottle of soda. When a hungry Jewish child begged her for food, she told her to meet her the next day. She could have been killed for helping. But did it anyway --- and fed many hungry, starving Jews, saving their lives. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg...
After that overwhelming experience, we slept hard for 6 hours. At the crack of dawn, we are up and fed and ready to hit the road. While this trip was filled with horrifying, unimaginable evil --- there were also moments of light. Like this one taken on a bus in the morning:
Take a good look at that picture. Look closely at our faces. Remember that look --- that was the morning. Tomorrow, you are going to see what just a HALF DAY touring Auschwitz did to those faces. We leave the two small children behind. We will meet them at the airport later. This day will be hard enough to process as an adult.
First stop in Krakow to the grave site of one of the most important rabbis in Jewish history. He was responsible for compiling Jewish law. His grave was meant to be destroyed by the Germans --- just one of the many despicable habits they had --- but as a German solider approached the grave, lightening hit the surrounding fence, jumped to the German’s bayonet and threw him back.
It scared the rest of the soldiers enough that they just left it alone, under a tree. But it didn’t scare them away from the other grave stones... They had plans for the others.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the evil that goes into something like this. At first glance, this looks like an ordinary stone wall. But this is a wall made entirely of broken headstones:
Many of them have the hands of the Aaronic priesthood blessings. I later found out they not only built the wall, but the destroyed cemeteries and headstones were used for sidewalks! It was overwhelming to see this --- the evil --- they just did not view Jews as human beings. I just kept thinking --- how do people become that evil?
I think I understand EVIL and GOOD more than I ever have before... and the day is just beginning...
Next, Tania and I visited a beautiful synagogue used during the war as a horse stable. Yes, a horse stable. It is in the town much of ‘Schindler’s List’ was filmed. This was a brave community --- they built the synagogue in the 1800s right next to the street. Unusual from a people that feel as though they should almost hide from those that are not Jewish.
Also, my understanding of why Israel is so crucial to not just the Middle East --- but to the entire world --- the best way to prevent another holocaust from happening again is becoming clearer.
When we visited a small town, what appeared to be a grassy field actually turned out to be a stone wall. The remains of a moat from the 1400’s. There was a fire in the town --- and the Jews were being blamed for starting it. The King, who loved the Jews, gave them this part of the town and built the moat, thinking it would keep them safe. The safety only lasted while the King was alive.
THAT’S why it’s so important that Israel is allowed and capable of defending themselves, not through charity or any other country or the U.N. --- because it WILL NOT LAST.
I knew that this day was going to be tough. But other than close, personal tragedies we’ve experienced in our own lives, our day at Auschwitz is hands down the most emotionally difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. If you have been here you know that you will never experience anything like it in your life. Never. I was prepared for something horrifying --- but now I know there is nothing that could ever adequately prepare you for this place...
We had barely made it through half the day, saw the trains and a few other things --- and already the emotion has hit us like a ton of bricks.
And you can see it on our faces:
No matter how many motion pictures you’ve seen or books you’ve read --- you’ve NEVER seen evil like this before. My whole family was afraid to go to Auschwitz, and there’s solid justification for that fear. This history will hit even the most apathetic creature right to the core. But we held each other up --- here’s a picture of our family moments before we went into Auschwitz:
There are many buildings to go through. The whole atmosphere is evil --- strangely as it may seem, the grounds don’t feel evil. But it doesn’t feel good or positive in any way either. The other thing is it’s strangely void of any spirit. It’s like a dead spot on planet earth. I’ve never felt anything like it. But evil was on display at every turn. One building was full of shoes, suitcases, glasses, gold teeth and more. The items were stripped off their victims and redistributed to German citizens.
Each represents a person, a person who was face to face with perhaps the biggest evil the world has ever seen. I was already overwhelmed at this point, but there was another room I hadn’t visited yet. It would be the room that broke me up and pushed me over the edge.
This room was filled with prosthetics and braces — worn into the chambers and later taken off the dead bodies. This was all that was left over:
What remained were only the ones NOT good enough to send to Germans to pass on to their kids and relatives. This was just a fraction of the carnage. My question was --- why didn’t anyone bother to ask where all the free shoes were coming from? The Germans didn’t know? Or was it they just didn’t want to know?
That’s when my daughter just couldn’t take it any longer. She turned around and left the gates. It was extremely painful to watch. But I couldn’t help but think --- if only it were so easy to leave those gates 70 years ago. This is a horrible, horrible place.
But that was just the beginning. Up next we saw the place where they did operations on women --- without anesthesia. The images were so disturbing --- even though we had complete access, everyone just knew it was time to turn the cameras off. We shot nothing. All I can tell you is no one --- and I mean no one --- said a word for several minutes after.
When the Nazi’s weren’t busy torturing prisoners and performing hideous "surgeries" --- they had another pastime: executions.
This wall was for the Polish who betrayed the Germans, and committed horrible crimes like feeding a hungry Jew. Not many Jews were executed here --- the Nazi’s felt it was a waste of resources (bullets) to use them on Jews.
We all stood outside, afraid to go into the final area: the gas chambers. By this point, we thought we knew what we were going to see. But we still had no idea.
This is the gas chamber. In the roof is the square shaft of blue light. This is where the Zyklon B was dropped.
I have always assumed that it killed relatively quickly. But when I saw this wall:
I knew I was wrong.
To stand in this room where hundreds of thousands died was horrifying. The children were always on the top of the bodies. Heroes to the end. the adults all assumed the air would be clearer higher and they tried to give these children a chance to live by holding the up close to the ceiling. It didn’t work. The gas killed everyone --- but not instantly. It took at twenty long horrific minutes. And the walls show it. Many of the children weren’t with their mom or dad, but with strangers. Oh, the special hell that awaited all those who were silent.
When I walked back behind one the execution and rape rooms --- that soldiers used for their own gratification --- there was yet another layer of evil to pile on. It was a swimming pool. Yes, just a few feet away from people (including children) being tortured and murdered --- they were outside enjoying themselves with a nice refreshing soak in the pool.
Even after the gas chamber, we couldn’t leave yet. We walked out of Auschwitz 1 and loaded a bus, tried to eat something even though none of us were hungry, and rested before heading to Birkenau.
We came to a place known as Auschwitz 2 --- many of you may know it as the camp from the film Schindler’s List. Mengele performed most of his experiments here, and almost two million people were murdered here.
We went to the gas chamber of the last camp. The crematorium was built by a private company and had been patented so, in case these acts of horror took off, only they could profit. There were two stories of crematoriums in the camp, and here is the logo of that company on one of the doors:
Aside from moments of tragedy and joy with family --- this day was the most life changing of any in my life. The only thing in my life that has been harder hitting has been the death of a family member. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I would wish it for my best friend --- you connect with yourself and history in a way I have never experienced.
The final picture --- a warning put there by us after communism fell. Remember, the horrors we witnessed today were held behind the Iron Curtain until the USSR fell. To me the first part of this plaque says it all:
It is true. I, like my family and probably everyone else who has ever seen this --- was left completely speechless. There’s nothing left to say.