What I Learned From Walking Through Auschwitz/Birkenau.

I’ll never forget the moment, 18 years ago, when I took my first steps into Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Two separate camps one equal emotion.  But we will get to that. 

A very quick breakdown!

I lost over 60 relatives during the Holocaust.  Gunned down, gassed, murdered by the Nazi regime.  My grandfather, who passed away only 2 years ago, survived the war by hiding in a barn with his parents and brother.  In the barn, the farmers put them in a ditch about 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 4 feet deep.  There they stayed for 19 months.  In that time, my great grandfather passed away.  Someone I was named after but never had the ability to meet. 

I have one older brother and three older cousins.  Many Jews try and go to Europe on a Holocaust oriented trip after high school.  My brother and three older cousins wanted to.  However, my grandfather told them in his old school Yiddish accent, “If you should go to Europe, I should drop dead.”  That was his go to line if he didn’t want you to do something.  So, they didn’t. I was different. 

I told my parents that I am going and if they tell my grandfather, I will join the Israeli Defense Forces and chances are never come home again (yeah, I was a twerp).  But I needed this trip.  I needed to see what was done to my family and my people.

 

It was a cold day at the end of March when I walked through the gates of Auschwitz that read, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”  The famous words that were supposed to calm Jews down loomed overhead and I imagined what my ancestors thought as they read “work will set you free.”  Hours later, I found myself standing on a long gravel area in between two sets of train tracks.  It was here, 65 years earlier, that Dr. Joseph Mengele decided who would die, who would work, and who would be recipients of his heinous experiments. 

There, I was lost with a feeling of dread, hatred, and deep emotion, contemplating all that happened in these two hells and wondering why we still visit these death camps.  Why do we not burn all concentration camps to the ground?  Destroy them so vengeance be done.  It would feel fantastic to light the fuse that would destroy the place that annihilated my family.  But as the hours wore on, the cold and bitter air seeping through my jacket and chilling my bones, my thoughts turned from revenge to resolve.

And then it dawned on me, that destroying the Concentration camps would be the worst injustice the Jews around the world could incur.  It’s not just about learning from history so we not repeat it.  It’s learning from our past to help strengthen our future.  It’s about becoming the people who would not let another Holocaust happen again.  It’s easy to say, “Never Again” and then do nothing about it.  It’s easy to destroy something so no one will see it.  Out of sight out of mind.  But that should never happen.  Learning is one thing.  Changing yourself is another. 

I have studied the Holocaust, learned my family tree, and have been to the places where millions of deaths occurred.  But, never will I agree to demolish or destroy something that can inspire a person to become a better person.  A stronger person.  A more just person. 

This is what we must understand.  Tearing down statues of things we find offensive or hurtful should not just be a “learn from history” moment.  It should be an inspiration to fight for injustice and become better people.     

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