Among all of the experiences in my rather packed life, my senior trip to Poland and Israel stands out in my mind as the most momentous. Certainly, I do appreciate that asserting one’s "most momentous moment" is strongly related to its place in the chronological order of one’s life, and that this event has such a strong hold on my emotions simply because it is recent. Nevertheless, whether this trip remains my most important experience forever, or not, will never diminish the enormous effect which it had on me.
For years, my class and I viewed the senior trip as an event for which extensive preparation was critical. Most of us barely gave thought to the Poland portion because it was to comprise only four days of our six-week journey. None of us could have anticipated what an immense effect it would have on us. Seeing that we were coming from a Jewish school the focus of the Poland segment was chiefly the concentration camps; and honestly, none of us looked forward to these visits. Years of study and research had seemingly equipped us with the knowledge and familiarity that we thought was enough. It was not.
On May fourth, our little air-conditioned European bus pulled up to the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. No matter how many pictures we had stared at back in America and how many stories we had heard, nothing had prepared us for the tangible image that stood before us. There we were—at the same gates that flocks of innocent Jews had stood at half a century earlier. They were Jewish…and so were we. Their Judaism was the reason for their deaths and it was also our connection to them. That was overwhelming. Technically we were safe, but fear infused us.
It was early morning, and we had not yet gone through the morning prayer routine. We slowly and silently marched into the camp and climbed up the stairs to the top of the Nazi watchtower where we experienced one of the most emotional and disturbing prayer services of our journey. Though many of us were not exactly religiously observant, all of us were moved to tears. The scenario was overpowering. Here we were: a thirty-five person group of Jewish teenagers standing on the same ground that supported the same monstrous Nazis that slaughtered our fellow Jews.
After the service we continued to march along the railroad tracks that carried thousands of Jews to their deaths. We stopped in the selection square that was essentially used to decide who died right away, and who suffered for another few months before their time came. To the right, or the left? To life, or death? We stood in the square and tried to contemplate. It was entirely possible to stand there and look simply at the grass; to see the barracks as merely wooden buildings, and view the watchtowers as just wooden towers. Yet we had come there with a knowledge. Each of us tried to concentrate on the history of where we were standing. You could sense that, at times, we would lapse out of mourning, and then feel shame for disrespecting the memory of the martyrs. So we tried harder.
We stood on the same ground that supported our miserable ancestors in the last seconds of their lives. Then, we stood on the ground of the gas chamber on which their limp bodies had fallen. We had touched their word: their life and their death—and then we let go. We no longer tried to process any facts and labored on forced associations, because reality had reached us first—and we broke down. The kids with whom I had grown up had released everything they felt. The funny girls, the unemotional brainiacs, the strong boys…everyone wept. It is not as though we felt sadness, or anger, or grief. We simply felt label-free emotions. It was overload…and then we ran dry. The emotions were still there, but the tears had gone. We had used them all up, and the emptiness had made us numb. Eventually even our sentiment had been spent. It was as though we had exceeded our capacity for meaning, and our spirituality was malfunctioning. The day was done.
The next day, as we drove up to Majdanek, I noticed that we were not preparing ourselves for sadness. We had gone through this the day before, and it seemed as though we were still frozen, as though we were safe from the pain of shock. With our guard down, we almost calmly entered the barracks. We soon found ourselves in the gas chamber, where our people had gasped their last breaths. By the time we had reached the crematorium something had hit us, collectively. Each of us somehow connected with the truth of our nation’s tortured past: of the Nazi’s inconceivable ignorance and of the sad reality that this world is filled with hatred. Again our tears were thought-free. Yet this time they did not dry up. As we said Kaddish, (a Jewish prayer associated with mourning) just feet away from the ovens where the bodies and severed limbs of our fellow Jews perished, we wept. We wept for our ancestors, for our relatives that would have been, and for the fear—the horrible fear that pervaded every inch of the camp. Death surrounded us, and the souls of the victims seemed to tell their stories in short episodes of our individual imaginations. Something inconceivable happened. None of us could stop crying no matter how hard we tried.
Our tour leaders had left the chamber and we were left alone. Thirty-five overwhelmed teenagers who had witnessed each other turn from small children into mature adults stood in this room for about an hour without saying a word. Only cries of grief were heard. I was leaning against the stone wall surrounded by my timeless friends and I could not stop the tears—neither theirs, nor mine. A stronger friend came to my corner and put his arms around three of us, and we sobbed together. The class clown of the grade began to bang his head against the wall while his cries were muffled in his sleeve. Never had any of us connected so deeply. No words were said. We all understood instantly that this moment would never be related to anyone fully. Though not by choice, this was our secret. Slowly, one by one, we left the crematorium as different people. The victims had been mourned and honored. We lived their deaths, and then we left.
We filled the bus in silence and went straight to the airport. In a few hours we landed in Israel. The contradiction was uncanny. We were no longer in a country that wanted us exterminated…we were home. In Israel, the bus took us straight from the airport to the Western Wall. To us it all seemed like one extended day. All within forty-eight hours our class had witnessed both our nation’s demise and our rebirth. This experience, though devastating, served as means through which we could bear witness to the unspeakable atrocity that the world, today, is sadly beginning to turn a blind eye to. This intense trip made us realize that the Holocaust is not just a chapter in a textbook or a museum downtown. It is an aspect of our past that should never be forgotten, no matter how much time passes.