An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:
Yesterday we went to a camp called Chelmno. This place only JUST had its first book published about it in the last couple months, and Dr. Halperin said he has never met a person in the United States – other than people who have intensely studied the Holocaust – who have even heard of it, and most know little to nothing about it.
About 150,000 Jews, Poles and others died at Chelmno. They were brought to a historical old palace and told that they were about to be transported to somewhere better for them. They went to the living room, which had huge windows overlooking the river, a beautiful view. They were told to undress so that they could wash their clothes and then were taken into the basement. There they were forced into the back of a large truck that had backed into the cellar. The Germans had rigged the truck so that all of the exhaust fumes were sent into the back, and on the drive to burial pits, everyone in the back of the van suffocated.
Our bus took the exact route these buses would take. It didn’t take us as long, but at the rate of their automobiles it took about 20 minutes. It was quite a long time. If after arrival there were some who were not dead, the SS would shoot them. They had Jews at the burial site who dug mass graves and carried the bodies from the trucks, knowing at the end of the day that they would be shot and new Jews would be there to take their place in the morning. In 1942 the graves were opened and the bodies were burned. At another point the officers wanted to experiment with more efficient ways, so they had a trench dug and put Quicklime into the trench, ordered people to get in and then poured water all over them, causing a slow and very painful death. The camp shut down in ’43 because it wasn’t efficient enough but was again reopened in ’44.
There are two parts of the Chelmno memorial. The first site is where the palace stood before the Germans blew it up. There are some ruins of the palace and a small museum. The state does not fund it; it is all kept up by one Polish man who speaks no English. He expected us to come, and Dr. Halperin brought a picture of him from last year. Our presence must have spoken to him just as his spoke to us because he invited us into his own little museum, in what may have been his home, and showed us a copy of the brand-new book that just came out that I mentioned. He showed us where he was thanked multiple times and what great reviews the book had from major scholars of the Holocaust. We took a picture of him and the book, and then he asked for a picture of us.
Down the road was the second memorial. There is a lot here; it is still in a bit of an identity crisis. There are tombstones, sculptures and the markings of the burial trenches. It is a huge space that was cut out of the forest so to be out of sight and is so obviously for mass deaths. Only a couple of people were ever able to escape this; they were thought to be dead and had to crawl from the grave at night, and after that they were in the middle of nowhere with no idea where they could go.
This camp held so much power for our little group. Here our little group of bundled Americans were, traveling overseas and then on a bus traveling along the same path and walking along the graves where so many naked, murdered bodies were thrown, and we were here to remember them. It was awful, but also hopeful. It is hopeful to see that people will still come from so far away to be there and remember all of these people. It feels right to be here during the Hanukkah and Christmas season and show our love at a time when these people are normally forgotten. I will never celebrate Christmas again without thinking of the 11 million people who were lost.
The Children of the Holocaust
We returned to Warsaw and went directly to meet with a group called The Children of the Holocaust. What an honor it was to meet with five survivors of the Holocaust who are still living in Poland! They are amazingly hopeful and joyful and say it was only after they found one another and could share their stories that they could stop crying because they are not alone. Their stories are amazing. I will mention only a few for now, though.
One lady was put into a car of strangers by her mother, who said she would be back in five minutes; she never returned. The girl was raised by these people with a new name and was told every day she was a “terrible Jew.” She grew up knowing she was Jewish but knowing nothing about her true identity. It wasn’t until she was 55 that she learned who her mother was and what her own name was. Her birth name is Clara Gross. She still does not go by that because she felt she was not actually Clara.
A gentleman was 11 when he escaped the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his family needed a place to stay that would be safe, and a Pole helped him find a home in the German section of the city. He said it was safer to live among the Germans because they had an ignorant idea of what Jews looked like and could not recognize them well. The Poles were more aware and could recognize Jews also by the way they spoke Polish (not many Jews could even speak Polish because they spoke solely Yiddish).
Another woman who is usually in attendance but could not be there this time, watched her father jump in front of a train and commit suicide. Her mother took her to jump off a bridge into the ice cold water to do the same but was fished out still alive by a Polish dock worker. He hid them and took care of them.
All of the survivors stressed that it was because of other people, especially non-Jewish Poles, that they were still alive today. They also stressed it was because of other people, including non-Jewish Poles, that they had lost almost all their family members.
I find it interesting that there are so very few Jews in the country today. In 1939 at least 10 percent of the country was Jewish, but today there are fewer than 25,000 in the whole country. And most of them are not practicing Jews. One woman did not know she was Jewish until her mother told her in 1980. Her mother did not tell her in order to protect her.
Jews have left Poland due to many waves of anti-Semitism. Some because they hid from the Germans in Russia, and when they came back did not want to be under communist rule. A handful have stayed though, “because this is our country too.”
It’s almost ironic that they call themselves “The Children of the Holocaust” because they were robbed of experiencing a childhood. One and a half million children died in the Holocaust, and there are now 700 of those now elderly Jewish children left in Poland. How lucky I was to talk with them.
December 23: Sobibor
Today was the most difficult day so far, so I am going to skip the history lesson for today because I am not yet ready to totally relive what I saw. Here is what I wrote in my journal after I got back on the bus. This was the only place we went to today. I urge you to watch the movie “Escape from Sobibor” when you can. It tells the story of an amazing rebellion, during which many Jews escaped but only 50 survived.
From my journal:
“Just got back on the bus from Sobibor, where I had perhaps the biggest breakthrough of feeling. Looking at the mausoleum that contained the ashes of all who died there, I began to yearn for God. I became so upset that this can happen in the world and is happening as I type this. As I was walking around the tomb, I began to sob. I wanted the top to be made of glass so that God could witness it every day. Great scholars of all faiths are asked how such a thing as the Holocaust could happen, and I have heard some very insightful answers, but I am just a bit frightened that religion can justify something like this occurring and God being a part of it. Today I yearned for a God to reach down and give me answers.
I cannot stop crying. All the plaques on the stones with the names of whole families who were killed together will not go from my mind. I miss my mom and my family so much. I think of them all the time. My brother just got his license, and I can only imagine how beautiful my house looks for Christmas. I want to curl up in my parents’ bed and watch an E Hollywood story with my mom – a thing we rarely do but I miss so much, while my dad is grilling steak. I want to see my boyfriend. I want to be warm under the covers, sleeping in late into the morning. I am so grateful to be here, but it is so sad every day. But I do think it is the only way to do it. It is still only starting to sink in and mean something to me personally. One trip to one camp is good, but acts more as a history lesson. To really learn, you must experience; the best teachers of any subject know this.”
It was an emotional experience, but an amazing one. I really do miss everyone a lot, and I am so thankful to my family for letting me come on this trip. It is changing my life.