Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yom Hashoah

We knew we were going to hell. Our worried parents had warned us, tried to protect us, but we insisted the journey would make us stronger.

Our faces resembled those of old weary passengers. A quick glance at each other's glazed over eyes quickly sent our focus to rest on something safer, our feet, perhaps, or the dusty floor of the car which carried us.

I shut my eyes, but horrific mental snapshots began to unravel as if played back on an old dusty movie reel. History book images of walking corpses, tattered shoes and mountains of nude bodies piled high like tires in a junkyard filled my mind as the dreaded hour drew near. The sun was radiant and eager to usher in the first day of spring.

Breathtaking German countryside whizzed by as my mind spun Hebrew school lessons of scarlet swastikas and mindless soldiers marching in perfect cadence into a macabre montage.

As the local train approached the station, schoolchildren with toothless grins and bright colored backpacks skipped by me and hopped down onto the platform, anxious to get a head start in their playful dash for home. Quietly dazed, my friends and I boarded a local bus en route to Dachau. Peering out of gray windows, I was greeted by a quaint European town that reminded me of so many others through which we had recently passed. I watched plump women riding bicycles with baskets full of groceries, fathers taking the hands of their children, lovers smiling and laughing and strolling through the streets.

I falsely reassured myself that this methodical, yet surreal, daily rhythm of life in Dachau must have been interrupted by the business of mass destruction--- the train loads of expressionless soldiers marching through barbed-wire into the army of the damned, the faint putrid smell of human carnage, the familiar cloud of smoke and quiet gray storms of raining ashes.

The German woman next to me read quietly as we passed one convenience store after the next. The colorful scenes of typical European life were swiftly interrupted by the jerking halt of our bus. Surrounded by suspicious glares of the locals as yet another group of foreigners gathered somberly, we disembarked to witness the town's greatest shame.

I braced myself, and slowly pushed through the entrance gate, reading "Arbeit Macht Frei," ironically boasting "Work Gives Freedom."

Inside Dachau, I separated from my two traveling companions. I paced through the museum, which once served as Nazi bunks and offices. The pictures, memoirs, letters, and prisoner uniforms on display painted a picture of unspeakable crimes. The haunted eyes, emaciated bodies, and pallid cheeks of prisoners bombarded my every move.

I paused in front of a photo of what appeared to be an elderly man, who actually was no more than twenty-five. I stopped to notice not his pain, but his radiant smile; incomprehensible is the capacity of the human poised between life and death to smile for the sake of a photograph and the hope of emancipation. I gazed into the bewildered eyes of living female corpses who, with closely shorn hair and figures which no longer curved, were almost indistinguishable from the male prisoners.

I pushed through the museum's heavy metal doors and stepped outside. Surrounded by death, I shivered in spite of the luminous rays of spring sunshine. As I shuffled down the gravel walk towards the center which once served as the "roll call" square, never shifting my focus from the silent imposing watch towers, I pictured cold and lifeless puppets marching endlessly in a funeral procession for the living, a privilege that the dead would never know.

I envisioned the endless rows of feet which stood, frost-bitten, exhausted, bloated, bleeding, jammed into ragged shoes two sizes too small, barely able to support the diminishing frames of skeletons. I recalled the strength of souls resolved not to be broken by any manifestation of evil, fighting to the bitter end to maintain a thread of dignity. Rocking softly on throbbing heals to find heat, occasionally sneaking a pinch to the cheeks to circulate blood, here they would gather, in every season, waiting to be judged.

They struggled to appear healthy regardless of the most excruciating pain, because one sign of illness meant imminent death. I felt the presence of innocent people from all over Europe: the Pole, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, the condemned, collected from all corners of the map, united here under the sadistic reign of Hitler.

I could hear, "Achtung, Jude!" the familiar shrill command which echoed throughout the square, collapsing the multitude of national identities into one, as the prisoners were called to judgment. Barking SS commanders pointed this way or that way; one towards life and a grunt signifying death. The unmerciful game of selection.

In the center of the square, once marked by thousands of bodies unable to dodge the constant hail of bullets from the towers, a monument had been erected depicting a mass of tangled bodies with agony stretched across their faces. The words "Never Again" inscribed in various languages at the base of the sculpture screamed out to the conscience of each visitor making this journey.

I was suddenly approached by a young man. Through a thick German accent and the help of his cameraman, he introduced himself as an Austrian journalist who was investigating visitors' reactions to Dachau for his newspaper.

"I don't know where to start," I began in a distant and unfamiliar voice, finding that my tears flowed easier than my words. "I....I am Jewish..." I continued slowly and clearly, "My grandfather fought against the Nazis in the war....he....he shot down a plane...liberated a camp in grandparents have friends who are survivors. I've seen their numbers...their tattoos," I rambled, pointing to my arm, as my eyes at last allowed a defiant tear to fall.

"Wan more," he reassured me. "Why vizit Dachau?" I choked back tears threatening to boil over. I leaned in close to the Austrian and whispered, "Every human who enters these gates to remember the past liberates the souls of those who lost their lives here again and again."

Walking the overwhelming grounds in silence, past rows of lifeless trees planted ironically by dying prisoners, I noticed only the concrete foundations of the original thirty barracks remained. A bulldozer had helped clear the conscience of this average German town thirty years ago. As I crossed over a tiny stream to reach the furthest spot of the camp, a floating duck, unaware of the barbed wire and the unmarked grave of masses beyond the hill caught my attention.

I approached the incomprehensible. Standing inside the gas chamber that was disguised as a shower room I envisioned the horror, felt the masses of whimpering bodies who would have stood suffering in solitude.

Finally, I entered the crematorium. I stood transfixed, picturing an assembly line of grotesquely twisted bodies entering the furnace, churning out heaps of gray ash floating softly down to the cold stone floor. Dead red roses marking the site in remembrance caught my eye and in an instant interruption of my flow of conscious, my head began to pulsate as if it might burst, as my entire being longed to scream out, "My God, how many died here?!!!" I stood alone, staring into hell, sensing angels at my side. All I could think was we were all in the wrong place.

Outside now, searching for my two friends, I cautiously allowed myself one picture- something to show my family and friends at home. I carefully chose the location of the main entrance and quickly snapped a photo of the gate ajar, symbolizing the freedom that would never be for so many.

My thoughts immediately turned to my grandparents, living luxuriously in Miami, beautifully tanned, and probably out at the "early bird special," laughing over a bowl of matzo ball soup. Overwhelmed by the urgency to escape, I collected my friends on this magnificent April afternoon, pushed through the heavy gate and walked briskly away from the barbed wire.


In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, take a minute to remember:

"Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart." - Ann Frank

“Remember the past to make a better future, always have hope, and never give up. Be a true friend even in hard times!” - Gerda Weissmann Klein

"I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead and anyone who does not remember betrays them again." -Elie Wiesel

“The aims of life are the best defense against death.” - Primo Levi

"The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, it is a failure of humanity as a whole." -Moshe Katsav, Israeli President

"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." - Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)

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