The sign above the gate read “Arbeit Mach Frei.”
It was May 12, 2011 and I found myself literally staring at the gates of hell. The entrance to the most notorious of all the Nazi Death Camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Being here was completely unexpected. A week previously I had been in my office on 5th Avenue, directly adjacent to Madison Square Park, when my boss, Kobe, had phoned from Israel. He and another associate from our Israel office had committed to making a presentation to IBM in Warsaw on May 11th. Now, for family reasons, he could not attend. He asked in the way bosses often make requests that are really directives, whether or not I would like to take his place. I did not need a lot of persuading. With over 3 million air miles flown and a permanently packed dop kit I was the definition of a wandering Jew. I had made a living for years getting on planes and doing business elsewhere. I loved everything about that lifestyle and Poland, while never on my bucket list, was a place that not only interested me, but I had never been.
Kobe reviewed the details with me. I would leave on May 8th for Warsaw where I would meet with my associate Ehud. We would spend two days in Warsaw preparing for our Meeting on the 11th with IBM. After that, I could spend a few days in Poland or wherever I liked as long as I was back in New York by the 16th.
I told him I would go but “My mother is not going to like you very much.” Kobe, like all good Jewish boys, had a healthy respect for Jewish mothers and asked in a mocking tone “Why, what have I done.”
“You have asked her favorite son to leave her on Mother’s Day so he can travel ¼ way around the globe…”
“You have done it on Mother’s Day.”
“Oy.” He chuckled and in a smart-ass fashion typical of him responded “When then you are just going to have to buy her a nicer present.” But he knew that there was more to what I said beyond the words I had uttered. He knew that a year ago my father, a very vibrant 85-year-old man, who commuted to NY and his office at Columbia University twice a week and, and regularly worked out at a gym, had fallen. Since the accident he had been unable to walk without assistance. After several attempts at rehab it had been decided to bring him home. This, in turn, had placed a tremendous burden on my 81-year-old mother. Even with aid from home health care workers it had proved too much for her. As a consequence, for the better part of the past year, I had spent the weekend at my parents’ home in suburban New Jersey to spell my mother in her efforts as caretaker in chief.
Other than sleeping on a fold out couch in the television room, this was not a burden on me. I had just left a long-term relationship and was still in the process of figuring out where it had all gone wrong. As a consequence, I had few weekend commitments. Moreover, I liked my parents. They were funny, interesting, and wise. Spending time with them was mostly effortless.
We quickly fell into a pattern. I would drive out after rush hour on Friday nights and scrounge whatever dinner was left over. On Saturday and Sunday morning, my first job would be to get my father ready for the day which included emptying his cath bag, bringing him a bed pan and the consequent cleaning up afterward, dressing him for the day and then easing him from his bed into a wheel chair. After I gave him his New York Times, to read the ink off of, I would make Pops his breakfast: usually eggs, toast, yogurt, and green tea. While he ate, we would sit and kibitz, often for an hour or more. There was no set subject we talk about. It could by anything from his time in the service to his years at Syracuse, from politics to computers, from old jokes to bad puns (usually made by me and greeted stoically by him. These moments were my favorite part of the week and a close relationship had grown closer. So close, we could often have a conversation without saying a word.
When he was settled for the morning, I would take my mother out to do her weekly shopping and whatever other errands she had to run. Pharmacy, bank, post office, and supermarket were all part of the repertoire. After lunch I would take some time for myself but then either make dinner or order dinner for all of us. Clean up followed. And, then the morning process was reversed as I got Dad ready for bed and tucked him in.
Kobi knew all this. On his occasional trips to New York City we had discussed this at length over significant portions of Bourbon. He knew by asking me to leave over the weekend it placed additional burdens on my mother. But I think he also knew how much I needed to get away.
I called my parents right away to let them know about the trip. Thankfully, the old man picked up the phone as I feared the guilt my mother might place on me if it were, she to whom I broke the news. Letting Pops in on it first would allow him to break a trail for me. I let him know about the trip and that I would be leaving a little early on Sunday to catch a late afternoon flight to Warsaw. He was thrilled for me. The old man knew of my wanderlust and actively encouraged it. He took pains to try to convince me that I did not need to come out that weekend telling me “Don’t break your ass on account of us. “To which I had given my standard reply when he said this “Don’t worry about Pops. It is cracked already.” This never ceased to get a groan from him. I then added “While I have you on the phone, what town did Grandpa from. I am going to have a day off and thought if I could, make a day trip, and visit.
“Your grandfather was a small town called Grodzisko. It is near Lvov. Too far for a day trip.”
“Hmmm. Okay. Well think about it. I have a couple of days and you have been there so any thoughts that you have would be very much appreciated. Let’s talk more this weekend about where I can go.”
The rest of the workday was putting together travel arrangements. I am a mileage whore; you need to be when you travel as much as I do on business. You learn very quickly status is everything and as I was the highest level possible in the One World Alliance, I knew that my chances for upgrade with them were good. The challenge is that they did not fly directly to Warsaw. I had to route myself through London on American and then on to Warsaw via British Airways. It would add a few hours to my trip, Heathrow is always a bit of a nightmare, but it would likely add to my comfort.
After consulting with Ehud in Israel we agreed to stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Warsaw. It was rated high enough, was centrally located and more importantly had conference rooms available in which we could practice and refine our presentation.
When I got home that evening, I immediately began to pack two bags. One for the weekend and another for the trip to Poland. My apartment, at that time, was a basic cookie cutter NYC one-bedroom high rise apartment. You entered on a long rectangular living room/dining area with a small galley kitchen on the left and a bathroom and a modest bedroom on the right. The living space was dominated by my bookshelves. I have been collecting books since college and it would not feel like home unless they were on display as they represented more happy hours than I could possibly count.
As I skittered through the apartment collecting this and that to pack, my eyes kept falling on one volume in my library: Martin Gilbert’s chronological history “The Holocaust.” I first learned of the book in the New York Times Book review in the Summer of 1986. I thought it would be of interest to my father and mentioned it to him. After talking to him about it he had asked that I not buy they book as he would like to give it me as a present. I thought his intention was to buy me the book as soon as possible. That did not happen. When a few months had passed, and I had not received the book I asked him about it. His answer to me was abrupt, as if he wanted to change the subject “Don’t worry I have ordered it.” Several months later I still did not have the book, so I reminded him again of his promise. Again, he told me not to worry as the book had been ordered and I would get the book soon enough.
By the time the Holidays had rolled around I still had not received the book and was beginning to wonder if I ever would. On the first night of Hanukkah, I had dinner at my parents’ home. Gifts were exchanged and the proper and ooohs and ahhs registered. Literally on my way out the door, Dad handed me a gift-wrapped package that was clearly a large book. I enquired “Is this what I think it is?”
He looked at me, without meeting my eye or acknowledging my questions and responded in a choked voice “Don’t open it until you get home.” Baffled by his request, as I knew what the present was, I hugged him goodbye. When I embraced my mother in a good night hug, she whispered “He has had the book for months. It has just taken him that long to write the inscription.”
I did not open the present immediately when I arrived home, my mother’s message making me leary. Instead, I put it on the coffee table in the living room and left it there. I knew whatever the inscription, it was likely to be highly emotional and I needed time to screw up my courage.
After a medicinal bong hit to steady my nerves, I unwrapped the gift. It was what I thought. The Hardcover edition of “The Holocaust.” No surprise there. But the inscription. That was a shock. My father who rarely opened up about the War and the loss he felt had written:
Your Grandmother’s brothers:
Vienna: Heinrich Hess and Risa
Hungary: Alfred Hess, his wife, and children
Rudolf Hess his wife and children
Slovakia: Hans Hess and his wife
Your Grandfather’s sisters:
Poland: The three Rothkopf sisters, their husbands children, grandchildren one (it was actually two) of whom had the unspeakable misfortune of living in the village of Auschwitz.
Your Great Grandmother’s Sisters
Belgium: Minna Hader and her daughters Maluina, and Grete and her grandchildren Bertie, and Jackie.
Vienna: Josephine (Pepi) Tuchler, who raised your grandmother.
Your Great Grandmother brother:
Vienna: Jakob Tuchler and Gisella
Scores of cousins and friends
I remember them with love and sorrow.
Do Not Forget Them!
Every time I have read those words since, I weep but, that night, I wailed.
The book became a catalyst in my life. It inspired me to go with my father to Israel, a place neither of us had never been, and where both had long desired to visit. That trip had, created a closeness an intimacy with my father I had not known while growing up. It was on that trip I began to call him by his Hebrew name and he mine. It became our way, in the years to come, for us to recognize our special bond.
That evening, on the brink of my trip to Poland, I stopped my packing and pulled the volume from the shelves and reread the inscription once again. As always, it struck a deep resonant chord. It also clarified for me what I should do while in Poland and spent the next few hours researching.
I knew there had been a number of camps in Poland. Chelmo, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdankek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. After re-reading the Gilbert book inscription I knew I was going to visit one of them . My hope was that using the Shoah database from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, I could discover where my relatives had been murdered. Sadly, while many of them were in the database there was no indication in which camp they had perished.
My next thought was that I should make my decision based on distance from Warsaw. Treblinka was the closest. Only 1.5 hours from Warsaw but the more I thought about it the idea of visiting a place just because it was closer did not seem to be the best way to decide. I went back to my father’s description and it all became clear. I needed to visit Auschwitz. Not only was it the largest of the camps and the likely murder site of most of our relatives but it is where the Rothkopf sisters, my great aunts, had lived and likely died.
Before I went to bed that evening, I emailed the concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel in Warsaw asking how I could arrange for a driver and tour guide at Auschwitz Birkenau. When I awoke the next morning, the hotel had written, saying they could arrange everything but needed to make decisions about what type of car I wanted to use and the length of the tour at the camp. By the end of day, choices made, credit card provided, I had a confirmed reservation for May 12.
I couldn’t wait to tell my father about my plans but, unfortunately, I got a very late start leaving the city that evening and did not arrive at my parents home until after my father had gone to bed.
The next morning, when brought Dad his breakfast, he asked about my trip. I told him that I would leave for Poland the following afternoon and arrive late Monday morning in Warsaw. On Monday Udi and I would likely site see as we would be jet lagged. Tuesday, we planned to spend most of the day in a conference room prepping for our meeting on Wednesday. After our meeting Wednesday Udi would head back to Israel but I was going to stay and extra and go to Auschwitz on Thursday.
I honestly thought this would make the old man proud. That his son was taking the initiative to drive 4 hours to pay his respect to his relatives who had been murdered. I had even thought he might ask me to say a prayer for the dead for him. I was not expecting it when he inquired “Why the fuck do you want to do that?”
Surprised and caught on my back foot I stammered “Because I can. Because I want to pay respect to our relatives who were murdered. Because I may never get to Poland again and honestly because I thought it would make you proud that I would take the initiative to do this.”
I guess he could see the hurt and confused expression on my face because his tone became more conciliatory. “It isn’t that I don’t think the idea of going to that place is admirable. I do. I really do. But why would you want to expose yourself to that kind of pain and heartache. It will rip you up.”
I thought I understood. A father wants to protect his children from undue pain and suffering. It is part of the job description. I replied as gently as I could “Pops…remember the inscription you wrote in the Martin Gilbert …You told me never to forget. I promised you I never would. I thought that as long as I was near, I could pay my respect. So, they are not forgotten. To say the Kaddish for them. “
“This is not something that you need to do to remember them. I know you will not forget them. And we said our prayers for them at Yad Vashem. There is no need to add to the pain we already feel. They would not want it. I do not want it.”
I was taken back by his response. I thought he would understand completely. And perhaps he understood the tsores I would experience at Auschwitz better than I did. No doubt he was trying to protect me. It gave me pause and I hung my head in thought for a moment and said, “This is something that I feel I have to do….”
“I cannot talk you out of it?”
The next morning was Mother’s Day I rose early and went out into our back yard to harvest a few sprigs of Lilacs. This was a long-standing tradition that had originated in the first home I remember, 34 Orion Road in Berkley Heights. My grandfather had given my parents a housewarming present of several lilac bushes. They always seemed to bloom around Mother’s Day and Dad would always pick a few stems, place them in a small vase on the breakfast tray we would bring to Mom so she could enjoy breakfast in bed. When we moved to Summit, one of the first things my father purchased was a new lilac bush and it, like the one at the old house, had bloomed like clockwork around Mother’s Day. To me, the delicate purple and lavender petals, and their heady, sweet scent became synonymous with the day and with the spring. Lilacs were renewal and a warm embrace encased in a floral wrapper.
Mom did not like to have her rest disturbed so before I left, I prepared her breakfast of Enterman’s coffee cake and coffee and left it on a tray on the kitchen counter along with the lilac blooms and a card from me.
Just before my flight departed, I executed another long-standing tradition. I called my father from the Admirals Club to let him know I was on my way. He would always ask “Where are you?” and when I would tell him I was at “The Admirals Club” he would laugh and say, “of course you are…” That day, after our normal exchange and a few other pleasantries he added “I don’t think you should go to Auschwitz. It is pain you do not need. It will just bring you tears and heartache. Please. I am begging you not to go.”
There is an immutable law of psychology. Whenever a parent begs a child not to do something their resolve to do that thing is increased logarithmically. My response was pre-ordained. “Pops, I have to go.”
4 days later I found myself in a Mercedes C200 speeding through the Polish countryside on my way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The trip, up to that point, had been a joy. Warsaw, which was largely destroyed during the war, and rebuilt by the Soviets afterward was vibrant and modern. However, they also showed respect for the past by maintaining the warehouses and bunkers of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising even projecting the faces at night of those who perished in that fight. The food was amazing and just to my taste (go figure considering my heritage,) the people friendly and with a large percentage of English speakers which made getting around far easier. Our meetings had been successful, and we felt the expense and time required was money well spent. However, jet lag, time change, hard work and perhaps a little too much Polish vodka the night before combined with an early wakeup call had left me exhausted. I found that it was difficult to keep my eyes open despite the gorgeous spring enhanced farmland and forests of Western Poland in which we were driving.
In the back seat, I found myself in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. That place where thoughts flow effortlessly one after another and until one circles and sticks. I found myself thinking about the email that I received from my father the night before. It read.
Daniel Ben Zacharai:
I know you think you are doing a mitzvah going to the camp. It is admirable and I love you for it. But it is unnecessary. No one needs that pain. The dead do require it for them to be remembered.
(Zacharai Ben Mordecai)
I was still having trouble processing why he was so adamantly opposed to me visiting the Camp. It was not like he had not visited a camp before. I knew that my mother and he had visited Dachau on a long-ago trip to Germany. Had Dachau been that bad? Was Auschwitz that different to him? And what about the day we had spent at Yad Vashem together? There, in the Hall of Remembrance, where the ashes of the murdered had been brought and interred, we had prayed and wept together separately. Why was going to Auschwitz any different?
On the flight from London to Warsaw I had re-read Night by Elie Weisel and a quote had stood out to me. “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Didn’t Pops know I was going so that our kin’s sacrifice would not be forgotten? That they, the murdered, would not be forgotten?
As often as I went to put my arms around what made my trip to the Camp so off putting to my father, was as many times as I could not grasp it. And it hurt. Hurt, because not only did I not understand it but like most sons, I sought the approval of my father. His understanding of why I had undertaken this trip, was important to me. It gave me no pleasure to defy him, but it was something that I had to do. And perhaps he knew that. Perhaps because he knew me as well as he did, he knew the toll it would take on me? But a 54-year-old man knows how to protect himself emotionally. Doesn’t he. But perhaps, he did understand. Perhaps he saw himself in me and knowing us he was just trying too spare me a difficult day.
Unable to sleep, and lost in my thoughts, I gazed out the window of the car at the beautiful Polish farmland seeing nothing and registering little. We drove on.
The parking lot of the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and State Museum looks remarkably similar to a medium sized national monument in the United States. A moderate sized area for cars with bus parking closest to the entrance to the facility. The visitor center, located at the far end of the parking lot, looked like it was designed by the same people who designed visitor centers on highways as State visitor centers on Interstates. It rattled me that a place where the most heinous crime of the 20th century took place would look so familiar to me.
At the center, I went to the information window and inquired about the private guide that I had arranged with the help of the concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel. I have never been a person who liked group tours. I had found that too often people lingered in the places I want to speed through or sped through the places I wanted to linger. Often there were people in the group who insisted on asking questions when, at least in my opinion, none were necessary. More importantly, I knew that this was likely to be a very emotional journey for me. One where the tears would come easily, and I did not want to be shamed by or share my sorrows with anyone. They checked a list on the computer and finding my name told me to wait in the lobby for my guide.
Her name was Anna. Petite with dark hair cut in a pageboy style she spoke English with only the barest hint of an accent. After exchanging introductions and pleasantries she asked me what had brought me here today. I managed to explain our family history including how two of my great Aunts had the misfortune of living in the nearby town without choking up completely. She nodded her head with understanding. This was not her first tour with children of survivors. She shared with me that if, during the tour, I needed a moment by myself that she would back away. That was completely normal for this place and not to be shy asking for it. She explained the tour. We would begin in the Museum because at this time of day it was not too crowded. Then we would go through the original camp, Auschwitz 1, then to Auschwitz 2/Birkenau and finally end with the crematoria and memorial.
The first thing I noticed as we approached the entrance of the Memorial were the colors. Everything is sepia toned, shades of brown on brown. This struck me as right. My images of the camp were not in color. It was a black and white place where the heinous acts committed here bled all color from the landscape, never to return.
The second thing I noticed was the sign “Arbeit Mach Frei.” The horrifically awful cynical words “Work Sets You Free” where for the majority who saw this sign it meant “We will work you and starve you until all hope is driven from you and you die.” As I contemplated the mentality and evilness of the people who could create such a cynically evil sign, and my relatives who may have interpreted the sign with hope, as opposed to their epitaph, I broke down and cried for the first of many sobs that day. Anna, noticing, stepped away and gave me time to gather myself.
A museum, in my past experience, was a place you go to revel in the glory of man. The Louvre celebrates the glory that is the art of man. The Museum of Natural History celebrates the evolution of the world and of man. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry celebrates man’s quest for knowledge and desire to improve the world. The Auschwitz Museum was not about the glory of man. Instead, it documented his descent into the evil and the vile.
One of the first things you see when you enter the museum is a map that shows how diabolical the Nazi’s were in the creation of the camp. Oswiecim, the Polish town that was to become known by its German name, Auschwitz , was a market town with multiple rail heads that allowed the Nazi’s to easily transport Jews from virtually everywhere in Europe quickly and efficiently, much like a manufacturer would import parts from multiple locations for final assembly. Its efficiency was horrifying enough but it made me think of my Aunt’s, who had grown up in a shtetl a few kilometers from here but moved to Oswiecim when they married. How they must have thought they had improved their lot when they moved here only to be living in a town that was going to become synonymous with Nazi extermination of Jews. A place where they would ultimately be murdered.
There was an exhibit of luggage confiscated by the SS. Each bag had the surname and address from whom it was seized. I struggled to scan them to see if I could find a familiar name: Tuchler, Hess, Hacker. I could not but I took a photo to show my Dad. Perhaps he could see a name of someone he knew.
Another display was of collected personal items that had been seized. Hair, shaving and toothbrushes that left me wondering whether my grandfather had made any of them.
There was a room full of collected shoes. Another of glasses and yet another of prosthesis. I found it beyond disturbing that the Nazi’s would give someone something as intimate as another’s artificial limb.
There were photographs of Jews entering the camp, being separated at the trail head and at work. There were photographs of individual inmates. I paused at each one. Looking for a tell-tale sign that we were kin and to take a photograph, that if I could ever muster the courage, show my father.
The last place we visited in the museum were the original crematoria built for the camp. They were small and if you had not been told of their past would have mistaken them for bread or pizza ovens. Their ordinariness was horrifying. As was the fact, that they were too inefficient for the Nazi’s final solution.
The museum exited onto a group of two-story brick buildings that Anna explained where the first transportees were housed and later were dormitories for the SS guard. But I heard little of what she said. I was still reeling from the exhibits and photographs in the museum and could not focus on her words. I asked her for moment and walked away so that I could have space to be alone with my emotions. There were people milling and as I had no desire to be around anyone, I walked down a small path adjacent to one of the barracks until I reached its end.
I had been looking down, staring at my feet for most of my walk, but when I reached the end of the path I looked up and saw something that shocked me. A hedge of blossoming, pale violet, lilacs. I was stunned to see color in an environment that I had always thought of in black and white and sepia tones. It was more than that. Here was a bloom that to me was synonymous with motherhood and all it engendered in a place that was the embodiment of evil.
How could something like that grow here? I stood, mesmerized by the lilacs. How long had they been here? Were they here when the camp was operating. Would the inmates have seen this dash of beauty and if they did would it give them hope or be a depressing taunt to their painful black and white lives. Would seeing the lilacs given them hope at a time when all you had left was hope.
Or was the hedge new. Had it been planted as a symbol of renewal and rebirth?
I knew I was overthinking this. I knew that I was just trying to distract myself from all that I had just seen. I also knew the distraction was working. Looking at and smelling the lilacs, had taken me away from the dark place the museum had left me to a place of beauty, warmth, and hope. They allowed me to go on.
The entrance of Auschwitz 2/ Birkenau is famous. It has appeared in countless movies including Schindler’s List. It has a large gate in which a train could pass and ends on a long wide earthen road that for all intents and purposes is a railway siding. At the end of the road you can see a thicket of woods with the remains of several structures, the crematoriums. Anna explains to me that this is where the trains carrying the condemned from all over Europe unloaded the human cargo. The SS would then separate the shipment, husband from wives, parents from children, friends from friends. She tells me that the lucky are told to go for processing. Women on the left, men on the right. The others are told to proceed to down the road to delousing, where they would receive showers.
It is impossible to imagine the human suffering that this small piece of land has seen. Anna provides context. She tells me that approx. 1.3 million people, or the population of Dallas had passed through these gates. Of these, 1.1 million, or the population of San Jose CA, would perish. When I think about the magnitude of suffering, I find myself being overwhelmed but I think of the lilacs. The hope amongst the despair, and it makes it easier to place one foot in front of the other.
As we move into the men’s camp, I see a group of teenagers, several of them shrouded in the Israeli Flag. They are singing the Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel. Their tone is defiant, almost provocative as if to say, “don’t’ ever try to fuck with us again or we will bring the wrath of god down on you. I look an Anna inquiringly and she responds “Israel sends teen groups here all the time. They don’t want them to forget what it is that was lost and what it is they will be fighting for.” I nod in understanding. They are the lilacs. The flowers born of destruction.
We come upon a hut. One of only a few remaining in what used to be a sea of barracks. Anna tells me that the vast majority of the structures were destroyed shortly after the Russians liberated the camp in January 1945. It was a cold winter and they were living off the land. The huts were sacrificed for their wood and the warmth the fires they produced would provide. As we walk into one of these huts, she informs me that the German’s had modified the design of prefabricated horse stalls so they quickly could erect these structures. We step in. There is a long center aisle, on either of side are three rows of shelves, one stacked on top of another. Every 6 feet or so there is a vertical support that serves to separate the “bunks” from one another. Anna tells me that on each “shelf” 3 or 4 prisoners would sleep. But I know. I have seen the images. But now it is no longer a photograph.
We walk to the building directly adjacent to the prisoner hut. Anna tells me it is the latrine. We walk in. It is lined on one side with concrete slabs with 6’ circular staggered holes cut into them: 4 holes per meter of shelf. She explains that the prisoners were only given a few minutes time each morning to do their business and I find the idea of dozens of men squatting over the holes defecating unimaginable. But what she says next brings me up completely short. She tells me that one of the most coveted jobs in the camp, despite the risk of disease, especially in the winter, was cleaning out the latrine. It kept the prisoner from the brutal work outside the camp. Working, hip deep in the waste kept them warm when outside it was bitterly cold.
The thought of this, the baseness of it, makes me feel sick.
We leave the camp and begin the long walk from the rail head to the crematorium. Anna explains that the unfortunate who were selected for the gas chamber would have walked this walk hustled along by a phalanx of SS guards. They would have been told that they were going to be deloused and showered, which no doubt they would have welcomed after weeks confined to an overcrowded cattle car. I wonder how many knew they were walking to their death but went anyway. Could they smell the bodies burning?
There is not much left of the crematorium. Only piles of rubble and twisted reinforced concrete. Anna explains that the Soviet troops who liberated the camp upon learning of the purpose of the ovens, blew them up. That now they have been left to nature, to fade away with time. To prevent, man aiding in this disintegration it has been cordoned off by a yellow rope that surrounds its perimeter. I tell Anna that I need a moment. When she turns her back and I see that no one is looking I step over the rope and into the rubble. I look for and find a rock and a small piece of concrete that was once part of the building. When I step back over the rope, I tell Anna that I am ready to move on. If she suspects anything about my illegal excursion, she says nothing for which I am grateful.
Located between the sites of the two crematoriums, sits the Auschwitz Monument on a wide cobbled platform. At its base, encased in stone, are train tracks that are symbols of how the prisoners were brought to their slaughter. Up a few stairs, in the center of the monument is a modern sculpture that is supposed to resemble the faces of those who perished at the camp but to me looks like a mash up of Easter Island sculptures surrounded by geometric shapes. Evenly distributed in front of the statue are 20 granite slabs with a bronze top that has an inscription in each of the major languages of Europe. The inscription in English reads:
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945
It is in front of the English slab that I pause, and I ask Anna for a few moments for myself. When she has drifted away, I pull from my pocket a sheath of papers. I had thought long and hard about how I wanted to memorialize and honor my relatives. To let them know, they are not forgotten.
I place the stone I had collected from the Crematorium site, on top of the plaque honoring the Jewish tradition of letting the dead know they are remembered.
I recite a poem by Elie Wisel, from his book Night.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
I had told Dad that one of the reasons that I felt like I needed to come to Auschwitz was because someone needed to say the Kaddish for our relatives who were murdered. They deserved, at the very least a prayer said by their family. As my Hebrew skills are at best minimal, I recite a transliteration of the Kaddish.
Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba. Beʻalma di vra khir’uteh. Veyamlikh malkhuteh, beḥayekhon uvyomekhon uvḥaye dekhol bet Yisrael, beʻagala uvizman qariv. Veʼimru: Amen.
Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya.
Yitbarakh veyishtabbaḥ veyitpaar veyitromam veyitnasse veyithaddar veyitʻalleh veyithallal shmeh dequdsha berikh hu.
Leʻella min kol birkhata veshirata tushbeḥata veneḥemata daamiran beʻalma. Veʼimru: Amen.
Titqabbal tzelotehon uvaʻutehon d’khol bet Yisrael qodam avuhon di bishmayya. Veʼimru: Amen.
Yehe shelama rabba min shemayya, vehayyim ʻalainu v’al kol Yisrael. Veʼimru: Amen.
O’seh shalom bimromav, hu yaʻase shalom ʻalenu, v’ʻal kol Yisra’el. Veʼimru: Amen
It seemed wrong to me to say a single Kaddish for so many. They were individuals. The essence of the meaning of the Jewish tradition “Save a life, Save the world” is that each individual is a world onto themselves and each needs to be celebrated and mourned. I have created a list of those of our family who have died:
Alfred Hess, his wife, and children
Rudolf Hess, his wife, and children
Rivka Rothkopf and her sisters, husbands, and children
Grete Hader and her grandchildren
For each one them, individually, I say the Kaddish in English, because I want to say words for them I understand and feel.
May His great name be exalted and sanctified. In the world which He created according to His will! May He establish His kingdom during your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and very soon! And say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity!
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, above and beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world! And say, Amen.
May the prayers and supplications of all Israel be accepted by their Father who is in Heaven; And say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel; And say, Amen.
May He who makes peace in His high places grant peace upon us and upon all Israel; And say, Amen
Then I say one more. For those we had forgotten to remember and those we will never know because sadly, time, and faded memories have erased them.
By the time, I have finished, I am hoarse, and emotionally spent. I tell Anna that I am done, and she walks me back to the parking lot. I thank her and tell her how much I have appreciated her guidance and consideration. As we drive away, I catch one final glimpse of the lilacs.
Three days later I am back at my parent’s home. I find my father in his room, sitting in his wheelchair at the card table reading he uses for a desk, reading the New York Times. He does not see me, as his back is turned, so I give him a hug from behind. Hugging me back, he says “Your back. How was your trip.”
Instead of telling of the horrors I have seen and the overwhelming emotions that I have felt as I fear recounting those things would only upset us both, I say “There were lilacs.”
He looks puzzled for a moment and then because we have played this game many times before, he nods his head in understanding. He knows without me saying what I have found there. It was, after all the reason he did not want me to go. He knows I have no desire to upset him or myself, so it is better to fixate on something immaterial and a little odd. A distraction. He replies with understanding. “Really?”
“Beautiful ones Dad. Light lavender almost white blossoms. They smelled beautiful.”
It is then I reach into my pocket and pull out the small piece of concrete that I have illegally liberated from Auschwitz and place it on the table telling him “I brought you a present.”
He looks down on this unremarkable object and instantly understands what it is and what it represents. He looks up at me with understanding and emotion in his eyes. We look at each other. Neither of us wishing to speak as it would unleash the underlying emotions that we both wish to keep buried. I know he is grateful for what I have done, and he knows how grateful I am that he managed to survive.
After a moment, he reaches across the table and takes it into his hand and then places it into his pocket and says, “Thank you.”