I knew little about Poland, and yet I felt a mysterious connection to this country my father’s family once called home. I grew up listening to my Saba’s (grandfather’s) Polish accent as he reminisced about his childhood. He would paint sweet memories of him and his brothers strapping branches to the bottom of their shoes and ice skating on the frozen lake during the winter. As I grew up, and Saba grew older, the sweet tales were replaced with the cold reality of the latter half of his childhood. He hid for months underground, starved and dehydrated; everything he knew of his life was destroyed and taken from him by the Nazi regime.
When I signed up to spend my second semester of sophomore year in Israel, I was motivated because I knew that the semester abroad included spending a week in Poland. My Saba passed away only months before my journey to Israel and so visiting Poland felt even more necessary. His death made me realize that hearing survivors speak first-hand is a fleeting privilege to our world. I felt a duty to visit the sites where my Saba and so many others had suffered so I could tell their stories when they couldn’t.
Turning into the parking lot at the first concentration camp we visited, Majdanek, a guard tower stood towering over our bus. I had seen pictures of concentration camps in movies and textbook pages many times, but I still was unprepared for what lay in front of my eyes. The enormity of the camp overwhelmed me, as did its chilling rows of barracks that continued as far as the eye could see. Majdanek was originally built to confine Polish prisoners, but in 1942 it was repurposed as a death camp for the Jews of Lublin.
Walking through Majdanek, I was frustrated and surprised that it was refurbished into a museum. I wasn’t expecting that such a gruesome site embedded in history would be presented in a pristine state. Barrack 52 contained three long wire cages, stretching the length of the room, each filled with shoes belonging to the Jews who spent time at Majdanek. A horizontal barrier limited us from traversing farther into the barrack. The barrier prevented visitors from intimately experiencing the shoes and contemplating the victims who left them behind. Yet, we were still able to understand the high value of shoes in the camp. Shoes were critical to staying alive. Good shoes kept feet healthy and protected from harsh winter conditions so that prisoners could work and perform efficiently especially during the winter months. Staring at the monstrous cages bundled up in our warm coats and beanies, it was apparent how bitter those winters wear must have been. That very morning, as every morning, I decided between multiple pairs of shoes. Shoes have always seemed like an accessory, not a tool of survival. I was beginning to realize that my view of the world was quite limited.
The scenic trees, peaceful sounds of birds chirping, and the gentle wind rustled through the leaves at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I observed a pond’s beautiful exterior, containing the reflection of massive trees in the gentle current. I struggled to confront the truth of the pond’s history because what I observed was so far from the sickening reality. The interior is dark, frightening, and inconceivable. The ashes of innocent people, my people, “the chosen people,” lay under those waters.
I sat staring at the pond and took in the gravity of the twenty-five-minute life span remaining for those poor souls who arrived at Birkenau. Twenty-five minutes from the train car to the gas chamber. The around the clock use of gas chambers and crematoriums generated monstrous amounts of ash. With no place to dispose, Nazi soldiers had inmates dig a massive pit to fill with ashes that over time filled with water. Today, to the unknowing, it appears as a pleasingly aesthetic pond.
My classmates and I each dropped a pinch of soil from Eretz Yisrael into the pond’s water. Reflecting on the soil, I realized how blessed I am to have the State of Israel. Eighty years ago, European Jews didn’t have a place to seek asylum. Sitting at the pond with the Israeli flag draped over my shoulders, similar to a superhero’s cape, I felt the blue and white emanate power and strength.
After a challenging week, my class and I were able to join other Jews from all over the world and welcome Shabbat together. I closed my eyes during the Shabbat service at Isaac Temple in Kraków, the tune of Shiru L’adonai took me to Shabbats at my summer camp, my synagogue and previous Shabbatons I had celebrated back in Israel.
Sitting on the cramped and bustling women’s side of the mechitza (partition), I sparked a conversation with a group of Israeli girls I didn’t know. We talked about where we were from, our hobbies, as well as our lives at home. We sang and danced together throughout the service. In retrospect, those moments of us embracing our religion in a place where our people were once persecuted for doing so, proved the Jewish people are still here, united, and resilient. I felt the significance of the Jewish people being able to freely celebrate in a place that was once Judenfrei.
Natalie Mendelson is a rising senior at Alameda High School in Alameda, California.