Reflections on 70 years of liberation

Shufan Zhang/Staff

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This year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers. Historians speculate that between 1940 and 1945, more than 1.1 million people were exterminated at both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II — also called Auschwitz-Birkenau. Below are the reflections of five students who have had the privilege to revisit those solemn grounds.

Annie Pill
Museum signs will typically advise, “Don’t Touch”: An oily fingerprint will destroy the relic’s preserved state, your human pattern erasing its identity. Such is not the case at Majdanek. Its silent signs read differently.

The concentration and extermination camp was left nearly untouched after the Holocaust: barracks standing in lines far too frank, chimneys saluting a jarringly blue sky, barbed wire tracing the poisonous playground’s perimeter. It remained the perfect dystopia it once was, all in place beside those 360,000 people who didn’t make it.

“This one’s the toughest, Annie,” warned our group leader as I entered the last barrack of our tour. A waft of sour leather and a veil of vulnerability enveloped me. Cages of shoes lined the walls, cradling mounds of black sneakers, loafers and clogs, a child’s slipper here and there in the musty mausoleum of soles.

I looked for the sign. If it had been there, I probably wouldn’t have done it; habits of submission aren’t so easy to purge. But it wasn’t. A mahogany sandal strap protruded from the center cage, compelling me forward. I hastily rationalized my impulse: If I touched it, then she who originally wore the shoe would somehow know I was there — even though my mortal heartbeat and her diaphanous soul existed a century apart. I slowly extended my spindly fingers.

Though Jewish, I generally doubt there is a God. Though female, I generally don’t cry. Yet in that moment of touch, an ethereal electricity surged through my body. I wept, and I wailed, paralyzed by profundity and the presence of some other.

Gradually collecting my breath, I wiped the mascara from my cheeks and proceeded toward the door. As I walked, looking down at my boots, a flash of color appeared in the corner of my eye. A magnificent, kaleidoscopic butterfly emerged from beneath the last cage, and I understood. 70 years ago, a woman had fastened that strap for her final journey. 70 years later, we met at her divine destination. “Touch,” advised her regal wings. “Live.”

Annie Pill is a sophomore majoring in sociology.

Tiana Cherbosque
The key I wear around my neck is a daily reminder of a promise I made to myself earlier this year. Prior to my participation in March of the Living — an educational program that affords high school students the opportunity to visit concentration camps in Poland so that they might better understand the Holocaust — I struggled to understand the evils perpetrated at Auschwitz. So that our group might develop a more realistic understanding of the atrocities committed there, the program arranged for a number of survivors to accompany us throughout our impending journey.

On a bitterly cold spring morning, I walked arm in arm with Paula Lebovics, a Holocaust survivor, through lumps of children’s shoes and broken strands of orphaned hairs that accented the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It was revulsing, suffocating to stand in those barren cavities, and I yearned to leave in the way that one might yearn for fire during a raw Polish winter. But while shuffling from one gas chamber cell to another, I noticed a small, gleaming item on the floor. I bent down and wiped away some loose dirt to find a small key. In that moment, like an epiphany, everything made sense. The key seemed to unlock the gates of injustice wrought upon my ancestors and lead to another portal — a passage from the immoral to the righteous.

Yet the key also stood for much more. It reminded me of my capacity to be an agent of change, and it solidified my passion for equality and peace. It symbolized action, and it admonished the despair of passivity. In that moment I made a promise: I would be a voice for the voiceless.

A couple months later my friend asked about the Hebrew letter “hay” inscribed on my key. I had never noticed it. She suggested that the “hay” stood for “Hashem” – God. This idea brought even more significance to my little key. Chills ran up my spine. Perhaps this key is a symbol of prior suffering and injustice or a token of spirituality. Certainly, the enigmatic metal around my neck has a history that I will never know and can only imagine.

When I hold the key, I think back to the promise I initially made at Auschwitz. I think back to my promise to give a voice to the voiceless and forward to a time when voices aren’t silenced. The key prods me to remain resilient, inquisitive, tenacious. It symbolizes action and the despairs of passivity. It is my conviction that my key will unlock doors of hate, intolerance and violence — to a world that promises to act.

Tiana Cherbosque is a sophomore majoring in peace and conflict studies.

Arie Pollock
The following is an entry from Pollock’s journal during her 2013 visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Words are blurred into images. The emotionality of history, both rare and fragile, flickers forever in these fleeting moments; of hearing the stories from survivors, of feeling the foreboding wind, of encountering the questions which have no answers.

We had just visited the mass grave in Chelmno. During the Holocaust, people in surrounding cities in Poland were sent on cattle-cars to experience death by carbon monoxide. Pipes from a dimly lit truck filtered this gas into the back of the truck where 100,000-300,000 Jews, as well as Sinti and Romans, perished. Some bodies were dumped, others cremated, and poured in mass graves. I stood beside these cavernous enclosures. They were covered in fresh snow amid a forest, hidden by an army of towering trees.

We all parted ways to make a pathway. Traditionally at a Jewish funeral, mourners have a ritual of walking in a line. The survivors each walked in memory of those whom they personally knew, loved and lost in the Holocaust. It’s strange — in a place of death you would think of bleak darkness and ruins. But here, there were plants, greenery. They sprung from the unusually shaped mounds of snow on the ground, formed from decayed ashes and bodies from almost seventy years ago. Now, there was no darkness. Now, there was white snow and a white sky.

As I walked along the grave with the group, I tried to conceptualize the number: three hundred thousand. There were about twenty-thousand teenagers and survivors from all over the world on the march out of Auschwitz yesterday. I felt incapable of being able to commemorate each victim buried there. I tried to imagine the fear and confusion of a child, the utter devotion of a parent eternally bound by unconditional love to a child, and feeling as if there was absolutely nothing they could to do stop their children from losing their lives. This feeling of helpless misery is something I’ve never felt so profoundly until I set foot beside these graves and saw the pile of hair at Auschwitz. As I walked, I did not feel alone. I was surrounded by the strength of the survivors who lived through these horrors, the mix of emotions and internal musings of twenty-first century teenagers, and the lost souls of the innocent who perished and drifted in the enclosed forest.

I felt the wind. Silent and compassionate. There is no why. I do not know why this happened. The question is not where was God, but rather, where was humanity? Other countries were aware of what was going on and did nothing. Remained silent. I felt the wind. I am reminded that soul, breath, and wind are the same word in Hebrew: ruach. I breathe and feel the lost, evaporated breath of wind drifting upon me.

Arie Pollock is a sophomore double-majoring in English and psychology.

Ori Herschmann
In light of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, walking down the camp a mere three weeks ago is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It is hard to explain what emotions came to me, but weirdly, the most prominent one was hope. I was sad, yet I somehow managed to find a way to appreciate the notion of a hopeful future with the 43 other people on my trip. As a 21-year-old man living in a 2015 Berkeley reality, I appreciate that I live a life that in no way is familiar to the life that a 21-year-old man would have lived during the tumultuous nightmare of the Holocaust. At Auschwitz, I would have either been sent to work or straight to my grave at the age of 21. No middle ground, no begging, no crying — and no second chances. The hardest thing for me is to reconcile the horrors that occurred at Auschwitz with the relative ease of execution. I cannot imagine this. I can not imagine everything. What I can do, however, is ensure that myself and others are educated so that such atrocities will not recur and history will not repeat itself.

Ori Herschmann is a senior majoring in political economy.

Rachel Marcus
Many say that the birthright of a Jew is to go to Israel. I say it is to visit Poland. On a trip with March of the Living, I was accompanied by 199 of my peers and 10 life-changing Holocaust survivors. Visiting Auschwitz, the site of the Nazi Final Solution, we first visited the execution rooms — where inmates were starved or sentenced to stand for two weeks. I found that after just 20 minutes of touring, my feet began to ache.

We walked on, past huge cases filled with human hair, suitcases, pots, pans, shoes, prayer shawls and eyeglasses. As I looked through the glass, I saw the reflection of my own glasses staring back at me, sitting in the pile like they belonged, like they understood.

We walked past piles of shoes, answerless prayer shawls, cloudy eyeglasses and directly into the gas chambers — where we were greeted by an impromptu rabbinic voice singing the Mourner’s Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) and later, the Shema (a central prayer of Judaism). As a tear rolled down my cheek, my mind jumped to stories I had heard of Jews in gas chambers who said the Mourner’s Kaddish for themselves moments before they perished.

Later, at Auschwitz II (Birkenau), a small lake of human ash hummed with the croaking frogs. What a strange concept, I thought, that something filled with death could give life to this innocent, unknowing creature.

Walking out of Auschwitz and under the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Make You Free”) opened the dam to rivers out of my eyes and onto the skin of my cheeks. How come I was able to walk out of Auschwitz when so many others could not? Perhaps it is to remember, to preserve, to think and to honor. It is for Judaism, for pride, for pain and for memory. It is for us; it is for them. Theirs was a mission to survive. Ours is to never forget.

Rachel Marcus is a freshman majoring in psychology.

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