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I stood on the ground where millions of innocent people perished. I walked into a gas chamber, and I walked out. I saw the scratch marks on the walls where people were clawing their way to the top, trying to get one last gasp of oxygen as the zyclon B gas rose up, burning their esophagus and charring their lungs. I stood by the crematorium grieving and saying kaddish for those who perished at the hands of blood-thirsty criminals. And, as I stared at the little rose garden in Majdonek that had been fertilized with human ash, all I could think of was, “What filth! How disgusting? How cold-hearted could a human being be?”
In the spring of 2007, I took part in a program known as March of the Living. Throughout my journey I visited a number of concentration camps, ghettos, and towns that were once inhabited by Jews and gentiles alike. 8,000 Jewish teens from all over the world came together for this life-changing experience.
As a young person who is greatly involved in the Jewish community, I found much to grieve about during this trip. I thought with sadness about the peers with whom I grew up, attended bar/bat mitzvah classes, and graduated Jewish day school completely assimilate themselves into a secular lifestyle. I felt depressed touring a country that was once considered the world’s center of Jewish life but whose streets are no longer filled with Jews on Shabbat and Yom Tov, whose synagogues are now nothing but museums. However, what saddened me most was thinking about what – or rather who – never had the chance to be. Staring at the display case of baby’s clothing in Block #1, I broke down for my first of many times at Auschwitz.
I believe that it is essential for us not to forget those who have no one to remember them. During the Shoah entire towns of people were wiped out; but it wasn’t just the people who died – family names, stories, hopes and dreams, memories would never be thought of again. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; but if the story that corresponds to that image may never be told again, how much value is actually left in that piece of paper?
One part of my journey that kept my mind racing was our visit to a mass grave located deep into the forests on the outskirts of a former shtetl. On the drive toward the forest I just felt scared. Looking out the window I imagined the scenery as my last sight of Earth, the last look at my home. I took a look at the forested land and asked the friend seated next to me, “If the trees could speak, what do you think they would say?” After all, they were the only witnesses to an horrifying event. Moving onward, I realized there was no “maybe” on a ride like this 62 years ago. The end was clear. It was inevitable. After I descended the bus and advanced deeper into the forest I began to feel numb. I knew exactly where I was going, but somehow I didn’t feel as though I was actually walking there. As I stood before the grave, I remembered someone once told me that mass graves were originally discovered by aerial views of ground that was described as “disturbed earth.” In Judaism nature is symbolic of many things. Trees represent life. But even more significantly, the ground is always kept holy. It is always used for positive and productive purposes. We lay the foundation for our homes on the earth, we reap our crops from the earth, and by holy ceremony we even bury our beloved in the earth. But this ground that I stood before that day had not been treated with such sanctity. Rather, this dirt had been jaggedly dug up, planted with corpses, unevenly covered, and moistened, not with water, but with human blood. So when I asked myself, “What would the ground say if it could speak?” I knew the answer immediately. I think it would tell us how disturbed it actually felt.
My leader spoke the truth: “No one who journeys to the death camps of Poland returns unchanged. No one who sees the crematorium at Birkenau, the human hair at Auschwitz, barracks of shoes and 70 tons of human ash at Majdonek remains unchanged.”
I am a changed person. I am now an eyewitness.
I will never remain silent for as long as I live. But it will not simply stop at speaking in the community about my experiences. I plan to continue working to fight for human rights worldwide through community-based programs. In the University of Florida community, I would like to become involved in movements to combat prejudices and bigotry on campus as well as to raise Holocaust awareness and keep memories alive.
I walked the streets where people were tortured and murdered.
I marched, not to my death, but for the living.
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