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JUNE 2005

Reflections on Visiting the Extermination Camps: 2005

By Howard Maier

Margaret and I have returned from The March of Living trip to Auschwitz and two other Holocaust extermination camps. Joining us from the Nassau County Holocaust Center were Holocaust survivor Gloria Glantz, her son Craig, and Holocaust survivors Eddie and Judy Weinstein. Also in Poland for the March of the Living were 21,000 others – many students and Holocaust survivors from throughout the United States, Israel and over 65 other countries. This was the first time Holocaust survivors and other adults were invited for this annual march of teenagers. The inclusion of adults was inspired as a commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of the Holocaust camps.

We heard detailed survivor testimony about their horrific experiences, we saw crematoriums, gas chambers and many graves. On the other hand we were exhilarated by being among thousands of youth carrying Israeli flags and singing songs in Hebrew.

This trip also provided a view of Jewish life in Europe prior to the Holocaust. We visited old Jewish quarters in Warsaw and Krakow. We saw abandoned synagogues and walked through old cemeteries where great rabbis and every-day Jews were buried.

We heard historical talks from our tour leader, Dr. Bill Shulman, President of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, from our Israeli-born bus tour guide, and from our Polish bus guide. We were also blessed with testimony from survivors throughout the week.

Upon arrival in Poland, we boarded our bus and immediately drove to Treblinka, a death camp where over 800,000 people, primarily Jews, were exterminated during 1941-1942. This was an awesome sight. One could feel the death hidden by the surrounding forest. We heard the vivid testimony from survivor Eddie Weinstein, who was at Treblinka for seventeen days before he escaped. We all benefited from Eddie’s testimony that day. For the remainder of the trip I found myself often in conversation with Eddie, hearing about his time doing forced labor, his seventeen months being hidden by the owner of a fish hatchery, his time in the Polish Army and his journey post liberation.

Later that day we stopped at the site of the Warsaw ghetto and heard about the ghetto uprising. We visited a standing ghetto wall and memorials to the uprising. We asked about the current Jewish population in Warsaw and were saddened to hear that less than 300 Jews live there today. Although census numbers are not available, it is believed between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews live in Poland.

The second morning after minimal sleep, we went to the Warsaw train station for the four-hour ride to Auschwitz. On the platform our group stood along with hundreds and hundreds of other people from around the world, many young, carrying flags from their country and also holding Israeli flags. Adjacent to us was a group from Ecuador and next to them Canadian teenagers. The first train pulled in, jammed with smiling teenagers. When the train stopped the teens came to the window, and put out a sign saying “EITZ HAYIM MOSCOW.” The Ecuadorian group began singing in Hebrew and we all joined in, including the Russian teens on the train. We were all overcome with emotion.

We marched into Auschwitz and hours later heard inspirational presentations by former Israeli Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel.

We then went to Krakow.

On day 3, we returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We walked throughout the camp for hours seeing a gas chamber, barracks and a prison, while continuously listening to survivor testimony.

Over the next three days, our trip included a lengthy stop at the Majdonek extermination camp where the gas chamber, crematorium and barracks all stand. We went through each, hearing about the operation of the camp and thinking about the people coming to the camp, going through selection and for the few who were allowed to live, to hear about life at the camp.

Among our other stops, we visited the recently opened Auschwitz Jewish Center, the Galicia Jewish Heritage Museum in Krakow, an old large Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and the Jewish Heritage Institute.

This trip was physically and emotionally challenging. Often I felt like I was on an “emotional roller coaster.” Although I have read many books about the Holocaust and recently heard many survivors’ testimony at our Holocaust Center, being in Poland at the sites brought out a much more intense feeling. Margaret and I spoke at length about our feelings at dinner after the two-day visit to Auschwitz feeling totally emotionally drained. I expressed my desire to further my involvement at the Nassau County Holocaust Center to memorialize this era and help prevent anti-Semitism and racism from happening again. My work ahead will be challenging, but this week has provided tremendous stimulation.

I have always been proud to be a first generation American whose Jewish parents escaped from Germany. This trip reinforced how special it is to be a second generation Holocaust survivor and the importance of teaching “the lessons of the Holocaust.”#



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