There is no easy or simple way to describe the feelings experienced walking through the
Birkenau death camp outside Oświęcim, Poland. For the duration of my visit, I felt haunted by the more than a million people, most of them Jews, murdered there by the Nazi regime.
It is difficult to fully comprehend the horrors that took place on the same grounds that I was standing on that day, especially since much of Birkenau is now in ruin. Imagining the horror and the confusion experienced by each prisoner is painful and difficult to conceptualize on a scale that large.
Birkenau, which was part of the Aushwitz complex, is a very solemn place. Personally, it was very difficult for me to think about how people would want to sentence me to death because of my beliefs and practices. There was a general mood of silence as we walked through the camp and visited each of the key locations. I was impressed at the level of respect and mourning exhibited by almost all of the visitors we saw that day.
Between Auschwitz and Birkenau, we visited and showed our respects to places where so many people perished and countless others were exposed to trauma that affected
them for the rest of their lives. Many forms of humiliation were used at these camps as ways of torture or punishment.
Prisoners were forced to get their heads shaved and their prisoner numbers tattooed on their arms. Through those acts, the prisoners were completely stripped of their humanity and almost every part of their identity. After that, life would only get worse.
Walking through these camps brought me a new understanding of the Holocaust that I never thought I would experience. The fear, suffering, and sadness that occurred is immeasurable, and what happened there continues to affect visitors and descendants of the survivors. While visiting these sites is emotionally exhausting and distressing, I think it is a vital experience for every Jew.