After spending a beautiful Shabbat in historic Krakow, we woke up today at 6:30am and drove to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many people often confuse the two camps or mistake one for the other. Upon arrival we learned that Auschwitz (Auschwitz I) was built early on in the war and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was built later on to accommodate for a larger influx of Jews from all over Europe.

We began our tour of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) by walking towards the iconic entrance of the camp, where trains carrying many of our relatives came through. Many of us took pictures donning our Israel flags on the tracks leading into the camp in order to proudly proclaim to all humanity that Hitler’s ‘final solution’ was unsuccessful and that the Jewish people are now stronger than ever with their own state. From the gateway, דוד, our tour guide, led us to the platform where the fate of thousands of Jews that were hauled into Birkenau was decided. It was incredibly striking seeing how little value the Nazis placed on life. If one was sent to the right, the person was subjected to forced labor, and if one was sent to the left, the person was murdered in the gas chambers. We were told that close to 70% of the people that arrived here were directed to their demise. From the platform, we followed in the footsteps of those sentenced to the gas chambers. It wasn’t the first one we had seen one on this trip, but it was no less striking. However, this gas chamber had an added level of significance  because it had been destroyed in a ‘Sonderkommando’ revolt (The Sonderkommado were Jews who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of victims of the gas chambers). This uprising marked the only moment in the history of the camp where the inmates were able to regain the humanity by fighting back against their oppressors. Our last stop in Birkenau was in the barracks where we saw the the filthy living quarters of the Jews that survived the selection. It was here that we began to truly gain perspective on the horrific conditions our ancestors were subjected to.

From Birkenau we took the bus to Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), where instead of being greeted to an unsullied labor camp, we were met with souvenirs and lines for vending machines. Many of us were appalled how the systematic genocide of our forebears was turned into a tourist attraction. Others argued that these degrading amusements were merely a way for the Polish government to secure the revenue to maintain the camp and the history of those detained in it. Josh and other group leaders later expressed this sentiment. Nonetheless, we went on the museum tour and gained some more valuable information about Auschwitz and the Nazi occupation. After the tour, we looked through the Yad Vashem Holocaust records to find our ancestors, and davened mincha.

Our final stop of the day was to a cramped bunker in Radegast where a family of 25 hid during the occupation and 17 survived. Then we bordered the buses for dinner and our last night in Lodz.