By Jacob Schwartz, Bus 6 Participant
We started early in the morning, and as we drove through Oswiecim, Poland, we could feel the depressing atmosphere. It was a dreary day, with very gray skies.
When we arrived at Birkenau, I was hit with a solemn sense of dread seeing the railway station. As we walked around, the main thing that stood out to me was just how massive it was. There were concrete barriers and barbed wire as far as the eye could see. Also, there were less structures still intact then I had been expecting. In the shower complex, there was a display of photographs taken from the victims of the camp. Showing spouses, children, families and friends gave us just a slice of their lives.
After looking at them for a bit, our counselor showed us a picture of a baby boy, which looks like it could have easily been put with the other pictures, and asked us who we thought was. It was Hitler. This really emphasized one of the most important points in understanding the Holocaust: it was caused not by mindless monsters but by people, acting of their own volition, who could have chosen differently.
We walked around the camp and I noticed its layout felt very open and oppressive, like you could be watched at all times. Since most of it was not intact, a lot was left to our imagination. Afterwards we held a ceremony together with all the NFTY in Israel groups. As we walked out, I got the feeling that our simple presence in this place was a testament to how much we have overcome as a peoplehood.
After lunch, we headed over to Auschwitz. By that point a lot of the emotion had drained out of me. The fact that the concentration camp had been turned into a museum prevented me from really connecting with it, even when we saw the gallows, the wall where they shot people, and even the mounds of human hair that were meant to be turned into clothes. I thought that I would feel a stronger emotional connection in Auschwitz because it was more intact, but Birkenau felt more real, since its lack of transformation made the experience feel more tangible. When we entered the gas chamber in Auschwitz I, I remember feeling the power and the heaviness of the room, but it was only after I left that it occurred to me that people had really died in that room.
When we left, I felt emotionally drained and was glad to have some free time to recuperate. We ended the day on a high note with an extremely energetic Shabbat, for which we were all very grateful.