Have you ever gone somewhere for the first time and felt like you’ve been there before?
That’s how I felt standing under the Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work Makes You Free,” sign in Auschwitz in 2007. Black and white images that I had only seen in textbooks, movies, and documentaries were now in full color all around me.
I quickly realized that nothing I had learned in my classes or through films could have prepared me for that visit.
All of my senses were on high alert as we walked through barracks, roll call fields, pass the firing wall, and through the crematoria. My eyes were trying to capture everything. My brain was trying to process all the “why’s” that were firing in my head. Senses of smell and taste were imagining what daily life would have been like for the prisoners.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional and spiritual responses I had as I walked the paths at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For the first time in my life, I knew evil. I felt it down in my bones. The ground my feet were walking on was cursed and I was surrounded by death. And for the only time in my life, I was angry at God. I walked around Birkenau mentally yelling at him. Where was he? Did he not see? Was he not there when this was happening to his people? To millions of others?
I stopped at the back of Birkenau where the railway ends and looked up towards the famous brick entrance. It started to rain. As the drops hit my umbrella I knew at that moment, as much as Auschwitz breaks my heart and causes me to weep, it’s nothing compared to what it did to God’s heart. God was reminding me through the gentle rain that, yes, he was there. He’s still there. And he still weeps over the millions of people who perished.
My subsequent trips to Auschwitz did not get easier for me. By my third trip, I started to go numb. My fourth trip I shut down altogether and it honestly frightened me.
I’ve been working with The Matzevah Foundation (TMF) in Poland since its beginning. I serve on the board as the director of communications so I’m daily posting information about our work on social media along with articles of interest on the Shoah (Holocaust), history of Polish Jews, and more. I think about the Shoah every single day to some degree.
And I’ve become numb.
August 2019 found me back at Auschwitz. We were working in the Oświęcim Jewish cemetery and were staying about a mile from the memorial and museum. We made two visits there during the week. On the first day, I found my focus landing on the faces of the prisoners. Through the variety of displays, my attention went directly to the eyes that were staring back at me. There was one picture in particular of a group of ladies from Romania that held my attention. One lady specifically captured my gaze. Her hand at her throat, clinging to a friend or loved one. I felt her fear pour from the photo.
I’ve seen the picture many times but this was the first time I really saw her.
On our last day in town, we went back over to Birkenau. As we came through the train station entrance, I prayed, “God, let me feel Auscwhitz again.” It was a strange thing to pray but I needed the Shoah to become real to me again. To not just be part of my job with TMF.
We wandered through the many barracks on the left side of the camp. There’s one in particular where women and children were housed together. Inside are pictures on the wall carefully preserved of the artwork the prisoners did to help cheer up the children. This building carried a different air and spirit within it.
I wandered off by myself to the far end and ran my hand over the railing of a wooden bunk. The power of the lives of those women and children seemed to crawl up my arm. I found myself not being able to breathe and quickly went outside. A fellow TMF board member was waiting outside and I just collapsed in her arms.
“I felt it again,” I told her.
I walked away that day with a renewed focus to remember. To remember why I’m personally involved in the work we do at The Matzevah Foundation. And to not just remember how millions of people died but to remember that they lived. The world lost generations of not just Jews but many other nationalities and people groups, all of whom contributed well to their families, communities, faiths, and the world.
Monday, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s also the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The commemoration that’s happening will probably be one of the last ones to have survivors at it. As we honor them and reflect on the millions who are not with them today, may we all recommit ourselves to honoring their lives. Let us also be mindful that when we say, “Never Again,” that we do our part to not allow these atrocities to not happen again.
Let’s love our neighbor well today.
--Rachel McRae, Director of Communications with The Matzevah Foundation