“Arbeit Macht Frei.”
I can see these words in the iron over the gates as clearly today as when I walked through those gates more than two decades ago. I can still see the torture chambers, the wall where the firing line once stood, the barracks filled with suitcases and with shoes. These are some of the images I still retain from a visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp.
I was in Poland in the spring of 1990 as part of a team from the USC Cinema School, touring the emerging democracy to advise a company on their venture to bring cable TV to the Polish people. A holocaust survivor, who had escaped from Auschwitz as a boy, founded the company. We toured the country for a week, visiting every significant film school and broadcast facility. Our last day was time for site seeing in and around Krakow. The afternoon was devoted to a tour of the concentration camp.
As we walked through the gates, we learned that the ironic message “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (Work Brings Freedom) was just the beginning of the cruelties that we were to become witness to. No one can visit site and deny that the holocaust took place. Our group leader declared on the silent ride back to Krakow that this is the most depressing place on earth and every human being needs to see it.
The tour was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. I took many pictures on the tour, but these are prints that I have never put into a photo album and have only looked at a couple of times. I don’t need to look at them – I can see them in my head just as vividly today. I can also feel the feelings I experienced that day.
They are a part of me and a significant step on my journey to Judaism. When I visited Auschwitz, I was not Jewish. In fact, the idea of converting had never entered my consciousness at the time. My thought, as I witnessed the horrors of the holocaust which no museum can match, was that these atrocities happened to the Jews—them, not us, not me. But as I worked through the displays of the shoes and the suitcases, I began to understand that these were all people like me. When I got to the display of eyeglasses, I began to connect with the individuals that each represents. When I got to the display of the half dozen recovered Tallitot (prayer shawls), I understood the importance that Judaism played in the lives of these lost souls.
It was not very long after that trip that Judaism became a bigger and bigger part of our household, which eventually led to my conversion nine years later. This visit was a step on my journey.
Today, as we light the yellow candle each year, I recall this trip to Poland and the tour that changed my life. As I recall the vivid images of Auschwitz, I shudder at the horrors that were inflicted on the Jewish people—us, not them—me.
Temple Aliyah Men’s Club President