He was just 15 when his family was rounded up for the second time. They were Slovakian Jews living in Hungary; this time there would be no escape. Three days and nights standing in a cattle car; there was a pot in the corner for a toilet if you could get to it. This summer, I visited the Nazi death camps for the first time. I was accompanied by survivor, Max Eisen and his son Larry; we were hosted by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre. I am still processing the experience.
As the train backed through the gates of the infamous Auschwitz- Birkenau Camp at dusk, Max and his father and uncle were separated from his mother and the younger children. “Will we see them in the morning” asked his father? “Are you crazy” snarled a kapo standing by: “don’t you know where you are? The only way out of here is up the chimney”.
As the men were marched off between the camps Max could see a huge bonfire in the distance and the smell of smoke drifting across the massive complex. “Look Dad, there are people jumping into the fire”, he exclaimed. His father instructed him to look straight ahead; they would never see his mother and younger siblings again.
New arrivals were processed, stripped of their cloths and valuables. Showers for the naked, the autoclave for the personal possessions; they would be recycled but not returned. Max saw an elderly man fall behind as they were marched off; he had dropped to the floor feeling for his glasses. An SS guard got up from his seat and stomped him to death. Max’s illusions of a labour camp for his family to work together were no more.
Arriving in Warsaw we found a city in transition. Major construction underway as new EU money assists with infrastructure up-grades. Modern skyscrapers, 4 star hotels and ultra modern multilevel malls contrast with soviet era architecture, beautiful parks and historic monuments. Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Poland struggles for a better future encumbered with the heavy burden of historic atrocity and loss. Poland today has a population about 38 million at the start of WWII it stood at about 30 million including 3.5 million Jews. Three million Jews were murdered. If they didn’t die of starvation in the ghettos, they faced forced labour on about 300 calories a day; those who refused to die faced the final solution in the gas chambers or mass executions. About 3 million non-Jewish Poles and Roma (Gypsies as they were then known) were also exterminated in 6 years of carnage. Ironically Poland was “liberated” from the Nazis at the end of the war only to be occupied by the liberators as a Soviet satellite state for two decades.
From Warsaw we drove to Lublin, where the largest Jewish seminary (Yeshiva) is now being restored. Coincidentally, a large group of Venezuelan students with Israeli flags were also visiting the site; they brought the sound of worship, prayer and song to the long silenced halls and vacant chambers. Hours later at Majdanek before a mausoleum sheltering a huge mound of human ashes, the same students wept and consoled each other at the monument to human destruction. Nearby Israeli soldiers also visiting the site stood before the massive mounds where 100 meter pits were filled with the bodies of 18,400 executed systematically by firing squad on one day alone. It was a day of harvest festival, Antefest. At Himmler’s order firing squads worked in shifts from Morning to Dusk as prisoners were marched forward ten at a time to the edge of the pits. They were 3 months burning the bodies.
Emotional Roller Coaster
The Nazis kept meticulous records; at Majdanek, Max received a copy of the official records confirming his extended family from Slovakia were among the victims.
Later back at the hotel, there was an amazing bit of relief as some of us were gathering in the lobby to go out for an evening stroll. Suddenly the grand piano, sprung to life in an impromptu performance by a Mexican singer. The melody flying from the keys was followed and enhanced by rich baritone vocals. I was seated nearby, trying to get off a few messages about the days experiences. Max was standing by the piano, caught up in a personal request. He had this angelic appearance, I noted, thinking how wonderful was this bit of relief after what had to be a tough day. In the same instant, over Max’s shoulder appeared the face of the world’s newest mass murderer from Norway on the screen of the muted newscast from the adjacent lounge! I was jolted by the contrast and the certainty that Death is still stalking the world!
There are books, movies and endless discussions about the massive complex at Auschwitz -Birkenau, the rows of crude barracks designed as stables, no insulation, a wood stove, but seldom firewood, the massive crematoria. At the far end of the Camp, next to the showers stands Kanada house (as the prisoners called it) where belongings of the new arrivals were sorted; even in those days Canada was seen as a land of plenty. Sometimes the inmates assigned to search and sort could smuggle out an item to barter with a guard or trade in the camp where a scrap of food might save a life. To the inmates in the camp, those fortunate prisoners assigned to search and sort spent their day in Kanada!
Looking back across the massive complex outside the barbed wire barriers a long building crowned with an immense cross seemed strangely out of place. After the communist collapse, a church group had sought and received permission to occupy the former SS and prison guard quarters and maintain the grounds. Eventually as the state gained governance capacity, it took over care of the monstrous monument to destruction.
Friends, none of us chose the nation of our birth, our families, or the time and place of our arrival. We who live in this hour, time and place can be thankful for the great good fortune that is ours to live in Canada.
As we reflect on the Canadian values of democracy, human rights, freedom of religion and conscience and the rule of law: foundations that have made our country the haven that it is, may we embrace the resolve expressed in our national anthem “to stand on Guard” and to remain vigilant. There are times when we must reach out to help our neighbour in time of need.
Indeed we gather on NOV 11th to remember and honour those brave Canadians who fought on foreign soil to defend those whose future and liberties were threatened. Lest we forget!
While I am still processing the experience of visiting the darkness of the death camps, I am reminded of an ancient text: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all y
our heart, soul and mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. And “who is my neighbour” he asked the Master?