In the Suburbs / Visiting concentration camps bolsters a young Jew's resolve
Warde High School
Class of 2011
When it comes to writing about the Holocaust, words have never come easily for me. But those words were even more difficult for Jake Liebowitz, who recently completed March of Living, a powerful two-week trip, sponsored by B'nai Brith Young Men and Young Women, to four concentration camps in Poland, and later, to Israel.
Jake, his mother, twin brother and his sister joined 18,000 adults and students from all over the world for a monumental journey to understand the horror story that has defined so much of our Jewish heritage today. Jake was kind enough to share vignettes from his experience, which was inspired by his grandparents, who live in West Hartford. He called his grandparents several times during the trip, he said, and they were invaluable resources and support.
Hungry for more knowledge about the Holocaust and its impact it on history, Jake has done a lot of research and personal interviews, kept journals and assembled scrapbooks. He said the guides on his trip recommended travelers keep journals of their experiences.
Jake's visited Auschwitz, Birkenau (often referred to as Auschwitz II), Majdanek and Treblinka, a small representation of the Nazis' extermination work between 1939 and 1945. Holocaust survivors were on the buses throughout the trip, and Jake said the survivors were like grandparents.
Jake's reflections, particularly about the camps he saw, made a very strong impression on me, and I have tried to capture those he remembered most vividly. He emphasized that a person really needs to be emotionally prepared to visit these camps and learn about what actually happened. His entire family was emotionally invested in this trip, Jake explained.
"Just walking through the gates of these camps and realizing what happened inside was a very emotional experience for me," he said. "I will never forget the sign over one of the gates -- Arbeit Macht Frei, which means "Work Will Set You Free."
I could see that Jake was moved by those words, knowing how easily many of his Jewish ancestors were taken in by this kind of sign. So many of the six million Jewish victims went into these camps believing that they would enjoy a degree of freedom if they just cooperated.
"We actually marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, and it felt like a death march," Jake said. "We saw Yarzheit [memorial] candles along the route for what seemed like miles. It was a very eery feeling.
"And the barracks looked so unsanitary. Our guides explained that they were often stacked three and four people deep."
Jake pointed out that Majdanek, to the horror of the visitors, was left so intact it could be up and running again within 48 hours. "The barracks looked like they were still waiting for prisoners, the crematoriums seemed too real and there were still canisters of gas in storage areas," Jake said.
"There is an outdoor memorial dome outside the Majdanek camp and for me it represented that fine line between life and death."
He was particularly struck by Treblinka, the last camp visited. Among the things Jake most remembered were wooden beams that were laid out on the ground, coming into the camp, to represent the railroad tracks. And there were some 200,000 stones to signify the various hometowns of these victims.
"We learned that the Nazis made the camp into a mock town and told the Jews that there would be so much to do when in fact this was purely a death camp," Jake said.
After a long and draining week of visiting camps and hearing about the atrocities perpetrated again his Jewish ancestors, Jake said that arriving in Israel was "like going from darkness to light.
"We spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, and it was extremely powerful to see 18,000 people marching to the Western Wall. This symbolic march and visit to the wall shows that as Jews we live, we are thriving, there's no stopping us. From all parts of the world, we were filled with pride.
"Our group also took several trips to Tel Aviv and met in particular with groups from Darfour. We learned that Israel has the largest Darfourian population in the world. This was a very necessary part of the trip."
Jake said that his family's visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel was also very powerful and reinforced the importance of never forgetting the Holocaust and recognizing how it strengthened future generations of Jews.
I'm very grateful that Jake shared with me his experiences from the March of Living trip.The candor and vulnerability he revealed are compelling.
Steven Gaynes can be reached at email@example.com