By Jeremy Berkowitz
During my winter break this year, instead of heading to the beach or planning a road trip, I made a change and pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I joined 100 other college students on a Jewish heritage trip to Poland run by MEOR, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and empowering Jewish students at top universities across the country.
As I prepared for the trip, I could only imagine what I was about to face and how much I would learn. With all of the recent hatred that’s been highlighted in the media these days, I was more than ready to gain some knowledge on the subject of hatred within humanity and to document a dark history of such hatred.
But I was also hoping to return from the trip with a sense of pride and love for humanity greater than I have ever felt before. And with that, I was determined to journey through history, seeing unbelievable things with my own eyes and through the lens of my camera, to prove that we, as people, still have it in us to steer away from such darkness.
What follows are my findings in words and pictures.
On December 31, the last day of 2015, I walked into a gas chamber and crematorium with a group of fellow Jews. But more importantly, we walked out.
Within that awful place, surrounded by walls covered in scratches from those who clawed and begged for life, we cried for the millions of lives lost in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Upon leaving that building and wiping away my tears, I can honestly say that I have never been so grateful to see the light of day.
Auschwitz II Birkenau. All of Germany’s finest architects, scientists, and government officials put such ‘great’ effort into creating this massive place. But for what? For the extermination of a race of human beings. Human beings who were treated in the most inhumane ways possible; often told that work would set them free or keep them alive, only to be dragged into gas chambers and crematoriums, shot for being too young, too old, or too weak. Other times left for dead, holding onto life in the cold, haunting night of camps like these.
Huddled close together in a cattle-car on a cold, bitter night, our group of 30 students easily filled half the car. During the tragic and merciless years of the Second World War, hundreds of people were stuffed into these cattle-cars at one time. Supplied with one barrel filled with water, and one barrel for human waste, these cars quickly became death traps filled with false hope and starvation. As people were taken from camp to camp, they were often trapped for weeks on end, holding onto their sanity, their loved ones, and their faith.
We visited Chelmno, a death camp where Jews were forced to scatter the bones and ashes of their own family members. In this clearing in the forest, thousands and thousands of lives were taken and these people, after being so awfully mistreated were never properly buried, even to this day. Though some 70 years have passed, bits of bone can still be found here. Today, after collecting bones that still remained scattered, we put them to rest, creating a sense of closure for at least some of those who deserved so much more respect than they received.
This chilling view through the barbed wire of Majdanek left me speechless.
May the memory of all who perished during this dark period in our history be for a blessing.
Over the course of our trip, I learned so much about what happened in Poland not so long ago. And yet, after being here, after walking in the footsteps of those who faced such awful tragedy, after seeing unthinkable things and hearing stories directly from a survivor of these death camps, there is absolutely no way that I can understand why all of this had to happen.
Robbed of their possessions, stripped of their clothes and their dignity, humiliated before being brutally and mercilessly murdered, often times reduced to ashes or thrown in mass graves – Jews had to endure such horror because of certain beliefs, a certain faith and love for kindness and goodness in humanity. There is no understanding why this happened to so many innocent people.
However, what I do understand now more than ever is that through finding ‘hope in the horror, faith in the furnace, and life in the ludicrousness of the situation,’ the Jewish people have prevailed. We live to tell the tale.
And by not allowing the darkness to break their spirits or dilute their faith, our Jewish ancestors will forever instill me with a sense of pride and love for humanity.
Jeremy Berkowitz was born and raised in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He is currently a Junior at Rutgers University, majoring in Journalism & Media Studies and minoring in Digital Communication, Information and Media (DCIM). An aspiring photojournalist, Jeremy attended – and documented – MEOR’s Jewish heritage trip to Poland this winter.