Kinship and Connection in the Shadows of the Holocaust: A Student Photo Essay

By Josh Weiss

[In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day]

I never intended to spend my winter break in Poland, but my younger brother, Noah, a student at Temple University, convinced me to go on the trip. My school, Drexel University, was not sending a delegation, so I had to step out of my comfort zone and join a group of students from Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Johnson and Wales. I was apprehensive about spending a week in a foreign country with complete strangers, but the planned itinerary for this Jewish heritage trip intrigued me enough to take the plunge.

Run by MEOR, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and empowering Jewish students at universities across the country, the trip would explore the vibrancy of Jewish communities in Poland pre-WWII, the magnitude of the loss during the Holocaust, and the rebirth of Jewish life in the years that followed. We were led by professional tour guides, Jewish educators, and a Holocaust survivor from the UK.

As the trip began, I was excited, curious, and incredibly nervous. I worried about slipping up and making a bad first impression. I imagined my inability to gel with the group derailing the whole experience for me. But to my great surprise (and delight), the exact opposite occurred.

By week’s end, we were all dancing, crying, and singing together as though we had known each other our whole lives. Though our diverse backgrounds and divergent points of view should have created vast distances between us, this intense journey brought us together to mourn and celebrate our shared Jewish heritage and history like family.

What follows are the pictures that best capture my life-altering experience in Poland.

It may not look like much, but that’s 7.5 tons of human ash housed at Majdanek, once a concentration camp, now a museum. The Nazis didn’t have time to dispose of these human remains before the Russians liberated the camp, so it was left behind. In a heap. Seeing bones scattered among the ash repulsed me and stirred up such intense sadness within me, feelings that I had never experienced before.

About a hundred feet away from the ash and the crematoria, I slurped warm soup with fish-shaped croutons and sipped Coke Zero. I looked out over the barracks and guard towers as snow swirled all around and the temperature continued to drop. I noted that I was enjoying more sustenance, warmth and comfort than any Majdanek inmate ever had during the winter months, or any time of year.

What’s your favorite color? It’s a question we often ask during college ice breakers. Well, my favorite color is now Robin’s Egg Blue. It’s the color of the Zyklon-B pellets (pictured above at Auschwitz I) used to kill millions of people in the gas chambers of concentration camps during the Holocaust. But it’s also the color of defiance.

Zyklon-B was originally developed as a pesticide and was used to disinfect the clothing of new concentration camp inmates. When the Nazis turned these little blue pellets on human beings, they were making a statement: “You people are no better than the typhus-carrying lice that infest your clothes.” Though it is truly evil to compare another living soul to a blood-sucking parasite, this statement may actually speak more to their fear of Jewish resilience.

For thousands of years, our enemies have been vexed by our “nasty habit of sticking around.” The Jews, a group that comprises less than 0.2% of the world’s population, has always survived. The more our enemies have tried to snuff us out, the more we have adapted and multiplied.  And we will continue to do so until our number equals that of the stars and the sand, while those piles of empty Zyklon-B canisters – and the wicked people who emptied them, bent on our destruction – rust into oblivion.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, I (and several others students) put on tefillin for all of the Jewish children – my grandfather included – who were denied Bar Mitzvah celebrations by the Nazis, rites of passage prevented by bullets, gas and starvation. Never mind the freezing cold weather. I hardly felt it when I took off my sweater, rolled up my flannel sleeve and began wrapping the tefillin around a numb arm in preparation of reciting the Shema.

Another student in my group, Daniel Moyal of UC Berkeley, summed up this experience perfectly: there’s no better response to Hitler and his murder machine than exercising our Judaism in such a dark place. Where is Adolf Hitler? Where is the Thousand Year Reich? Dead and gone. But here we stand, learning Torah and practicing mitzvot in the very place that was designed to end us. After we prayed, we walked out of Auschwitz-Birkenau singing Hatikvah, Am Yisrael Chai and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. To me, there is no better karmic justice.

This powerful moment inspired me to break out of my spiritual rut, and I decided to start wrapping tefillin on a regular basis again. Every time I wrap my tefillin, it is a statement: “I am still here, the Jews are still here, and we refuse to be broken.”

In the Zbylitowska Góra forest, Jews and Christians alike were murdered by the thousands, among them 800 children. Think about that: Babies being unloaded into the death pits like dirt from a dump truck. It’s gruesome, unfathomable and inconceivable. It’s pure evil, plain and simple.

I stood in the freezing snow, my two big toes numb with cold, hot tears running down my cheeks. I realized that the surrounding trees were witness to the atrocities that occurred there. If they could speak, they would perhaps scream in abject horror. But they can’t and never will. We speak for the trees who stand over the mass graves of those poor souls, and we also speak for the dead. For if we do not speak up about what happened there, no one else will.

The inside jokes, the intense moments, and the beginning of lifelong friendships. Only a handful of my bus mates are pictured above, but I will truly miss them all. I can’t even believe the incredible week we spent together, framed by poignant moments that fused profound sadness and pure euphoria as we reflected on the mass genocide of the Holocaust while simultaneously celebrating the tenacity of the Jewish nation. I will never forget this experience as long as I live, and I am so thankful to the dedicated MEOR staff and my high caliber coast-to-coast colleagues for helping me shape these powerful memories.

*****

What if the Nazis had won the war? It’s a popular question of the literary genre known as alternate history, of which I am a voracious reader. Books like The Man in the High Castle and Fatherland depict scenarios where a German victory in WWII resulted in dystopian worlds where freedom of speech is violently suppressed, children are brainwashed with Fascist ideology, and wanton murders of “enemies of the state” are the norm. The Eastern Europeans are enslaved, and the Jews are gone. These are nightmarish, unthinkable scenarios, but it was always just fiction to me until my trip to Poland allowed these imagined horrors to take on a solid form.

Only when I stood above a massive pile of human ashes at Majdanek did I realize that the Jewish people almost became a footnote, a faint memory. Luckily, we did not. Instead, it was our tormentors, the Nazis, who became a blip on the radar of human history.

As I wrapped tefillin and recited the Shema in freezing temperatures at Birkenau, in the ruins of what was supposed to be the conquest of the “Master Race,” I reveled in that greatest of triumphs enjoyed by our people for over 5,000 years: survival.

Josh Weiss is a native of  Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and a senior at Drexel University, majoring in Communications with a concentration in Public Relations. Josh attended – and documented – MEORs Jewish heritage trip to Poland this winter.