I cannot unsee what I have seen.
I have been studying the Holocaust since I was a child at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School. It has always been a large part of my life, and I have made sure to dedicate part of my time to remembering the horrors that happened and educating others to prevent it from ever happening again.
I was given an incredible opportunity to travel to Poland and Lithuania as part of a study abroad program in May for two weeks. Our group of 14 students represented three schools: UW-Madison, UW-Oshkosh, and UW-Milwaukee.
The study abroad course was titled, “20th Century Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.” From the beginning, I knew this was the ideal trip for me since it would provide me the opportunity to see the things that I have been learning about my entire life. During the two weeks I spent in Poland and Lithuania, there are two specific days that had an emotional impact on me.
The first emotionally draining experience I had on this trip was the day I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. We began our tour at Auschwitz 1, and I had no idea what to expect or how I was going to feel. When we arrived, the bus pulled into a parking lot and I saw snack/souvenir shops and what looked to be a huge tourist site. We walked in and around all the buildings located behind the famous gate that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free). The tour was guided in such a way that made it feel like a museum. Each building seemed to be preserved with its original brick, and there was a different “exhibit” in each building that housed a topic relating to the Holocaust. We saw where the prison inmates were held before execution, where the belongings of the prisoners such as pots, pans, tallitot, suitcases, hair, toiletries, shoes, clothes and finally the gas chamber and crematorium building. This was by far the most intense part of the tour, an experience that I would rather not go into too much detail as it would be too painful and difficult to explain.
After we drove to Birkenau, the second part of Auschwitz, I immediately noticed the train tracks that I had seen so many times throughout my research and education of Auschwitz. We walked to the unloading platform where an original railcar was sitting. We saw the unchanged barracks that had dirt floors, wooden bunks, cold air and a horrid smell. I felt like I was walking through death.
The sheer size of both Auschwitz I and Birkenau were larger than I could have ever imagined. It felt as if both camps went on forever, with no end in sight. At points, it felt like every step I took was a desecration to those that had walked to their deaths on the same ground. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions that day, ranging from being happy, confused, surprised, upset and angry.
You might be wondering why I put happy as one of the emotions that I had experienced. I was part of 7,500 people who toured Auschwitz-Birkenau that day. Over 1.7 million people visit every year and that makes me happy. I’m happy that our world is not forgetting the horrors that happened and that so many people travel there to see the places where such atrocities occurred ensuring that this never happens again.
As I sat on the bus pulling out of Auschwitz-Birkenau, all I could think about was that I could say that I left the camp… alive. Roughly 1.1 million people walked past the same gates I did; they never walked out.
I did not think that the experience of seeing a concentration camp could get any worse, but I was very wrong. A few days later we went to Majdanek. I had heard of this concentration camp before, but I did not know too much about it. Majdanek was much more emotionally draining and far more challenging than Auschwitz. This was not because Auschwitz was less horrifying, but the entire camp of Majdanek had been preserved even moreso than Auschwitz. Also, there were so many other people at Auschwitz when we toured; it was positive to see that the memory was living on. At Majdanek, there was no one touring or visiting there: it was my group, just the 16 of us. For the few hours that we spent there, we only saw four other people visiting the memorial site.
One aspect of Majdanek that stood out to me was that there was a town overlooking the camp. People’s balconies looked out to the gas chambers and the barracks in which thousands of people were imprisoned. It is mind-boggling to me how people can wake up, make coffee, and sit on their balconies and welcome in the morning by staring death in the face. I never thought I would experience a place that could prove to be more emotional than Auschwitz. I thought I had experienced the worst of the worst while at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but when I went to Majdanek, I proved myself wrong.
I was nervous at the thought of entering into both of the camps. It felt like I owed it to my beloved friend and a Holocaust survivor whom I had spent a great deal of time talking with, Alfred Kahn (z’’l), to see and learn as much as I could and to bear witness by being present at these terrible places where millions perished. I will forever be grateful that I had the opportunity to go on this trip. I learned so much about Poland, Lithuania, my family’s history, and the countless stories of those who survived, and those whose lives were taken during the Holocaust. I left Auschwitz with a broken heart – but I left. I have a renewed sense of purpose, and an immense appreciation for every moment of my life.
Carly Cohen, 20, of Glendale, is entering her junior year at University of Wisconsin – Madison, where she is majoring in management and human resources with minors in leadership and Jewish studies.
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Jordan and Carly in Poland
Carly Cohen and Jordan Pachefsky both write about their trip to Poland in these pages today. Their study-abroad trip for 14 students from three Wisconsin campuses – Milwaukee, Madison and Oshkosh – was subsidized by an anonymous donor through the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The course was designed and led by Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and Karl Loewenstein, associate professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.