By David Gole
Having just arrived back from my trip to Poland, I have several experiences I am still reflecting on. While Warsaw was a very exiting city, Krakow is a different story. When I picture Poland I envision a lot of old buildings and snow. Krakow fulfills that exact stereotype in a way that it glorifies the past. During World War II, Krakow was virtually untouched by the Nazis with only a few of the monuments being rebuilt. In retrospective, my experience in Krakow was both joyous and emotional.
Part of my trip was to learn about Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, which runs a program to educate high school students about Jewish culture in their town. The first day in Krakow, we traveled to the near by town of Wadowice, which is the hometown of Pope John Paul II and home to almost 2,000 Jews before the war. There we visited the local high school and engaged in what the students were learning about Jewish culture. The students asked us questions about America and wanted to learn more about what it meant for us to be Jewish.
Living in Los Angeles where a large percentage of the people I know are Jewish, I don’t really think about what it means to me. In this small town where the Nazis exterminated almost every Jew, to be able to come to this town was both a unique and special experience. After a short tour of the monuments around the town, we left an everlasting impression on these students and went on our way back to Krakow.
Along with the happy experience of meeting these kids, I also experienced one of the most horrifying things to ever happen on this planet – Auschwitz. The day we went to Auschwitz, we were on the bus before the sun came up. It was around -14°C and I was still cold with my 3 Layers of Clothing. When we got off the bus, the haunted feeling of being in a place where millions of people were murdered consumed me. In the first camp of Auschwitz, called “Auschwitzy One,” the first thing you notice is the infamous sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “work makes you free”. The barracks, which were intended to house 100 polish soldiers, were used to house 1,000 prisoners at a time.
Auschwitz one is also home to the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium. On the walls of the gas chamber you can see nail marks of the victims trying to claw their way out. Although Auschwitz one killed millions, it seemed like a cakewalk compared to Birkenau, or “Auschwitz Two.”
At Birkenau, the second camp of Auschwitz, everything is outdoors and the shelters consisted of thin planks of wood and tiny three level bunks, which they piled on as many people as they could on one bunk. The toilets were nothing but holes in stone benches and all of the prisoners were given a total of 5 minutes each day for everyone to use them. Only half of Birkenau still stands while the Nazis destroyed the rest of the camp during the Soviet invasion.
The most powerful experience I had was in the building called the Sauna. The Sauna is where everybody who worked in Birkenau got processed and where all of the paperwork was stored. At the last part of the sauna, my father, Cantor Joseph Gole, led us in the Kiddush to mourn the souls of the fallen and we followed with the singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli National anthem. By the end of the prayers, nearly everyone in our group was very emotional with tears in their eyes. In that moment, my father and I shared one of the most emotional experiences in my life as we walked out of the camp in an embrace both crying.
While the Holocaust was a tragedy in itself, there are two ways to view the aftermath. I can either see the Holocaust as the worst thing to ever happen to the Jewish people—an event that took several of my family members away. Or I can see it in a more positive light. Hitler’s goal was to kill off every Jew on the planet, a mission that was never complete. In that sense, we won. Today, Jews are now able to sing Jewish prayers in Auschwitz, which probably makes Hitler scream in his grave.
In a few weeks, I will be going on a birthright trip to Israel. With the knowledge I have acquired on my trip to Poland, I will have a better understanding and appreciation for the creation of a Jewish homeland.