My Experiences at the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Josh Altman

Member of the student delegation representing Americans studying in Israel


As I walked into Ben Gurion Airport, I became a bit nervous. Did I really want to go back to Poland? Did I need to visit Auschwitz again? The pain of being there the first time was overwhelming, but I thought that going back this time to represent something, to stand with survivors and political leaders and say “never again,” was different. A conversation with Rachel cleared my head and as I boarded the plane, I hoped that this was the right thing to do.

            We landed in Warsaw on Tuesday morning. As we drove towards the city, we saw several signs. “Warmongers go home. Cheney go home, Putin go home …” Ahh Poland. I was so excited to be there again.

We toured the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, of which there are practically none. We saw a mound of ruins where the house that was used for resistance used to stand. There is also a memorial at the point where the loading dock for the trains used to be and another memorial in Rappaport Square. By 1 O’clock, we were on the way to Cracow.

            We arrived in Cracow at around 7 on Tuesday night. After dinner, we went out to see old Cracow. It is actually one of the more beautiful cities I have been in, but I can’t get over the history. It is hard to call a place with that reputation beautiful.

            Walking outside that first day and the two consecutive days was one of the coldest experiences of my life. With two layers of socks, sweaters, a coat, and shoes, I was still frozen. I will get back to the frigid cold later, but keep it in mind as a constant theme of suffering for those who survived.

            The next morning, we toured the old Jewish Quarter of Cracow. Just like with Warsaw, I had seen everything before and I knew all of the stories. I was a bit upset by the whole thing because it was nothing new for me. I was simply waiting for the real ceremonies to begin. As far as the touring went, however, it was a big let down for those who had never been to Poland before. We didn’t get tours of any camps and we did not even enter Auschwitz I. It was not a visit to the camps; we were on a political mission. Everyone felt like they had to return.

            That night, Wednesday, the ceremonies started at the Synagogue Temple in Cracow, Poland. This is the huge synagogue that was used by the wealthy Jews of Cracow. For those of you that know the story, this is also the synagogue that I davened in Shabbat morning in Cracow two summers ago, where I walked in to hear none other than Chazzan Alberto Mizrachi.

            The ceremony was schedule to start at 3:00. On the bus on the way there, I sat across the aisle from an Israeli woman. We started talking and it eventually came out that this was her first time back in Poland since the war. She had suffered in Auschwitz and didn’t know how she was going to handle being there again. She was very nervous for the day ahead. This woman was so sweet. She offered us cookies that she had made and tried to get a feel for why we came. I knew why I came: To meet people like her.

We arrived at the theater at 2:30, entered and sat down. As expected nothing happened until 4:00. After talking with some students from Australia, I decided to get up and walk around. TV Cameras were filming and I wanted to see what was so important.

            I walked up to a man that was wearing a blue and white tattered scarf. He was speaking in Polish but I was listening to his translator. He was talking about how great it was that we were celebrating the liberation. The man behind him was a righteous gentile, he was saying. The medal around his neck with the red ribbon was awarded by Yad Veshem. At one point after the reporter prodded him, he pulled up his sleeve and showed his number. It was an amazingly powerful moment for me. I could see the suffering on his face.

            At 4:00, the ceremony started with Mincha and was followed by speakers. It was very disorganized. Many people spoke but only two survivors, one of whom was asked to speak just 5 minutes before the ceremony began. Of course, she ended up being the most powerful. She was filled with emotion, telling the younger generations there that we need to continue to share stories that we have been told. She was afraid that deniers will become too powerful and that people will forget. She implored us to always remember and always fight to protect the honor of those who perished.

            At this point, I had already developed two complaints. First, the survivors’ stories were being muted. These two survivors were asked not to tell stories of what happened to them in the holocaust. I feel that this would have been the most powerful thing for the world to hear (and it later was, but only after the microphone was usurped). Also, I had a huge complaint with Rabbi Leau, the chief Rabbi of Israel. In a room full of survivors, he took the podium and said that the Holocaust is still going on because too many Jews are far from God. I was sickened. The audacity that he had to say such a thing in front of people who know what the holocaust was really like. He is a survivor also so I would have expected more out of him. Assimilation can not be compared to the murder and extermination committed by the Nazis.

            After the ceremony which was utterly uneventful, we went to the Poland Museum for dinner. It was an amazing dinner, during which Israel’s President Moshe Katzav came and spoke. I was amazed that I was in the same room with such a high ranking official. His speech was very nice. It was delivered in Hebrew and then translated. (I understood the Hebrew. Most of the survivors I spoke with only in Hebrew.) He left after the speech to go to the dinner with all of the other diplomats, but the fact that he was there was pretty amazing. The dinner was a nice time to meet other students. I met 2 Israelis studying in Beersheva and I met a girl who is applying to List. (By the way, I got in!). There were students from N. America, Australia, Russia, Israel,  S. Africa, S. America, and probably more places. It was amazing how many nations were represented.

The next morning, Thursday, I had a special breakfast. I sat down at a table where four friends and a survivor were sitting. She is an author and has written about the holocaust. We never really got her name, only part of her story. She was taken to Auschwitz when she was a teenager. She suffered there for over 3 years but survived to tell the story. (We later found out her name: Miriam Yahav – yes that one.)

She told us that she wrote a book that is all true, but not all of the truth. I imagined her struggling for years to write her experiences down in words. At, some point, the stress probably overcame her. She realized that she could never truly express what happened. “Nobody,” she told a table of 5 silent college students “will ever understand all of what happened. It is impossible for it ever to be understood.” This was coming from a woman who was a subject of the experiments of Dr. Mengle.

After she finished, she said, (with a huge smile) “I was invited to go sit with the Israeli soldiers.” We said our goodbyes. My friends and I sat in shock. We talked about her for a little bit and about how hard it must be for her. She survived and I was lucky enough to hear her story.

We then went to the Theater in Cracow for the “Let My People Live Forum.” While we were waiting for it to start, I went and talked with Elie Wiesel. He is the nicest man. He was so surprised to find that the college students in the audience knew who he was. He didn’t think we would have known him.

At about 9:30 the diplomats all came in. The President of Israel, the President of Poland, the President of the Ukraine, The vice-President of the United States, the Prince of the Netherlands, and many more diplomats were all sitting in the 6th row. It just so happened that I was sitting in the first row over the pit. My knees were touching the stage. When everybody spoke, I was literally 12 feet from them.

            Seeing all of these diplomats amazed me. I was in the same room with them. I went and talked with Dick Cheney for a few minutes and told him how important it was that he was here. He gave simple one-word answers. He was actually very impersonal.

I listened to all of their speeches. They were nice, but nothing special. They were political; they talked about anti-Semitism and terrorism and stopping it in their respective countries. Vladimir Putin of Russia openly admitted the problems that he is facing with 5% of the Russian Parliament calling for the government to close all Jewish business and organizations. Cheney prayed for humanity. But in the end, it was all politics.

There were only two touching moments. The first came right at the beginning of the ceremony. The President of Poland bestowed the highest honor in Poland on five members of the Red Army who liberated Auschwitz. This was a very special moment.

The other moment that was touching was listening to Elie Wiesel speak. There is something special about him. You really feel as if he is opening up his heart when he speaks. It is amazing. I almost cried listening to him. He implored us, the students in the audience, to continue to fight for justice and to keep the candle of the memory of the holocaust alive.

After the ceremony, I walked into the bathroom. There was a long line. The man in front of me in line looked back and said “achat.” He paused. “Do you speak English he asked?”

            “There is only one bathroom,” he clarified. “I stood in this line in 1935 when I came to this theater as a kid. I spent 4 years suffering in Auschwitz but survived.”

            My jaw dropped. I had no idea how to respond.

            The man grew up in Cracow, lived in the Cracow Ghetto, went to Auschwitz for 4 years and was sure he would never see beyond the barbed-wire fence again. But there he was, 70 years later, reliving a childhood memory of waiting in line at the theater with his dad.

This man put the whole ceremony in perspective for me. Why had we spent so much time honoring the diplomats, rising for the diplomats, waiting for the diplomats’ limos to drive by, shaking hands with the diplomats, and listening to the diplomats speak. It was wrong. The organizers missed the point. The diplomats should have taken the busses. The survivors should have been in the limos. The diplomats should have listened to the survivors speak. We should have stood and honored the survivors, shook their hands, and listened to their stories. Some of the students did, but no one else. This was the biggest disservice done to the world at this ceremony. This could have been a chance for the world to hear the stories and truly take to heart the concept of “never forget” from those who know exactly why we can never forget.

We then boarded the busses to head to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. We left in a column of 60 busses. Polish police lined the streets. For the entire 75 minute bus ride, there was a policeman every 20-30 yards. It was incredible. Also, the streets were entirely closed. The main highway of Eastern Europe that connects Germany to Poland was closed for 6 hours during the day. The bus procession was all over Polish radio. When we got off the highway and into the smaller city streets of Osweicem (Polish for Auschwitz), we started to see people coming out of their houses to line the streets. There were clumps on the sidewalk of 10-20 people. Families came out of their homes to stand at the end of their driveways and watch he busses go by. It was actually scary. All I thought about was the Poles watching the trainloads of Jews go by. I thought of the scene in Schiendler’s List, where the Polish girl stands by the train and yells at the Jews to board.

We arrived at the camp and walked towards the back. Like I said earlier, there was no tour, so having been there before, I took a friend on a quick tour. I fell in a foot and a half of snow. All I could think about was people in the camp without thick jackets and two pair of socks. A man approached one of my friends and said ‘Hiyeti Po,  Hiyeti ben arbeh esreh, lo haya li n’alaim.” (“I was here. I was 14. I didn’t have shoes.”) As he repeated the story for me, I was in shock. How dare I complain of being cold? I stood outside for 3 hours and my feet where purple when I got on the bus. SO WHAT. The inmates here must have walked in this all day. The must have worked outside, carrying dead bodies. They had no warm bus to get on after a few hours. They had no warm bed. They just cuddled together, 8 people to a wood plank. How dare I complain of cold?

As we walked past the gas chambers, the radio turned on. “toot toot. Chuga chuga chuga chuag….” Until we heard the steam leave the train. “Pshhhh” I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move. I stood still, scared. What a mortifying sound, an awful feeling. I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t begin to imagine, what it was like when it was a real train, real people, real death.

The ceremony started with diplomatic speeches. What a surprise. One prisoner spoke, one German man spoke (it was awful to hear German in that camp). (We had booklets with English translations of the speech) As Israeli President Moshe Katzav was speaking, a woman walked up next to him. A Mossad (Israeli Secret service) agent tried to pull her away, but she refused. Katsav went on talking and she stood quietly next to him. When he stepped down, she grabbed the microphone.

The announcer tried to speak over her, but he eventually stopped and let her continue. This of course was Miriam Yahav, the woman that made world news and I ate breakfast with that morning. When I returned to Israel on Friday, I was not surprised that she received all of the news coverage. Stories like hers should have been the focus of the ceremonies. The politicians could not share the pain. They couldn’t show the world what it was really about. The world deserved to hear survivors speak and tell there stories and luckily Yahav had the guts to just do it.

As she spoke in Polish, I didn’t understand what she was saying. But the silence that blanketed the Polish audience and the emotion with which she spoke made it clear. She was saying that we have survived and that we must live the slogan “never again.” She was sharing her pain. She was trying to show the world that the holocaust is not political; it is real stories and real people.

As I walked out of the biggest Jewish graveyard in the world, a cantor sung Ani mamin. (I believe with full faith that the messiah will come.) It was the most powerful way to walk out of Birkenau that I can imagine. I am sure that the survivors who walked out behind me listened and cried.