Poland Day Five

Today was indescribable. I started my day at 6:00AM, when I woke up and got ready for breakfast. At 7:30 I was on the bus, and on my way to Auschwitz- Birkenau.

Our journey at the concentration camp began on the train tracks of Auschwitz II, as we grouped around a remaining car that transported prisoners. As teens who had just stepped off of a coach bus, we were stiff, cranky, and generally in need of a washroom. This cart, however, took us out of ourselves, and was a rude awakening. Seeing the physical space that an average of 100 people “lived” in for extended periods of time was startling, and I can personally say I won’t complain again about my time on our bus.

Across from the train tracks was a house. This house had a yard, a swing-set, and a beautiful garden. It has been 74 years since the closure of the camp, and citizens of Poland generally seem comfortable raising their children with a place of death on their doorstep. What does this say about the legacy of the Holocaust? Have we not worked hard enough at ensuring that not just the Jews, but the entire world remembers the atrocities that took place in the 1940s? Were we as a people not open enough about the history of the Jews of Europe? Were we not aggressive enough in fighting for the story of our people to be told? I have no answers, and I don’t believe the people living in that house have answers either.

We walked through Birkenau, hearing written testimonies of survivors from the camp. The first Barracks we visited was block 13, later changed to block 16 as renovations in the camp were made. This was not a bunk for Jews but for Poles, specifically children. Inside the Barracks maintained in glass are drawings done by the children in their time as prisoners at Birkenau. The creations are hauntingly beautiful, and speak of children aged far too quickly. All figures sketched are undersized, as though they represent the children themselves. There are drawings of boats, of princes, and of marching soldiers. The drawings will forever be etched into my mind.

The next leg of our journey took us to a very specific Barracks: 25B. This bunk is where my grandmother - my father’s mom - slept in her 6 months in Birkenau. Outside of this bunk I told the abridged story of my bubbie’s survival, as I clutched photographs of her I had taken from home. Around my neck I wore a necklace that belonged to my bubbie, which has a chamsa and the initial we both share; A for Anne, and A for Annika. The following is the story I told to my fellow campers under an overcast day.

My Bubbie Ann was born in the small town of Ilza, Poland, in 1928. The youngest of 12 children, she was raised with Orthodox beliefs, and her father worked as a leather maker. By the time deportations had begun in Ilza, my great aunt Miraleh and her husband had already moved to the neighbouring town of Starchowize. My bubbie took off her arm band and hitch-hiked with a group of German soldiers, until she arrived and found her sister. In the new town, the Jews were put in a small ghetto, and work quickly began in an ammunitions factory nearby. She worked here from 1942-1944. When all the Jews were sorted to be deported in June of 1944, my Bubbie and her sister managed to stay together, sneaking into a line only for Jews holding valid passports. For 3 days and 3 nights my bubbie travelled to Auschwitz, and upon arrival was sent straight to the gas chambers. However, due to a deficiency in the Zyklon B poison, the gas chambers could not run. My Bubbie was tattooed with the number A14043, becoming an inmate in Birkenau. In December 1944 she was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where she worked sorting the clothes of perished Jews. Here, she came across the dress of her now known to be dead sister Livche. My Bubbie and her sister stayed alive until April 15, 1945, when they were liberated by the British forces.

After sharing my Bubbie’s tale, I went to visit block 25B, as my cousins and siblings had done before me. However, I never made it all the way to the cabin, let alone inside to the bunk bed. A security guard on a Segway came and forced me back to the path, declaring this was not a place for tourists. We tried to explain the significance of the Barracks, that I only needed 1 minute, 1 picture. It was to no avail. The man was unapologetic and unsympathetic, and I never made it to the Barracks where my grandmother slept for 6 months, at the age of 16.

I was upset and I was angry. As tears streamed down my face, I asked again and again: who gave this man the right to make this decision for me? I was speechless, and yet full of words of hatred towards the man on the Segway. To take this experience away from me is to aid in forgetting the Holocaust. To tell me not to look through the same window my Bubbie once looked through is to change the narrative of this chapter in history. To ride a Segway in Birkenau is to capitalize on the suffering of the Jewish people, and on all other groups targeted by the Nazis. As the last grandchild to travel to Poland, and the only grandchild to be born after my Bubbie’s passing, I came to the camp with a purpose. I would honour my Bubbie’s name, and prove to her that I can be half the woman she once was. This security guard took a small part of this away from me.

I returned to the group distraught, with Risa’s words and arms comforting me. Soon, however, her help was no longer needed. Friends surrounded me, hugging me, and showing me their support. People I had known for years and people I had known for days shared in my pain, and showed me their love. I realized there is no other group with whom I would rather travel to Poland, and experience this journey this. I felt the opposite of alone.

Yes, I am angry. Yes I am sad. I am confused. I am shocked. I cannot articulate how I am feeling. But I also feel loved. And I feel appreciated. I feel in this moment, I belong with this group of campers and staff, in my makeshift family.

I will remember my Bubbie’s story, and I will share it as long as I am able to. I will be a Holocaust advocate, and will be a part of the effort to keep our Peoples’ story alive. But this will not be how I will approach my namesake. I will remember my Bubbie as she appears in the pictures I carry with me: surrounded by family, with a smile on her face and kindness in her eyes. This is how I will maintain the legacy of the name. I will take after her in being tough but forgiving, beautiful but fierce, and devoted yet independent. This is how I will carry the name Ann, and the name Chana.

Annika Zworth

Gabriel Helfant