Pilgrimage to Poland - Part 5
July 14, 2023
The bus ride to Birkenau took only 15 minutes since the two facilities were less than two miles apart. The next day we would be marching that same route from the gates of Auschwitz to the entrance of Birkenau as part of the March of the Living.
Birkenau was built closer to the main rail line; and a train track spur was added from the main rail line directly into the Birkenau death camp, bringing it very close to the gas chambers and crematoria. The intent was to divert the freight trains carrying their human cargo directly into the camp so as not to be seen by the local populace and to expedite the extermination process and the assembly-line murder of the Jews.
As the allied armies, mainly the Soviet Union, got closer to liberating all of Poland from Nazi rule, the Nazis accelerated the extermination rate of the Jews, managing to process the murder of almost 5000 Jewish lives per day during the latter months of the war.
Among those murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were my grandchildren‘s maternal great-great-grandparents, two great-great-uncles in their teens and one great-great-aunt, a beautiful blonde blue-eyed little girl who was only six years old when her life was snuffed out. I still wonder who the German family was that received her pretty little shoes.
We parked several 100 yards from the entrance to Birkenau and walked along the remaining segment of the rail spur leading to the entrance. The rail spur continued through the entrance and deep into the camp getting ever closer to the gas chambers and crematoria facilities.
The entrance to Birkenau was very similar to the entrance going into a mountain tunnel; the building itself was elongated on both sides of the tunnel-like entrance, constructed out of brick of a dull orange color and extending hundreds of feet to the right and left of the entrance.
Later, visiting a crematorium, and observing first-hand the furnaces actually used to burn the bodies, with their semi-elliptical openings and similar brick construction, I could not help but conclude that the entrance to Birkenau was ironically, if not cynically, designed to look like the face of a crematorium furnace.
While Poland refuses to recognize any guilt for local collaboration with the Nazis, the complexity of the facility and its massive size could not have been built without the assistance of local skilled labor, such as civil engineers, electricians, masons, plumbers, etc., along with construction companies to coordinate and manage this project, all of which were available in the city of Krakow and its environs.
The construction of Birkenau facility was built as if it was a manufacturing plant, where the raw materials were Jewish humans and the finished product were tons of Jewish ashes!
While some resistant Poles were victims of the Nazis, many others, in all probability, had to engage in and profited from cooperation with the Nazis in the building of these camps intended for the primary purpose of annihilation of European Jewry.
As we walked along the tracks inside Birkenau we saw one of the freight cars (circa 1939-1944) which housed the Jews on their long journey to Birkenau. With little or no food, no bathroom facilities and inadequate ventilation, many Jews died along the way with disease afflicting many of them.
We also observed the “medical” facility built next to the tracks of the notorious Nazi criminal, Dr. Josef Mengele, who would select Jews exiting the train for tortuous medical experimentation, including men, women and children of all ages. Those not selected by Mengele or separated out for slave labor were condemned for immediate execution.
Finally, as we reached the far end of the camp, where the ceremonies of the next day were being set up, and we were about to have a group ceremony and discussion, I slipped away for a few moments.
Alongside a partially destroyed gas chamber, in the rain on this bleak day, I recited Kaddish and Yizchor for the five family members murdered in this very place where I was standing.
I could hardly speak as I recited the names of my grandchildren’s maternal great-great-grandparents, Yankel Itzak ben Esther v’ Mordechai and Sura Shansa bat Velvel v’ Leah; maternal great-great-uncles, Buruch ben Yankel Itzak v’ Sura Shansa and Mendel Chaim ben Yankel Itzak v’ Sura Shansa; and with tears streaming down my cheeks, 6-year-old maternal great-great-aunt, Rachela bat Yankee Itzak v’ Sura Shansa.
May their memory be for a blessing!
To be continued…
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Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first vice president and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.