A high school student describes her experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a summer leadership program.
Many people talk about defining moments — specific times when they realized everything they once thought to be true was just an illusion; when they faced their identity; where their purpose in life began; or when life allowed their story to be heard.
My moment, my story, lies on top of millions of unheard sorrows, belittled fears, discouraged dreams and broken nightmares. It happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place where stories linger, crying in a whistle of the wind.
I was there as part of a summer leadership program with the National Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform youth movement, which included four weeks in the beautiful land of Israel and a week in Poland and Prague. My peers and I studied and toured various ghettos, Holocaust museums and other meaningful sites throughout our journey in Poland. Yet it was visiting Auschwitz that gave me the most influential picture of how the Holocaust has affected generations past and changed me as a Jewish young adult.
Unexpected. That might be the best word to describe the serenity my eyes captured that summer morning when the tips of my feet edged onto the gravel walkway to where the stories all began to disappear. Taking a death breath, closing my eyes, I came face to face with the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place where an estimated 1.3 million Jewish lives ended at the hands of a soul’s cruelest demon.
Walking into the gates, the atmosphere became empty; those around me were silent, mesmerized by the untouched simplicity of the decaying cement bricks that comprised the limp remains of the gas chambers.
Juxtaposed with these ugly buildings, beds of pure white flowers lay shadowed under lavish oak trees, covered with the sheer tint of a musty green. Sunlight peeked through the gloomy sky, glimmering in the reflection of a still pool of water. Everything untouched, everything so simple, everything so tranquil, cloaking the terror that once occurred here.
What to feel? So many emotions ran their course through this vindictive empire, but I remained thoughtless, frozen, empty, trapped with fear.
My eyes scanned the carvings of lines and faded initials on the aging trunks of the blossoming oak trees, and it surfaced — a thought, a feeling of abandonment. At first, it didn’t make any sense. I wanted to feel despair and solemnly mope around, yet I couldn’t. I felt obligated to share, to embrace, to listen to the haunted spirit that crept in the distance.
My purpose was right there, seeing past the barrier of crippled minds, inhuman tactics, massive imprisonment and unwritten tales; following the voices that lingered in the air. I wanted to spread their stories, discover the details of the degraded rose petals that floated upon the lake, or the patched-up doll hanging in the corner of a battered cabin.
Those minute details changed my life in that moment, my specific place in time where the page opened in my story. I didn’t want to just take in the experience; I wanted to embrace and expand my knowledge of it to others around me.
Visiting Auschwitz compelled me to incorporate the appreciation I have for my religion into my daily life. I have a more in-depth and serious connection with God. I try to think about those who suffered so much to allow generations after them to celebrate and rejoice in our Jewish heritage.
We shouldn’t just see the Holocaust as a tragic event in our history, but as a chance to look at our own lives and pray and thank those who linger in the distance.
Memories will fade, even ones as emotionally scarring as the Holocaust, but my connection to them will never die because now they are a part of my identity.
Emily Leddington is a junior at Central Bucks South High School. Previously a member of Temple Judea, she spent five weeks with NFTY touring Israel and Europe last summer.