The End That’s a Beginning

This is a post from guest blogger, Maj. Peter Lerner, who currently serves as the IDF spokesman for the Central Command.

I am writing these lines on my flight home to Israel. This will therefore be my last post, and I am extremely happy I could share this experience with you.

Everything we did today (actually yesterday) was around the motive of end, death and termination. End of our mission, termination of the camps, death of some twenty thousand Jews per-day in Auschwitz (more than all Israeli soldiers killed in action since 1948). The entire day we spent in Auschwitz and in Auschwitz – Birkenau. I think that people generally know about Auschwitz and aren’t too aware of the complex. They were actually 3 camps, concentration (I), death (II) and factory complex (III). We visited the first two.

Walking through the streets of Auschwitz (camp I) it dawns on you that you cannot take life for granted. The freedoms we have, the way of life we live, the warmth of an embracing and sometimes smothering civilian infrastructure. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe is those would have existed back then in the 30’s and early 40’s maybe some of those lives could have been saved.

Auschwitz was dark and cloudy today, the redbrick buildings and the cobbled road made things look even more eerie. I stood outside and beneath the famous “Arbiet Macht Frei” sign over the entrance of the camp and thought of the thousands of people that were met here by the band playing welcome songs. The deception of the Nazi regime, that did everything in their power to make the “process” more efficient.

We visited block 10 where Mengele carried out experiments on human beings. Here we heard about the story of Aliza Tzarfafi and Ovadia Baruch. Both of them reached Auschwitz from Salonika. Aliza was just sixteen years old when Mengale picked her to carry out an experiment and remove all her reproductive organs. During the operation there was an air raid and the Nazi doctors can for cover leaving the Jewish doctor to complete the work. Professor  Maximilian Samuel, cut Aliza open but did not remove her organs. An act he later paid with his life. During recovery Aliza was exposed to a beating of a young man that while being beat cried out in pain “o’ madre”, oh mother. She recognized the Ladino language spoken by Jews in Greece and from there developed a romance. With hidden love letters in the wall of the factory where they both worked. The last note he wrote said that “if were ever get out of here, we will marry”. Ovadia was marched out of Auschwitz in the death marches and the connection was lost. He reaches Salonika and on a daily basis he checked the survivor lists published in the town square. He found Aliza and wanted to fulfill his wish and marry her. Aliza, despite her love told him to find a younger woman that he can make a family with. Nobel Ovadia told her that she is his only love and so they married. They emigrated to Israel and over time Aliza noticed that she was gaining weight. She told Ovadia that she must stop eating with her neighbor because she is fat and it must be contagious. She went to the doctor who informed her that she is six or seven months pregnant. The rest is history. Our wonderful guide, Shoshana, had traveled on a mission like ours with Aliza and Ovadia some twenty years ago. Her last encounter with her was in 1993 when on a visit to Auschwitz, on the door of barracks no 10, was a sign informing of the untimely passing of Aliza. Ovadia himself died last year in a car accident. This a story of another witness that survived the turmoil of the holocaust and horrors of Auschwitz. Those are the lucky ones that survived. Their numbers are dwindling and are estimated today of about two-hundred and fifty thousand worldwide.

We held and intimate ceremony in block 27 the place of the exhibition of the martyrdom and struggle of the Jews in Europe. Here in almost pitch black darkness, there is a small window in the floor with ashes from of Jews from the ovens. We stood in a circle and read out names of family members that were murdered in the Holocaust. It was so emotional, while not everybody has family members to read, everybody felt the pain of those standing next to them. It was sad, quietly we went from one to the next with officers sometimes reading out over 15 people. Even in our small squad of forty the weight of loss in this small room was so heavy and reached hundreds of people. People we had never known from places over the European continent that had died in the ditches, in the camps in the death marches and sometimes in unknown circumstances. It touched us all, we later stood in the dark silence looking at the ashes in the window beneath our feet.

After roaming the various exhibits including rooms piled high with 7 tons of  hair  from some forty thousand woman, shoes bundled to the ceiling, suitcases all inscribed by their former owners, tooth and shaving brushes, all things that you would take on any regular trip away from home. All with an individual story, all stories lost from history of the Jews of Europe. We headed on to the gas chambers and crematorium we walked in, in silence. Words cannot explain what you see. The gas chamber in camp I, where some 800 people were gassed daily, was cold and still. In just over a year an estimated 10,000 people lost their lives to the lethal cyclone B gas. Next door is the crematorium, all I could think of is pizza ovens. These huge ovens that used to burn the flesh and bones stand cold, frozen in time. They are forever proof of the magnitude of what happened here. What human beings are capable of doing to other human beings. The huge chimney stands tall and I would guess that on a sunny day it cast its shadow that would reach the residence of the camps commandant. The thought that Rudolf Hess brought up his children in the darkness of this place, bare meters from the gas chambers can only illustrate the evil, and disregard they had for human life.

We headed off to the main death camp, the notorious Birkenau. We marched in to the camp in immaculate style, heads held up high to the sound of our trumpet and under the flags of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. Civilians stood still and watched the spectacle of the Jewish army marching in to Birkenau. We were approached by French tourists that asked us questions, they said that we must be strong that this can never happen again.

We moved on to the living conditions of the prisoners that were held here. First wooden barracks, originally planned for 50 horses, held over five hundred people. These were the lucky ones that we kept alive for hard labor. They worked in all conditions, with nothing more than a tunic on their back and a pair of skimpy clogs. Next time you think your freezing cold, think that here people actually froze to death. Later we moved to the latrines and brick compound built by the inmates from the ruins of the houses in the area. We roamed along the railway tracks that witnessed the shipping in of the “shipments”, and shipping out of the “produce”, their personal belongings and anything that could be harvested.

Before coming here I didn’t realize that the Nazis actually tried to remove the evidence of the extensiveness of the operation at Birkenau. After Majdanek and Auschwitz I was surprised that all that’s left in Birkenau are piles of rubble and memorials. It came to me that in the end evidently the Nazis were cowards, that had a philosophy that in the end crumbled and that they were ashamed of. Why else, if not out of shame, level such an immense and extensive operation. The pride of the Reich was left for the rubble and that rubble now sticks out like hills of shame that will forever blemish the face of humanity.

We ended our visit at Auschwitz Birkenau in a military ceremony. The Israeli flag flew high above us. We all stood in line proud of our uniforms, proud of what we represent, proud of the values the Israel Defense Forces stand up for. Israel is at the forefront of a struggle for existence, even today there are people in our region and beyond that wish that we go back you Europe “where they belong”. This is a reason why Israel carries the flag of justice, humanity and liberty.

Peter, 8 April 2011

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