Sunday, January 31, 2010

Our Man Elli in Auschwitz

Our Man Elli in Israel has returned home to Jerusalem after a trip to Auschwitz, Poland, for events commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps as the rest of the world celebrated International Holocaust Day. Elli, also known as Elli Wohlgelernter, the award-winning journalist, New York City tabloid veteran, Pulitzer Prize-nominee for his investigation of chronicler of The Israel Baseball League and familiar across the Middle East as correspondent Israel Broadcasting Authority, spent time at the Auschwitz I andd Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps, and sends this report:

I was in Auschwitz last week for International Holocaust Day. My first impressions: Well, one word dominated everything: freezing. I would recommend anyone visiting Auschwitz to only go in the winter. One cannot imagine the suffering, or anything for that matter, because it all looks so pretty, a winter wonderland with clean snow without any red blood. But the cold? That you can feel, even with two pair of gottkas, two pairs of socks, gloves, heavy coat, Chinese fur hat, and the coat hood over that. And then you imagine being there without that clothing. That's as close as you can get to any understanding-- and even that is limited.

As for the Auschwitz Museum: well done, actually, considering how old it is, and that we've seen all the pictures of the display. The hair gets to a lot of people, but I wasn't as moved by that as I was by the suitcases, with everyone's names on it; and the shoes, and how bad a shape most of the soles were in-- real poor Jews; and surprisingly, the hundreds of pots and pans, all in just three colors: red, blue and white, for
milchig, fleishig and parve.

Inside another building in Auschwitz 1 is a still-standing gas chamber, which was only used at the beginning of the war before Birkenau was built and, next door, the ovens. That, needless to say, leaves one speechless.

Another thing: the difference between Auschwitz and Birkenau. The entire Auschwitz complex, with many sub-camps, is some 40 square kilometers, which is huge. Auschwitz 1, where the museum and Arbeit Macht Frei sign stand, is the old camp, originally for political prisoners. It's a hotel compared with Birkenau. The barracks in Birkenau, such as they are, are stark, but it's still hard to imagine what it was like. The wood will eventually rot away, and they have to decide what to do with that; very disturbing is graffiti cut into the stone walls, with dates going back 20-30 years. How crazy and sick. If kids can do graffiti in Birkenau, I tried to imagine the most obscene thing 30 years from now, when Holocaust denial will be more prevalent. I came up with Playboy doing a pictorial, "The Girls of Auschwitz," with shots of them sprawled out on the bunks. If that sounds sick, which it is, it's part of the surreal feeling that you feel altogether.

With the snow covering everything, you get no sense of what's what, even one who knows more than the average visitor. But at one point I went walking away from the crowd, and came upon what was a long, narrow, underground room/corridor. Now open, there was snow covering it, except the side walls of brick, and I knew right away that this was the undressing room before the gas chambers at the end of the corridor. That blew me away.

What was also interesting to me was that I, a full-blown crybaby, didn't cry once, mostly because all I thought about was the cold.

I went as a representative of the IBA. I did a phone interview live, and brought back a couple of interviews, and thankfully there was real work to do. Also Davaned in the Rama Shul, and saw his cemetery, which was very interesting, in the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimeirz.

Just being in Poland for the first time was heavy. Overall, unforgettable, of course. but i need to see more of Jewish Poland (such as it is)-- Warsaw, Lublin, Lodz and the other camp sites.

And that's my recap for now.

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