I didn’t want to go to Auschwitz. In fact, I had been dreading the trip to the concentration camp since I knew I was going to be in Europe. Maybe “didn’t want to go” is not accurate. I wanted to go … but knew it would be an experience that would be achingly painful.

As a child being raised Jewish, I was fortunate enough to meet many survivors of the Holocaust. And, as former actress, I was fortunate enough to have a part in a play “Who Will Carry the Word?” that dealt with 20 women attempting to survive in Auschwitz. Between being Jewish and being in a play about the Holocaust, I had learned a lot.

I knew going in to Auschwitz how bad it was there. I knew what to expect. And yet, after I watched the short film they show at the beginning of the tour of the camp, when the doors to the camp were opened and I saw the “Arbeit Macht Frei” metal sign above the entrance, my eyes and nose stung with salty tears.

Man, this tour was going to get me.

“Are you OK?” Stephan, a Scottish guy I had met the night before at Tutti Frutti, asked me, placing his hand on my arm after we exited the gas chamber in Auschwitz.

“Yeah,” I said. It was only then, when the “yeah” came out choked and strained that I realized I was far from OK.

“Thanks,” I said, resisting tears and fighting to keep my composure.

I had expected to feel something in the gas chambers.

It was earlier, when I stood in one of the blocks looking at photos of children who were brought to the camp, that I lost it and was thankful I had my big sunglasses on to cover half my face. I didn’t want people to see me, having a moment, as I looked at one little Polish girl, fear rampant on her face and tears clearly pooled in her eyes, as she took her mug shot.

Auschwitz is an ironic place. It’s original use was not as a death camp, so its large red brick buildings, grass lining the streets and weeping willows sprouting from the ground stand as a complete juxtaposition to what happened there. Birkenau, well, that camp just looked like field of death.

I could take the time here and talk more about my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I could write about the tons of hair the Nazis stockpiled which was on display in a room, the piles of shoes, the twisted metal glasses, the pots and pans. I could tell you about our tour guide (it costs a little to have one, but it is well worth it to learn information beyond the signs) being from Oswecim, where the camps are located, and how the town is pretty, not what one would expect considering the deaths that took place. I could even tell you about the words she said as we toured Birkenau and saw the long slab of concrete with 50 or so holes which served as toilets: “Auschwitz was hell. Birkenau was worse.”

I could tell you how odd and numbing it is to stand in the midst of a place where innocent lives were lost, where people were killed brutally … and to watch other people treat this place, this living, breathing reminder of pain, as a fun tourist attraction.

But, I believe it is more important in this space to tell the story of one soft-spoken man I know, Ben Lesser. A kind and loving grandfather in Las Vegas. A Holocaust survivor. Because, at the end of the day, the truest way to gain insight into what happened in Auschwitz is by hearing stories of those who witnessed it’s sheer and utter force, death and destruction.

And, this is his (abbreviated) story:

Born in 1928 in Krakow, Ben lived in Poland pre-World War II. When the Germans began to occupy Poland, he and his younger brother were snuck out of the country via the bottom of of a coal truck to meet their uncle in Hungary. However, less than a year later, Ben was taken by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train. Only a teenager, Ben was then transferred to Durnhau Labor Camp.

For months, he toiled and survived there. Then, in February 1945, he was a part of the Death March … a two-week march that moved prisoners from the war front to camps in Germany’s interior. The march took Ben through dire conditions, eventually landing him at Buchenwald for one night before being placed in a cattle car and moved aimlessly for approximately a month as the Germans tried to evade the American and British troops and destroy the evidence of the crimes they committed against humanity.

Finally, after more than six weeks of ghastly living, Ben arrived in Dachau. Three days later, on April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated.

On May 8, the war ended.

However, while Ben survived the Holocaust, the scars from the experience ran deep. He lost his entire family, minus his sister, Lola.

Today, Ben speaks to youth across America, telling his story. He also runs an organization, the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust in both Jewish and world history … to ensure future generations ALWAYS REMEMBER what happened to millions of people.

My telling of his story does it no justice. For HIS words, which far exceed any horror I could ever possibly convey in this, please click here.

Needless to say, when I returned to Krakow that night and boarded my train to Prague, my mind could hardly process the experience.

27 comments

  1. Thanks for this. I’m not Jewish, but visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau was a devastating experience for me. I went alone,which may have been a mistake as there was no-one to distract me from the horror. I could feel evil seeping out of the earth – I was surprised that anything grew there. I’d done a lot of reading on WWII, but it didn’t prepare me for the impact of the site.

    I think everyone should go – I noticed that they count the visitors – but only once. When I went back to Krakow, I didn’t go again.

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    1. I don’t think I could ever go again … and I don’t think I would visit another camp. They count the visitors who actually pay for a guided tour … I know its in the millions. I cannot imagine how many people have visited that don’t do the guided tours … I am sure it doubles or triples the visitors. I don’t think anything can prepare a person for visiting these sites. It really is just evil.

      Like

  2. Thanks for this. I’m not Jewish, but visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau was a devastating experience for me. I went alone,which may have been a mistake as there was no-one to distract me from the horror. I could feel evil seeping out of the earth – I was surprised that anything grew there. I’d done a lot of reading on WWII, but it didn’t prepare me for the impact of the site.

    I think everyone should go – I noticed that they count the visitors – but only once. When I went back to Krakow, I didn’t go again.

    Like

    1. I don’t think I could ever go again … and I don’t think I would visit another camp. They count the visitors who actually pay for a guided tour … I know its in the millions. I cannot imagine how many people have visited that don’t do the guided tours … I am sure it doubles or triples the visitors. I don’t think anything can prepare a person for visiting these sites. It really is just evil.

      Like

    1. Thank you. It was really difficult. I was really loving Krakow and didn’t want to visit the camps, but knew it was something I had to do. It was the entire reason I went to Poland in the first place.

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    1. Thank you. It was really difficult. I was really loving Krakow and didn’t want to visit the camps, but knew it was something I had to do. It was the entire reason I went to Poland in the first place.

      Like

  3. What amazes me, besides what you said about such a place becoming a tourist attraction (that someone could even think of turning a profit on an atrocity is beyond me), is that people never address how silent the bystanders were. Aren’t they just as guilty?

    I’m not Jewish but most of my high school English studies were spent on Holocolaust literature. If we make it to Poland and to the camps, Ill probably break, too. The whole thing was utterly disgusting.

    Anyway, on a lighter note, I think the way you incorporated a history and cultural lesson while sharing something so personal is both brave and brilliant. Good work.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I keep my blog pretty non-political, so I am going to refrain from commenting … šŸ™‚ As a reference, touring the camps is free of charge. It is only if you want a guide that you must pay.

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  4. What amazes me, besides what you said about such a place becoming a tourist attraction (that someone could even think of turning a profit on an atrocity is beyond me), is that people never address how silent the bystanders were. Aren’t they just as guilty?

    I’m not Jewish but most of my high school English studies were spent on Holocolaust literature. If we make it to Poland and to the camps, Ill probably break, too. The whole thing was utterly disgusting.

    Anyway, on a lighter note, I think the way you incorporated a history and cultural lesson while sharing something so personal is both brave and brilliant. Good work.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment. I keep my blog pretty non-political, so I am going to refrain from commenting … šŸ™‚ As a reference, touring the camps is free of charge. It is only if you want a guide that you must pay.

      Like

  5. I’m running a bit behind here, but I’m scanning your old posts on places I’m heading. I plan on visiting Auschwitz while I am there as I think it’s important. I think it’s important as I think what happened there and in other camps should never be forgotten but I believe that it will be a harrowing, deeply sad experience – it should never be thought of as a tourist attraction. Iā€™m sorry that anyone would have to experience that, especially if you are mourning the death of your ancestors. It should be about paying your respects to those who suffered something unimaginable.

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  6. I am sobbing as I type on my computer now. As a Texas belle married to a Yankee Jew, this hits home in ways I never could have imagined before I met my beautiful husband. It was always disturbing, always painful to read about or watch a film about, but now it just cuts a whole lot deeper.

    Thank you for writing about this topic. I couldn’t have made it through the first few lines. I’m a crybaby. Make me laugh sometime! xoxo

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    1. Samantha — thank you so much for taking the time to comment. For weeks, I was dreading visiting Auschwitz because I knew the emotional toll it would take on me. I’m the sensitive type of girl who won’t even watch a movie if it is sad. Want to laugh? Check out my post from when I was in Ireland, http://www.dtravelsround.com/2010/03/24/the-time-my-liver-hated-me/. It will make you laugh. I hope. You’ll at least cringe. šŸ™‚

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  7. Wow. Strange how I came across your site tonight, and then this entry. My son (who is 16) and I attended a meeting last night about the March of the Living which is being held in April, 2012. We’re going.

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