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To Hell and Back: : Returning to Auschwitz and Moving On after the Holocaust

"Visiting a place where more than fifty years ago the most horrific things took place, is there a point to that? Does it make any sense to stir up all those things, to dig in the past? Yes, I say, it does make sense. Let it be a warning for the present and the future, let’s learn from the past."

16-year-old Marieke Brouwer, quoted in Verweg en toch Dicht bij (Far away and Near by)

Introduction

Just because the guns have become silent doesn’t mean the war is over. Those who survive a war often remain tormented by traumas for the rest of their life. Likewise children may suffer from the mental scars that war inflicted on their parents. In fact it can take society generations to fully recover from the shared traumas of war. 

The Second World War is no different. This war cost an estimated 60 million lives and caused destruction that still affects the world today. In what the Nazi regime called the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ the Jews of Europe were dispossessed, persecuted and over six million were killed. The concentration camp at Auschwitz has become the quintessential icon of this Holocaust. In this extermination camp an estimated 1.5 million people were murdered. 

These historical facts are familiar, but few of us can really comprehend the full horror they represent. A huge gap separates those who have actually been through a war and those who have never experienced conflict personally. As authors of this article we represent the two sides of this divide: Emma, from a mixed Dutch, Indonesian, British and Jewish background has been shaped by the Second World War, though she has not suffered any personal grief. Vedran, however, is a survivor of the Bosnian war, so that what for most of us is theory and history, is for him a reality. Like many survivors, Vedran often feels that his experiences are misunderstood and at times unrecognised by society. How, he asks, is it possible that genocide can still take place today while the world does nothing about it? 

For those who have suffered from genocide it is vital that others respect and learn about what happened. For survivors, the problem is to find a way to carry on with their lives, while society struggles to recognize and deal with their experiences.

Return to Amsterdam

Many survivors found a cold reception when they returned to the Netherlands after the war. As ever, the Dutch seemed to be more concerned with keeping everything neat and organized rather than with showing any interest in the stories of the people who had suffered in the camps. Many in the Netherlands had no idea how to deal with what had happened. Most preferred to forget it ever occurred and to get back to rebuilding their own lives. So while many survivors found it hard to talk about their experiences, the stories of those who did manage to talk fell on deaf ears. 

Describing the way society’s reaction shaped the post-war experience of many survivors, Abram de Swaan claims that, “Because the story had to be repressed, the witnesses were silenced. And as human beings together form the nation that forms them, the witnesses silenced themselves as they were muted” (De Swaan, in: Hondius, 2003). As a result, Jews felt an enormous divide between themselves and the non-Jewish world. Heroes of the Dutch resistance were portayed as ‘victims who had fought for the Jews’ and Jewish returnees were expected to be grateful. Moreover, there were many instances of open or perceived anti-Semitism after the war as Jews attempted to retrieve their property, their children who had been rescued by non-Jewish families and to reclaim their place in society (Hondius, 2003).

As Dutch Jews began writing about the war (particularly historians such as Loe de Jong and Jaques Presser), the 1960s brought a gradual change in the general attitude towards the suffering caused by the war. Survivors wrote histories, autobiographical accounts and literary interpretations that stimulated a growing interest among the non-Jewish public in the Netherlands. The Dutch government began financing programmes providing therapeutic support for survivors. It was meagre comfort, but it clearly signalled the start of a changing climate. 

By the 1980s, interest had increased in the stories of those who had survived the Holocaust to such an extent that projects were established to record their testimonies and survivors were interviewed for television, newspapers and documentaries. Although many still found it too difficult to talk about their experiences, others found the strength to share their stories. For some it was a relief to finally talk about the war, for others it was an essential part of their healing process. Many considered it a duty to tell the next generation what had happened during the Holocaust. 

It was in this context that the first cautious steps were taken to bridge the gap of understanding between those who had survived the Holocaust and the section of Dutch society that had not experienced these atrocities. One of the organizations that contributed greatly to this process is the Dutch Auschwitz Committee. 

Return to Auschwitz

In 1986, the Dutch Auschwitz Committee made its first trip to the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor and Majdanek. Since then the Committee has organized a visit every other year and since 1999 this has been an annual event. Each group of 96 people consists of survivors, their children and grandchildren (second and third generation survivors), as well as teachers, policy makers, journalists and others who have a particular interest in the Holocaust. Before leaving for Poland a meeting is held where the participants have an opportunity to get to know each other. The group is accompanied by a physician, a psychotherapist and a religious assistant. 

Guiding the group through their journey is Rabbi Sonny Herman. As a rabbi and psychotherapist he recognizes a tremendous need in people to come to terms with the past. He says that going back to ‘the place itself’ can help in saying goodbye to and gaining release from the loved ones who were murdered. The participants draw strength from the group they travel with: “the group is a container of support, an extra strength, that helps in the confrontation with otherwise feared situations and places” (Herman, 2003). Jewish prayers help enable people to express their longings and emotions. The primary purpose of these trips to Poland is therefore to help survivors find closure.

While many people choose to travel to Auschwitz in a group, the personal experience is paramount. Everyone has their own response to the Holocaust and deals with this in their own way. As a consequence the reasons why people make the journey differ markedly from person to person, as the following stories demonstrate.

Stories 

Jacques

Jacques Grishaver was born in 1942 and spent the war in hiding. With the help of the resistance his parents survived, but he lost many members of his family. For years he let his history remain in the past. Later on in life he sought counselling and in 1988 he decided that he wanted to visit Auschwitz. “I wanted to stand on the same platform in the station where trains from Westerbork brought people to Auschwitz. This is the place where my family spent the last moments of their lives,” Jacques. However, one week before the trip he got scared, “I was still ill from the war and my psychiatrist advised me not to go.” 

In 1990 Jacques and his wife eventually made the journey as part of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee group. “It is completely different when you’re in that place,” relates Jacques, “to see children’s shoes, glasses, all the other things of camp prisoners. To see the hair of the women who were imprisoned there. It’s not like in books and documentaries.” Soon after that he started to organize these trips himself and later became chairman of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee. As such he has visited Auschwitz many times, often accompanying young people to educate them about the Holocaust. 

Ted

Ted Musaph was interned with her family in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her father died there, but fortunately she, her mother and siblings survived. She never felt an urge to go back there: “I felt neither scared of it nor drawn to it.” However, when she was asked as vice-chairwoman of the Anne Frank Foundation to go to Bergen-Belsen and address a group of young people there about the meaning of freedom she decided to go. “In this way I felt it was useful,” claims Ted, “I went with a message, a purpose. Not so much for my personal experience. If I hold my nose I can still smell the crematoria - I don’t need to go to Bergen-Belsen for that’.

Ed

Ed van Thijn was only five years old when the war started. He spent most of the war in hiding until he was betrayed in 1944 and was sent to Westerbork concentration camp. He narrowly escaped being deported to Auschwitz before the Canadians liberated Westerbork in April 1945. He had never been able to understand what possessed people to go back to Auschwitz, that place of unimaginable horror. When he eventually went to Auschwitz with one of the trips organized by the Dutch Auschwitz Committee it was primarily as a tribute to the members of his family and other loved ones who had died there. As a mark of respect he also said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited by mourners. ‘I did it in memory of Wimmetje, uncle Lou’s son, who was the first to come and collect him after Westerbork was liberated and had to hear from me that his son was no longer there.’ (Van Thijn, 2004).

Ed later made another trip to Auschwitz together with his wife and two daughters. ‘It was a unique opportunity to talk to my children about these matters’, he says about this trip.

Frieda

Frieda Menco was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau (the part of the camp specifically for extermination) as a teenage girl. Miraculously, she and her mother survived, but most of the rest of their family perished in the gas chambers. For Frieda, going back to Auschwitz was never even an option: “I am sure that if I would go to Auschwitz that I would die on the spot.” She has however been to the concentration camp at Westerbork several times. “Of course I was overwhelmed by emotion,” says Frieda, “but it didn’t give me anything good to be there. No healing took place.”

In brief, there are many different reasons why people may choose to visit the concentration camps in Poland. For Jacques Grishaver going to Auschwitz was initially part of a healing process. As he became more involved with the cause of ‘never again’ his motivation to go on the tours to Auschwitz had more to do with educating the next generation about the Holocaust. Ted Musaph has managed to turn her personal tragedy into a source of inspiration for bringing about positive change in the world. Her reasons for going back to the concentration camp where she was imprisoned were purely utilitarian. Ed van Thijn went primarily as a tribute to those who had lost their lives there. Perhaps Frieda Menco represents the majority of people who survived the war when she says that going to Auschwitz is simply impossible for her. 

Auschwitz Today 

In 2005, close to a million people visited the grounds, buildings, and exhibitions of Auschwitz. Over the past few years there has been a steady increase in visitors.  Moreover, a growing number of people stay at the site for several days to take advantage of the many workshops, exhibitions, and other opportunities the museum offers. Many people are also interested in meeting former prisoners of the camps. Interestingly, over half of the visitors were young people (Bartyzel, 2006). 

Most young people in the Netherlands have never visited Auschwitz. Some know for sure that they will never do so. “It’s just too horrible and depressing,” is an explanation often heard. However, many others express the intention to visit the site at some point in their lives. 

Among the young Dutch people who have visited the concentration camps, 23-year-old Vica Bogaerts had no hesitation in joining a group of survivors on their visit to Poland. For her it was a unique opportunity to try to comprehend what had happened. What she experienced during the trip went far beyond that. “It really got to me,” claims Vica,  “when you see an 80 year old man crying for his fiancée and his parents whom he lost there, it’s no longer about the numbers, the history. It becomes very personal. Nothing is the same after that.” 

The Future of Auschwitz

For most young people, it seems that the historical importance of visiting Auschwitz is linked to present-day issues such as the genocide in Darfur. One young woman expressed the frustration felt by many: “Stuff like that is still happening all over the world. We haven’t learnt anything from it.” 

As chairman of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, Jacques Grishaver sees a role here for the tours of the concentration camps: “We have to make sure that people never forget.” 

Most survivors agree that it is important for young people to learn about the Holocaust. They hope that visiting Auschwitz together with survivors will help create a better understanding of the Holocaust. In this context, Jacques Grishaver claims that “it is crucial to have survivors together with young people on these journeys, because that provides a unique opportunity for them to hear direct testimonies about what happened there and to feel the grief of survivors.”

Conclusion

When the Dutch Auschwitz Committee organized its first tour of Auschwitz, its primary goal was to aid survivors in their healing process. After having hidden their grief for so many years, some people found it therapeutic to face up to the past together. Visiting Auschwitz gave them a chance to say goodbye to the loved ones they had lost there. As time passed, these trips acquired a second dimension. Teachers, policy makers and others were invited in an attempt to make sure the world would never forget what had happened to the six million Jews and the many others who perished in the concentration camps of Europe. 

Today, genocides are still occurring, such as in Darfur and the recent Bosnian war. Moreover, society still has not found a way to deal with the suffering of those who survive. One wonders to what kind of world the message of ‘never again’ is being sent. It is difficult to be optimistic about the future in this context. Yet, each year, growing numbers of young people visit Auschwitz and express a desire to learn about the history of the Holocaust. It is vital that the next generation take the opportunity to listen while the people who survived the war are still with us to tell their story. It is perhaps the only way in which the next generation will ever be able to truly comprehend the full horror of those years. 

An important part of going to Auschwitz is to ask oneself the question, “What would I have done?” And, equally important, “What can I do today to give meaning to the phrase ‘never again’?” The Auschwitz monument in the Wertheimpark in Amsterdam symbolizes this beautifully. Jan Wolkers’ sculpture of broken mirrors shows that after Auschwitz the world can never be the same, while at the same time forcing us to look at ourselves and reflect.

Dialogue is the key to bridging the gap of understanding between those who have experienced war and those who have grown up in peace. Visiting the camps in Poland together offers a unique opportunity to develop an understanding of the events that took place there and perhaps it can also serve as a catalyst for young people to help ensure that it really never does happen again, in Europe or elsewhere.

References

Anonymous (1996) Verweg en toch Dicht bij: Jongeren en overlevenden bezoeken samen Auschwitz-Birkenau, Amsterdam: Nederlands Auschwitz Comite 

Bartyzel, B., (2006) ‘Almost a Million People Visited the Site of the Auschwitz Nazi Camp in 2005’, ICEAH Information Center

Herman, S., (2003) ‘Veertig jaar later: rouwverwerking na de holocaust’, in: Hart, O. van der, Afscheidsrituelen: achterblijven en verder gaan, Harcourt Assessment

Hondius, D., (2003) Return: Holocaust Survivors and Dutch Anti-Semitism, Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Press

Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, cf. www.auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl

Nederlands Auschwitz Comité, cf. www.auschwitz.nl

Van Thijn, E., (2004), Achttien Adressen, Amsterdam: Augustus

Interviews

Vica Bogaerts, student Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Humanity in Action fellow, 27 June 2006

Jacques Grishaver, survivor of the Holocaust and chairman of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, 23 June 2006

Rabbi Sonny Herman, rabbi and psychotherapist and affiliate of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, 21 June 2006

Frieda Menco, survivor of Auschwitz and affiliate of Humanity in Action, 21 June 2006

Ted Musaph, survivor of Bergen-Belsen and chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Musum as well as vice-chairwoman of the Anne Frank Foundation, 26 June 2006

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Netherlands Netherlands 2006

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