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Journey to Auschwitz

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010. 


I TRAVELED TO AUSCHWITZ FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MARCH, 2008. I had been postponing the trip for years, out of fear: I had no idea how I would react to what I saw and feared my own, subsequent powerlessness. I didn’t want to visit Auschwitz alone and was equally reluctant to transform the trip into a religious pilgrimage of sorts. When HIA offered a study trip for senior fellows called Relevance of the Holocaust, I immediately applied. I needed to experience the site with like-minded, critical thinkers who would be prepared to discuss the landscape of horror, and think of how to turn their mourning into action.

I visited Auschwitz with 35 HIA senior fellows from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland to discuss the impact of the Holocaust on contemporary European politics and history and anti-Semitism in the 21st century. Two days of pre-program discussions (in either Berlin, Copenhagen or Amsterdam) preceded our 6-day program in Krakow, which included a two-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

My travels took me to Berlin, Krakow and Oswiencim. I spent the week shivering and feeling as though I were frozen inside, even though outside temperatures rose to the low 60s. The trip left me with more questions than answers. The minute I thought I understood the historical events, the statistics and mind-boggling numbers, a detail would catch me off guard: a swimming pool behind a barrack at Auschwitz, built especially for a sanitation inspection at the camp, and later used for SS calisthenics. Just when I thought I had made sense of the surroundings, I found myself asking the same naïve questions. Why? How? Where was the rest of world? Who were these bystanders?

In Berlin, we began our pre-program discussions at the Anne Frank Center in the center of Mitte, formerly part of the GDR, which has now transformed into one of the city’s trendiest, most coveted neighborhoods. It is home to Berlin’s largest synagogue, art galleries and myriad memorial plaques for deported Jewish families. In the heart of this old Jewish neighborhood, we met to discuss the politics of memorialization, how different countries commemorate the Holocaust, what nations choose to forget or whitewash. On the second day of our pre-program, we boarded a commuter train for Oranienburg to visit Sachsenhausen, one of Germany’s first concentration camps. Jet-lagged, I was expecting the train to Oranienburg to last hours. Instead, we arrived in just under forty minutes.

Already, my mind was playing tricks on me. Forty minutes away from Berlin, the nexus of German culture, home to some of Europe’s greatest museums, illustrious intellectual establishments, stands the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. The juxtaposition startled me. The concentration camp itself was a twenty-five minute walk from the train station, a carefully calculated move on the part of Nazi camp architecture and planning. In fact, over the course of the trip I realized a crucial feature of the perfected Nazi prison machine: they left absolutely nothing to chance. As prisoners were paraded through town on their way to the camp- grounds, Oranienburg residents watched, threw stones, shouted or went about their business. It was a spectacle designed to involve the entire town. Before visiting Sachsenhausen, I hadn’t considered to what extent the camp and town were intertwined. Everybody participated in the camp’s existence, if not physically, then by watching intently or, what is equally disturbing, by deliberately ignoring. And as I made my way toward the camp, I imagined what it must have felt like to be watched and surveyed constantly.

History has an internal recycling mechanism. I witnessed this fi st hand in Sachsenhausen. After the Nazis, the Red Army occupied Sachsen- hausen and the communists continued to use it as a prison camp. Today, the Brandenburg police force uses the  SS barracks as training grounds.

Thankfully, the SS casino – a wooden structure called the Green Monster – stands in ruins. To me, it was a fitting form of commemoration. Let their house of fun and entertainment hobble, exposed to the elements, a mound of detritus.

I found the camp’s design impeccable: a semi- circular roll call area stands facing the watchtower with barracks along the periphery, radiating outward. Built as a panopticon, Sachsenhausen functioned as a model for future camp designs. From inside the camp, I could see Oranienburg houses; I imagined what people on the second floor witnessed and chose not to discuss. I grew numb.

We traveled onwards, on the night train from Berlin to Krakow. As we neared Krakow in the early morning, I realized that these were familiar train tracks. My family had emigrated from Ukraine in 1978. Our journey from Kharkov to Vienna led us along these same tracks, through Poland; border guards, passport control, steel faces interrogated us, halting our approach toward freedom. In Vienna we received passports that labeled us Staatenlos, country-less citizens. I was reliving a two-part past: my personal journey out of the Soviet Union and the journey of millions of European and East European Jews to their deaths.

Another peculiar instance of historical recycling welcomed me in Krakow. Our youth hostel in Krakow, located on 2 Pomorska Street, had formerly housed the Gestapo headquarters. The communist regime later recycled the building and it became the KGB headquarters. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what conversations or acts of brutality had taken place in our bedroom and whether lives had been negotiated in the very place I rested my head.

Our tour guide in Krakow, Tomasz Cepulski, brought life to Kazimirsz, the Jewish quarter in Krakow. He led us through the deserted streets while the wind blew from every direction and the rain drizzled, and, accompanied by his narrative, I began to imagine Ulica Szeroka, the wide street and former Jewish market place with three synagogues lining it, swell with life. We walked into the Remuh Synagogue, where Rabbi Moses Isserless’ grave stands. The only synagogue still used for worship, it also has Krakow’s oldest standing Jewish cemetery immediately behind it. I alternated between feeling like I was in a museum and feeling like I had entered the house of the dead. Krakow once boasted a Jewish community of nearly 70,000; it now numbered 180.

What our guide managed to do – and this was no small feat – was breathe life back into the city. Walking through streets named after Jacob, Isaac and Esther, I slowly began to imagine it – along with its seven synagogues, mikvah, market place – rife with excitement, promise and bustle. Leaving Szeroka Street we came upon a mural of the 18th annual 2007 Jewish festival in Krakow, where for ten days every June, Jewish life reanimated this part of the world with its loud, musical, frenzied dancing and indomitable spirit. We walked through Kazimirsz as the sun was setting, and there was something depressing about the names of restaurants–all Jewish–in a city that had almost no Jews left. Now, Kazimirsz is one of Krakow’s trendiest neighborhoods –a bohemian artist’s haven. We saw the courtyard where Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List. Krakow was the city that Hans Frank sought to make Judenrein (free of Jews), and here I was walking through the town and imagining it teeming with life.

We arrived in Auschwitz the following day. The countless images of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate that I had seen in photographs, books and movies didn’t prepare me for what  I would experience as I walked through the gate myself. I felt like a pilgrim visiting a site of death and had no idea how to respond. My initial response was one of horror at the fact that I felt nothing. It wasn’t until I realized how close  the barbed wire fences were at all times, how they closed in on me, that I began to feel uneasy. Even when I closed my eyes to shut them out, the fences surrounded me, imprinted themselves in my mind.  I had been prepared for the horrific numbers, the statistics, and even the artifacts– hair, shoes, suitcases– but what I hadn’t expected to see was Auschwitz bathed in early spring sunlight. Barbed wire fences – so close I could almost feel them against my skin – set against mid-afternoon sun demolished any idea I’d formerly had that I was prepared for what I would see at Auschwitz.

And yet, Auschwitz felt eerily familiar: architecturally, I recognized it from images, photographs, history textbooks, and films. Yet another incongruous recycling factoid: I learned that the buildings of Auschwitz had been used in the 1920s as a visa granting facility and quarantine for Jewish immigrants en route to Palestine and the United States. I shuddered at the irony.

After a day at Auschwitz, we toured the Jewish Centre in Oswiencim and I found myself in shock. The synagogue in the Jewish center has three torah scrolls, and yet Oswiencim is not home to a single Jew. We ended the day with a celebration of Jewish life, since before the Holocaust the town had been 60% Jewish. It was helpful to debrief that evening as a group and share our thoughts on the day, while our emotions were still raw. Some cried, some were numb, most asked questions, some wanted to be alone, others couldn’t stop talking, and some questioned our role as tourists at a site of genocide. We all shared a look of disbelief on our faces and an understanding of the lack of adequate vocabulary to describe what we’d seen. We spent the night in Oswiencim.

Nothing could have prepared me for the next day, for the sheer magnitude of Birkenau. Auschwitz had unfolded neatly, along a compact grid. Not a single centimeter was unaccounted for– every last detail played a key role in the killing machine. I began to understand the Nazi enterprise as a well-oiled killing machine. What I hadn’t grasped from history books, but which I understood while visiting the sites of extermination, was that the concentration/ extermination camps were works in progress. The Nazi regime was constantly perfecting the mechanics; leading scientists, doctors were continually ironing out kinks in the machine and speeding up the process.

We began our tour of Birkenau by climbing up into the watchtower and surveying the territory from above. I could barely see where the camp– a universe of terror– ended. I began shaking even before the hailstorm engulfed us. I entered barracks built like stables, wooden prefabricated buildings. I walked through the latrines and was reminded that bathrooms were the only place of relative privacy for prisoners, since the SS avoided them, for fear of contracting typhus. Bathrooms turned into an information circulation network. I stood in front of a wall of photographs and felt I could have been looking at pictures of my own relatives. I saw the gas chamber complexes and the pile of rubble left behind, as the Nazis burned every- thing and tried to cover up their traces. I saw Kanada I and II, coveted work places for prisoners, where they sorted through belongings. I walked through a children’s barrack with drawings on the walls. Of the many recycled buildings we saw, I noticed a true oddity: the old SS bunker at Birkenau now houses a church that regularly holds worship.

I felt ashamed of a recurring thought I had throughout the day: the weather at Birkenau was perfect. A freezing rainstorm followed by hail, followed by unexplainable minutes of brilliant spring sun that gave in to thunderous lightening and darkened skies. I staggered through the Birkenau mud, my shoes almost entirely submerged. I searched in vain for any sort of logic.

Our discussions, seminars and meetings with guest speakers, many of whom included young, vibrant Polish lawyers, professors, politicians, activists and educators, sparked productive exchange  about the vital importance and relevance of Holocaust education in contemporary Europe and North America. I found it helpful to distance ourselves from what we saw and discuss the actual sites of mass murder, destruction and utter dehumanization with a critical eye, but the shock of witnessing the physical sites escaped rationalization and intellectualization. I came home from the HIA trip with more questions than answers. It took months before I could open the Auschwitz file on my computer and peruse the photographs I had taken, and my worst fear was coming true. I was completely powerless.

I decided to make sense of my trip to Poland by taking small steps in my own life. I joined the planning committee for Holocaust Education Week in Toronto and began leading workshops about discrimination and racism in schools. As an educator, I consistently remind students of the power of words, and their role in racial discourse and in our treatment of minorities. Words are both powerful and terrifying tools. The killing machine that turned into Auschwitz began on a very small scale, and it began with harmful, hateful and dangerously manipulative words. Our power lies in not being seduced by racist discourse, which seeps into our language incrementally, but to fight against it. I remind students of the power of language to corrupt and corrode, but also to fight against injustice.

•     •     • 

About the Author

Julia Zarankin received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She taught Russian literature and culture at Stanford and the University of Missouri. Julia currently works as a writer, editor and writing coach in Toronto. In addition, she frequently lectures to later life learners about Russian and Soviet culture at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. She has served on the planning committee of Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.


Zarankin, Julia. "Journey to Auschwitz." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 44-51. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.
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