Amanda Sher '02 reflects on her unforgettable trip to Poland & Israel
I know it’s a cliché, but I really did have the adventure of a lifetime. I was one of seventy-seven participants that traveled to Israel and Poland on the March of the Living’s Birthright trip. Taglit (birthright in Hebrew), is an international program that gives Jewish people ages eighteen to twenty-six a free trip to Israel. My trip went to Poland for five days, where we visited several death camps, ghettos and other significant Jewish areas in a country that was once 30 percent Jewish. Seeing the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek was an overwhelming and, quite frankly, traumatic experience. I find myself still haunted by what I witnessed.
I always envisioned Auschwitz in black and white, so I was surprised to see the dark red brick buildings that lined the rocky dirt paths inside the camp. Walking through the infamous gates was surreal, knowing that I was traveling on the same path as so many before me. The difference was that I knew what lay behind the gates, and what the fate was for those who entered during World War II.
The most intense part of that visit was walking through the gas chambers. Touching the walls, seeing the scrape marks, you could only imagine what went through the minds of literally millions of Jews. That was perhaps the strangest part—even though we were physically present at the camps, we still found ourselves saying, “I can’t imagine.”
We visited the death camp Majdanek. When we got there, it had just stopped raining, the ground was frosty and the wind was blowing. Up until this moment on the trip, the wintry weather hadn’t really bothered me. Each time that I would shiver or blow my running nose, I reminded myself that the people that were subjected to live in this place had a lot less than I did. This is an issue we talked a lot about on the trip. In order to understand their suffering, do we need to suffer as well? A rabbi that lived in one of the ghettos in Lodz, Poland, said that you can’t understand suffering in the comfort of your own living room. That day at the camp, I was very far from my own living room.
We walked through the camp, mostly silent, listening to our guide describe the realities of the camp. Then we went to the shoe room. If you’ve been to a Holocaust Museum, or even a camp, you’ve seen this before: a mass display of shoes that were collected from the prisoners as they entered the concentration camps. But this was an actual barrack filled with metal crates that went to the ceiling, all filled with shoes and shoes and shoes. The crates lined the walls, with two additional columns in the middle of the room that went all the way to the back of the barrack. The faint light from the dreary day only illuminated the room so much, and after walking back several feet, you were immersed in the darkness and surrounded by all of the shoes. There just aren’t words to describe the emotions I felt when I was in this room—trust me, I’ve tried to find them, and I just don’t think they exist.
After five extremely emotional and powerful days in Poland, we were all overjoyed to travel to Israel. We left Poland on December 31 and arrived in Israel in 2007. It seemed fitting that we spent the last five days of the year experiencing our history, and now we were about to spend the beginning of the new year in our homeland. This was my second time visiting Israel, and this time it really felt as if I were returning home. And that’s part of the uniqueness of Israel—that a foreign nation can seem so familiar.