|Last night, on the 5 hour ride from Lodz to Krakow, the schedule called for a "reflections" period about 2-3 hours into the ride. The 39 teens on the bus were to be asked if they wanted to share any reflections or feelings about what they had experienced that day. The ride started out very quietly. The kids were definitely reflecting. However . . . slowly . . . teen life began to emerge again from the back of the bus. Chatter, laughter and eventually music played loudly from someone's IPod. Suddenly, they all burst into song and the party was on.
I overheard a staff member say to another "Maybe we should pass on reflections". The rest of the staff agreed and I was relieved that the decision had been made. It was a glorious way to end a very difficult day, listening to 39 teens sing at the top of their voices all the way back to the hotel.
This morning we started our day at Auschwitz. I was on a different bus and, to my absolute delight, these kids were listening to music and singing at the top of their lungs. What a gift! We were headed to one of the most evil places on earth and the journey was being paved with song. I couldn't help but think that these kids were giving the ultimate middle finger to Hitler.
I did walk through Auschwitz with the kids but I didn't take any pictures. There are plenty of pictures available online and I just did't feel like snapping pictures. The kids were again all over me. I was accompanied most of the tour by one of the boys who gave me his arm and told me to lean on him. He helped me up and down stairs and the girls surrounded me every chance they got. I just can't stop talking about the kids.
At the beginning of the tour I was asked to talk about the family I lost in Auschwitz. It was very difficult to do that while standing in front of the very place where so many of my family were murdered. Two of the teen girls flanked me while I spoke and held tight to my arms. When I was done talking my knees were shaking so badly that I had to go to a nearby bench while that part of the program continued with another of the Survivors talking about her family. So one of the kids helped me to the bench (the ground was very uneven) where I sat for about a half hour waiting for the tour to begin.
I'll give you just one statistic about Auschwitz . . . 1.3 million people were killed at Auschwitz. Of those 1.3 million, 430,000 were Hungarian Jews.
While I was sitting there, a group of Japanese tourists stopped and some of them sat near me. One lady leaned over and, seeing my March of the Living tag, asked what was my role in the March. When I told them that I was a Survivor they peppered me with questions about how I survived and other aspects of my story. They told me that they were there with a large contingent of Japanese Christians to march along with us. There are amazing people in the world.
After going up and down stairs, trekking cobblestone streets and passing through some of the most painful exhibits imagineable, I finally sat down on a bench to relax. The bench was in one of the exhibit rooms and other kids from our Los Angeles contingent came through as I sat. More smiles, more hugs, more kids plopping themselves next to me and saying they'd rather sit with me than stay with their group. I know I sound like a broken record, but it's really what this trip has boiled down to. The devotion these young people have to learning everything they can about the Holocaust so they can carry the message and the memory to future generations is at the center of this program and at the center of my heart.
As we walked past an exhibit of human hair that had been shaved off the heads of the dead, I heard loud sobbing behind me. I did't want to turn around so I just kept walking. Later in the day, when we were at Birkenau and I was sitting with other Survivors at a cafe while the kids took the extremely long tour, a girl walked over to our table and asked if she could sit with us. She said she'd rather spend the afternoon with us than walk through the camp with her group. It turned out that she was the sobbing girl.
On our way to Birkenau on the bus, two girls walked over to where I was sitting and began peppering me with questions. One of them asked "What does it mean to you to be here?" I said that it was more important for me to hear what it meant to HER to be here. She said that, although she had heard of the Holocaust since she was in kindergarten, the magnitude of the number six million didn't really sink in. It had just been a history lesson like other history lessons. She said that walking through Auschwitz and seeing the personal items of the victims and their luggage and their hair . . . suddenly it got personal. Suddenly she realized that the six million were individual people, individual families who had laughed and loved. And who had been loved.
The most important thing that happened to me today was when one of the girls from the bus on which I spoke yesterday (we rotate buses so all the kids can hear our stories) walked over to me and gave me a big hug. Referring to the brochure with pictures and stories of my family that I hand out to the kids on the bus, she whispered in my ear "I'll never forget your family. I'll keep their pictures forever and show them to my own children."
That's why I'm here.