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Auschwitz: Roses and Malls
by Ilana Masad
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IN BETWEEN 10th and 11th grades, my high school, like most high schools in Israel, offered a guided trip to Poland. My father was very ill at the time, and I had been helping to take care of him. Despite that fact, or maybe because of it, I chose to go. Both my grandparents had escaped Poland, only to be stuck, incarcerated, in Russia (accused of being German spies) — while most of the rest of their families were rounded up by the Nazis into ghettos, work camps, or death camps. My grandparents had next to no one left after World War II.
So I chose to go, and my parents agreed to pay and supported my decision. My brother had gone on a similar trip with his high school, and whatever was waiting for me over there, I knew it would be worth the trip, and a once in a lifetime opportunity, since I couldn’t see myself choosing to ever go to Poland for this specific mission on my own. It was now or never.
Prior to the trip, we were taken on a two-day retreat to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev, where we went through a series of workshops that made sure we would take the trip to Poland seriously. On the first day, we were visited by a Holocaust survivor, a man who’d masqueraded as a Christian, and whose looks were pointed out by a teacher to be similar to the Aryan look (there were six distinct types) that Hitler himself sported.
The most sobering part of that retreat was the films we watched. One was a reenactment of what gas chamber deaths looked like: men and women herded into a room, all naked, some still trying to cover themselves up and some simply clutching their children or spouses. There wasn’t an inch of room. The people looked up, trying to see where the water for their promised shower was. As the gas began to flow in, they started clambering over each other to get air, pure survivalists, pushing children and spouses down. They were drowning in the heavy gas, and the higher they went, clawing up over their fellows, the more oxygen they could heave into their lungs. Finally, as the ones below suffocated, the ones who’d climbed up fell and died too. The black and white film, some twelve minutes long, ended with a sustained shot of the pile of bodies lying in the room, looking like excruciatingly emaciated football players piling up on the poor sucker with the ball.
GOING TO POLAND with friends and teachers was odd, to say the least. On some level, we knew it was going to be fun, though it wasn’t supposed to be. But it was the first time many of us had been abroad with friends, or abroad at all. On the plane, my friends and I cracked up over the gross airplane food. We slept (or tried to) on one another’s shoulders until we landed. We left the plane and met our teachers at a designated location, retrieved our bags, and got right onto a bus for our first activities of the day.
We started in Krakow. It’s a beautiful city, but it’s blurry in my memory due to my tiredness from not having really slept all night on the plane. We saw a monument made of chairs; we walked through what used to be a ghetto; we saw a synagogue. Finally, at the end of the day, we got back on the bus. By the time we arrived at that night’s hotel, we’d all caught our second wind. We found our rooms and began to fully enjoy roaming the hotel hallways and yelling into one another’s rooms. We had fun, showering and primping and flirting and gathering to talk. We were happy.
But we were in Poland, where so many of our ancestors had died, and weren’t supposed to be.
THERE WAS A RHYTHM to our days: quick breakfasts at hotels, bags taken to the bus, and long rides through the flat and beautiful countryside. Once we stopped at a mass grave. Another day we visited Majdanek. We saw the masses of collected shoes, the hair still braided, all museum-ified for tourists like us. A couple of the boys draped Israeli flags around their shoulders and were quickly dissuaded by our teachers, who thought it was more dangerous than the t-shirts we already wore bearing Hebrew lettering. On our way to Treblinka there was another synagogue. We saw, for the first time, a big red swastika painted on the side of a white building.
During our hotel nights, couples were made and broken. Our emotion, hard to describe and understand at 16, poured out hormonally. Someone managed to get alcohol, but it was kept quiet. Others switched rooms so they could have their first groping experiences with other hormonally charged, bemused teenagers.
Finally, the crowning glory of the trip: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warsaw, and the flight home. It was a long bus ride that day, and we were laughing and telling jokes and throwing things at one another. When I say “we” I mean that this was what was generally happening; I remember spending most of my time on the bus either napping or listening to music, the same albums and same songs over and over again, lulling me into dissociation. But this day, one of our teachers, a usually sweet-natured biology teacher, snapped. She yelled at all of us, saying she knew that the Warsaw Mall, our last stop before the airport, was what we’d all been waiting for, and that all she asked for was some dignity at the death camp.
Did she really imagine that anyone on that trip had come for the shopping? My friends and I had moaned about how stupid the visit to the mall was going to be, and even those who later bought a dozen pairs of shoes and shirts hadn’t come to Poland for its pre-Euro prices. What our teacher failed to understand was that we simply couldn’t be sad all of the time. It was impossible. The visits to the camps were difficult and stirring and many people cried and shared stories of their grandparents or great-aunts and -uncles whose lives were permanently altered by these places. But we were also teenagers on a trip without our parents, and we couldn’t mourn 24/7 over an atrocity that had ended sixty years prior.
THAT ISN'T TO SAY that everyone was respectful. Previous visitors to Auschwitz had threaded roses through the wire fence near the gate that led into the acres of land that constituted this famous place of annihilation. Several of the girls had their friends take photographs of them looking sad and droopy near the roses, in what they seemed to think were attractively emo poses. This was when I lost it, much like my teacher. I didn’t say a word, but I fumed. This was pre-selfie time (2006; everyone had fancy digital cameras), but the notion of taking what would today be the equivalent of an Instagram photo (likely hashtagged #Auschwitz #sadface #OMG #DeathCamp) still boils my blood.
I walked past these girls and took in what was even more bizarre: the camp itself. The buildings weren’t the original ones, at least not all of them. They were rebuilt where the old ones had been destroyed or burned to the ground, preserving the camp in a Disneyland-like sameness. But around the buildings, the land had grown wild, the grass untrimmed. The mud and dirt we see in Holocaust films, all that was gone. There was greenery everywhere. It was summer. The sun shone down through shifting gray clouds as we walked along the old train tracks that led into the camp. Flowers bloomed around the edges of the furnace, and I couldn’t help but think of the terrible joke: What’s the difference between Santa Claus and a Jew? Santa Claus goes down the chimney... It was surreal, impossible to really envision the suffering that had taken place on every inch of ground we walked on.
Yet there it was, and there we were. Just a group of teenagers without the vocabulary and maturity to discuss these places, without the ability to be easily vulnerable, but with the instinctive knowledge that Jews have long used gallows humor. So when we left Auschwitz and got on the bus, the giddy atmosphere resumed, and off to the bloody stupid mall we went.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.