Ron Grabois 3/30/11
This trip was an amazing trip that exceeded what I hoped to gain from a trip of this nature. Seven concentration camps in less than two weeks would keep most people from going, but our group is not most people. We are a dedicated group of individuals with a goal of learning about the Holocaust from people who live it or lived it. There is no better way to learn.
I am trying to come to grips with some of what we have learned. Some is very conflicting, like why did the Danes rescue their Jews while the Dutch gave theirs up so readily? These are not countries that have had centuries of Anti-Semitism; instead they allowed the Jews to assimilate. Also conflicting is that many Jews in The Netherlands were saved by the Dutch, like our own Chaja Verveer. Very tough to sort out. It is like they were the best of people and the worst of people.
We also heard from our tour guides, Docents like us, who told us of the people from their countries who said “If the Jews are kept in camps, they must have done something bad” along with “I know that we had nothing to do with the killing, but it is up to us to make sure that it does not happen again”. The Germans seem to want to make sure of that. They do require their school children to visit the camps and they are spending many Euros on fixing the sites up so that visitors can learn from the past so they do not repeat it. I am hoping that they are making the repairs for those reasons, not tourism. Tomas, our guide, made a wonderful closing remark when he reminded us that the Neo-Nazi’s are still in Europe and could be a force there, especially Eastern Europe and we all must be vigilant. He and Nano, our driver, were part of our group and went to many of the same places we did. Nano comes from Croatia where he saw wanton killing for no reason in the conflict there.
Highlights of the trip included the visit to the Netherlands with Chaja Verveer. It was amazing and to hear her story about how she survived, how most of her family survived and how her father met his untimely death. To see his grave in a Christian Cemetery also was very special. Saying Kaddish for Emmanuel was special for me as I am sure it was for Chaja. The visit to Westerbork was also important as it emphasized the tradegy of the Dutch people as almost 75% of them went through there, most directly to their death. We saw the area where Ann Frank stayed while in Westerbork. She had to stay close to 4 weeks because the trains were not running as often. She was in an area for Special Prisoners as she tried to hide from the Germans.
The visit to the Rykstrasse Synagogue was also something I will never forget. A beautiful synagogue in the heart of Berlin that was not burnt during Kristallnacht as it was too close to other buildings. It survived and was refurbished and is just gorgeous on the inside. The 17 of us plus another 20 or so Germans made up the congregation that night and even though we did not know the German, many of us did know the Hebrew songs and were able to sing with them. Just like Naomi Warren, “We are here and survived”. I felt that the Nazis are gone and we were able to sing as we always do, maybe with a little more gusto this time, but our point was made.
The other highlight was the visit to GIllileje. This small town did so much for the Jews and it was our pleasure to tell them so. This town provided HMH with our boat and so it was great to thank the town mayor Jan Ferdinandsen for the boat and also to see the actual nameplate from the Hanna Frank. The wonderful talk from the pastor Ulla Gaard about the rescue and how the Germans were actually helpful in allowing the Jews to go to Sweden. The gifts and plaques from the State of Israel are testimony to the rescue. We were fortunate to have Lars and Lotte Starck take us to the Gillileje Museum. There on the back lawn are a boat and statue. The boat looks like ours, but there are cut outs, showing the Jews as they must have looked for the 25km crossing to Sweden at that point. Then there was the statue. It was a large statue that looked like a woman blowing a Shofar. That is what it was, a present from an Israeli who was saved by the boatlift. There also was the survivor Tove Udsholt who told us about her mother going to Sweden while she was hidden in Gillileje. Her Mom was Jewish but her father was not so it was best that her mother went to Sweden. Just all part of the wonderful visit we had to Denmark.
There obviously were many negatives. Visiting the 7 concentration camps was difficult. Not because of the walking and the cold weather but the fact that they were needed in the first place. These included Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrook, Sauchenhausen, Bergen-Belson, Mauthausen and Westerbork. There you saw man’s inhumanity to man. There we saw the quarry at Mauthausen where people had to move 50 or 100 pound blocks up very steep steps and if they could not, they were whipped or killed. There was experienced Buchenwald with its very cold climate and fog. This made for a surreal experience of seeing the bear pit where the SS guards could take their families to see the bears, while the Jews and others would stand inside an electrical fence watching and hoping for freedom. That day there was a fog settling over the camp and so you could see the fence and barely see the crematorium. Very surreal.
We saw the huge mass graves at Bergen-Belson, necessary because they did not have a crematorium to burn the bodies. The nothingness of where the barracks used to be and just overall hardship. . .
We were cold and tired from our journey. We can just try to imagine what it was like for the prisoners. We probably cannot come close to knowing what it was like and I am not sure that we would have had the stamina and abililty to survive in that environment.
We also could only marvel at the sacrifices that Ann Frank and her family had to make and for what, since only her father survived. What did survive was a book written by a young woman whose words still resonate with children all over the world. Too bad that it had to be under those circumstances
My personal thanks to Mary Lee and Suzanne for leading this great trip. Those of us who went will never forget this experience.