The whole flight over to Poland I sat on the left hand side of the isle staring out at the changing landscape below us, Jessica, my only friend who was on the trip sat beside me and left me to my thoughts. She knew I was descended from Jews. And although I don't hold any faith, she knew that I was likely be going for my own personal reasons rather than the history like she was. I couldn't help think on the plane over what I was going to find there. How I would react. Would I be stoic and silent like my Father or break down into floods of tears like my Mother would? Normally I'm a statue when it comes to my own feelings, showing them only to my sister and girlfriend, but this wasn't going to be a normal experience, in any sense of the word. I was going to a place where twenty three of my family died. Locked into gas chambers or shot against whitewashed walls. During the flight I wondered beyond hope that some may have escaped, maybe they found work in Oskar Schindlers factory or became rebels with the numerous Otriads that plagued the Germans that trekked through the Black Forrest. I knew the Bielski Otriad housed over a thousand Jews...maybe the Fraggrionelli's were some of them.
These of course were nothing but hopeful fantasies. I knew from the records that I accessed as a boy that the only reason they had records at all, was because they were in Auschwitz. Deep down in my heart of hearts I knew what I would find there wouldn't be any, Hollywood style happy ending. I just wished it would be.
We landed in Poland and went to the lovely hotel we would be staying at for the next three days. Me and Jess had adjoining rooms and spent that night talking, wondering what it would be like to see the place where so many people had suffered, and where so many had lost their lives. For Jess it was all fascinating, a chance to see a place that had been written in the history books in the blood of millions of martyrs. She loved the history of it all. Whereas I was here for very different, and deeply personal, reasons. It was a crisp winters morning the day we went to the infamous death camp. The barbed wire fence ran across the foggy horizon as we walked up to it, and from the light fog loomed that black gate. Work Will Set You Free. That was the first thing my family saw as they were driven into the camp in open topped trucks with god knows how many others, is that what they thought they were heading into? A labour camp? Or did they know? I wouldn't. The living quarters could easily be forgiven for fabrication sheds, so did they truly believe they were sentenced to a life of work?
Walking beneath that sign I couldn't help but hold Jess's hand. I needed some human contact as I walked through the streets of this hellish place, the cold biting at my face and my eyes scanning every possible inch. My family had walked here. Maybe just like I was doing, clutching onto loved ones and shivering. I felt like I should be wearing the yellow star. What made me any different to them? Only time. Nothing else. I was as Jewish as they were. My hair just as dark, just as curly, my nose just as prominent on my face. Why should I be free to walk around without bearing that yellow curse, what made me any different to them? Squeezing my hand Jess gently whispered, 'Come on,' and we walked with the group and the guide through the dusty path that had been carved by hundreds of thousands of bare feet. We went into the huts, around the firing walls, around guard towers and into the room of shoes. Each one dusty and muck covered, the last remaining possession of peoples who once must have lived full and ordinary lives before coming to this hell. I wondered if any of these shoes had belonged to my family. To Orellia, or Paulo, or Francesca.
In the gas chambers...I have never heard such a silence. Oppressive. Ominous. Almost deadly. No hint of wind or sound of the world beyond. This was its own tiny universe of death. Go for showers, they said, cool you off. They lied. The final part of the museum we saw was a memorial, a tiny little place in the middle of an even bigger memorial but not to the Nazis. These memorials were for the lives lost. And entering that tiny place photos and information boards lined the walls. I was staring at a board entitled 'Victims from Italy,' when Jess's usually strong and confident voice called me over, saying 'Ben...I think you need to see this.' I'll never forget that look on her face, the twinkling of tears in her eyes and she looked at me and pointed to a small browned photograph on the wall. I never expected to see what I did.