Echoes of My Ancestors
While I knew the Marshall Memorial Fellowship would be physically intense and intellectually stimulating, I was not quite prepared for the emotional aspects of the journey.
In Hamburg, we were hosted by a foundation whose founder had a Jewish wife whom he hid in London during the Nazi Regime. I heard the echo of my grandmother’s voice, telling my sister and me the stories of her time as a maid in London, brought there to escape the Nazis.
When we sat down to coffee and küchen (cake) each afternoon in Hamburg, I was transported back to my grandmother's kitchen. The smell of her apple cake and the sound of her heavily accented voice wafted through my mind.
When we arrived in Podgorica, Montenegro a small country in the Balkans, we were treated to an evening at the National Symphony of Montenegro. I was transported to the opera house in Vienna that my grandmother spoke about as one of her favorite places. I listened with my eyes closed, and my heart open. For the first time, I understood the value of the cultural traditions that my grandmother had shared with me.
As we learned about the history of the country and its slow transition from socialism to democracy, our guide mentioned Montenegro's history of exporting meats to Europe, and specifically mentioned Vienna. I know my great grandparents owned a delicatessen in Vienna before the war, and I wondered if they carried the renowned Montenegrin meats.
In Berlin, I walked along the cobblestone streets and discovered the 'stumble stones', the brass markers that denote houses of people who were rounded up and taken away by the Third Reich. Each inscription begins with the phrase “Here lived…” and tells a unique story. These are the stories of my ancestors.
I arrived at Auschwitz and pushed my way through the crowd to keep up with my group. As we walked the grounds, I felt cramped and claustrophobic. There were hundreds of people filing through the narrow hallways and small doorways, just as there were when the facility was used to starve, brutalize and murder over 1 million people.
I walked in silence, holding my breath. Tears streamed down my face when I got to the room filled with hair. It was all heartbreaking, but the piles and piles of hair seemed too much- too human.
I was struck by the divots in the stairs inside the prisoner blocks. The concrete has worn away and impressions had left, both literally and figuratively. I wondered if my great grandparents, who perished at Auschwitz, climbed the steps I traversed.
I was walking in their footsteps.
When we disembarked at Auschwitz- Birkenau, the land was peppered with chimneys that represent the hundreds of buildings that once stood there.
The space was massive and open, but the air was heavy.
We walked through the camp, carefully stepping over the railway tracks that had transported victims to the gas chambers and crematoriums. These buildings are in the back, some in the woods, so the prisoners wouldn't realize what was happening and panic. Most of the killing facilities were destroyed by the Nazi's when they knew they were defeated, but the ruins of the crematoriums and one gas chamber remain.
After 70 years, I could still smell burning flesh.
Inside the bunker, I noticed a tiny crack in the brick wall and wondered if that sliver of light was someone's last hope.
I spied a hole in the wooden door and imagined someone pushing their way towards it for a breath of air.
As we made our way to the entrance gate, I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the railway tracks and understood that my shadow is the shadow of my ancestors.
The shadows and the echoes of my ancestors are with me, part of my soul, and part of my story. Part of the reason I am here; at Auschwitz, on the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and on this earth.
I am humbled. I am grateful. I will never forget.