My hope is that learning about past evils will help us to avoid them in the future. My hope is that learning what horrors can result from prejudice and intolerance, we can cultivate a commitment to fight prejudice and intolerance. It is for this reason that I write my recollections of the horror. Only one who has been there can truly tell the tale. And I was there.
For you, the third generation, the Holocaust has slipped into the realm of history, or legend. Or, into the realm of sensational subjects on the silver screen. Reading my personal account I believe you will feel – you will know – that the Holocaust was neither legend nor Hollywood fiction but a lesson for the future. A lesson to hel[p future generations prevent the causes of the twentith-century catastrophe from being transmitted into the twenty-first. My stories are of gas chambers, shootings, electrified fences, torture, scorching sun, mental abuse, and constant threat of death. But they are also stories of faith, hope, triumph, and love. They are stories of perserverance, loyalty, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and of never giving up. My story is my message: Never give up.
There is much to be horrified about when reading this story….just as with reading any other survivors tale. Bitton-Jackson’s memoir is made all the more poignant because she was only 14 years old when she and her family was shipped off to Auschwitz. A place where prisoners where greeted at the gate with a sign that read “WORK SETS YOU FREE” and the German soldiers who were stationed there encouraged that belief…..at least for those first few moments after arrival.
I recently had the good fortune to travel to Poland to see some family. While there I took the 1 hour bus ride from Krakow down to Auschwitz. I walked under that sign. I heard the gravel crunch under my feet and saw the endless rows of buildings surrounded by barbed wire. As I read Bitton-Jackson’s descriptions I was transported back to those avenues and I think that it made me feel this particular memoir more than any other account that I’ve read previously. If you ever get a chance to go to Auschwitz (or any of the other surviving concentration camps) then go. Its a truly horrific, yet worthwhile experience. There are no words to say what I felt when I was there, when I saw the crematoria, the barracks, and belongings of the victims that the Nazi’s left behind when the camp was liberated. There is such raw emotion that still lingers in that place….and yet it was one of the quietest places that I’ve even been to outside of church.
Another reason this book and my visit to Auschwitz had such a huge impact on me is the fact that right before this trip I learned that a member of my Polish family spent two years there as a political prisoner. This is not a relative that I’ve ever met but just knowing that a part of my family was there….no matter how distant the relation….it has an effect. Especially when you read an account such as Bitton-Jackson’s. Again its that first hand experience that just takes you right to the heart of it all.
I Have Lived a Thousand Years is filled with many horrible acts but one that jumped out at me was something that I think many people may have overlooked as being momentous. As I mentioned it is only an hour by bus from Krakow to the town of Oświęcim (the Polish name of the town that the German’s called Auschwitz). There is a scene where Bitton-Jackson talks about how she and her mother where put on a train in Krakow and brought back down to Auschwitz…..a journey which took them 4 days. Now to those not familiar with that area of Poland that might not have seemed like such a significant journey. It was the 40’s…it was wartime…the two places could have been on opposite sides of the country. But when you know that the distance between the two points is only an hour…when I’ve traveled that same road…it just has such a huge impact on just how horribly the Jews (and other political prisoners) were treated.
As with A Diary of Anne Frank I think that I Have Lived a Thousand Years should be taught in all schools. Anne Frank’s story is a powerful one, but its only a small part of what the Jewish people when through during the war. Bitton-Jackson’s story tells another part of the story. Her’s picks up where Frank’s leaves off. Bitton-Jackson’s story of life in the camp is Anne Frank’s. It is only through some random twist of fate that the endings of their respective stories are different. If you haven’t read this book yet, then its one that I recommend. Just as I recommend that you all make the journey to see Auschwitz while it still stands (Poland only maintains it, they do not restore so it exits only as long as mother nature allows). It is only when you walk those gravel roads and breath in that air and see the buildings. Only then can you begin…to fully understand it all….and further appreciate those who somehow managed to survive. When it would have been so much easier to just give in.
In closing I’ll post a few of the pictures that I took while at Auschwitz. I did not take pictures of any of the interiors of the buildings. The guides asked us not to as a respect to those that lived and died there. When walking inside the buildings and learning first hand what happened there it wasn’t hard to respect that simple request.
This could have been where Bitton-Jackson “lived” while kept at Auschwitz. This is one of the few unaltered barracks. Many have been converted into exhibits that highlight what happened there. A few have the original metal doors. The sides of this building has windows but they were mostly bricked over. Blocking the light from the prisoners rooms.
The tracks inside Birkenau, where Bitton-Jackson waited with her family and was “sorted” by Dr Mengele.
Then if the main camp of Auschwitz isn’t big enough. Isn’t horrible enough to see. Just a few short miles down the road is Auschwitz II (aka Birkenau). All those chimneys in the background where once buildings like those in the foreground. Each building held hundreds of bunks crammed together…bunks with three tiers…each tier holding at least 6 people. Countless millions of people forced to live in buildings where the chimney’s were just for show. They did not work but even if they did there was no wood to use. It should also be noted that this building design was originally meant as horse stables….a fact that’s highlighted by the tether rings that are attached to the walls.