I didn't know what to expect coming on this trip. I thought I didn't have many expectations to begin with, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The experiences I am getting, the conversations I am having, and the things I am learning are challenging me to reflect and reconsider both how I think of my Jewish identity and with today's public policy challenges.
On Monday we visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I knew this would be an emotionally tough experience, but I don't think any kind of emotional preparation could have truly prepared me for the experience. Walking through the gates reading "arbeit macht frei" translating to "work sets you free", I got a sickening feeling. It was an empty saying. There was no chance for freedom. We learned that Nazi soldiers would taunt the Jews and prisoners by saying there was one way to freedom then point to the smoke tower of the crematorium. I walked around with a pit in my stomach. The extent of physical planning, consciousness in decision making, and psychological manipulation of the Nazis is something I will never be able to comprehend but started to grapple with walking through the camp. The true feelings of hate and dehumanization of Jews was powerful enough to make human beings do really terrible things to other human beings-- a concept I simply can't wrap my brain around.
Throughout the day I saw a number of things that became visions burned into my brain; a barrack where Jews would sleep 3 to a bed in tiny bunks stacked one on top of the other, a field that would be packed with prisoners as they stood in lines for role call waiting in the cold for hours with nothing but thin, stripped uniforms, what was left of the ovens where countless people were murdered... Imagining the scenes of what it looked like when the camp was running and seeing what was left of it there today, these disturbing images were stuck in my mind, and I found myself quickly sketching these bits to try to get them out.
As I walked out of the gates and left the concentration camp, I couldn't help but get the strange feeling that if I was here a couple decades prior, I may have never been able to pass through these gates in this direction. I don't think I will ever be able to fully comprehend what this experience was like for my ancestors and the millions of people who were murdered in places like this at the hands of hatred.
Though incomparable to 1945, I couldn't help but think about the largely hateful rhetoric surrounding minority groups today. Whether it is with neo-Nazis in Germany, domestic issues we face in the US, or the persecution of other races and religions around the world, we cannot let history repeat itself. As Jews, but more importantly as humans, we have an obligation to stand up for human rights. Over 11 million murdered cannot go unnoticed. It still may take me quite some time to process this experience fully, but now in the time being I'm feeling more committed to standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves.
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,000 Jewish students on Grounds.