Just prior to boarding our Lufthansa flight from Boston’s Logan airport to Munich, Germany and then on to Warsaw, Poland I gave Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter a copy of a book I just finished. It’s called “Auschwitz” by British historian Laurence Rees.
There is something very inadequate about handing an Auschwitz survivor a book on Auschwitz. What will it say that he didn’t already experience himself?
Don’t get me wrong, from my perspective Rees’ book was very, very good. It opened my eyes to many things about the camp I never knew. It’s a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the most infamous of the Nazis concentration camps. It’s just that handing it to a man who lived it personally is an awkward feeling. Kind of like giving Neil Armstrong a book about the moon.
To tell you the truth I am not sure how I am going to react to visiting Auschwitz and making the trip with an actual survivor. Trying to see it through his eyes will be difficult. Somehow words seem hollow when trying the describe what he went through. Maybe it’s best just to let Izzy speak for himself. Isn’t that the correct way to hear about history, from those who actually lived it?
I have spent my entire life reading about the people and major battles of World War II. We have filmed all over the world, from Guadalcanal to Normandy, France (9 times) to Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. But Auschwitz is something different. I like to call it a game changer. Guadalcanal was in some ways like that. I mean who ever expects to go to Guadalcanal and experience the jungle where so much savagery occurred? It’s 36 hour trip from Boston. But in a way it changed my perception. I feel fortunate to have visited a place most Americans couldn’t find on a map during World War II and would still have trouble today. Yet, to anyone who has studied the war, the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal was a watershed moment in WWII in the Pacific.
I have interviewed many veterans and survivors of World War II. Many told stories that were emotionally difficult for them to talk about. Many cried. I have also stood in American cemeteries in Holland, Normandy and Luxembourg where the white crosses and stars of David stretched on and on. Full of boys who were barely old enough to buy a beer when they were killed on places like Omaha Beach, the Waal River crossing and in the Battle of the Bulge. But Auschwitz is different and visiting the camp with a survivor will be emotional. How can it not be? Of the 1.3 million who came through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1.1 million were killed. If hell had a physical street address, this would be it.
I speak with Israel Arbeiter about the book, the pictures in it. The tattoo on his arm which reads A18651. We look at the photos of the Auschwitz SS commander Rudolf Hoss who was responsible for all the killings in the camp. It all feels so inadequate.
We have arrived in Poland. Later today we have a special meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Tomorrow we visit Izzy’s home city of Plonsk where it has the potential to be a very special day if all falls into place.
Please click to watch the video here about Israel Arbeiter’s thoughts on arriving back in Warsaw today.
Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org