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The following morning, as I sped through the heavily wooded countryside, the weather seemed to deteriorate with every mile. My driver doubted whether any flight would be attempted through cloud that still clung to the treetops. He wondered how upset I would be, having made the trip especially for the flypast. Strangely I was not that bothered. I thought about the Dayenu song we sing on Seder night: ‘If I had been able to come to this place as a free Jew and not seen the flypast ... Dayenu... it would be enough for me.

On arrival at Auschwitz, my guide took me through those infamous gates that bear the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free). He explained that Auschwitz is made up of three camps, this smaller section having been turned into a museum. The largest - by a factor of 10 - is Birkenau, a few kilometres up the road. It was there that the selections and mass killings were carried out and over which the flypast was due to take place at noon.

Many of the brick barracks of Auschwitz One have been turned into exhibit halls in which the grisly contents of the display cabinets are every bit as harrowing as the photographs on the walls. Of the thousands of victims’ shoes, I only noticed the children’s sizes and amongst the bales of human hair I was transfixed on the little plaits and pigtails. Walking through these halls, struggling to keep my composure, I passed small tourist groups clustered around their guides. I noticed many were staring at me. I seemed to be the only one there wearing a kippa. There were backward glances from Chinese eyes and Latino eyes, Indian and Pakistani eyes many of which, I felt sure, had never seen a modern orthodox Jew in the flesh.

I was preoccupied with those glances when I came upon two small display cabinets and saw in them something totally unexpected. I thought of my father hiding that solitary Chanukah candle under his bunk and felt the tears well up. I rushed toward the nearest window and cried. My guide could not understand why, after the shoes, the hair, the suitcases and the glasses, I should be so affected by a simple collection of old shoe polish tins.

By the time we were ready to move on to Auschwitz Two, I had seen my fill of neatly spaced barracks that had been used for all manner of cruelty and experimentation as well as the jailhouse and its adjoining yard that had been used for executions by firing squad. Wooden watchtowers strung together by electrified fences surrounded all of this orderly abomination.

The rain had stopped by the time we arrived at Auschwitz Two - Birkenau. The sky was still a forbidding deep grey, matching the feel of this sprawling campus of death. I stood under the arch through which the cattle train bore my father and his parents into this hellish place on a chill October morning in 1944. I later realized that I had been standing there at 11 am, the same arrival time recorded in my father’s book. With my guide, I climbed the stairs to the main watchtower above the arch. Strung out before me was the deserted railway track. Half way down its quarter-mile length it forked to form the infamous central ramp on which Hitler’s SS carried out their murderous selections.

On either side of the track there were endless ranks of chimneys standing like sentries, each within a rectangular brick outline, evidencing where barracks once stood. My guide explained how the retreating Germans had blown up most of Birkenau in an effort to hide evidence of their murderous work. Far in the distance, at the end of the railhead I pointed to a splash of blue. “It’s the Israelis,” said my guide. Up to that point I had not realized they had planned any official gathering. Alienated by the stares in the museum halls and the spectre of this place, I warmed at the thought of joining some of my own people. We descended the watchtower steps and started our trek down the line.

Along with most of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau had been dynamited and left in ruins. Fortunately the SS were not able to silence survivors like my father who would later tell the world what these ruins once were. Just to the left of the selection ramp, I was shown the ruins of a gas chamber in which it is almost certain my grandparents were put to death on the day of their arrival. I had brought two memorial candles from home and lit them in a niche between the fallen brickwork. Although I had never known them, the Kaddish I recited for my grandparents was long, halting and tearful.

Trudging further down the rail track, I could see the blue-clad ranks of IAF officers and cadets standing to attention at the end of the line. Alienated by all that I had seen so far, I was overcome with emotion at the sight of that bright blue Star of David fluttering against this awful grey landscape. All I wanted to do right then was rub my cheek against that flag.

Holding a small Sefer Torah, the chaplain was reciting Tehillim. As the cantor recited the Hazkarah (memorial prayer) I saw that rows of memorial candles had been placed on the rusted rails at the head of the track. I stared fixedly at their flickering lights as the Kaddish was recited. The Israeli ambassador spoke movingly of the powerful message being brought to Auschwitz today. He said it was for Yankeleh and Moisheleh, for Soroleh and Rivkeleh and so many of the little children who might now have been proud citizens of Israel.

In the stillness of the next few moments, three black specks appeared in the sky above the main watchtower in which I had stood minutes before. A man-made thunder echoed from all corners of the camp as the F-15’s raced towards us in an arrow formation. As they streaked overhead, a loudspeaker on the ground crackled into life and Commander Eshel spoke from the lead jet:

‘We pilots of the air force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, we salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation: Israel.’

There was hardly a dry eye in our gathering as the three jets banked across the sky for a return pass. The rolling thunder of jet engines echoing above the heavy blanket of cloud made it feel like an almighty fist was being shaken in the heavens. As the fighters returned I thought of Commander Eshel and those like him who are now the guardians of our nation. I recalled the words of Menachem Begin in the introduction to his book, The Revolt. He wrote: ‘ ... I have written this book also for Gentiles, lest they be unwilling to realise, or all too ready to overlook, the fact that out of blood and fire and tears and ashes a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years: “the Fighting Jew”.’ I thought to myself: Commander Eshel, you are one of that new breed and we are immensely proud of you.

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© Zalmi Unsdorfer 2003