Levy, a retired math professor at Onondaga Community College, and also a freelance photographer, brought her camera along on each of her trips to Poland to document the experience. A selection of those photos is now on display in a exhibition titled, Auschwitz: Yesterday. Today. in the art gallery at the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, 3800 E. Genesee St.
“It’s a sacred place,” said Levy of the vibrations she felt at Auschwitz. “The ashes from the crematorium were used to fertilize the ground; that’s a lot of people and it seems strange, but it feels like sacred holy ground.”
According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, an estimated 1.1 million Jewish people corralled from every country in Europe died at the facility, although during the Nuremberg Trials the announced figure was closer to 3 million. There were actually five subdivisions at the camp, Auschwitz I, II, III, IV and V. Auschwitz I remains nearly as it looked during the Holocaust, including the gas chambers and crematoriums, while the other four were immolated by Germans and prisoners at the conclusion of World War II; only portions remain.
Part of memorial plaza in Birkenau (Auschwitz II): There are dozens of memorial stones, each one in a different language, representing the languages spoken in the concentration camp. The English one was added for visitors. ELANA LEVY PHOTO
“The bus pulled into the parking lot and I promised that I wouldn’t close my eyes to anything that my ancestors had to live through,” said Levy of her maiden voyage to Auschwitz. “I kept that promise, although going to the place where the children’s exhibit is held took me a few trips to finally be able to go into.”
Thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes and glasses and other items belonging to victims were found and are displayed at Auschwitz I, according to Levy, which had a profound impact on her for far more personal reasons than just being of Jewish descent.
“They have books of 70,000 people who were killed there, which is a minuscule amount, but they’re the ones that were not immediately walked into the gas chambers and killed and had numbers tattooed on their arms,” continued Levy. “And I was able to look up and find my mother’s brother’s name on the death list. He was my mom’s only sibling and youngest brother and was 22 when he was killed on Aug. 22, 1942, which we hadn’t known before.”
Each of her visits was what she called a “bearing-witness pilgrimage,” in which she’d spend five to 10 days wandering and becoming one with the grounds. She expressed the feeling that if you only made a day-trip out of it, you’d leave after breaking down, but if you stayed there long enough, you’d be able to fulfill the grieving process and come to terms with the atrocities that occurred. And near the end of the first day she spent at Auschwitz (spelled Oswiecem in its native Polish), she knew she had to come back.
“Each time as part of the bearing-witness pilgrimage,” continued Levy, “I’ve always learned something that I didn’t hear before or seen something from another perspective, and there’s always another story and new information that just hits you.”
Levy also teaches Jewish meditation and mysticism, known in the current nomenclature as “Kaballah,” at the Temple Society of Concord, 910 Madison St., and practiced what she preached upon her visits to Auschwitz. “We would sit on the ‘selection site’ and meditate twice a day,” she said. “There was an understanding of the need to do that for me and we’d sit alongside the railroad tracks where the prisoners were unloaded. You could feel the presence and feel you’re honoring them, while feeling that your presence is important for the people who died and survived there.”
The photos in the exhibition at May Memorial are from her fifth and sixth trips to Auschwitz in 2007 and 2008. Although she took pictures every time she went, she never intended them for public viewing until a friend convinced her to display them at the gallery. “It was more for what I needed,” said Levy about photographing the Auschwitz site. “It wasn’t with an exhibition in mind, which in general is how I photograph, not what I have to photograph. But I do think that I captured the feeling I felt there with these photographs.”
The exhibition runs through Jan. 31 and can be viewed Mondays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call 656-9527 for more information.
Toilets in Birkenau (Auschwitz II): Very quick, timed toilet breaks. Three women had to share one toilet hole.
Steps leading to undressing room before forced into gas chamber of Crematorium II ruins in Birkenau, (Auschwitz II).