So often in life, a date looms far off on the calendar: the first day of college, having a baby, the big interview. You can prepare as best you can as the date approaches, but there is no way you can ever know what to expect. Then that day arrives, and it is time to show up and see how it all plays out. For most of his life, Vladimir Munk buried his memories of his time as a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, where over a million people were killed or died during the Holocaust. He was separated from his father there, never to see him again. His mother was sent there, too, and Vladimir can only assume she met a similar fate. Over thirty of his family members lost their lives either at Auschwitz-Birkenau or other camps.
Upon retiring as a professor of Microbiology at SUNY Plattsburgh, Vladimir and his wife, Kitty, whom he met at another concentration camp in Czech Republic during the war, would tell their story of living in the camp, Terezin, falling in love and reuniting after the war to students from local high schools. The students often wanted to see and touch Vladimir’s tattoo, which was given to him at Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was nineteen years old. When Kitty passed away, Vladimir’s speaking engagements, where he spoke of his Holocaust experience, dwindled down to a trickle.
One day a letter arrived. Vladimir received a simply worded letter on non-descript letterhead detailing how the non-profit organization Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation was reaching out to survivors of the camp, inviting them to travel to Poland for the 75th anniversary of its liberation. A big event was planned for January 27th, 2020 that would be attended by heads of state and televised around the world in commemoration of that fateful day. Each survivor would be allowed to bring a companion, and all accommodations would be paid for by the foundation.
Can any anticipated life event compare to the complicated emotions that just considering embarking on this journey might bring to mind? Vladimir did not hesitate. He was going back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I was going with him.