Matt and I immediately reserved our tour to Auschwitz upon arriving in Krakow. As many of you may have noticed, I am usually slightly (or very) behind on our backpacking path with my posts. Upon arriving at Auschwitz yesterday morning, I decided that I must get my memories down before they faded.
Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau are on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. I find the label of “world heritage” particularly apt for this site. Everyone can connect to the event in some way or, at the very least, need to learn from it. I don’t have any family members who suffered persecution during the Holocaust. The only tangible connection that I have to the event is my past two internships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I remember talking to one of the survivors on my first day at the USHMM. Leon was his name. He survived the Lodz ghetto and escaped a transport. Leon asked me why I decided to intern at the USHMM. I responded that I believe very strongly that everyone has a right to choose their own religion or their own beliefs. After my response, Leon launched into a story about his experience in the Lodz ghetto. He was given a task to guard a large vat of soup for the soldiers but wasn’t allowed to eat any of it. I remember him animatedly explaining how he was literally starving and dared not take a bite of that soup for fear that he might be killed. My supervisor informed me that Leon very rarely tells stories of his experiences. Leon’s the type of survivor who refuses to wear a badge indicating his status while he works at the museum. He doesn’t want to be recognized. For some reason Leon decided to tell me that story on that day. It meant a lot to me that he would share a memory. I worked with other amazing survivors and heard their stories as well. I learned how each individual survivor tried to move on and how each had their own unique way of contributing to the museum. Over my time at the USHMM, I became more and more connected to the events of the Holocaust. I saw my work as a way to bear witness to the events and make an effort to ensure that a crime such as that never happened again. My decision to visit Auschwitz was part of this effort to continue to bear witness. I want to be able to say, “I saw it. It’s real,” if ever, for some crazy reason, anyone should doubt the existence of the event in the future.
I wasn’t sure how I would react to Auschwitz. Having worked at the USHMM, I became, for lack of a better word, desensitized to the imagery. I say “lack of a better word” because I am still very sensitive to the photographs and artifacts that I see. I have learned to present these artifacts to people and help support their interactions with the objects. It’s work that requires you to compartmentalize feelings, I suppose. Walking through the USHMM, I would have my moments where I would have to pull back tears like when I would smell and see the number of the shoes or think about the people who wore the leg braces or used those canes. There’s one particular picture of this child in a ghetto. He is sitting on the edge of his bed, curled up into a ball, wrapping his arms around his knees. I remember the moment I thought, “That’s a child. But it looks like some creature, not a child.” The child was so emaciated he reminded me more of a nightmare than a possible reality. The Holocaust was like a nightmare though, a horrible, horrible dream that never should have manifested in our world. It’s when I would get to really thinking that it would be the worst. I knew that I would really think at Auschwitz.
When we arrived at the camp, the first thing I thought was, “How can a place where something so horrible happened be so beautiful?” The landscaping compliments the buildings and walkways. The trees are green. The weather cooperated nicely with a blue sky and sun. It could be a nice neighborhood of brick apartment buildings if only it weren’t for the barbed wire and the heavy memory of what happened in that place. I found myself wondering where people had died. If I was walking on some spot that someone was killed. I tried to remind myself that people die everywhere. The reality is that it’s not usually like it was here. I crossed my arms, looked at Matt, and said, “This is a sad place.” We came upon Block 10, the place where they did sterilization experiments on women. All I could think of was the sweet survivor who talked at the USHMM about how she found out after the war that she could not have children due to the Nazis’ medical experiment on her. No one should have that opportunity taken away from them. Between Blocks 10 and 11 (the camp prison block) is the execution site. I’m standing in front of this wall where thousands of people died. It’s surreal. I couldn’t fathom the number. I’ve tried so many times to comprehend the enormity of it. I have glimpses and grasps of it but it is so hard to hold on to. But I think it is worth trying to comprehend. It underscores the reality of the event. When I walked into the room of medical devices that people were stripped of before entering the gas chambers, I really started to feel it. The image of someone trying to move about without their prosthetic or cane or leg brace really has an effect on me. We turn into the next room and we see the shoes. Now, there are shoes at the USHMM but not like this. There are mountains of shoes on both sides of you in Auschwitz. It is overwhelming. So much so that it made me start to silently weep. The sheer numbers are incredibly disgusting. And that isn’t even all of the people who were murdered during the Holocaust.
There are so many facts that you’ll learn during your tour that will make you think, “What the hell? Couldn’t the victims even get a little bit of a break?” In the gas chambers people would die in waves. The people closest so the Cyclone B pellets would die first and then it would ripple out. Can you imagine watching people die all around you to know that you are inevitably next when you thought you were just going to take a shower? The cell block supervisors would be prisoner themselves. But they weren’t good people by any means. They’re the ones who would inflict violence on their fellow inmates. They followed the SS more than they were loyal to their compatriots. The victims received less than one thousand calories per day to eat. Heck, they didn’t even get real coffee. All the odds keep stacking up and stacking up against them. If you’re a kid, you’re done. If you’re too old, you’re done. If you are differently abled, you’re done. But you’re done anyway at Auschwitz. The people brought there worked until they died unless they were murdered upon arrival. The survivors are the lucky ones. They survived against all odds.
The Holocaust is difficult to come to terms with mainly because, I think, everything about is so overwhelming. It is beyond comprehension. I’ll have moments of grasping the enormity of the event but if feels like I never fully get there. It’s impossible to rationalize. This just shouldn’t happen in our world. Everyone should be allowed to believe what they want. It shouldn’t matter what country you live in or the ethnic group you come from. No one should be killed for having studied too much or for looking a certain way. No one deserves to be murdered because they are too young or old or too different. Going to Auschwitz reaffirmed my desire to bear witness to this atrocious event in history. It’s important not to forget so that it may never happen again. Auschwitz is a world heritage site. That means that the entire earth’s population should be responsible for making sure the Holocaust never is allowed to be repeated. If you can, go to Auschwitz. If you can’t, go to a Holocaust museum in your country. If you can’t do that, read up on it. Everyone should know and understand the enormity of that brief but greatly important moment in time.