In preparation for harsh experiences we brace ourselves, but no amount of bracing could have prepared me for a visit to Auschwitz.
I thought I had seen enough films on the concentration camps, that I had read enough books about Holocaust. But Auschwitz is like cancer; you think you know enough about it, but only after facing its harsh reality do you realize how little you knew.
The views of the countryside around Krakow are breathtaking. Rolling hills and fields of wheat and barley passed by our air-conditioned bus. Roadsides were lined with rows of Queen Anne’s lace, yellow blooms and even a few red poppies. The driver answered questions in his deep accent while a few of the group chatted amongst themselves. Charming villages along the hour-long drive reminded me of the long ago weekends in England and the memory filled me with calm nostalgia. Soon we stopped before a dark brick building and the bus parked next to us had the words “www.auschwitz.org.pl” on it.
Our tour guide did not resemble the Polish folk. Her dark complexion matched the severe expression on her face. She began with an area map and some basic statistics and pointed to the distant view of more brick buildings behind the long barbed-wire fence. It soon became clear that she had reached beyond the emotional phase and what now remained was deep anger and shame. The staggering data she provided made me wonder if I could be strong enough for what lay ahead.
As we walked along the gravel path between the red brick buildings, I had the feeling of being in another time and place and it wasn’t until I saw the large black and white images on the walls that I realized what that place was. I stood before an enlarged photograph of a family. They walked with a certain dignity; their little boy dressed up as if going to a special event, the lady wearing stylish sunglasses, the man standing tall and proud. They each carried a small bag, as if going away for a day or two. I walked alongside them and could almost hold the boy’s hand as we approached a future that history would forever be disgraced for.
There are no words to describe such an experience. What does one say about the mounds of hair that had been cut off from young girls’ heads just to stuff mattresses and pillows for the German army? How does one feel when forced to share a cubic meter of space with three others? What is it like to be starved, yet give up your last piece of bread in exchange for shoes?
Auschwitz is not about tearing the Jews apart, taking innocent lives, or any other such crimes. This is a document to man’s savagery. The life-size photographs only mirror what continues to happen around the world to this day. The silence of those who perished in gas chambers is more deafening than any blast, yet the world seems to have gone deaf. What a bad teacher history is!
I appreciated the explanations, the statistics, the dimensions of atrocious ovens and details of gas chambers, but some things are beyond words. I was reminded of what Elie Wiesel once said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Oh, but dear Mr. Wiesel, they are killing them a second time. The criminals’ faces may have changed, but the crime remains the same.
As I stared at the pile of baby shoes and child-sized boots, I heard their hesitant footsteps. The guide went on with the gory details, but all I could hear was a tiny voice asking, “When will we go home, Mama?”
On the drive back, the wheat fields had lost their serenity, the poppies hid behind a shield of tears and I was conscious of the undeserved vast space I occupied in the world.