In preparation for harsh experiences we brace ourselves, little did I know that no amount of bracing could have prepared me for a visit to Auschwitz.
I thought I had seen enough films regarding 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 when it’s your turn to face it do you realize how shallow your acquaintance had been.
The views of the countryside around Krakow are breathtaking. Rolling hills and fields of wheat and barley passed by the bus windows. Roadsides were lined with rows of Queen Anne’s lace, yellow blooms, and even a few red poppies. The driver explained a few things in his deep accent while a few in the group chatted amongst themselves. Charming villages along the hour-long drive reminded me of long ago weekends in England, filling me with calm nostalgia. Soon we stopped at a large parking lot 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 a long barbed-wire fence. “This is where lives ended,” she said and it soon became clear how she had reached beyond the emotional phase and was in a place where only deep anger and shame remained. The staggering data she offered 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 was transferred to another time and place and it wasn’t until I saw the large black and white images on the walls when I knew exactly 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 started to walk alongside their images 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? And what is it like to be starved, yet give up your last piece of bread in exchange for a pair of old 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. The silence of those who perished in gas chambers is more deafening than any blast, yet the world seems to have gone deaf. What an incompetent teacher history is!
I appreciated the information, the statistics, the dimensions of those atrocious ovens and gas chambers, but some things are best absorbed through silence. 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 had occupied.