Visiting Auschwitz

“The one that does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” -George Santayana

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This encompasses what I would say if someone asked me, “Why visit such a depressing place?” We live in an unbelievably forgetful world. When we learn of tragic events, we don’t really think about them unless they directly relate to us or unless we are constantly reminded. Ignorance is dangerous, because in being ignorant, you disregard the evils that are in the world and therefore give them power to keep happening. I grew up in a family of scholars and was very bored from all the intellectual conversations in my house as a child. Both my parents and my sister are very knowledgeable of the World Wars, and especially the Holocaust. I myself never really wanted to sit down and read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”; I saw no benefit from studying it.

Now that I’ve grown up, I still don’t want to read it, but that is because I have other historical and intellectual interests. I’ve never ignored this particular time in history, but I never spent hours reading about it or watching documentaries. This past year at college, I took a class on magical realism. For our research paper, I came across studies on post-traumatic Holocaust magical realism literature. Yeah, it is a mouthful, but it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Books in this genre talk about the Holocaust with magical elements that are accepted as normal to the characters. These books work to help the author and readers come to terms with traumatic events that otherwise make no sense. One such author that I love is Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”. I read “Everything is Illuminated”, which takes place in Ukraine, and felt a strong connection to the story for various reasons.

At this same time, my parents told me that we were going to visit Poland this summer. I had to ask. “Can we visit Auschwitz?” Flash-forward to a few days ago when we boarded a bus form Krakow to do just that. The first thought that crossed my mind as we started the tour was, ‘Why would people describe the horrors of this place as unimaginable?’ I dislike it when people say that, because humans are the ones who did this. They imagined every single detail, they reached the darkest point of humanity. Saying that this is unimaginable implies that you or I are not capable of thinking like this, but we are, we just don’t want to. I’d rather say “This is something I am ashamed of humanity imagining.” I thought that I would be crying during the whole tour, but I think I was just in shock that I was walking through there as an alive human with freedom of speech. When we walked in the gas chamber, the feeling wasn’t eerie or scary. As I walked in, the door was covered in scratch marks from people trying to escape. We walked through and out. As soon as I stepped out, I felt unbelievably thankful to be alive. I almost couldn’t believe that I was breathing or standing.

We then went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the death camps, and walked from where the trains stopped to the gas chambers, the same walk that the Jews took to their deaths. I never realized how deceptive the Nazis were. The Jews were allowed to bring belongings, making them think that they would live in the camps. After their smothering train trip, they disembarked and were divided between a line of men, and one of women and children. The strongest of the Jews were taken aside to be workers. The rest were told that they would be taking showers while the Nazis asked them about their jobs and families, as if that mattered to them. Even the bus carrying the poison was disguised with a red cross sign. When they got to the chambers, they were told to remember where they put their clothes, and even the gas chamber had fake shower heads. They fit about 700 people at once, and it took 20 minutes for the whole group to die. In order to hide their evidence, the Nazis cremated their bodies, and there was too much ash so they either threw it into the river or used it as fertilizer.

So there you have it, the well thought out, organized plan of a group of monsters. This is only one example of the horrors that happened in the death camps. I don’t think I would go back because I don’t think I will ever forget what I saw and felt. At the memorial in Birkenau we saw plaques with a message – one in every language of the prisoners. It reads,

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.” 

I hope that humanity doesn’t let this happen again, but I honestly doubt that people care enough to ensure that. I’d love to be wrong.

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