Photo above: Mass grave at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, photo taken by Brittany Fried
March 11, 2016
Auschwitz is the most commonly visited Holocaust memorial site in the world. For many, it has become the overarching symbol for the Shoah, serving as an icon around which memory can be built. Visiting the museum at Auschwitz I is commonly understood to be the “epitome” of the modern Holocaust experience – the closest individuals today can come to understanding the events of the past – as it was one of the most prominent camps, and has been diligently preserved by the Polish government and other organizations.
For these reasons, I had always anticipated that visiting Auschwitz I would be one of the most impactful emotional experiences of my life. There is no doubt that the information and visuals provided gave me a deeper understanding of the Holocaust; yet Auschwitz I came off less as a memorial and more as a museum. Dare I say it, there were times when it felt not like the grounds on which the murder of over a million individuals occurred, but instead like a display from any Holocaust museum.
This does not mean that touring Auschwitz I had no effect on me: where the museum lacked in emotional draw, it more than made up in factual information. I could have spent days walking between the barracks, reading all of the information cards on the various (and nearly unbearable) points of information. Moreover, the engulfing sense of loss the museum invoked stemmed largely from its ability to put the scale of the massacre in Auschwitz I into context: rooms such as those full of 80,000 victims’ shoes, two tons of victims’ hair, and a shipping container full of pots and pans give a sense of the lives Hitler destroyed. But despite these influential aspects, I personally did not feel that the Auschwitz I museum alone was able to capture the spirit, or memory of the Holocaust; instead, it provided a framework and historical account of what happened.
If it were it not for Father Desbois and Yahad in Unum, visiting Auschwitz would only have had a fraction of the impact it had on me. Had I only followed a guide giving one of the camp’s countless daily tours, I would have emerged with a factual understanding of the Holocaust, but not the deep-seeded emotional response the experience evoked. This is because Father Desbois facilitated for us the building of memory of the Holocaust, and furthermore exposed us to the modern implications and societal impacts of what took place.
The largely forgotten sites Father Desbois showed us at Auschwitz II-Birkenau exemplified this. I had expected that, upon visiting the most renowned of all Nazi camps, I would emerge with a full understanding of what took place there. However, Father Desbois proved me wrong at Birkenau’s mass graves. He exposed what at first appeared to be no more than an expansive field as the burial site of hundreds of thousands of Jews. This field, far larger than any football pitch, became a final resting spot for many of those heartlessly murdered at Auschwitz, including some of the 75% of Jews immediately condemned to death by Nazi officials. This site has hardly been memorialized, marked only by four solemn, black headstones. Furthermore, few people have ever seen it, as was apparent by the site’s complete lack of other visitors.
The idea that one of the largest Jewish graves in the world, located at such a well-known camp, is hardly acknowledged, astounds me. This lack of regard demonstrates a fervent sign of disrespect for all those resting there. It shows that, to this day, hundreds of thousands of victims still have not found peace. Small exhibit plaques alone cannot capture the memory of these individuals; instead, their lives should be celebrated through official memorialization and righteous inclusion in the Auschwitz narrative.
The George Santayana quote written on the entrance of one of the Auschwitz I barracks – “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – perfectly sums up my sentiment from visiting Auschwitz. Obtaining a detached and incomplete history of the Holocaust will not prevent it from happening again. Instead, we must dedicate ourselves to ensuring that the Holocaust remains in societal memory a human atrocity, composed not simply of anonymous numbers, but of individuals deprived of life.