Photo above: Auschwitz-Birkenau
March 12, 2015
I don’t know it I’ve ever really thought about what it would be like to visit Auschwitz. As the prototypical image of the Holocaust, of course I imagined it would be a difficult experience. But I don’t think I really ever thought about how it would actually feel in the camp. To be honest I still don’t know how I feel. My thoughts at the end of this day, as they have been throughout this trip, are ones of not knowing how to process my emotions.
I have had so much thrown at me in the past few days that I don’t think my brain knows how to properly react. Part of me hasn’t actually grasped what I saw. Yet the other part of me is feeling it deeply. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m confused. There were so many things that really stuck with me, and because I’m still processing it, I’m going to just write about what is on my mind, with the hope that in doing so I will get a step closer to understanding it all.
We walked around the perimeter of Auschwitz II, a part of the camp that very few people visit. The most shocking aspect of it was that it is directly adjacent to a suburban community. The perimeter of the camp is lined with very nice homes, whose windows look directly onto the camp and the mass graves. There are children’s playgrounds that the old railroad tracks run directly through. Other than the fact that it was shocking, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. I’ve always found it interesting that there are homes in the US that look onto cemeteries, and others have always told me that at a certain point you don’t really notice it. I guess to a certain extent that is the case here as well. Yet a cemetery is a celebration and memorial of the lives of those buried there. Auschwitz is a monument to the suffering and death of millions of people. The idea of becoming numb to that is not something I could ever fathom.
We walked through the process of dehumanization of the Jews and it made me think about my own identity and the things that make me who I am. We saw shoes, suitcases, and prosthetics, yet the room with the hair discovered by the Soviets struck me especially hard. It hit me, not only because of the vile nature of it, but because of my own feelings about my hair. This may seem extraordinarily insignificant and petty but I am incredibly attached to my hair. If I get a haircut and more is cut than I wanted, I genuinely don’t feel quite like myself until it starts to grow back. The idea that this incredibly important part of my own identity was just ripped away from each and every one of the Jews that stepped into Auschwitz is horrifying. This however is exactly what the goal was. They stripped the Jewish people of every aspect of their identity, so that when it came time to kill them, they were no longer seen as human beings.
One of the things I came away from this day feeling the most was anger. I’m angry because it is clear in many ways that Hitler succeeded. Throughout the day it was clear that there are still aspects of what happened at Auschwitz that are covered up or denied. There is denial about whether or not the building, now owned by the Catholic Church, was the Commandante’s house. What is the point of denying these things at this point? The mass graves at Auschwitz are rarely visited. The signs commemorating them mention the “men, women, and children” who died there, with no mention of their Jewish identity. If we cannot acknowledge that the people who died were Jews at Auschwitz, how can we expect anyone to do it elsewhere?
The question I am left with after all of this is what to do next. I feel as though it is my responsibility to do something with what I have learned however I don’t know yet know what or how to do so.