Photo above: At Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by Ari Goldstein

March 12, 2015

Many times, Holocaust education centers on what happened at Auschwitz- Birkenau. The horrors I’ve read about have always been difficult for me to understand so I thought it necessary to see the camp for myself. After my visit, I can say that Auschwitz is nothing like I had imagined and my experience there was unlike anything I could have ever predicted.

After seeing unmarked mass graves in Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine, I thought Auschwitz would be the place that got it right-the place where the Holocaust would be properly memorialized. However, I was utterly disappointed to see unkempt mass graves and memorials and signs that excluded the word “Jewish.” On top of this, visiting Auschwitz felt like visiting any other museum. The tour was informative and the place gave perspective, but something was missing. Although I was at Auschwitz and I was aware of its history, I felt a vast distance between me and what happened there. Perhaps it was the fact that the camp was remodeled by the Soviets and then later the Polish, or that there were people walking around laughing and making jokes, perhaps it was the information overload. I’m not sure, but I was extremely confused as to why I my visit was not as emotional as I had expected.

As we toured the camp, I thought about all the collaborators. The monstrosities that occurred at Auschwitz did not happen just because of Nazism. It happened because ordinary people drove trains, constructed camp barracks, cooked meals, developed machines, and failed to see the larger picture. Somehow ordinary people took for granted what was happening around them. After my visit, the question that lingers is: What makes people take another person’s life for granted?

This is not a question about evil people and good people. It’s not about Germans and Jews. It is about humanity: our arrogance, our ambitions, our avarice, and our potential for cruelty. We are often caught in our lives our thoughts, our ambitions, our hurts, and our perceptions of goodness- in a net of self-centeredness that makes us oblivious to another’s suffering and their value as a person. But the sad thing about humanity is not that we’re capable of evil, but that we are capable of goodness and often fail to act accordingly. In my mind, the difference between someone like Jan Karski and Himmler is courage and empathy: courage to risk your life for another and empathy to put yourself in another’s shoes to attempt to understand them. As humans we all feel pain, hunger, cold, tired, sadness, and hopelessness. The prisoners at Auschwitz experienced the extreme of all of these and people just starred in silence. 

Still, it is difficult for me to point at a perpetrator and simply label them as bad. I always wonder what turned them into murders and what they were trying to get out of it. In order to respond to the call of “Never Again,” we must try to understand perpetrators, in order to prevent mass murder. This must be done with the intention to prevent people from being senselessly murdered and to keep people from becoming murderers.

In itself, Auschwitz did not impress me, but it did provoke many thoughts. I value these because upon leaving the camp, I felt, once again, determined to dedicate my life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and to help victims of mass violence.

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