One year ago, I visited the Auschwitz complex for the first time. Under Father Desbois’ guidance, I was exposed to the stark difference between the “museum” of Auschwitz I and the extermination site of Auschwitz II. I emerged from the day both physically and emotionally drained, frustrated by the lack of regard paid to the hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered in the “backyard” of the Holocaust hotspot.
This year, Auschwitz’s terrain was familiar. I knew which paths to take, and which stories would be told. I expected few visitors at Birkenau and swarms of students at Auschwitz I. On the bus back to Krakow, I did not immediately fall asleep from exhaustion as in the previous year, but instead reflected on the fact that I was not as moved as I “should” have been.
In our minds, we have memorialized Auschwitz as the pinnacle of the “Shoah Experience.” We revere the restored brick and mortar. But as Father Desbois so adeptly put it, we, the living, “are afraid of the dead.” We do not learn about the 70,000 individuals killed in the Lisinichi Forest in Ukraine. We do not bother traveling to Belarus’ Bronnaya Gora, where 54,000 Jews were slaughtered. Instead of promoting access to and awareness of resources such as Yahad, which shows where millions more of our kin have been laid to rest, we set our sights on a number of red bunkers in Poland.
Do not misunderstand me: the Auschwitz complex is a location of evils beyond imagine. It must be deeply embedded into our memory, debriefed in our history, and maintained as a physical point of genocide reflection. But we cannot look at it as the whole Holocaust. We must incorporate those shot and abandoned in Ukrainian forests, those killed defending partisan ideals in Belarus, and those other estimated 2.4 million we have forgotten, into our Holocaust memory. Until we do this, Hitler and the Nazis have won.