Sunday is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and to commemorate it, I want to share with you my memories of the day I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I went there during a study abroad trip through my alma mater, and to me, it was the most important stop on the trip. Our bus, usually filled with chatter and music, was quiet. A small crowd was gathered in front of the gate to the compound–clearly we weren’t the only group visiting that day. It took a while for our professors to get tickets, so I meandered away from the others. The gate, a brick wall with a watchtower atop it, was very imposing.
It was flanked on both sides by a tall fence topped with barbed wire. In front were the railroad tracks. It was along these that I strolled. I looked into the distance to see where the tracks led. Eventually, I sat on the ground, and I wondered how many people had sat there, afraid, knowing or not knowing what was in store for them, never to leave that place.
When our professors returned with the tickets, we learned that we weren’t going to be taken on a guided tour; rather, we could wander at will. Some of us split into groups of two or three; others, like myself, determined to go alone. As I walked through the brick archway, under the watchtower, I shivered. I knew I’d be coming back out, but the power of Auschwitz’s history still made me afraid.
Once inside, I wasn’t quite sure where to go. Our professors gathered us and pointed us toward all the things we might want to see, the memorial museums, the preserved “barracks” for the prisoners, the ruins of the four gas chambers, and the field in the back of the complex where the ashes of the slain were dumped. I chose to go to the museums first. Each country affected had converted a barrack into a memorial of sorts, mostly displaying items found in the camp, along with photographs and videos. I explored a couple of them, but two displays stick with me.
The first was too large for a display case. Rather it was a small room with a window for visitors to see inside. It was full of hair. It was one large pile of hair, seemingly reaching from the floor to my chest. I froze, and stared. I remember hearing nothing, seeing nothing, but that hair and the ghosts of the women the Nazis had violently taken it from. So many women, with tear-filled eyes, fear-filled features, or clenched jaws and narrowed eyes while their humanity was taken from them. I was there to remember them, to learn about them, and to honor them, so I stood there until the multitude of faces finally dissipated and I found myself again staring at a display of stolen hair.
The second display was similar–too large for a Plexiglas case, though smaller than the first. It was filled with tangled eyeglass frames. The lenses were long gone. They were remarkably similar–brown, or close to it, metal, and all missing their owners. The frames were intertwined with one another. I stood frozen in place, as the ghosts of the people who had once worn these frames flashed before my mind’s eye. I saw men and women reading books and newspapers, their glasses sliding down their noses. I saw people looking at trees and flowers, friends and loved ones, and yes, bombs and guns and soldiers. I saw their very sight being taken away from them, never again to see their world with clarity and hope. Never to see again.
I left the museum-memorials, and slowly made my way toward the ruins of Chamber 4, one of the famed gas chambers used to murder countless people. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see–I saw huge chunks of concrete, mangled and broken. The Nazis had destroyed it at the end, hoping it would be enough to hide what they’d done. There were others there, but, like in the museum-memorials, I didn’t really see them. The ghosts here were but shadows. I couldn’t see faces.
I walked the grounds next, especially the perimeter of the compound, which was bordered with the above mentioned fence–and a ditch. People had been shot, and their bodies dumped in those ditches. I walked along that ditch, gazing at it, and the green grass that grew there. I was aiming toward the back of the compound, where a path lay to the field where the ashes were dumped of an unfathomable number of people. As I started down the path, I met one of my classmates, who was heading back from the field. “There’s nothing there,” she told me.
She was wrong.
As you left the camp, you had to pass the remains of yet another gas chamber. Then, it was gone. I walked down a gravel path that cut through the woods. It opened into a field of sorts–a clear grassy area bordered on all sides by trees. There were no flowers, and yet, there wasn’t any man-made memorial or any other stamp of human occupation, other than the knowledge that the ashes of thousands of men, women, and children were dumped here. It was a nice relief from the camp, and I was grateful that, at the very least, the remains were out of sight of the camp. At least in death there was escape. I stood at the edge of the field for a bit, not daring to walk across the field. It seemed like a trespass to do so. I wondered what was in the woods. Did any escaped prisoners take refuge in these woods? Did loved ones sneak through these woods to get a glimpse of their imprisoned friends and family members? Surely there were stories there.
I walked back to the camp, thinking these thoughts. So many people. So many stories. So much death. And all because of hate. Hate and apathy and ignorance and a willingness to blame a convenient Other for one’s problems and a need to know that you are better than someone, and so much more. So much hate.
I found myself standing in front of the entrance to one of the barns that the Nazis used as barracks for the men and women they imprisoned. I’d seen pictures before, but they don’t convey it near enough. They were merely shelves, long, cramped, rough-wood shelves. I stood there and wept. Tears had been streaming down my face off and on all day, but here I stood and acknowledged them. I allowed the power of this place to overwhelm me. I must never forget this, I thought to myself. Never. I must not allow even a shred of the hate that caused this to fester inside me. Never.
I decided then, and I maintain it now. I will not hate. I feel anger, frustration, and irritation, but I cannot feel hate. I have felt it before, but not since–not since I walked through the archway of the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I have come close to feeling hate. Then the memories surface of all the things I saw at Auschwitz, and I remember the ghosts of those who died there. They remind me that hate turns you on a dangerous path, one adrenaline-fueled step at a time, leading you back to Auschwitz. Rather than following that path, I pause, breathe, and remember.