It Started With Fear

We were standing in the main building, waiting for our tour guide, and I was distractedly looking at the posters and pictures on the wall, absent mindedly talking to someone, happened to casually glance out the window.

And there it was.

“Arbeit Macht Frei.”

Work makes free.

The entrance to Auschwitz.

I looked at the sign, read the words so many must have read with hope as they were led to their deaths.

Did you know that the victims of Auschwitz actually paid for their residence?

They were told they were going to find a better place, so tickets were sold to Jews and other non-Aryans. They bought tickets to their executions.

I couldn’t look at the sign.

Our tour guide arrived and led us directly to it.

I had to keep my eyes focused on the ground because I could not look at the gate. Finally we made our way through, and what struck me first about the former camp was how beautiful it is. It looks like a typical summer camp, with green trees and brick buildings.

Except that it is encompassed entirely by barbed wire.

People around me snapped pictures, many of them nonchalantly so, as if they were taking pictures of a park or an ordinary museum.

We finally made our way into one of the buildings. It was strange how the entire camp has been made into a museum. It wasn’t all barbed wire.

We saw pictures, documents, evidence of crimes. How people can say the holocaust doesn’t exist astounds me.

What I remember most is the building that held personal belongings of the victims.

We walked in, and people were taking pictures, which is forbidden inside the buildings, running around, acting like petulant children at a funeral. Complete disrespect.

We saw what we had heard of.

We saw prayer shawls which had been confiscated, piles and piles of eye glasses.

We saw the shoes.

We saw the heaps of hair, shorn from victims’ heads, the types of nets and cloth which the hair was made out of, sold to civilians.

The suitcases personalized with names and dates.

We saw cookware. Cookware. Pots and pans, potato peelers and cheese graters. I mean everything. They took everything. Nothing was spared.

We turned a corner, and in this room, in this display, were crutches. Prosthetic limbs. Prosthetic hands. Leg braces. And it hit me with such a force because I knew what immediately happened to those who had utilized these. The disabled were worthless because they could not work. Seeing this…I could not breathe.

We saw more pictures. Pictures of emaciated faces with numbers instead of names. After that building I was exhausted. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. We walked by the death wall, where people were so often shot and executed. It now serves as a memorial site. We stood by the gallows. We went into dark basements and prisons. All of this I was numb through.

As we were walking it began to rain. It was freezing outside. The tour had been going on for about two or three hours. We were all tired, hungry, and cold.

Wes was walking beside me, and we both expressed how guilty we felt for feeling cold in March, in scarves and hats and gloves and coats.

They had nothing.

And then we went into the one gas chamber and crematorium which wasn’t destroyed. It struck me how tiny it was.

There were several groups in there, and we were all cramped together.

I looked up and could see the pseudo shower heads, which in actuality is where the gas was released, and I began to feel suffocated. I just wanted out.

Later Cristin pointed out the numerous fingernail scratchings on the walls.

Finally we left. I was disturbed to see so many people, so many tourists, walking in and out freely. For us it was a museum, and for so many it was a horrible, horrible, prison, only escapable by death.

After lunch we met with a survivor. He actually wasn’t even Jewish. He was simply a Polish young man who was a part of the resistance in the beginning of the war. He was arrested in 1939 and survived Auschwitz for five years. He told us of a young couple who became known as the “Romeo and Juliet” of Auschwitz, a couple who managed to fall in love in the middle of hell, and even escaped. Tragically, they were eventually discovered and executed. When I asked him what he owed his survival to, he simply said “Luck, luck, luck.” Someone asked him how old he was when he was arrested, and he said “There are so many beautiful women in the room, I don’t want to reveal my age.” Seeing him be able to laugh gave us all hope. He was also the former director of the museum, and he told us that it was difficult living near the former camp, but that the world needed to be educated about it, and the best educators are the ones who lived through it. He said that, walking around, it often seemed unreal, like it never happened.

That night we sat around and discussed our thoughts on the day for about two or three hours. And we prepared for the next day: Birkenau.

Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II was a completely different experience than Auschwitz I. Auschwitz I was full of tourists and museums, almost like people had forgotten what it once was, a parking lot filled with cars and buses, book stores and cafes littered about.

Birkenau was silent. We drove up, and no one else was there. It began to snow, and then we saw the tracks. The train tracks which carried one purpose and ended inside the camp. Birkenau was enormous in comparison to Auschwitz. It seemed to stretch for acres. The barbed wire fence seemed endlessly long and endlessly foreboding. We climbed the watch tower at the entrance, stood where they stood. Saw the entire camp.

We walked through the wooden barracks, the places meant for horse stables used as housing. We saw the remains of the destroyed gas chambers. We stood on the platform used for selection.

Through all of this none of us spoke. How could we speak?

Many people took pictures. I couldn’t. It was too hard. But I know that you have to put that aside because it’s important that people see it. It’s important to see the evidence. But I knew other people were taking more than enough pictures for the group. Someone later said that they didn’t want to, but that someone else said that even if it is hard, you have to, because it’s art. And I didn’t say anything then, but I just can’t agree with that. It’s not art. It’s death and it’s a cemetery and it’s cruel, cruel evidence of what humanity is capable of but it is not art. Art is beautiful in spite of truth and there is no beauty in Birkenau.

The entire day, everyone was numb. No one cried. We were all so void and empty. Tired of trying to understand. The wind was blowing. It had been snowing. I couldn’t feel my legs, and it was March. March. How cold must it have been in December, in January, without coats?

We were cold, inside and out. We were numb, inside and out.

In the last place we visited I broke.

We were in a room with pictures of victims.

But they weren’t pictures we had already seen. They weren’t photos of dead eyes, of worn faces with shaved heads, skeletons in striped uniforms.

They were pictures from before the war, from family photo albums and the like.

These were not pictures of victims, these were pictures of people.

There were couples, healthy and in love. Family vacations and bathing suits. Young girls posing for the camera, like a senior picture in high school. Friends. Families. One of a young woman in her wedding dress, looking exactly at the camera and toasting. Walls and walls of these people. Children. Kids playing in the yard. And I saw these people, and I saw them, finally, saw them not as these numbers in uniforms, but as people, and I understood how easily that could be me. I look at this picture of me and my friends smiling and hugging, this picture perched on my microwave, and I imagine it on the wall with the rest. They weren’t shaved heads in uniforms. They weren’t Jews, they weren’t Gypsies. They were people.

And we learned about the spread of neo-Nazism across Europe and America and I just think how? How can some people see only race or ethnicity and not personality and character and feelings and hearts and minds and souls and blood?

And you know what is even worse? We hear of the holocaust and we think “How could people do that?”

But if you replace the Jewish, Gypsies, the disabled, any victim of the holocaust with a homosexual, a Mexican, a black person, and you get the exact same mentality today. There’s so much hate for such ridiculous reasons. There are people today who think the holocaust was horrible just because they don’t have anything against the Jewish, but do it to a Muslim and they wouldn’t feel the same way. They would be completely fine with another holocaust.

I see it everywhere now.

Every train track to me is a part of the tracks of Birkenau. When I’m cold I think of the cold I have never had to endure. It’s everywhere.

Reading about the holocaust has always saddened me. But I forgot about it for awhile. In speech it became unmentionably taboo to do a “holocaust piece.” The holocaust became a part of history, one I tired to forget.

But seeing it, seeing the face of the crimes, it overwhelmed me.

It started with fear, and it ended with anger. Anger at the perpetrators. Anger at the bystanders. I know that “none of us know what we would do in that situation.” But if any of us would stand by and do nothing, then we deserve just as much reprimand and just as much guilt as those who signed the documents and murdered the victims themselves. You can say that you don’t know what you would do, but that does not absolve the fact that you did nothing.

It also ended with gratitude. I will never, ever understand how this could happen. But my life is so abundant right now. I come back and hear about friends’ squabbles and quarrels, and it all seems so meaningless. It doesn’t matter. I am so incredibly humbled and thankful not only for what I have, but for what I have not had to endure. All of it is so incomprehensible to me. But if nothing else, remembering the Holocaust again made me remember all that is great in my life.

It sounds trite, maybe, but please do the same. Just remember, and remind yourselves, remind each other, what’s really important. Not race, not ethnicity, not religion, not sexual preference. None of these are deserving of hate. To hate for these reasons is to say that Hitler was just, that the Nazi regime was good.

So, to quote American History X, “Hate is Baggage.”

Keep that in mind.



Published in: on March 25, 2008 at 2:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: