Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

‘For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity,’ – Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial

Standing in front of the single cattle car on the tracks at Birkenau, I wasn’t worried whether I would be motioned left or right. Left for death. Right for work. The snow fell steadily, without making a sound, over Auschwitz; it did not want to disturb the dead. The white blanket covered every dark surface in sight as if it was trying to disguise a truth that could never be hidden. Barbed wire surrounded me on all sides; even the tall and bare trees, dusted with white, looked like an extension of those electric fences that stole humanity from millions. I made my way down the same path 1,100,000 walked to their end, to the death rooms with the gas and useless shower heads; men, women, and children the ages of my nieces and nephew — flames extinguished without a chance to burn. Tears streaked down my frozen cheeks but why? What right had I? I would not be made to strip and die there.

My grandfather was forced from his home in Den Haag when he was a teenager. Before getting on the train to his assigned forced labor unit, his mother made him a sandwich. The train passed along the fences surrounding Westerbork concentration camp. When my grandfather saw the emaciated prisoners standing, shrouded in barbed wire, to watch his train pass, he threw his mother’s sandwich out of the window and into the their hands. Throughout the day, I often thought if I would do the same.

The snow was seeping through my boots and into my woolen socks as I stood before the ruins of the gas chamber. I was cold. But I have never been cold in my life; not truly cold. I have never been exhausted. Even when a panic attack would keep me from sleeping, I had never been truly exhausted. I have never been hungry. Even at the worst of my eating disorder, I had never been truly hungry. To think of these people, of what they endured, one can only grasp blindly at half-feelings. I could never comprehend yet I am writing of it. How does one write of tragedy without knowing? Why does one visit a past they can do nothing to change?

We have passed the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Soon all witnesses will be gone and we will no longer to be able to hear of what they saw. Elie Wiesel wrote that ‘to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’ This is why I enter that harrowing room where I must walk amidst the piles of hair that reach to the ceiling and this is why I write about this horrible thing that I can’t understand. This cannot be forgotten as humanity is forever hovering over repetition, just as capable of atrocity as ever. Only if we hold horror in our hands and grip it though it burns our flesh can we ensure that there will be no more Auschwitz and, hopefully, no more war. 

I turned away from the untouched, snowy ruins and began walking back to the bus. As I ate my chocolate croissant and stared out the tinted window with the barbed wire fence still in view, I thought of my grandfather and his sandwich.

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