Friday, June 24, 2016

Open air but nowhere to breathe: Auschwitz and Birkenau

Over the course of just 5 years, over 1 million people were murdered at this site. 5 years. 5 harsh winters, 60 months of intense labor, an estimated 1.1 million people lost to this world due to nothing more than hate. Over 7.5 tons of hair. The hair. They kept it to weave into cloth. Human hair. It is so hard to take in, to understand. The enormity of it, that's what continues to shock you when you see it. You think you know. I thought I did. When I was in school we studied the holocaust. In elementary, we collected pennies. Carried them from home and presented each one as a boy, girl, man, grandma. In middle school, it was paperclips. Bring in your box of clips to fill up the class jar and school tub, then that's only 1/60 of the people who died.

The trench they dug behind
the wires that kept them
They were always trying to teach us how many. A clip per person fills the train car.
I still didn't know then but now I do. And this is just one of the camps.

I left Auschwitz with pain and fear in my heart. They make it a place of learning now and the exhibits at the site even try to help you leave with hope - photographs of people who were inspired by the remaining evidence of the holocaust and people that have come together since to STAND against hate, from simple ignorance to genocide. That stuff didn't work for me. I wish it had but I left with fear. I can't even think back now without my eyes widening, tearing up, and my family's faces swimming across my mind. I had nightmares of my mom's curly hair in that hair pile or my dad's Benjamin Franklin glasses, my brother's t-shirt, my baby niece's frilly dress piled in with the torn gray clothes left behind. This could happen to anyone, any day. You are never safe from hateful people. The most we can hope for is to not give them power. 
When we arrived at Auschwitz (by local bus from Krakow which was easy to manage through the main train station), we used my friend Staz's helpful guide and started with Birkenau/Auschwitz II. You walk. It look maybe 2 hours, it could easily have taken 3. But I lingered. I was cold, I liked it. It felt right to be cold. I was hungry as well but I hardly noticed until I realized I hadn't eaten in 6 hours. I touched everything I could. I think I needed to ground myself at this place. To try to connect to the spirit of the pain. Maybe if I could feel some of it, it would lift from them and they can be with a little more peace. Maybe not, I don't know.

I loved how the wires were popping out. Finally free. The wind whips through the empty brick and open field of ruin. I wanted to find symbolism in everything. It was a way to give it meaning. I hate that this happened for no reason to no end, no one's benefit. I walked the walk of a new inmate of the camp. I stopped at every sign. I read them all with earnest. I wouldn't recommend a guide or an audio tour. You need to be present for this. It's not about information. If you want to learn about the holocaust, sit quietly at home and read a book. I believe to be at this place is to experience it. Bring some things to leave here - candles, flowers, any small token. I wish I had something to give back which brought light or color. The only instance of life and strength in 40 square kilometers was the small pile of items brought by visitors sitting on the memorial near the crematorium. Plus it would have been wonderful to walk away at least physically lighter than I came, as selfish as that is to say.

These are the stairs those people went down to enter the 'shower'. I stared for a moment into the crematorium. I was trying to find evidence in the rubble before I thought to myself what am I doing right now. I immediately walked away. This isn't a site to see, it's a site to feel and I'd felt enough without seeing a torn piece of cloth half buried by desperate people trying to cover their crimes.

I don't think people should bring small children here. They marvel at the row of 'toilets' carved from stone and jump around on the beams of the remaining barracks. I found it disturbing to see such disregard of a hallowed place. I might have thought some happy voices would stir the solemness but no, it just stirred the peaceful rest and quiet the place deserves.

A car that carried them

I don't have a photograph of the pond at the back of the camp but it is what I remember most vividly. I was too upset at the time. I couldn't stop crying. Eventually my heart felt nothing and my eyes were still leaking. The energy there. It was as thick as fog and as tight as a dank cave standing in the open trees of the wood behind the barracks. Like breathing sand and heat but I couldn't leave the place until I'd listened to the song of the spirits there. I saw women huddled together in the trees. I know it was the photographs I'd seen but they were shadows in my eyes as well. I wanted to make sure every leaf finished its rustle in the wind and the drips of the last bits of ice on the edge of the water had given their message. Once it was still, I walked away but only then.

There are Nazis still out there, hiding. I can only sleep at night by believing they will never rest. This world may exist by science or miracle or because someone designed it...I don't pretend to know. What I do know is that they can't win unless we learn nothing. We can't let them win.

After Birkenau, you take a shuttle to the the main camp. We waited maybe 10 minutes for it. I believe they come at least every half hour. Everyone is full of thoughts on the bus. The main camp is smaller than I expected, it took about an hour and a half to see almost everything. It might have taken 2 if we'd done it first but our legs and eyes were heavy. Be sure to take a moment at the wall and walk through the final block and torturous cells. Otherwise, I think it's best to wander on your own agenda.

You can't take photographs inside the exhibits so I can't share with you an image of those piles of items left behind by the people who were murdered. The shoes, suitcases, eyeglasses, the baby clothes. The cans of Zyklon B used to murder over 600 people every 24 hours. I can't give anyone the imprint they will always have on my mind. Visit this place yourself if you can. Not because it brings you hope or happiness, but because it brings you certainty of what this beautiful world can look like, will look like, if we allow hate to rule. It will be a lifelong reminder and dull, deep warning to participate in this world. Participate, form opinions, share, VOTE, stand up, speak up, SCREAM if you must. We are one. One species, one race, one people with one life each, lets fill it with love.
“What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
― John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas