I had been alternating between feeling dread and intrigue about this day ever since we decided to visit Poland. As our train approached, I felt trepidation and restlessness. Perhaps Tigger felt it as well. Normally, he is pretty relaxed during train rides, but he was skipping and bouncing up and down the aisles of the cars today. The sun had come out for the first time in a few days as we walked from the train station. I could see the sign indicating the entrance from a few blocks away, and my heart almost skipped a beat. My mouth was dry. By the time we were standing before the gate, the bold German words above my head made me pause. I told myself I had to do this. I had to bear witness. And so I took a deep breath and walked past the gate.
It was unsettling walking behind the sturdy gates with its electrified barbed wires even though I knew I could just as easily walk out. I felt as though my footsteps were tracing tens of thousands of others who had even more reason to feel far more ill at ease and terrified than I did currently.
Being an ethnic Jew and part Roma, I had studied the Holocaust. I had read books, seen the horrible photos, and watched the movies and documentaries. In my role as a healthcare chaplain, I have sat before survivors as they shared their stories of survival. I thought I should’ve felt more prepared than I did, but seeing and hearing those things cannot match the experience of stepping foot on the soil of Auschwitz, one of the largest and deadliest concentration camps under Nazi control.
At least 1.1 million prisoners died here, and 90% of them were Jews. Out of all the Jews exterminated during the Holocaust, 1 in 6 died here and at the nearby Birkenau (Auschwitz II) facility, the main center of “the final solution.”
I was not sure about bringing Tigger to see this. He has a big heart and can be quite sensitive. Would the images and exhibits be too much for him? We discussed what he might see, and he was willing to view it. I have a firm belief that despite the monuments, documentaries, and museums around the world, these places need to be witnessed to more fully understand the evils of genocide.
In the end, I decided it was too important for either of us to miss.
Walking the grounds of the concentration camp was at times surreal. At times while passing between the red brick buildings, the sound of gravel crunching beneath our feet, I could feel a sense of reverent peace. In any other environment, I would be tempted to sit and enjoy the calmness.
Then I would walk by the gallows from which a dozen Poles were hanged in reprisal for the escape of 3 prisoners. The officers at Auschwitz were big on “sending messages.” Public hangings and floggings were common. If a Polish prisoner escaped, their family would be arrested and brought to the camp, and they would remain there until the fugitive returned.
Many of the blocks, the brick buildings which housed prisoners, now house exhibitions. The Roma victims have their own exhibit. I had known the Nazis included the Roma among the ethnic groups, like Poles and Russians, that needed to be eliminated. However, I did not realize that out of the 23,000 Gypsies who had been brought here, only 2000 survived.
Other exhibits are memorials to the various nationalities of prisoners. Some of them are even more painful as you see the living conditions, the articles left behind, and as you read about the “justice” many of the prisoners experienced. While many prisoners died from the gas chambers or other executions, many more died from exhaustion, severe hypothermia, medical experimentation, and starvation.
I’m not sure I will ever forget my experience of walking up to Block 11. This prison building was used to reeducate some of the prisoners and to mete out justice for infractions such as assisting someone’s plans for escape or maintaining contact with the outside world.
I initially walked up to 2 gates to take a photo. I then peered beyond them and saw the wall that I would later learn was called “the death wall.” Its energy drew me in. I could not break eye contact with it as I slowly, almost reverently, approached it. The grey surface of the material of the wall stood out starkly against the red bricks. Small offerings lay at its base. I knew without seeing a plaque or anything else that this had been a wall for shooting people. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I resisted the urge to touch it. Unlike other areas of the camp, this spot had . . . presence.
Its tragedy spoke to me. I asked it “Why?” but only silence answered me. This type of evil just can’t be explained.
I walked away from the wall, but the wall did not leave me.
We continued to explore the grounds and the various buildings. I made sure to engage Tigger in the exhibits so that he would have a deeper understanding of the darkness that once reigned here.
After leaving the camp, I headed to the bus stop for the shuttle to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. However, the prospect of boarding that bus made me freeze. I turned to my son and said, “We have two options. We can take this bus and go to the other camp called Birkenau, or we can take the other bus and head back home.”
I will admit to feeling relieved when he replied, “I can’t take another concentration camp. Not today.” Neither could I.
In my years of working in trauma, intensive care, and of traveling all around the world, I have seen many things. I have witnessed amazing things and horrifying things.
But nothing has left me so thoroughly shaken as Auschwitz. Hours later I keep asking myself “But why? How could any human do such a thing?” I don’t understand it. I don’t think it can be understood.
After about my 3rd time of saying this aloud, Tigger finally said: “I guess humans were just more evil back then.”
But that’s the problem. Despite all the beauty and great kindnesses in the world, there is a blackness in some people’s heart. We see similar things taking place on the African continent today. In the 90s, we saw it happening again in Eastern Europe.
And just like in the time of the Nazis, there are many governments who turn their head away from the plight of these people.
This is why we bear witness. This is why these places, no matter how painful and difficult, must be visited. The ghosts of Auschwitz have left an indelible mark on me. The death wall still speaks to me. “Never forget!”
No, I cannot. And we must not.