Essays

  • Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

    Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

    I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau yesterday. I thought that maybe i would realize or feel something that would lead me somewhere closer to understanding all of this. For now though, i hardly even remember most of the day. It seems like somewhere i went briefly a few years ago and without photographs it would be one gray and red and hazy snow slog memory, much like a cold dream. I know i choked on my throat for a few moments when i went into the gas chamber but after that i shut down everywhere and all i felt was a numbing need to be quiet, reverent and have my feet walk my body through and see this place i have for so long read and heard about. Most places that are this feared and hated became so because of a preconceived notion developed prior to experiencing it. Here though, it feels like more than that. I think any human being could walk onto that land and feel something deep-down-dark all around, even if they didn't realize that they were standing on the largest mass grave in the world.

    The last few hours i remember a little better. It goes on forever- all barracks and ruins, guard towers and barbed wire, destroyed gas chambers and somehow these beautiful birch trees that saw it all and are still standing. Even now as spring approaches and the ice and snow thaw to reveal the muddy field that has always been there, the wind whips across and doesn't seem to care at all. I felt a momentary yet tremendous amount of guilt for being so affected by the cold weather that i found it hard to be present for the experience. It was just relentless. I couldn't make myself ignore my toes and hands aching and losing feeling and this was merely a few hours for me. Time spent wearing decent clothing, enjoying fair health and possessing the ability to walk inside to find warmth or better yet to leave at any moment the same way i came in. It still wrecked me and told me again that i will never know what it did to people that stayed longer than a few controlled hours. What can be said about this place is mostly for them, what few remain. Not a visitor like me with a plane ticket back home in my wallet.

    About me though, i know that my measure of faith and understanding of life is changing. It was shifting somewhere before i found myself at these gates and now it's accelerated because of them. I still believe in what i believe in, i am just seeing it take on new shapes in the face of the stories i hear, the eyes i look into and the secondhand history these days find me taking in. I can no longer for a moment think that the redemption and mercy i have been shown is universal and is a standard that can be expected or prayed for. This stain on human history defies logic or explanation and im adding it to the list of things i don't expect an exact answer for in this lifetime. Even without those answers though, time seems to have a way of sorting things out.

    Today i interviewed a survivor who lived through Auschwitz and Dr. Mengele's medical experiments. And she has found a way to go on. So, even as my questions multiply, i can still believe in that.