It was warm and the sun shone brightly in my eyes as I stepped off the bus and onto the hard black surface of the parking lot. We were still talking, even smiling, as we waited for the rest of our group to file off the bus. It was loud outside, the sounds of cars pulling in and out of spots, people speaking in foreign languages, and feet shuffling as we made our way to the line at the entrance of the building. I remember asking myself, what are all of these people doing here? What can possibly make people, adults who have already encountered suffering and seen the realities of humanity, choose to visit such a place? I understood why we were there. I could hear my grandfather telling me, “You are very lucky. Your ancestors weren’t.” And I knew I was lucky—I had survived 15 years without knowing a single person who had died. And I also knew the importance of seeing my family’s history, my culture’s history. But I was also young, we all were, and hadn’t yet been cracked along our edges, frayed and jaded by the world. So we walked into the doors of Auschwitz I knowing that we were supposed to be feeling and acting a certain way, yet still lightly chatting about the previous night’s fun.
When we stepped into the building we were greeted by the familiar sights and sounds of an air conditioner and vending machines and a snack bar. It was louder in there, as we waited in line to pick up our headsets for the audio tour. After about 30 minutes or so of bathroom runs, water buying, and bureaucratic organizing, we faced the doors leading out into the open air of the concentration camp. After a moment of unified silence and staring as we attempted to prepare for what was coming, though still young and unsure, we pushed open the doors. We felt it immediately. Cheerfulness, hope, youthfulness—life—was sucked out of each of us in a rush of bitter, haunting air. It left us empty and chilled to our bones. As we walked down the steps onto the vivid green grass, the sun, although still bright, felt cold and distant. I turned to my left and looked into the parking lot through the posts in the fence, trying to imagine how it would have felt to be standing here 80 years ago. But all I could conjure up was the flash of a black-and-white image of a stranger that I must have seen in a museum. The eerie feeling creeping up my spine was the only reminder I could feel of what that stranger went through. As we walked around the camp, listening to the tour guide and visiting rows of barracks converted into miniature museums, I wondered at my lack of emotion towards the whole thing. Yes, I could feel how taut the air was with tension, and yes, I felt my skin prickle with uneasiness, but looking through the glass at the monstrous piles of stolen belongings, I couldn’t bring myself to gasp in horror or shock. I couldn’t feel anything other than the sadness I knew I should be feeling, so I rushed in and out of rooms, waiting for the moment my unreliable emotions would slap me in the face and I would get it.
By this point, I had seen what seemed like hundreds of photos of Holocaust survivors and victims. The blurred black and white was not strong enough to hide the indescribable horror of those pictures. Skin and bones in the most literal sense of the phrase. The translucence of the skin was visible even in the photographs. So too were the hollowness of the eyes, carved so deeply into victims’ faces that it was surprising they remained in their places on the bare, vulnerable scalps of their hosts. But all the eyes were different. Some were dull orbs, so exhausted from taking in daily horrors that the light in them slowly died away until they reflected the emptiness of the rest of the broken body and soul. Others were glossy spheres, locking their owners in an unmovable trance, providing a sharp, magnified view of their loved ones’ suffering. Worst were the wide-eyed childrens’ fear. The electric currents orbiting around their eyes threatened to make them pop out of their heads. The fear emanating from them cut through the photographs and into your own eyes, where they bored into your soul and yours to theirs, seeing and feeling their stolen childhoods, until you were forced to look away because the heat was burning a visible hole in your heart. But when you jolted away the connection broke, and suddenly the photograph was among a pile of distant, strange objects in a complex, past world. And yes, I felt the edges of my heart eroding as I closely examined the first few pictures I saw, but as I walked away, the names I so closely studied faded from my mind along with the rolling of my stomach.
But all too soon I got it. The true moment my heart and soul and innocence and optimism shattered was not while I was looking at the faces of victims, their stolen belongings, or their endless names. It happened when we were in one of the more refurbished rooms. There was no light other than from the videos projected on the walls. From floor to ceiling, overlapping photos of families laughing, smiling, celebrating, loving, living, overwhelmed me. Children going to school, families at birthday parties, couples getting married, siblings playing together, any happy moment you could imagine was there. And yet as the montage flashed in front of my eyes, the colorful sights and the recordings of music and laughter spun wildly in my head, combining into a vicious cyclone which sought to terrorize my rationality and emotions and thoughts. Sobs exploded from my mouth, my diaphragm shoving them up my throat at an uncontrollable speed, until what felt like hours later it was forced to slow, exhausted from its attempt to suffocate me. And the tears, they flooded out of my eyes so powerfully that I was shocked such small orifices could hold so much pain. As they seeped out, they drenched my face and dozens of tissues. Eventually, though, every drop of bitter water escaped me, and I was left with a dry burn in my eyes and a stickiness on my face. And all the while, I couldn’t see or hear a thing. I did cry some more after that. Throughout the rest of the tour, slow tears leaked from my pink, swollen eyes as understanding and pain grew inside me. And although the memories of the rest of that tour—what the guide said, what I read, and what I felt—may fade, those tears have been forever seared into my eyes and will be brought to the forefront of my consciousness every time I think about the Holocaust or hear of inhuman, unjust incidents in the world. The victims were strangers no more. In their moments of strength and health they became real to me, with scenes of their lives becoming entangled in my own.
Walking out of the gates of the camp we were quiet, maybe processing what we had just seen, maybe waiting until it felt appropriate to begin talking. No one wanted to be the one to lift the heavy weight from air. Luckily, though, no one had to. The familiar beating of the air conditioner as we stepped into the entrance building washed us with an air of relief, and although we still felt somber, the comforting reminder that it was 2017 provided us with the strength we needed to lift the veil of tension from us. We sat on the grass beside the parking lot to eat our lunches and managed to breathe out a few exchanges about our sandwiches and going to the restroom and buying something to drink. It was clear no one wanted to talk about what we had just been through. I think it was enough to have each other there—knowing that we were all feeling the same confused mix of emotions, including a powerful desire for normalcy. In this unified state of mind we boarded the bus to our next stop, Auschwitz II—Birkenau.
I expected it to feel the same as the other camp, the heaviness of millions of tears weighing down the air, the sound of screams as the wind blew through the trees. Like before, no birds seemed to inhabit the land or the canopies. It was almost as if they could sense the danger of the place, the atrocities that had been carried out there, the ghostlike memories of victims haunting all life that visited them. While I had been more congregated—more buildings closer together, more enclosed by the tight fences of barbed wire—II was much more open. Green grass covered the land as far as I could see, with wooden buildings speckled about, before leading into a forest on the edge of my vision. The train tracks were what caught your attention, though. Running straight through the arched entrance, they extended far down a dirt road in the middle of the camp. We knew how we were supposed to feel here the same way we knew how we were supposed to feel earlier that morning. Yet something was different this time. Maybe we had felt all the pain we could, expressed our emotions until there was nothing left to show, squeezed out every bit of empathy we could manage until our hearts were heavy and our bodies empty. With this mutual feeling of “okayness” we began walking around the camp in our usual clusters. As we breathed in the air, it didn’t feel tainted with the burnt, bitter taste of evil. It was the afternoon and the sun was warmer, and although we knew this was a place to continue our strained remembrance, we began to talk quietly among ourselves once more.
We followed a tour again, but it was harder to imagine the people stuffed like cattle into train cars and herded out to their respective fates. It was a lovely day, and Nature couldn’t be tainted, at least in our minds, by the past. I hardly remember what we talked about in our attempt to block out more facts about a reality we wanted so desperately to ignore. But I do remember that people wanted to buy an Israeli flag. There is a picture that many people recreate when visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau: sitting on the train tracks, usually with two or three friends, wrapped in the Israeli flag, with a comment along the lines of “never forget.” I remember my friends being upset that the entrance building wasn’t selling them and saying that they wished we had brought our own. I also talked with another friend about how neither of us wanted to take pictures—we never wanted to revisit where we had been today, knowing that glancing at a picture while scrolling through our phones would tear open the scars we had glued shut upon our exit of Auschwitz I. I think we also talked about being tired—we were still jet lagged and sleep deprived from staying up together—and our feet hurt. I knew at the time that it was strange to be discussing such trivial matters, to feel comfortable talking here at all. But strangeness was all I could feel at the time, as I breathed in the air of the summer day and walked around a field in Poland.
It was only a few hours later, back at the hotel after dinner, when I suddenly grew revolted with myself. How could we be so insensitive? How could we be so stupid? How could we be okay at a concentration camp? These questions and various phrasings of them spun through my head and threatened to replace the air in my lungs. We talked, and complained, and joked, in a place drenched in torment. I shared my feelings with a friend that night who felt the same way. By the end of our conversation, we both suddenly felt okay again. At night the panic washed over me again as I felt disloyal and heartless. But by the morning, I had yet again swallowed my anger, and it had completely disappeared by the time our bags were packed and we were climbing onto the bus to explore someplace new. For the rest of my trip I enjoyed every moment, unwilling, or maybe truly unable, to think about that one day. But now I am home, and a year has gone by, and countless atrocities have happened in this world, and yet I still react the same way: overwhelmed with grief, yet soon able to smile again. It’s the distance, I suppose, that keeps us from feeling those unwanted feelings. Life goes on.
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