At every place my high school program visited in Poland, I studied the ground, trying to acknowledge the lives that had been stolen right where my feet were planted. Marching over that dirt should have left me overcome with grief.
Having grown up in a Jewish family, within a robust Jewish community, the Shoah – the Holocaust – has been a part of my life from early on. The word “Auschwitz” has always connected me to the brutalities of the Shoah. So when entering Auschwitz for the first time, I expected to feel overwhelming sadness. But these expectations were overtaken by surprising and unexpected emotions: trudging across the grounds of Auschwitz imprinted my understanding of the Shoah with extreme anger.
But this wasn’t anger provoked by the Nazis. My emotions were sparked by the inappropriate presence of bookstores, cafes, pizza shops, and vending machines. They were provoked by the laughing groups of friends and happy families picnicking on the verdant grass outside. Some of these families had strollers carrying an infant or toddler through a place far beyond their understanding. I was disgusted by people smoking while standing on the same soil where helpless people were slaughtered.
At Auschwitz A, I was outraged by the non-Jewish Polish women trying to teach us our own history, while simultaneously blaming the Shoah solely on Germany, rather than Poland as well. This all occurred in a place which once held Jews captive, stealing all humanity and dignity from them. This tragic space has been transformed into a museum for profit; visitors are required to pay for using the bathrooms. I was shocked by Poles laughing and smiling while walking through a room with children’s drawings depicting their gruesome and disturbing images of the Shoah pasted on the walls. While we listened intently to a friend tell a devastating story about a family member who survived the Shoah, we were forced to quiet a disrespectful, seemingly heartless groups of people walking past us. And before any of these experiences, my very first impression of Auschwitz while physically being in Poland was seeing “Auschwitz-Birkenau” plastered on a tourist booth next to other Polish tourism experiences, such as rafting and jeep tours.
Throughout my visit at Auschwitz, my pitted stomach seceded from my body. All my feelings seemingly evaporated. But this nothingness soon transformed: my numbness succumbed to my anger.
By contrast, Łopuchowo, another place where people were brutally murdered and then thrown into pits with hundreds of other bodies, is now a place that honors those who perished there. It may seem similar to Auschwitz, but there was one key difference: it is not a tourist destination. During the time allotted for us to reflect alone at Łopuchowo, I sat next to one of the three pits where people took their last breaths. In the grass that covered the skeletons of helpless Jews, I noticed five red flowers poking out. These five vibrant and beautiful flowers peeking from the grass were what I interpreted to be a message from Jews who perished to living Jews — that although their lives were stolen from them, their neshamas— their souls — remain alive. And they will remain so as long as future generations remember and honor their names, stories, and neshamas.
Being able to imagine the horrors of the Shoah is crucial to visiting places where thousands of Jews were murdered. The opportunity to internalize the meaning of Auschwitz is eliminated by the inaccessibility to the central message of Auschwitz. The honoring, learning, and educating that is supposed to be conducted has been disguised as a popular tourist site. The pain associated with Auschwitz and the Shoah has been overshadowed. The sadness has been obscured.
My generation is able to hear the last generation of survivors tell their stories about their experiences with the Shoah, so we must learn their names and tell their stories. We must then take it upon ourselves to ensure those names and stories are never forgotten. We have the responsibility to teach the next generation, so they can teach the generation after them. What has happened to Auschwitz cannot become the norm, and we cannot let further evidence of this mass persecution of the Jewish nation be diminished. We must do everything in our power to forever remember – so we never forget.
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