I Visited Auschwitz 75 Years After Its Liberation. What I Saw Left Me Numb.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember where I’d heard those words before. As we rolled through traffic away from the Polish city of Krakow, I searched hard, but the memory had escaped me.
But upon hearing them once more from our tour guide, I knew they’d never escape me again. We were on our way to one of the most historically and culturally significant sites on earth, and in that moment, for me, no other place mattered more.
How do I even begin to reflect on my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau?
There are thousands of attempts, through travel blogs and news articles and thoughtless social media posts, which have tried to convey experiences to the wider world. What can be said probably has already been said.
How can I possibly bring anything new to the discussion; anything ground-breaking or emotionally stirring? I'll confess something to you now: I can't. I’ll leave that to the educated and, most importantly, the survivors. It is the survivors we should be really listening to.
And we, as people of our still inexplicably hate-filled world, have the rare opportunity to do so during the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet soldiers.
If you don’t know a lot (or anything) about what went on inside the barbed wire of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and the thousands of other concentration and extermination camps across Europe during Nazi Germany’s reign, there’s no better time than now to listen and learn.
The closest we’ll ever come to understanding what happened -- and how -- is from the words of those who lived through it.
I don’t think we’ll never truly understand why.
Walking around the memorial at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the same grounds where more than one million innocent people perished by systematic murder, was a strange feeling.
But not in the way I expected.
Truth be told, I wasn’t overcome with the same emotion or eeriness described in travel blogs and Instagram stories. Having read the books, visited the museums, watched the documentaries and absorbed every word from interviews with survivors, I’ve got a small but solid grasp of the atrocities and horrors inflicted on the people transported, imprisoned and slaughtered within those walls.
I thought I’d be prepared enough to feel something. I wanted to feel something. But I didn’t. Well not deeply, anyway. There was something missing.
Maybe it was the mass of tourists (it is, after all, visited by more than one million people each year) that took the sting out of the visit for me -- the ones preoccupied with taking pictures of the famous gates to Auschwitz I, encasing the parting words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Will Set You Free’), or the railway tracks splitting Auschwitz II (or Birkenau) down the middle, or the mounds of possessions ripped from the arrivals on the platform.
Maybe it was the fact we had such little time to take in all these displays or read the placards before were hurried along by our guide or the group close behind.
Or maybe I was simply numb to all -- numb from trying and failing to fully comprehend and make sense of what I was seeing.
Knowing something happened in past is one thing, coming to terms with the full-scale of what happened while standing on the very spot where it happened is a whole other story.
Because how can you fully makes sense of seeing mounds of hair (two tonnes of it) that was sheared off victims and, still to this day, have traces of the fatal Zyklon B gas used to suffocate them?
How are you supposed to feel when standing inside the gas chamber, a darkened room with the ‘shower heads’ still attached and a crematorium waiting for you in the next?
How can you fully process the hundreds of poignant portraits of just some who perished when all that separated their date of arrival from their date of death was a few days?
And how are we supposed to act in front of a wall used to catch bullets from the point-blank executions of those accused (some falsely) of wanting a better end to their days than this?
I turned these questions over in my head as the bus pulled away from Birkenau and we set off on the hour drive back to Krakow.
Looking out the window to take one last glimpse of the arched entranceway into Birkenau, the white marquee that will host the January 27 commemoration of the Soviet’s liberation of the camp was taking shape.
Around 200 survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau are expected to return to its gates.
Some will speak, and all under the shadow of the archway will listen. But how many on the outside will hear their words, I wondered.
The legacy of the survivors, these incredible human beings who had their hearts and futures ripped from them, is that they not only endured unimaginable hardship and horrors but given us an opportunity to listen and learn.
And, above all, never forget -- because those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.