Choosing to Remember: Reflections on Auschwitz

November 28, 2015

A difficult day-trip to write about, but writing about it is necessary. Auschwitz is open to the public so that the public remembers and does not forget. In fact, one of the first things visitors see when entering the former barracks and current museum portion of the grounds is a black sign that says the following:

So today, we’re remembering.

Auschwitz isn’t so much a place that you want to see as it is a place that you must see. It’s almost impossible to describe – the gates we saw in history books, the places where unimaginable atrocities were committed against people groups regarded as a disease to be eradicated in life, and a commodity to be exploited in death. We were shown hair shorn from corpses that had been turned into fabric and mattress stuffing; told of ashes used as fertilizer and bodies used for experimentation. It is all unspeakable, and yet it must be spoken of.

Our tour guide called the grounds that are left of Auschwitz II Birkenau a cemetery. We saw watering troughs fit for cattle and lines of exposed toilets, heard stories of priests who entered starvation chambers to save the life of another who cried out in fear. There were cattle cars and loading docks and pictures of human beings standing before other human beings as they waited to be signaled right, toward death, or left, toward living hell. It is a soul shaking experience to see the eye glasses, and the luggage, and the pots, and the brushes, and the shoes of thousands of people – red shoes with low slung heels, work boots, children’s shoes – piled in endless heaps on either side of you, pressing physically against glass and in every other way against the mind’s ability to comprehend; looking so much like piles of garbage but at the same time so much like the hopes of someone who believed they were going to a place where such things could be used and loved again.

The anguish of the extinguishment of life is everywhere. It was only at Auschwitz that we could begin to understand the lack of presence, or identity, felt in many aspects of Poland. Millions of the people who had once shaped it are gone. Original buildings that were utterly decimated have been reconstructed with a semblance of age, giving towns, streets, and corridors an atmosphere akin to a movie set. Demarcations on the ground bear witness to facts like, “The 1943 ghetto wall was here.”

There are not enough words to describe the emptiness of Auschwitz. The searing “Why?” of that place and the dark history it is linked to can never be fully answered. It is impossible to begin to understand what Poland is outside the context of World War II, and feeling the impact of the absence of the once-vibrant Jewish community that is now a fraction of what it once was. So places like Auschwitz must be seen. We are thankful for the chance to remember, and not forget.

memorial flowers at the end of the train tracks | Auschwitz II Birkenau

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