You certainly don’t have to read this blog entry… and the corresponding photo album from my visit to Auschwitz is entirely optional. The subject matter is pretty difficult.
Reflecting on a place with as much meaning as Auschwitz – or on the devastation of the Holocaust – is way beyond the scope of my Blog, nor do I feel at all qualified to put it into context.
My photo album depicts a little more what Auschwitz looks like. This blog entry is just a short reflection about what it was like to visit the site.
Auschwitz is about 50km from Krakow, and when we were planning our visit to Krakow, it came up whether I wanted to visit the site. In a way it’s weird: it’s not something you *want* to see; but I felt compelled to. Maybe ‘witness’ is a better word than see or visit? Anna had already been once with school and definitely didn’t want to go again (I don’t blame her). Maryla had never been and never wants to (and I don’t blame her either). Some things you just don’t need to see in person.
But I went: Anna and Maryla spent a day relaxing without me while I ventured on a rickety bus (the cheapest we found) for the short journey from Krakow. All of a sudden I was dropped off in a big parking lot filled with other tour busses and ‘tourists’ (‘others bearing witness’ would be more accurate?).
Even on the bus ride, it started to feel strange: the weight of Auschwitz and all that happened there looms in your mind – the same way it does whenever you think of the Holocaust. The ride was very quiet: everyone was pretty reflective… and it is a reflective trip by its nature.
But, I started thinking about what it would be like to actually witness the place with my own eyes. I had definitely studied about Auschwitz and the Holocaust; but how would seeing the place differ from thinking and learning about it?
Well, the visit was quite a strange experience… and I’m still not sure I have really processed it – or even if I can.
All of a sudden I was just *there* at this immensely significant site. At first I struggled with the confusing sense that maybe I expected it to feel like a cemetery; but upon arriving at the parking lot (complete with its hot dog stand), I tried to keep the touristy feeling at bay. Before signing up for a guided tour, I attempted to gain my mental bearings by taking a pause with a bowl of Polish soup in the appropriately-understated cafeteria.
I went into the main entrance to sign up for the tour, and found myself feeling mentally confused again. Maybe I was expecting it to feel like a museum? Overall, I was having trouble processing my impression… so I just joined the queue and figured out where to meet my tour.
We first saw an old black-and-white documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the history of the camps that imprisoned many and where roughly 1.5 million people were killed. Our tour then went outside to see the site itself: first Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp which served as the administrative headquarters and where many prisoners died or were killed. We then went the short distance away to Aushwitz II (Birkenau), the expansion that served as an extermination camp for Jews and others targeted by the Nazis.
The site was, in retrospect, eerily serene (is that the right word?). With the cool weather, grey skies, tall trees around the Auschwitz I site and barren field around the Birkenau site…it was calm in not so much a peaceful way, but rather as if everything had just *stopped* there. I didn’t realize or think all this at the time… it was so mentally overwhelming when I was there: but in reflection I realize that’s what it felt like being there.
Our tour guide was outstanding: eloquent, appropriately sombre and serious, and very thorough in telling us the history of what we were seeing.
We went into barracks that housed some of those who were imprisoned, saw miles of barbed wire, guard towers, personal items taken from those who were killed and the infamous shape of the entrance tower to Birkenau with the train tracks passing underneath. We saw the cell where Saint Maximilian Kolbe endured starvation in the place of another prisoner. We saw the sorting yard where the trains arrived at Birkenau and most were sent immediately to their deaths. And we actually saw the remains of the crematoriums.
I found it a very disturbing experience witnessing the site in person: it was sombre, horrifying and sad.
But when I was there, I think I felt more confused than anything: confused that I was having difficulty processing my experience… that I couldn’t get it.
It didn’t feel like a cemetery; it isn’t a museum; it isn’t just a memorial. [There isn’t even a chapel or meditation room on site, and I found myself wanting a space to reflect on my visit… but, I’m not sure that even quiet reflection would have allowed me to understand my thoughts]. It was very different, and I had difficulty figuring out what I was feeling.
In writing about my experience now and looking at the terrifying pictures of my visit… I realize that it’s hitting me just as hard: or maybe harder now because I’m *thinking* about Auschwitz rather than *seeing*.
When I saw it with my own eyes, I felt confused.
This place was a factory for killing people. I’m relieved that I couldn’t get it when I was there… and I don’t ever want to.