Tuesday April 22, 10:50am*The rain drops beat up against the front window of the bus as we leave Krakow. We leave Auschwitz behind us too. But only in relation to our physical locations. I know that I will take Auschwitz with me everywhere I go from now on.
It doesn’t seem right to say that one concentration camp was more difficult to visit than another, but Dachau was not nearly as terrifying as Auschwitz. Dachau left more to the imagination. Auschwitz spared no one from the reality. From the moment we set out on our guided tour, there was no relief from the horror, and the evidence was everywhere. Our guide spared no detail as she walked us through the barracks, the sanitation room, to the wall of death, into the crematorium, and around the dismantled gas chamber. Just when I thought I had recovered from one shock, I was confronted with another photo, artifact, story, statistic or tour that shook me. I was mesmerized by the billows of human hair, but more so by the fact that this display only represented 1% of the estimated 1.1 million who died here, most of them unregistered and therefore unidentified. They looked like clouds, having turned over the years as grey as the ashes of their owners have been since they died. I felt compelled to touch the glass encasing the children’s clothes and shoes, and the wall of death that was the last thing many had seen before being executed. The evidence was everywhere and I stood witness to it despite my fear…out of obligation to the ones who suffered, out of anger against those who persecuted them, out of my search for the answer to why this happened. It was grimly clear what had happened. At the wall of death, prisoners were shot in the head or hung. In Block 11, people were forced to stand in a 4×4 foot cell for days or placed in the starvation cell. In Block 10, children underwent unthinkable experimentations, especially twins. The large photos of women nearly starved to death looked back at me, their eyes so tired and sad and ashamed. I was ashamed to realize my own vanity.
I was struck by the textures of the barracks – stone, brick, cement, pebbles, wood, barbed wire, chains, dirt and mud – uninspiring, uncaring, cold, cramped and cracked. And the landscape – this hell stretched on for miles and miles, and despite the sun today, seemed to have no horizon, no end in sight, and no sign of life. I walked the railroad tracks into the camp just as the Jews had rolled in from the Ghetto, with the harsh wind whipping my back and pushing me along to the selection spot. Here the commandant would have chosen whether I would go to the left or to the right. In a matter of minutes my fate would have been decided by this one man, this stranger who judged me. If I were sent to the right, I would work until I died or by luck survived and was freed. If I were sent to the left, I would have been sent directly to the gas chamber further down the tracks, and suffocated to my death, my body stripped of my hair for textiles, my identity never recorded, my body piled like firewood and burned to ashes, my ashes shoveled into a pit and left in still water. I don’t think anyone can go through the camp and not ask themselves “what if it were me?”
One of our students asked the guide if there were a lot of suicides and she answered that surprisingly, no, there were not, but of course not all were recorded, and some were recorded falsely to mask the murders. As I looked into the eyes of every face posted in the museum of those who were registered and died, I stood in awe of the human will to live. Once these men and women were sent to work, they lived in conditions that were unimaginably cruel. Whether one man survived only one month, six months, or one year, and then died, I respected each man’ s determination to survive and wondered what gave them the hope and the strength for each minute they lived. Would I have been able to endure such horror? What would have kept me going? Why not end my suffering against the barded wire fence?The ruins of the gas chamber looked like the charred remains of a monster still growling and clenching its jaws in defiance to its destruction, self-righteous to the end. Whereas right beside it, the innocent people it turned to dust lie still and calm in the pool. I’ d like to think that these people are in fact at peace and that the Nazis are as torched and twisted in hell as the ruins they left behind on earth.
I walked the long dirt path out of Auschwitz with my back to the chamber, past the endless stretch of barracks on either side, straight through selection point and onto the train tracks again, this time against the wind. I fought to keep my head up as the cold wind relentlessly beat against my face, bringing tears to my eyes, trying to push me back. Although I felt guilty about leaving, I knew that I couldn’t stay, I didn’t want to stay, but Auschwitz will stay with me.