Over the past nine months we have seen some of the world’s greatest natural wonders and experienced many of humankind’s greatest accomplishments. Sites like the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, and the Hagia Sophia have filled us with wonder and reminded us that man possesses awesome power to shape his environment. These structures, though unique in purpose (and built at great human cost), are an expression of our common quest for comfort, inspiration, and safety.
Last week we decided to visit a site of an entirely different nature, a place that represents not the heights the human spirit can reach but the depths. This place was one that none of us really wanted to see, but one Tom and I felt we had to. In 1940 outside the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland, occupying German forces took over an old army barracks and converted it into a camp for political prisoners and other enemies of the state. The facility came to be known as Auschwitz, a later nearby extension as Birkenau. It was here that the Nazis murdered more than one million people–Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic priests, Polish dissidents, and anyone who supported them.
A visit to Auschwitz is painful, however, people come here not to hurt but to heal. Somehow standing along the wall where thousands were lined up and shot, in the chambers where they were poisoned, and in the barracks where they were housed like animals makes their suffering real. It makes something unfathomable fathomable, something distant close.
The entrance to the site warns that it is not recommended for children under 14. Since three of our six fall into this category, this made our visit complicated. The 14+ members of our group wanted to immerse ourselves in the “museum,” yet we knew we had to carefully cater our visit around the needs of our three youngest members. As we entered the facility, passing under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, we explained that terrible things had happened in this place 65-70 years ago. We didn’t dwell on details but reminded the kids that they should try their hardest to be quiet and reverent out of respect for the many people that had died here. Their job was to sit on the steps outside the various buildings and draw in their notebooks or play with bugs as we took turns cycling through the displays inside. After a bumpy start (it’s hard to remember to be quiet no matter where they are), Kieran and Asher became happily engrossed in their artwork and thankfully had little awareness of the gravity of their setting. At 12, McKane understood the importance of the place, was humbled by it, and did his best to keep the little ones occupied.
What we saw inside the buildings was disturbing, but we expected that. After visits to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the Hiroshima Museum in Japan, we were prepared to be shocked and saddened. Thousands upon thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases, and locks of hair pleaded from behind the glass cases for us to remember their owners–mothers, sisters, grandfathers, uncles, friends no different than our own. Cans of poison gas pellets reminded us of the cold, calculated manner in which most were slain. Typewritten reports documenting the daily, weekly, and monthly tallies of victims attested to the businesslike efficiency with which the Nazi crimes were carried out.
We spent at least two hours wandering the various displays, gathering leaves and rocks, and pondering the solemn setting. As we made our way back to the visitors’ center it began to rain. We wondered whether we should take the shuttle bus to Birkenau only 3 kilometers away but decided we had seen and felt enough for one day.
It is often said that we need places like Auschwitz so we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past, in this case so we won’t allow genocide to occur again. I’d like to think that we’ve learned from the Holocaust, but I’m not so sure. As we’ve traveled, we’ve seen evidence of similar human calamities that much of the world does not remember or simply chooses to forget. Tens of millions died at the hands of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, but their countries were hidden from Western view and beyond our accountability. More recently, ethnic cleansings in Rwanda and Kosovo unfolded while the rest of the world sat back and watched in denial and disbelief. Today world leaders bicker over how to handle the crisis in Darfur, while every day hundreds perish at the hands of marauding warlords. Millions in the Congo live in constant fear of the violent militias that roam the countryside but somehow they are not our concern.
I certainly don’t hold the answers to the world’s great problems, but I do know that we can never rest on the laurels of history. If we are expecting genocide to come only at the hands of someone who looks or sounds like Hitler, or its victims to be only people who look or sound like the Jews, then we will likely miss our opportunity to prevent it. I left this somber, difficult place knowing that we must continuously work to teach our children the value of human life–all human life. The way we can honor those who died here is to actively defend the rights and safety not just of those we know or with whom we share a common heritage but also of those we’ve never met or might not yet understand. Only then can we feel we’ve done our part. Only then will we have learned the lesson of Auschwitz.