This weekend we visited Krakow so we could take a day tour of Auschwitz.
Visiting a place with so much history and emotion associated with it, the common questions to ask are, “How was it? How are you feeling?” So I’ve been trying to ask and answer these question for myself.
How was it?
It was serial. It’s hard to imagine the horrors that took place in these camps. In some ways, I’m still struggling to believe humans could commit such atrocities.
I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past about the true nature of human beings and it’s situations like this that bring me back to those debates. I don’t believe people are all good or all bad. But I think what’s harder to come to terms with is how wide this spectrum can be and how easily susceptible some people can be to believe things like the idea that some lives have no worth. I find this very hard to even try to empathize with, and yet, I want to believe people can’t be all bad. We did learn today that one of the children’s quarters was equipped with a sanitation room of sorts, so there was at least some small level of pity towards these kids of Polish civilians. Big picture though, it feels disrespectful to even try to justify such a small act as a sign of some level of humanity while looking at the dozens of unstable bunkers, cattle cars, and buildings designed for the sole intent of extermination.
What really made this experience serial and mind-boggling though was how nice it was while we were there. The weather was warm with a slight breeze and overcast in a not gloomy way. There was green everywhere; so many trees and well-kept grass. It was just so paradoxical to see ruins and ashes and discuss mass death while surrounded by so much nature and life.
It was clean too. I suppose I expected this in terms of the paths being clear of trash and exhibits being neat and well restored. Though something about how much it truly felt like a museum seemed in a way very odd considering for the past few weeks we’ve continued to be reminded of just how not long ago these events occurred.
How are you feeling?
Some may say it’s a weak word but first most I feel sad. Saddened with humanity and the knowledge that we can and have inflicted so much harm and cruelty in the world. And with this sadness comes confusion. Those lingering thoughts of, “How is this possible? How is this even conceivable?”
Though sad and confused I also find myself grateful. Grateful for the time and place in which I was born and the opportunities and privileges I have because of this. Grateful also for the chance to actually visit this place in person and connect with history in ways not possible otherwise.
Furthermore, I find myself left with the thought that people are capable of so much. So much destruction but also so much compassion. It brings comfort hearing stories like that of Schindler who used his power of money and influence to save thousands of Jews; it’s a reminder that even in the face of corruption there can still be people to see past peer pressure and fear and proposed logic and instead fight for humanity.
Which brings me to the most surprising and unexpected thing I’m feeling: inspired. I’m inspired by all the people who helped save lives. I’m inspired by the victims of these crimes who fought so hard for their survival. I’m inspired by the artist who captured these crimes on photos and notebooks to preserve the stories and memories of victims. I’m inspired by the survivors who worked to turn these camps into a memorial and museum so that history wasn’t left to go forgotten.
Sad, confused, grateful, contemplative, and inspired- that’s how I feel upon traveling back from Auschwitz. I was told this would be a life changing experience. I’m personally not a huge fan of the commonality with which some people use this phrase since the idea of “life-changing” seems so grand and should be special to a few truly life-altering moments, but I suppose there is some truth to this notion. This was an experience like no other and while maybe I didn’t have any big life-changing world view or change of passion or life direction or anything like that, I know I will have a newfound level of depth and consideration whenever I think about the Holocaust, nature of humans, and the power of power.
So I guess that’s how it was and how I’m feeling.