What I Learned at Auschwitz
A few years ago my sister and I made a pilgrimage to the Polish villages where our Mom’s ancestors came from. I asked my sister – who lives in Europe – if we could also go to Auschwitz while we were there, and she made arrangements. My family isn’t Jewish, but I’ve always thought this to be a place of tremendous importance. Since that visit, I’ve only spoken to a few people about my experience. The reason is because it was overwhelming. I can still hardly talk about it without my heart falling to pieces. But on this day recalling the camp’s liberation, I’m going to try and put it out there, because it effected profound change.
Getting to Auschwitz required an overnight train. I tossed and turned all night, thinking about everything I’d ever read about this place, wondering how I would feel when I saw it. When we arrived, we were split into groups based on language, and given a tour guide. Our tour guide was a woman who grew up in the nearby Polish town of Oswiecim, which the Germans loosely translated into “Auschwitz”. Her family had been there before, during and since the time of the camp.
I’d never considered why the Germans chose this location. I came to learn that it was because this was a coal mining area, which meant there was easy access to railroads across Europe, which in turn meant that anyone they intended to terminate could quickly be transported in. This fact alone still makes my stomach turn.
Our tour guide started us off relatively gently, showing us the outside of barracks, the place where roll call was taken and offending prisoners were tortured, the row of birch trees planted by prisoners which now stand over 40 feet tall, the yard where prisoners or nearby townspeople who attempted to help were put against a wall and shot, the insides of barracks barely large enough to house 4 people which held over 15. It wasn’t until we reached the rooms containing the belongings of the dead that I lost it. The thousands upon thousands of childrens’ shoes. Confiscated suitcases and kosher cooking dishes piled to the ceiling. The massive room filled only of human hair. There are no words for the weight of this.
From the barracks, we walked the long dusty road down the railroad tracks to where over a million souls poured out of railroad cars and were waved right or left – to their death, or to live another day. We were shown the exploded remnants of the gas chambers, the ditches were children were tossed and burned, and we were informed that the chalky texture to the ground on which we walked was the result of millions of human bones buried in that place.
The horror was unfathomable. And I don’t write these things to relive it. I write them because they actually happened. And they didn’t happen all at once, or take anyone by surprise.
Every person who didn’t speak up, every person who stood by silently, every person who agreed explicitly or implicitly with an authority which said – these people are to blame for our woes, not us – was responsible for those horrific deaths.
Auschwitz is sacred ground. And as we remember its liberation, let’s also remember our responsibility – today – to protect all living beings from harm. All humans, all animals, all plants and trees. We are all profoundly connected to one another, we need each other to survive. We are all responsible for each other.
I believe the best way to honor the lives and humanity lost at Auschwitz is to do everything in our power to heal our world today. So, if you pray, pray. If you meditate, meditate. If you write poetry, write a poem. Whatever you do to find your peace, take a minute of that time today and let out tremendous love into the universe. Then, step out into the world and do it for real, one interaction at a time, one brave act at a time, one gentle gesture at a time, until we understand that all ground is sacred, all beings are sacred, all life is sacred – life gone by, and life today.