I recently had the priveledge of visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps while traveling with my sister in Poland this past week. I preface this post by saying I am not trying to be controversial, I am simply conveying the experience I had in a place that sits heavy with the influence of the past.
It's hard to imagine the suffering, the torture, the murder, the millions of lives, bodies and souls that once occupied Auschwitz. It's hard when you pull up to a parking lot full of tour buses, wrestle your way in from the cold to a tiny room filled with bustling, warm bodies buying snacks and using the restroom. It's hard when there are mobs of people taking pictures from every angle next to you, pushing in front of you to get a better view of this building or that room.
But it's not hard to feel it.
Even amongst the dozen of tourists stomping over what you begin to take in as sacred ground, it's impossible not to feel the heaviness of the air, the weight of the entire history of the place collapsing down on you in one simultaneous instant.
The first thing our tour guide asked us after we walked under the arc gate reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" (German for: work makes you free) was: "who were the first people that were brought to Auschwitz?"
The immediate answer that came to mind was: Polish Jews.
The answer is educated, powerful people living in Poland. Politicians, priests, businessmen. The people who would have done something about what was going to happen. The people who could have prevented it.
Auschwitz was first and foremost a place to keep the silence. And that's what it continued to do a million times over.
That silence has never left. Even with the scrape of shoes over the snowy gravel, the various tour guides speaking various languages to large groups of people coughing, whispering, crying. You hear it strongly, deafeningly, sickeningly.
The scenery is peaceful, beautiful even. Snow covered trees and brick buildings, sunlight softly grazing the perspective lines of barbed wire fences.
My mom had asked if we would bring her something back, a little dirt or a rock. As we walked along the main train tracks at Birkenau, I noticed little rocks sprinkled throughout the snow. I kept thinking: I could just reach down and grab one. No one will notice.
So I, somewhat ungracefully, knelt down and grabbed for a rock through my knitted gloves. My sister looked back at me, thinking I fell, but after two tries I finally snatched the rock and stood, dropping it into my pocket. After the adrenaline left, a terrible feeling overcame me.
One minute later my nose tickled. I brought a tissue to it and discovered blood. Nose bleeds are rare for me, but more common in cold, dry weather. I thought nothing of it until I needed to reach for my second tissue and it still hadn't stopped. My sister and the guide finally noticed after a few minutes and by the third tissue I knew something was not right. Ten minutes past and the bleeding continued. Suddenly I knew it was the rock.
As the guide turned her back, I quickly reached into my pocket and dropped it back on the ground.
One minute later the bleeding stopped.
You can believe what you want, but I don't believe in coincidences. That was not my rock to take. It stood for so much more than a keepsake and it wasn’t supposed to leave.
As we continued walking I noticed the forest just beyond the barbed wire gates. Our guide confirmed it was there 70 years ago. I couldn't stop staring at the trees. They had been there through it all. Silent witnesses standing stalwart all these years through sun, rain, wind and snow. Holding on to the stories and secrets of so many unidentified lives. Stories we will never fully know.
Our tour guide’s Father-in-Law was a survivor of Auschwitz. He escaped and later became chairman of the museum. He died a few years ago, but our guide recounted what he had told her (slightly paraphrased):
"It's hard to say if the lucky ones are the survivors. We left Auschwitz, but Auschwitz never left us."
It's almost indescribable, the feeling you get when you walk through the gas chambers, the suffocation rooms, the exhibit of 180,000 tattered shoes, piles of 70-year-old human hair, the display of baby clothes. But explicable or not, it doesn't leave easily. Just as our guide’s Father-In-Law said, I’m not sure it ever will.