This is my fourth time experiencing the memorial space at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first time was in 2010 when Dr. Anes and I were Fulbright scholars – a long time past my own college years. Yesterday I found myself wondering what it would be like to have such an encounter when so young. After all, it was distressing to visit when I was grown, married, and tenured already.
The first time I saw baby clothes belonging to children murdered at the camp I felt numb and sad and shocked. I cried.
Yesterday, I found myself in a more removed, academic, analyzing space; perhaps because I have been studying and preparing to teach about the narrative of the state museum itself and political controversies surrounding it. Perhaps because my role is to facilitate the students’ experience, I did not want to be dragged away into a difficult emotional space myself. Perhaps I have come to some acceptance that human beings are capable of such things, and no longer shocked. I also wondered if it was strange that I didn’t feel more actively upset.
And then we reached the monument at the end of the train tracks in Birkenau, and I walked through the fields to the building where victims were registered upon arrival if they were not selected for murder immediately. I heard the breeze wafting on the grasses and gazed up at the tall, perfect trees. I heard birds singing. I felt the sunshine on my back. It was lonely, and sad, and beautiful, and incomprehensible. I felt the absence of people who had been forced to be in this lovely place, on a beautiful day like yesterday, suffering from hunger, exhaustion, disease, fear, dehumanization, and hopelessness.
– Dr. Wright