Last Tuesday, we visited the museum at Auschwitz & Birkenau. It was something I’d been looking forward to since we started planning for the trip and honestly, even since my junior year of high school (the first time I remember learning about the Holocaust in great detail). Being there was indescribable. The weather was perfect – mid-70’s and sunny, no clouds in the sky. It made the experience even more surreal. I found it difficult (and still do) to bridge the gap in my mind the past and our present reality. It was hard to believe that we were in the actual places where unfathomably atrocious crimes against humanity were committed. Before visiting, I expected to feel more connected to the victims, to feel more human in a way. But I left feeling disconnected and disgusted. Seeing the punishment/torture cells, watching videos of speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, reading about the conditions in which people lived, seeing piles upon piles of shoes, suitcases, hair, dishes, and clothes, learning the numbers and statistics behind the events, all felt so alien and isolating. Truly comprehending the events of the Holocaust is almost impossible – the way people behaved and spoke seems like something out of a post-apocalyptic fiction novel. It doesn’t seem like something that could ever happen, because…
Well, that’s the thing. Why couldn’t it happen? Humanity is too good, or at least not that evil? Because even the most evil people have a stopping point? Because there could be no motivation tempting enough to drive someone to act that way towards others? Because we’ve learned from our mistakes? All of these are things I’ve heard before, reasons for why events like the Holocaust could never happen again. Before visiting the sites, I may have even believed some of these things myself. But as Primo Levi so eloquently put it, “The Holocaust happened, therefore it can happen again.” A better question to ask may be why the Holocaust happened in the first place, a question that the author of one of our books for class attempts to answer. There may never be a complete, satisfactory, definite answer, but we can try. Conditions during that time period just happened to work out in such a way that made it very easy for the Germans to do what they did. Personal attitudes, political spheres, social conditions, economic conditions, and deep, tragic misunderstandings all contributed to the beginning of the Holocaust.
Another question people ask a lot about the Holocaust is “how?” How could this happen? How could others let this happen? How could they get away with it? It feels almost anti-human. I mean, we all know what happened. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were corralled into tiny brick buildings, wives separated from husbands, children torn from mothers, siblings forced to leave each others’ sides. There were cruel and unfair selection processes, and those that passed were made to work 11 hours a day with less than 2,000 calories to eat. These people became nothing more than skin and bone, a dead soul inside a laboring body. 6 million people were killed mercilessly, routinely. And those on the other side simply sat back, drank, and watched the suffering like it was nothing.
I could go on forever, but these have been the main thoughts in my head since visiting Auschwitz. It was a very emotional and eye-opening experience, and I will definitely be coming back in the future. More to come later!