As a Jew, an American, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I understood that Poland, and more specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, would be an incredibly difficult experience in the course of this trip. I couldn’t predict how I would react, but having visited the Dachau concentration camp on a trip in high school, I assumed I would be similarly saddened and mournful. However, the emotions at the German camp came through clearly and more digestible than at Auschwitz. I felt a wave of complicated emotions and an indescribable frustration while visiting the camp where over one million prisoners, mostly Jews, were killed.
Viewing this site visit with hindsight, I am finding it surprisingly difficult to group this visit in with the rest of our itinerary. Our trip as a whole has been incredibly academically motivated and informative about many points in the war’s trajectory, but I don’t believe this site quite fits in with that description. I understand the visit’s importance to establish memory and by no means would I advocate for eliminating it; but in comparing the camp to the Schindler Museum, I personally did not wish to view Auschwitz as another opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hoped to go through the site on my own terms and feel whatever came over me and this was not the case. The site is widely presented as a museum, rather than a memorial or a place of mourning and the required guide and audio tour made it difficult to have a personalized experience. The presentation of the site only furthered the touristy and attraction-like feeling I was left with.
While we were walking through the camp, the main point that prompted my frustration was a somewhat predictable one – the wealth of indescribable inhumanity the camp reeked of. The entire site lacks compassion or sympathy; survival was based on luck and those sent to the camp were stripped of their status as a human being long before their arrival. There have been centuries of historians and psychologists whose job is to analyze the complacency and trajectory of how the Holocaust came to be. But as I was standing within the gates of the camp, I was continuously reminded of how incomprehensible the camps are on an individual level. We walked through rooms of shoes, of suitcases, of human hair and our guide told us to “imagine an individual occupying that space,” but those responsible for keeping the camps running and efficient did not have to imagine. And for me, I didn’t have to create a fictional character; I thought of my grandmother. I thought of how guards looked mothers and fathers and children in the eye and sent them to their death every day.
I have studied the Holocaust in school and my Jewish learning practically every year since I can remember and never had this thought until walking through Auschwitz. The Nazi Party were not responsible for committing the daily atrocities, individuals were. Individuals who in some capacity could have objected and prevented this from occurring. It’s easy to forget that even the most grandiose operations such as the Holocaust, are on a fundamental level, singular individuals making choices.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” — Elie Wiesel