Only a thin pane of glass stood between me and two tons of human hair. Some of it was still in braids. Most of it had lost its color and I couldn’t handle it. I rushed through this exhibit in the Auschwitz I museum and I thought I was going to vomit. For me, looking at the hair was like looking at someone’s arm or leg. Each piece was once attached to someone’s body, a woman’s body, but was hacked off to inflict hurt, shame, and inhumanity. In that moment I had the privilege to walk away from a place that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but the million people who died at Auschwitz didn’t have that luxury.
You could read a thousand books about concentration camps, but they would never evoke the feeling you get while standing in one. A sentence could never convey what it is to touch the boards women laid on, sick and dying, while they awaited their selection for the gas chambers.
Learning about military operations is important, yes, and I am eternally grateful to the men who gave their lives to the war against Nazi Germany, but I felt that my classes fell a little short in emphasizing why these men were fighting. But I get it now – it is almost impossible to explain Auschwitz and the emotions that accompany the experience without being there. The power of place is critical to learning; it creates an intense muddle of emotions. We learn from uncomfortable situations and the atrocities that happened there deserve to be remembered with a lingering sense of discomfort. I felt anger, disgust, confusion and overwhelming sadness all at the exact same time. And I think that was Professor Steigerwald’s point: nothing he would’ve given us to read would’ve prepared us for the experience we would have there and so he left it open ended.
I still haven’t quite sorted out how I felt about it all – and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t think anyone will ever understand why the Nazis killed six million people in the ways that they did and visiting sites of human destruction only makes it all less clear. But what I do know is that nothing prepared me for this experience, not one novel or one personal account and it is an experience that I will never forget.