The Memory a Space Holds

By Cecelia Minard

It is impossible to prepare yourself for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical readings, documentaries, and photographs pale in comparison to the feeling of the physical site. In class this spring, we read The First Report about Auschwitz by John S. Conway, which included eyewitness accounts from two young Slovakian Jews who gave a breakdown of the numbers and classifications of the prisoners, as well as an explanation of the methods of extermination used by the Nazis. We also watched the documentary The World at War, which included horrifyingly detailed videos from the discovery of the camps. Yet after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that nothing could capture the memory of such a horrendous place more than the physical site. Auschwitz-Birkenau as a source in and of itself highlights each of the hundreds of thousands of people murdered there.

While the report and the documentary focused on the details and the scale of the genocide, Auschwitz-Birkenau showed me each victim’s personhood. Rather than seeing a number on a page or a video from 70 years ago, walking through Auschwitz showed me the very space attached to the memories of those who were there.

In the barracks, there are displays of the victims’ belongings: their suitcases, shoes, pots, pans, and even the hair from their heads. While looking at these belongings, I focused on the remembrance of each individual who lost their life there. I couldn’t help but think that this could have been their favorite pair of shoes, this pot and pan could have been a gift from a loved one, and this was the hair on their head that they brushed and cared for each day.

While studies are vital to understanding history, documents cannot hold a memory the way a physical site or object does. While walking through the same spaces as the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt their memory in a way I never had before. I felt a deep connection and sorrow for each person who was murdered there.