October 6, 2008

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

The morning I was leaving for my daytrip to Auschwitz, an hour journey from Krakow, I asked my dorm mates at the hostel if they had been yet and when I heard Joe say “I am going zare az well”, I said, “Great, let’s go together.” The irony of visiting Auschwitz with a German was not lost on me; it actually provided an interesting reference point for for the day. As a citizen of a country that aggressively invaded another, using government manufactured “provocation” and “security threat” as a means to cover hidden agendas, I am starting to understand what carrying a “Burden of State” feels like; the only words I could muster when I first met my lovely Iraqi friends in Beirut was “I am sorry”. On the bus ride there I asked Joe if the younger generation Germans still felt any burden for the undeniable, incomprehensible actions of their country during WWII. He told me that him and his peers were tired of the stigma; that they had spent a significant amount of time learning about the Holocaust in school and his expression almost seemed to say “isn’t that enough?”
When we approached the ticket counter, the Polish woman asked from which country I was from, “USA”, I said and she typed the information into the computer. Then she asked Joe and when he replied “Germany” she kind of sighed and did a double take as if to say “what are you doing here? This surprised even me as I thought, for sure, many Germans must visit Auschwitz by now. I still don’t quite know the answer to that, but as we were sharing an apple and recounting that story on a bench before the tour started, Joe said something very important which has stuck with me ever since, “You should not be worried for the Germans who are here, you should be worried for the ones who are not.”
Our tour started with a short film and then on through the famous entrance gates which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”, or “Work Will (make one) Free”, and into the old Polish brick army barracks which were the first to be converted into a labor prison and death camp. The size of Auschwitz is, at first, surprisingly small for the enormous amount of injustice and terror it unleashed and getting a feeling for the atrocities committed there was difficult because of the constant flow of people on tours. You get a rushed history and are ushered through rooms with eyeglasses, prosthetic legs, shoes, hair, suitcases and toothbrushes in order to give a sense of the magnitude while trying to also personalize the victims. While there are valiant stories of sacrifice told, such as with the polish Franciscan monk Maximilian Kolbe offering his life in exchange for another man’s, intertwined with tales of soulless cruelty, which come in countless numbers, Joe and I still found it difficult to connect with anything other than the information. I was searching for a feeling beyond the words and the stories; I was waiting to hear something in the silence.
The stories, carried through the sounds of nature in the absence of spoken word from the rustling of the birch trees in the chilly fall air, came when we stepped off the bus at Birkenau. The powerhouse of the two camps, Birkenau, ironically named after the peaceful birch trees which surround the prison that was built as an expansion to Auschwitz, is a sprawling linear complex of brick and wood barracks that completely overwhelmed my and Joe’s emotions upon first sight. Looking out onto the fields, which seem to stretch on for miles, is where you can start to feel yourself standing on a dark stain in history and the solitude and space that the visitors are given here is when this horrific event became real. The tour makes it’s exit here and Joe and I decided to spend another hour on our own just wandering quietly through the barracks and walking the dirt path toward the ruins of the crematorium, which holds the last footsteps of millions of people. As the light was fading and our minds were taking nothing for granted at that moment, such as putting on our extra layers of clothing when the wind started to kick, Joe interrupted the silence, and from across a grassy field I heard, “Ziss was not our finest hour.” No, no it really was not, but watching the change in Joe from the beginning of the day, when he expressed a faint annoyance at the constant association, until the end of the day, when he was talking of bringing every racist or potentially racist German from his country here so they could see for themselves how fear and ignorance can ignite an uncontrolled “hell on earth”, proved to me just how important it is to embrace history in all it’s extremes and to collectively, with no division of country or race, bear the scars of our history together so that the future can one day have hope for sprawling fields of peace.

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