Auschwitz. The very name is a black mark on the conscience of all mankind. As the largest Nazi concentration camp, over a million people came through these gates from 1940 until 1945: gypsies, communists, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses and above all, Jews.
Virtually none left. Those deemed physically fit died slowly of hunger, exhaustion or disease as they were worked to death as slaves. Most, though, were herded into gas chambers moments after arriving — not alive long enough for the Nazis to bother filling out paperwork proving that they had arrived.
Liberated by the Red Army in 1945, the camp now survives as the world’s most paradoxical tourist attraction, one that no one wants to go to, yet is visited a million times every year. Why do they come? Not for amusement, certainly. Not out of curiosity. Not so they can tell their friends back home. I think it is because they feel they must. It is your duty as a human being to look in the face of pure evil and put conviction behind the tired cliché of “never again.”
Last week, while on a week-long break between intensive language immersion and the official start of classes, I made one of those million annual visits to Auschwitz. This week, in my column, I will attempt to describe it to you.
So what is it like to visit a death camp? In the beginning, it’s much like visiting anywhere else. People talk, laugh and complain about how badly they slept. Once you enter under that infamous gate, though, the talking stops.
No one smiles, no one jokes, no one says anything at all. There are signs admonishing you to keep silent, but there is no need for them. The memory of a million extinguished souls is sufficient. What use is there of talking anyway? What word or phrase exists in any language that is sufficient to describe what went on here? So you walk, you hear the tour guide list the bare facts of this place and you look on in horror. That is all you can do.
It gets to everyone at some point. For me, it was the shoes. In one room, there are thousands upon thousands of shoes found by the Red Army after liberation. All of Knox College could put on a pair and there would still be some left over. I stood in that room and simply couldn’t pull my eyes away from that pile of discarded footwear and the ghosts of those who once wore them. I have heard the statistics and read the eyewitness accounts. Neither of those carries a fraction of the emotional weight of looking at those shoes.
But it doesn’t stop with the shoes. It goes on for room after room. Eye glasses. Prosthetic legs. Combs. Shoe polish. Thousands and thousands of items thrown casually into a pile while their owner was led away to be murdered. The Nazis were careful not to damage anything that might have been useful to the Thousand-Year Reich. Everything except human life, of course.
Finally you enter into a place of such horror Dante himself could not have imagined it: the gas chamber itself, terrifying in itsutter banality. The best way I can describe it is that it looks much like a high school locker room. Within these nondescript walls, tens of thousands were exterminated day in and day out for years. The room is utterly silent, but the screams that you can’t get out of your heard provide all the soundtrack you could possibly need. You want to cry, to scream, to shut your eyes and run out — but you don’t. Again, you just stand there, unable to say anything. Then you leave, exit the camp, and re-enter the outside world.
I don’t want anyone reading this to get the wrong idea about studying abroad. Most of my last week was not spent in death camps but eating Wienerschnitzel, getting lost in the streets of Budapest and watching the sunrise on a train over the Polish countryside. Being in Germany and the nearby countries has been some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. But to truly get the most out of studying abroad, you cannot restrict yourself to things that you enjoy. Sometimes the experiences you learn the most from are the ones you never want to talk about again.