It is such a beautiful day. The camp looks clean, orderly, and tidy, though it bends my brain to use such an adjective to describe it. The buildings are low, brick, solid, their scale surprisingly small for the monstrous proportions my imagination had cast. Barbed wire surrounds everything. My spirit is completely oppressed.
Strange, technological intimacy of earphones: suddenly I am cut off from banter with friends as a disembodied voice takes control of our mind and imaginations for the next---how long was it? An hour? Two?
Our guide was a Polish woman from the city, her English thickly accented, her eyes piercing, when I could get a glimpse of them. She was about my age. Was this the best job opportunity for her in town? Why would one take such a job, and how does one endure it day in and day out?
We pass the area where classical musicians played as prisoners arrived, creating a semblance of civility, averting panic. We arrive at the barracks and enter the first one.
Filing through room after room, barrack after barrack, in claustrophobic crowds, I got a surreal taste of what it must have been like to arrive and crowd into these cramped buildings—if indeed one made it past the ‘showers.’
There are few children in the crowd. I am with some. I don’t think any should be here. I’m not sure anyone should be here, unless that person doubts the Holocaust happened. I notice gypsies—a number of them died here—walking as somberly as the rest of us.
I disconnect over and over, splitting off from the reality of photos, eyes staring, smells, rooms full of eyeglasses, shoes, or cooking pots—articles gathered from the victims, who packed what they thought they might need, only to lose it all upon entering the camp, and learning they only needed to survive. The most grotesque was a room full of wooden arms and legs, prostheses of all types.
Expressions change the deeper we go in the tour. Soon no one is speaking, no one is making eye contact, no more photos are taken, or more are taken than ever before, as if to wrestle this reality to manageable Kodak proportions.
I thought I knew quite a bit about the Holocaust, including knowing a survivor, a family friend. But I was hearing stories, details, and facts I had never heard before. One of those might have been spoken matter-of-factly, the impact taking a few seconds to sink in, followed by a stunned look to a neighbor, realization in both our eyes: “Wait, but if that…then…” and the mind veering off before the sentence could be completed.
The guide drones on in her thick accent, betraying no emotion as she recounts horrors. As we progress she becomes more stern, insistent, angry, as if knowing numbness was setting in, to shake us back to look, learn, remember, honor.
Occasionally someone breaks down in tears as we file from one room to the next. I struggle and strangle a cry, a sob, a roar of anger.
I find myself leaning my head out of any open window I pass, gasping for air. I need to feel life—in the wind on my face, to hear it in the birds, see it in the trees and grass—anything to counteract the effects of this place of death.
Artists’ renderings and sculptures recall the trains crammed with people as they were transported—sometimes for days—from around Europe to the camps. No toilets. No food or water. Any kind of weather. No heat. No air conditioning. Maps show us the distances.
We learn more than we need to, I think. Should we know this much detail? I think of the Scripture that says we should be innocent in regards to evil, that we should “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them…it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” And here we have a whole death camp. Should we even be here? What was the effect on us spiritually, emotionally?