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Journalism at Auschwitz

Shoes that belonged to Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz are among  several personal affects found on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Photo by Dustin Volz

Shoes that belonged to Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz are among several personal affects found on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, where about 80,000 individual shoes have been preserved. Photo by Dustin Volz

By SAMANTHA PICKETTE

Journalists, by definition, have a way with words. Speechlessness is not a part of the profession. Even when unimaginable tragedies occur, journalists are first on the scene with a pen in one hand and a camera in the other.

Still, despite my training, I don’t know what to say about Auschwitz. I’ve had a couple of days to think since seeing it for the first time on Sunday. But my reflection has been further muddled what I’m feeling rather than give me the neat and easy clarification I was hoping for. To borrow from author John Green, “my thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”

I spent Sunday experiencing a series of undulating emotions. I was simultaneously nervous, sad, angry and confused. Nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. Sad at the sight of hundreds of photographs of innocent men, women and children who would never be given the chance to become the people they were meant to become. Angry with the perpetrators, and furious with the collaborators who sat by and silently let millions of Jews perish. Confused how anyone could let something like the Holocaust happen. Despite the choruses of “never again,” genocide is still a part of the modern world.

At one point on Sunday, I wanted to see Auschwitz burn to the ground. The thought that this Nazi stronghold of hatred and suffering had actually become a tourist attraction disgusted me. At the same time, I understood that it was important that I be there, that despite my weariness and anxiety and general desire to go home and never go back, I owed it to the people who died there to stay and bear witness.

Mostly, I felt a profound sense of guilt that isn’t really explainable. I was guilty that I was there. Guilty that I was taking part in the “theme park” that is Auschwitz. Guilty for being thirsty and being able to drink water at my own will and guilty for being able to sit down when my feet hurt. I was guilty when we left because I was able to leave, and millions of Auschwitz prisoners were not.

Barbed wire near the front entrance of Auschwitz I. Prisoners at the labor camp were sometimes executed by being forced to run into the electrified wire. Photo by Dustin Volz

Barbed wire near the front entrance of Auschwitz I. Prisoners at the labor camp were sometimes executed by being forced to run into the electrified wire. Photo by Dustin Volz

I did not take pictures. The things that I saw there – the photos of terrified prisoners, the belongings that would never go back to their rightful owners, the gallows where prisoners were hanged, the gas chamber – are seared into my memory. I entered the camp with the intention of taking photos, of documenting each and every minute detail of the camp in order to create a journalistic narrative of my time at Auschwitz. I put my camera away after four frames. It seemed voyeuristic to photograph such a place, to take pictures of filthy latrines and unclaimed shoes and post them on Facebook as though they were vacation photos. Being there felt like I was playing in a graveyard, and photography seemed disrespectful.

That being said, I’m grateful that my colleagues didn’t have the same hang-ups that I did about photography in Auschwitz. Many of them took pictures and chronicled the day as good journalists should. I’m sure that one day, when I have had more time to process everything we saw, I’ll look at their pictures and be glad that they exist. Perhaps I will even regret my own choice to put my camera away after four unremarkable shots of the rows of brick barracks.

But as it stands now, I was unable to be a journalist at Auschwitz. I could do nothing but look and try to understand why, and even that was difficult.

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