Day 7: Paris, Rome, and Auschwitz

Auschwitz II-Birkenau. (Dorian Jedrasiewicz/FASPE)

By Anna Pazos

Two million people visited Auschwitz in 2017, a record number of visitors since survivors reopened the death camp to the public 70 years ago. Before boarding the bus there, historian Thorsten Wagner warned us: entering the camp can be off-putting. There will be rows of buses in the parking lot, vending machines, an air-conditioned coffee shop, a souvenir store. As we try to comprehend the scope of the horror, we will be surrounded by tourists. We will be, in fact, those tourists. And if we believe the memory of Auschwitz should be kept alive, Thorsten added, we must embrace all aspects of it.        

While we wait in line at the doors of Auschwitz I, I ask Thorsten why he thinks people are increasingly attracted to this place. He tells me the scholarly consensus is now that the genocide of European Jews was the central theme of World War II, the seminal event for understanding modern Europe. Auschwitz has become the supreme symbol of it all. He puts it bluntly: “Now traveling to Europe means visiting Paris, Rome, and Auschwitz.”

Inside the camp, I understand those words fully. I’ve never been here before, but I have seen it all: the barbed wire, the orderly red brick barracks, the tracks leading to the main gate. I recently saw the mountain of shoes—shoes stolen from Jews who were about to be murdered in gas chambers—in someone’s Instagram post.

None of this makes being in Auschwitz any more bearable, or any less intensely surreal. At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, one can walk from the fresh breeze into what was known as the “death barrack” and touch the wooden bunk beds where sick women laid in rows of seven, cluttered like cattle, slowly dying. Starvation causes diarrhea; the upper bunks were, therefore, the most precious. As our guide Ewelina Myśliwiecka matter-of-factly unpacks these details for us, a security guard passes by us in a Segway; four Mormons march from barrack to barrack at a military pace.

Under a wide shadow near gas chamber one, Myśliwiecka, who was born and raised in the village that borders the concentration camp, told us her job can be exhausting. When she gets home to her husband and children, she often needs an hour on her own before transitioning to normal life. But what she does is important, and sometimes rewarding when she feels that a particular group has learnt something valuable.

On the flip side, she sometimes has to guide oblivious groups parachuting in from Krakow. Often, these groups are comprised of high school students who smoke and take selfies. The first thing they demand to know after the tour is over, she said, is usually where the closest McDonald’s is.

Once, one of her colleagues had to deal with a group of foreign visitors who laughed and photographed each other in front of a brick wall where thousands of prisoners were executed by firing squads. He tried to call them out and asked them to show respect for the dead. “What do you want?” they replied. “We are still alive.”

As we near the end of the tour, I realize with dread that we are witnessing a transition. We are the last generation that has co-existed with both survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust: an act of mass killing that affected, and was executed by, people who still breathe our same air. As the crimes of Auschwitz get buried in time, will people be able to feel anything when they come here?

The remains of the last gas chamber already look to me like the ancient ruins we step on over and over again as detached tourists or busy citizens. These too will become the abstract symbols of a remote event. The survivors who reopened Auschwitz for generations to come probably had this same thought. Between gas chambers one and two, both of which were destroyed by the retreating Nazis, a memorial installation describes this place in 23 languages as “a cry of despair” for the ages.

The numbers and the stories might be familiar, but I still struggle to comprehend them. As our visit ends, I can see no moral lesson or positive outcome. I only hear, very loud and sharp, that cry of despair. Besides, the beauty of the place is appalling. In my mind Auschwitz had always been black and white, but the truth is that Auschwitz is green. For me, as for many visitors, this remains the first shocking realization. As we walk in silence back to the bus, slouching towards the shadows, it occurs to me that it is maybe the greenest grass I’ve seen in Poland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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