Today was a good day back at both Birkenau/Auschwitz II and Auschwitz I. I think that some in the group were skeptical about spending another full day at the camps, but it went by quickly. We arrived at Birkenau first and went right to the cattle car and sorting platform where Eva read letters of forgiveness- one to her father, and one to her mother. It was quite an emotional moment as we got a glimpse into her childhood and her painful relationship with her father, and a glimpse of how incredibly painful and unimaginable it was for her to be ripped apart from her mother on the platform, never to be seen again. She had several witnesses sign the letter, and we all will get an original signed copy to keep for ourselves.
We then had the option of touring Birkenau with a guide- I enjoyed my tour as we learned more about life at the camp and heard facts and stories from our guide- Birkenau sits on 400 acres and was the camp added onto Auschwitz I for labor and extermination. It was a late opening camp, going into operation in May of 1944, built from scratch by the prisoners that worked and died there. Our guide challenged us to think about what was “unique” about the Holocaust- the industrialized mass killing and systemic genocide, as well as being the largest number of people murdered by genocide in the world. We were always reminded: “Never again.”
After lunch, we went back to Auschwitz I to walk through Block 10 at the camp, which is where Eva endured many of the medical experiments. They camp actually opened the building just to our group so we could see it. It was mostly empty, and had a very creepy feeling/energy about it. You walked in and could tell that horrible things happened there.
We then had a candle lighting memorial ceremony at the execution wall where so many lost their lives for no reason at the hands of the SS soldiers in a violent death. We each lit a candle in memory and honor of those who perished in the Holocaust. We each had the opportunity to speak to the group about why we lit our candle. My statement was, “For those who perished in the Holocaust and in hopes that WE might be lights for the world.” The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead was said, and we stood and watched our lights and all that they stood for.
We then had the chance to walk around the camp on our own and go back to places we would like to see again. I decided to go back to the gas chamber- I’m not quite sure why- maybe I wanted to experience it again after my intense emotional reaction to see how I felt a second time. I also wanted more time to process it while standing inside of it. For a few moments, I was the only one in there and did not feel as intense of an emotion, but rather the still and quiet of the large room where so many had died. I had a chill as I imagined the stillness of the loss of life after the struggles of all who had perished in that very place. Afterwards, I went outside and found a place to sit outside of the gas chamber. I sat there for about 20 minutes and watched groups go in and out of it. I was fascinated by some people’s facial expressions and demeanors, comparing them to before they walked in, and after they walked out. Some had the same expression, others looked as if something had changed and they had been deeply impacted. I think that was the most meaningful moment of my day.
I also decided to go back and visit the exhibits with the shoes and hair- to take it all in again and to take my time. Both were larger that I remembered- I keep thinking that it’s so hard just to wrap my mind around how large, how extensive, how bad the Holocaust actually was/is. I feel that the mere scale of it is and always will be just out of reach. As human beings, it is nearly impossible to fathom so much death, so much hatred, so much horror, so much injustice done to so so many people. I guess the real focus should be- what are we going to do about it? What can we teach people? When we educate, when we teach our children about loving one another, about tolerance, about not judging, we carry the light of hope into the world. That’s what our responsibility is. Eva talks a lot about the “ripple effect.” That everything we do, everything we say has an impact on someone else. If we remember that in our words and actions, and work to be the best version of ourselves to others, then the hope, the expectation should be that that person will carry that on, hence the ripple effect. Just imagine how people could impact and change the world for the better.
Tomorrow is our free day, so I will probably not be posting- but once I get back to the USA, I will post more reflections and especially focus on my thoughts on Eva’s forgiveness and I would like to think theologically about her thoughts, and about my experience here- what I will take away, and how the trip as a whole has and will continue to impact my life. I’ll be thinking on that, and will get back to you.