Tuesday, August 2, 2011



I am speechless after the visit to Auschwitz, although not for the reasons I'd expected.

The visit didn't really have the effect on me that I'd anticipated it would -- and since it was probably more me than it, and because it just feels like all kinds of wrong to come away from Auschwitz feeling largely unmoved, my first instinct is to just shut the hell up and not talk about it.

I just got a very encouraging email, though, so I feel like maybe I should take the opportunity to explore what just happened.

I think it was the convergence of three distinct things.  First, there's me.  Come to think of it, there's two (sub-)things about me that are of importance here.  The first one is I relate best to the tangible.  I prefer artifacts to art, when it comes to museums.  I don't want lectures and photographs; I want to touch and feel.  The second is that I have a certain amount of experience dealing with this sort of artifact.  I've been to the Museum of Tolerance in L.A.; the Holocaust Museum in D.C.; and Yad Va'Shem in Israel.  So, I mean, I've seen the impossibly large piles of shoes (collected from the victims of gas chambers).  And they knocked me out the first time I saw them.  But I did see them; and the fact that the impossibly large pile of shoes at Auschwitz is even larger than the piles of shoes I've already seen doesn't make it have any more of an impact.  (And, indeed, it doesn't even have the same impact as the somewhat smaller piles of shoes I've previously seen.  Because nothing can hit you quite the same way that first pile of shoes can.)  Not only that, I've also (in my career) had experience with artifacts of murder and murderers.  I remember the first time I held in my hand a letter written by a murderer (and I thought, "I am holding in my hand a piece of paper held by a murderer," and found it chilling); I remember the first time I saw the picture of a murder victim; and the first time I saw the blood spatters.  The point is ... and I think it's a point I somehow failed to realize before I got on the bus to Auschwitz:  I've held these things in my hands -- and even though what I held were artifacts of a single murder and Auschwitz was a place where over one million people were murdered, seeing evidence of the murders of over a million did not hit me with a million times the strength of holding in my hands the evidence of one.

In fact, it kinda didn't even hit me with the same strength.  Which sorta brings me to thing number two:  You don't visit "Auschwitz"; you visit the Museum at Auschwitz.  This is a key distinction which I wish I'd appreciated a bit more in advance.  Look, the setting is undeniably Auschwitz; you're walking through the entrance gate; down the same roads; into the same buildings -- it's the camp, and there's no getting around that.  But inside, you're seeing a museum.  The place is full of displays.  They've repurposed the barracks to house photographic blow-ups, gas chamber models in glass cases, artifacts in glass cases, and impossibly large piles of shoes in glass cases.  (Are you noticing a theme here?)  Even when you can peek in a room which houses bunks or piles of straw on which the prisoners slept, the room itself is totally blocked off.  There is a distance between you and the artifacts whereas I'm a person who craves immediacy.  

I would never diss the Auschwitz Museum for making this call.  As long as there are Holocaust deniers out there, there is certainly a tremendous value to laying out, for everyone to see, the plans, the documentations, the piles of shoes ... all of the evidence of what happened there.  It's proof, and it needs to be seen.  It just isn't what I need to see.

Now, what I need to see, as it happens, is hanging out down the road at Birkenau -- sometimes known as Auschwitz 2.  While Auschwitz 1 started out as more of a concentration camp; Auschwitz 2 was put together in order to kill people more efficiently.  Birkenau is the one where the railroad tracks run right into the camp, for disgustingly easy access to the gas chambers.  Prisoners were housed not in brick buildings but wooden stables (really, stables -- originally designed to house horses).  Birkenau is a museum too -- but not one with exhibits.  You can walk into the buildings, or down the train tracks to the one cattle car on display, or up into the tower to get an overall view of the place.  It's just the place without the people -- a place where you can put your hand on the wall and know that some 67 years ago, a victim of Nazi tortures touched that same wall; a place where you can step away from your group of privileged tourists, take a minute of private time where it's just you and the canvas of history, let your imagination run away with the facts as you know them, and try to call up an emotional connection to the unimaginable.

... and here's where the third thing got ahead of me:  we ran out of time.  The Auschwitz Museum was crazy crowded today, and we didn't have nearly enough time at Birkenau.  Our guide gave us a quick talk there and that was it -- time to go back to the tour bus.  I stole about five minutes on the way back to the bus (my sister -- bless her -- stole ten), but it just wasn't enough time.  

I wouldn't call the whole experience a waste of time or anything.  I learned some more facts and now have a few more images to call up when I think about what the Nazis tried to do (and very nearly succeeded at).  I laid a rose in a gas chamber and whispered a quick prayer for the people who died there.  (I later learned my father was simultaneously doing the exact same thing -- a fact which I find kind of interesting all by itself.)  I looked at individual photographs of prisoners who were chosen to work rather than immediately be killed, and saw in the meticulously kept records how few of them lived more than three months, and one lived only three days.  (I compared these images to the photographs I'd seen earlier in the day, on the walls of Oskar Schindler's factory, of the people lucky enough to be saved by that particular individual.)

But speechless?  No.  Not today.

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