It has taken two weeks for the experience to ruminate. This is a long one, sorry.
Visiting the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (photos)is a powerful, and altering experience – but not in the way that you might think (of course this is going to be different for everyone). The experience wasn’t gruesome, depressing, pessimistic or morose – infact for me the end result was quite uplifting and positive (I’ll get to that). I want to unpack a little bit here, but it really is an experience that is best relived through dialogue, so please, when I’m home, if you’re interested to hear more, please ask.
Being at Auschwitz really put my life in perspective. You really have to take a look at your life and what you take for granted. As Canadians (especially those of us lucky enough to be born and bred Canadians) I don’t think we even have experiences that remind us that it (our lifestyle, our freedom) can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Walking around in the same place where so many had everything taken away was grounding. As a small example: my iphone was stolen from me at the first hostel we were at. I was pretty upset about losing it. I don’t think I was as attached to it as Krista was to her blackberry before leaving, but there was a connection. Being at Auschwitz really made me think about what it meant to me, and what it meant in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t thought about my iphone since I returned from Auschwitz. In the few instances since Auschwitz that have challenged me I definitely caught myself saying “remember… it really could be worse” which always seemed to change things around for the better. I have become even more of an optimist than I was before. This is just one of the positive things that came from my visit.
I think the first thing that I felt, and also the most jarring of all my emotions from the day was disbelief! It is an uncomfortable place to find yourself in denying that this could have ever happened while you’re standing under the gates “arbeit macht frei”. I learned cycling term the other day from a dear friend gearing up to do a 150km ride (he achieved his incredible goal – SOO amazing! Congrats!!) – “bonking” is when there is a serious disjuncture between your body and your mind (generally due to exhaustion) that renders you nearly paralyzed. I experienced bonking at Auschwitz – my brain refused to acknowledge where my body was, and I definitely shut down for the first half hour. We all hear about the holocaust and the terrible mark it left on the Jewish people, the German people and humanity as a whole. We have gathered and studied the numbers, the statistics the facts and the figures about the Nazis, the Jews, the Germans, the camps, but reading that stuff on a page, and having it come to life in front of you are two very different things. I understood the source of the disjunct and denial while at Birkenau standing on top of the watch tower –the sheer size and the unbelievably meticulous organization of the camps really bends your mind. It is so hard to conceive of such a terrible crime being so well planned and executed. Your mind begins to adjust as you walk around and experience more of both the camps, but the experience of size and scrupulous organization never becomes less chilling.
In the camps the prisoners were forced to surrender all of their personal effects to the Nazi’s. These belongings (glasses, clothes, valuables) were redistributed to needy German communities (Hitler was playing reversed robin hood). The confiscated items were stored in a building on site at the camps; this building was referred to by the prisoners as “Canada” because it was the place where everything was provided and all dreams came true (this was a touching nod). One of the buildings at Auschwits I (Birkkenau is referred to as AuschwitzII) was dedicated to housing all of the confiscated items that were recovered from the camps when they were liberated. This building put a definite end to my disbelief and one image was probably the most powerful out of the whole day spend there. In each room there were piles of personal effects; there were piles of glasses, and piles of dishes and cooking implements, piles of toys, piles of clothes, even piles of prosthetic limbs and medical aids (crutches, canes etc). In one of the rooms there was a pile (perhaps better described as a mountain) of suitcases (click for photo). Wow the suitcases were wrenching. The prisoners were told that they were being relocated from the ghettos to other, better locations, and that their belongings would follow them later. Each person was allowed one case of specific dimensions. Each person took the time out to write their name address and any other important information on their suitcases to ensure that their precious belongings made it to them where ever they might be going. This image hit because it really illuminated the humanity of the prisoners and victims that were taken. As they wrote their names addresses and identifying information on their suitcases, they displayed hope and optimism in the face of horror. Even more so than the hall of photos located in another building this was a powerful experience of humanization: there was something about seeing peoples’ names written on their last vestiges of personal possession that gave each prisoner a vivid identity. In fact, this was such a moving experience I am really having trouble finding the right words to talk about it… so I’ll stop, you get the idea.
I mentioned in a former blog that spending the evening at the Hostel was a really interesting part of the Auschwitz experience. On the day we went, most of the people who were staying at the hostel also took the trip out to the camps. The evening was interesting. There was a heaviness in the air, you could almost hear the wheels turning, and gears grinding as everyone struggled to process their experience. There was some wonderful conversation as each of us examined the day and shared our thoughts and experiences with others. This was an important ending to the day. It was important because we all had a shared experience, and even thought we didn’t really know each other we needed to know that someone understood how we felt about it all. You can relay an experience, but it’s not the same as that unspoken understanding that happens on a fundamental level ( I discussed this in depth in my post about travel buddies). The conversations flowed – we discussed the disbelief, the horror, the fascination. We discussed humanity through lenses of pessimism and optimism. We discussed the past, the present and the future. The conversations were deep and rich and everyone was able to contribute some mental and emotional gem which they pulled from their depths, and shared so unabashedly. It was so stimulating to be a part of that, and also offered a change to process, and also a chance for closure on the day. We all know that I am an extrovert, and I am definitely much better at processing my experiences and thoughts through dialogue so I was more than grateful to have this opportunity.
Being there at Auschwitz, one definitely questions humanity. Human beings are the only species (in my limited knowledge of wildlife) that attack their own kind lie we do. During one of our dialogues at the Hostel I described it in terms of dogs: never before have the brown dogs gotten together and decided that the dogs with spots were a problem and had to be removed; nor have the Chihuahuas taken issue with the existence of Dobermans and made a move to eradicate them. It is a uniquely human characteristic to acknowledge such minor details
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with Hitler. This fascination made me ambivalent towards learning about/talking about the holocaust because I was feared that my fascination was something deep and dark that I held locked away in my psyche. I had always mistakenly conflated my fascination with some perverse admiration and that was super scary. Visiting Auschwitz helped me to finally unpack my fascinations and my fears. My fascination with Hitler has always revolved around his genius (please understand that genius is not attached to a measure of good or bad, just pure mental functioning); I find it incredible that one man managed to motivate an entire nation to wreak havoc on humanity. I am also (being a complete hedonist) surprised at how unbelievably motivated human beings are by fear. It seems to me that fear is a much more powerful motivator than pleasure, hope, solidarity, or any other “positive” motivator. Hitler’s genius was the ability to captivate the hearts and minds of a nation, and also to get into the psyche of the average person and use what bests motivates them to carry out his intentions. Hitler, one man, left a mark on the world. A mark that will remain on humanity for eternity – the effects of his power can be felt politically, economically, socially, religiously and cognitively by nearly every person on this planet (think of the wide spread effects of World War II). I am much more comfortable with my Hitler fascination now because I understand what motivates it: if it is possible for one person to motivate an entire nation of people to commit such terrible and horrific acts against their fellow human being, than it must be possible that one person, or a small group can motivate the same size group (or larger) to accomplish feats that are equal in magnitude, but entirely opposite in outcome i.e positive (Issa: Equal and Opposite Opposites!!!!!!!). This was my very positive and uplifting take home message from Auschwitz, almost a parting gift: I really gained an understanding of the enormous capability of humanity, and each human being to affect change both in their environment, and for other human beings, it is now the task of each of us to find a way to use the power of such magnificent capability to affect positive change in the world.
Start a movement!
Where I fit in the box of crayons....
- Do you ever get that feeling like there's more out there? That's the feeling that brought me to beyond borders. The global community is growing, and I have not yet become a part of it. I want to be a contributing citizen to the global community through participation and action. Over the years, I have developed an appreciation for diversity and difference, and look for other ways that people are doing things. There’s a whole world out there beyond our North American perspective that has the potential to change the way I see things, and to change my life. Gahndi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I think we should not only find the change within ourselves, but also take part in the change we want to see in the world. I hope that Beyond Borders will offer a medium in which I can be the change I want to see in the world, and also take part in that change.