Like most Jewish girls, I read The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age. From the moment I closed the book, the Shoah dominated the mental landscape of my nine-year-old days and commandeered my nights. I stood in the cold without my coat for hours to see what it felt like at Auschwitz. In my dreams, the inside of my classroom became a gas chamber and the chimney of the school sent clouds of black smoke into the sky.
It wasn’t until the concerns of tweendom kicked in (for me, namely boys and eating disorders and the Ramones), that my Holocaust obsession abated and my mother finally breathed a sigh of relief. Self-involvement is a lot more acceptable than a ghoulish fixation on genocide. We count on children to be innocent and bright-eyed, not morbid and terrified. Perhaps because we’ve forgotten what’s it’s like to feel so very vulnerable.
I speculate that these days I’m no more or less concerned with the mass atrocities in our world than the average middle-class American, working mom. It’s not that I don’t think about them, or that they don’t upset me. It’s just that when faced with a day packed with a career and carpools and capoeira practice, I content myself with trying to do small kindnesses and reason that it’ll have to be enough for now. But sometimes, when the day is done and my son is sleeping, I look at him and think—he doesn’t know yet. He doesn’t know people to be capable of unforgivable horrors. And what will I tell him when he finds out? Will I, like my mother, hope that he’s somehow able to make that knowledge small enough to be pushed into a dark corner of his consciousness and not examined very often?
I get an opportunity to contemplate exactly that question when, out of the blue, I receive an invitation to go to Krakow to do a talk show appearance in conjunction with the release of the Polish translation of my memoir. It isn’t until I’m cruising the internet in preparation for my journey that I realize I’ll be a stone’s throw from the very concentration camps that obsessed me as a child.
That is how, on a foggy, fall morning, I wind up sitting in a van heading out to visit Auschwitz, talking about the possibility of snow with a charming older couple on holiday from England. I feel jetlagged and shaky, my nerve endings too close to the skin, the cold draft raising goosebumps on the back of my neck. As we get farther from the city, the countryside turns disconcertingly beautiful, with silvery ponds and trees still clinging to the last of their golden leaves. Neat farmhouses decorate the green, gently rolling hills. Part of me knows that I’m a grown-up now, able to process difficult truths by this time in my life. Another part of me is illogically terrified. I can almost see the frightened nine-year old I once was beside me, her too-long bangs hanging in her eyes, wearing the Hall and Oates t-shirt her cousin bought for her at a concert.
I expected Auschwitz to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s in the middle of a town. I expected something ominous and sparse, but instead it has the feel of a well-oiled machine, with lines of tour buses, English speaking guides, a gift shop with postcards, a snack shop in case you need a cheese sandwich and some tea. We begin by walking through the famous gates you’ve seen a million times—in photographs, in TV movies of the week, in Schindler’s List—crowned by the German inscription, Arbeit Macht Frei, work makes you free. So familiar is the image that I feel I’ve been here before, my internal landscape defined by the popular media that has shaped it. As if the visit is only to confirm what I already know, like the anti-climax of finally seeing the Mona Lisa. I worry that I’ll walk out no wiser than I walked in. But Auschwitz is not the Mona Lisa, which becomes increasingly clear with the free-floating dread that accompanies each step along the gravel path between the barracks.
The barracks have mostly been renovated to house museum exhibits, the first of which details the deportation of the Jews (also Poles, Roma, political prisoners) from all over Europe, and their transportation to Auschwitz. I find myself wondering into which line my relatives who died here went when they arrived on the train platform. Were they able or unable to work? Were they gassed immediately or murdered slowly by unimaginably horrible living and working conditions. On the wall is a picture of a mother and her three children, walking through the Birkenau gates, on their way to the gas chamber. What mother does not look at that picture and imagine herself, imagine her children, walking through that gate? And then into the picture that isn’t there, the one that came next.
It is ghastly. It is monstrous. Nevertheless, my legs are walking me through it just fine until I reach the end of a dim and quiet second floor corridor and see a roomful of human hair, sealed behind glass. Across the room, a display of thousands of children’s shoes. These are things that cannot be conveyed in photographs and they are things that cannot be unseen.
I wish I could tell you that in this moment I remember some quote from a famous literary work, or a piece of wisdom of from my beloved grandmother and that is what keeps my head up, my legs moving. But no—instead, a song from a movie my son repeatedly watches comes into my head. I stand before a room full of human hair, and Dori’s voice from Finding Nemo comes to me, singing, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” And I do. I keep swimming through the rest of Auschwitz and on to Birkenau later that afternoon. Because that is what we do. We keep swimming. And if it is at all possible, we keep feeling.
One of the original gas chambers is still intact: concrete walls, openings in the ceiling where the soldiers dropped in the Zyclon B pellets, ovens in the next room, fed by human-sized chutes. I stand in it and imagine I see a million points of light; the afterimage of a million lives, a million souls. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the death camps, claiming approximately 1.3 million victims. I try to imagine not their deaths where I stand, but rather their scraped knees, their ice cream summer afternoons, their dinners lit by the glow of the Shabbat candles.
I am the only Jew in our group. I know this because no one else reaches down between the railway tracks and pockets a stone to place on the memorial that is built on the ruins of the crematorium at Birkenau. I turn to face the camp before we leave, fragments of childhood prayers and poems turning in my head like pieces of colored glass in a kaleidoscope held up to the late afternoon light. Such an indifferent sun, to cast a soft amber glow on these rows of barracks, this field of chimneys, these train tracks stretching to Germany, to Hungary, to eastern Poland, where my family was walled into ghettos.
I feel a deep sadness as I leave, but I note, with some surprise, that I do not feel scared anymore. I realize that I am not that child anymore, for whom the gas chamber at Auschwitz was an all-consuming fear. I no longer worry that they’re coming for me; I wonder instead how I’m implicated in the atrocities being perpetrated in our world today. What am I doing, or, more to the point, not doing, that is allowing mothers in in Sudan, Burma, Iraq, indeed in Palestine, to die horribly with their children in their arms?
Someday I will have to look my son in the eye and admit that yes, we are capable of even this. When I do, I will tell him that these crimes we commit are only one among many things we should consider when we take out our scales to look at humanity and wonder if we are lost entirely. Every day, there are equally astonishing kindnesses. We must make them ours. It is into these that we must drop our anchor.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.