I had remembered that Tanya said she and Tim took a quick trip to Poland to go to Auschwitz without their kids and that seemed like a good idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I didn’t really want to go to Auschwitz. Just the idea of it felt unbearably heartbreaking and I started to wonder why I wanted to go there. What kind of morbid person deliberately visits a place where some of Earth’s greatest horrors took place? Surely we had better options. (Rome anyone?!) As I began to drift away from Poland as a destination, a powerful thought struck me. What if no one visited Auschwitz? And that prospect felt even more heartbreaking than the prospect of going. So I knew we needed to go.
In anticipation of our visit, Richard and I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It’s an inspiring book for sure, but it was inadequate to the task. I was looking for something to prevent the pain, but that was futile.
Our tour was three and a half hours and it began at Auschwitz I and then we took a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Our tour guide had two uncles who died in the camps and I could tell it felt personal to her. I don’t know how to write about my experience without it sounding trite, and I just don’t have the emotional energy to recount the facts as I heard them. I've mentioned a few details in the photo captions below, but you can read more here. And if you’re interested in this atrocious part of history I encourage you to find books and read the stories of the people for whom Auschwitz was a reality.
The processes of death that took place daily in these camps was overwhelming. To learn of the neglect and dehumanization of the prisoners was nauseating. For the first hour I felt my throat burning and my eyes blurring as I tried to refrain from completely falling apart into ugly sobs. For the most part I maintained composure; I wanted to feel deeply but I also didn’t want to detract from anyone else’s experience by making obvious displays of emotion. The moment when I could no longer refrain from weeping (and I cry now just thinking of it) was as we stood on the platform at Birkenau where 70 years ago a German guard hastily made the choice between life and death for families as they arrived. Young and middle-aged men and women were kept for labor, but the elderly and children were sent immediately to the gas chambers. I simply cannot fathom the terror in the hearts of the mothers as they were separated from their children in chaos and confusion. Never to see them again. And the poor children, God bless their sweet spirits as they walked bravely and unknowingly to their death. There was a photograph in one of the museum exhibits of a grandmother, carrying an infant and surrounded with three young children holding hands, as they walked away along the dusty road toward the chambers and away from their parents. That photograph will haunt me forever.
The only other thing I want to say is that I considered it an honor to be there. To spend time on that hallowed and sanctified ground was a privilege. It was a holy place to me.