This was a new feeling. What was it? Our guide was sober, restrained. Facts and statistics rolled forth gravely with just the proper emphasis and enlivened by the details she gleaned from survivors’ memoirs. The ugly, squat buildings that contained the unspeakable speckled the flat landscape like fecal matter. The towers with the extinguished spotlights. The barbed wire.
Was it depressing? Not exactly. The New Jersey Turnpike around Elizabeth is depressing. African poverty is depressing. Depression is a numb and blunting hopelessness.
No, the death camps are different. This emotion existed in some space where the profoundest shock and horror collide and create something new that approaches awe. Awe in the face of massive, unfathomable evil. It’s like traveling to another cosmos of evil. Like the billion-year-old stars flickering above, you knew it was out there someplace, just not in a place you could touch and smell. And then suddenly there it was. Reality.
This place is not a “learning experience”. “And then when I saw a ton of human hair in a vast case, I realized. . .” Yes, you see the details. “And so many shoes in that case! Childrens” shoes! Fashionable ladies’ shoes of good quality. Did they feel a twinge when ordered to remove these shoes so carefully chosen from the best Budapest shops in order to take their ‘shower’?”.
No, you knew it was bad. “The horror! The horror!” said Conrad (a Pole, by the way) in Heart of Darkness. You had seen pictures of the train track that ended in a brick wall at Birkenau. From the well-placed photos you could see that those staggering off the trains knew it was the Last Stop. You knew that the fetid cells and 600 kcal a day diet of Auschwitz’s inmates were the model for the European slave empire Hitler hoped to create.
All this was known.
What was not known was that in treading the ground of Birkenau, the ashes of the dead were clinging to your soles, settling like an accusatory film on the weeds, themselves feeding on the dead. It was not known that touching the bricks and mortar of the barracks, you were touching the DNA of the long-dead prisoners who built them. In what kind of agony did they die? It was not known that you could turn from the much-used firing wall and ponder the last sight of the doomed. Or that the heartbreakingly hopeful drawings by the children still hung on a wall in their dark, cramped quarters.
So go, by all means. Not to learn stuff, not to feel bad, not to check it off a bucket list. View it as a pilgrimage that honors the both the victims of this historic crime and those who prevailed and defeated the perpetrators. It’s not a “Jewish thing”. It’s a profoundly human thing. And a transformative experience.