Out in the beautiful Polish countryside lies a memorial for victims of one of the most incomprehensible horrors of the world. Auschwitz concentration camp is a place I’ve wanted to visit for quite a long time, and unlike the frivolous vacations to Paris or Bruges, this trip seemed to call for some sort of emotional preparation. I decided to re-read Night, by Elie Weisel, which my sister had recommended to me while I was still in high school. Before I left for Krakow, my mom and I were discussing the book and what I expected from the trip, and she said:
“I told you I was just starting to read Night as well. I have put it away without getting very far. I felt such sadness..."
This feeling is so common—we turn away from the things that make us uncomfortable, the things that make us sad, the things we truly cannot comprehend. I understand, because I do this myself. It’s only human. But for Auschwitz and all that happened there, I really felt the need to push to understand more, to understand better. I answered:
I just finished Night yesterday and felt the same way, but it's really a good book to read because Weisel talks about the struggle it is to keep your humanity in a situation like that. How can we keep our humanity and be kind and loving to others when the situation is almost forcing us into survival mode? How can we make the hard choice of dignity and love over survival and our animalistic instincts? I know it's a sad thing to read about, but I think that reading these types of accounts helps us grow and understand more about life—how it can be bad, but how we can bring good to it.
The more I read and learn from the victims of the Holocaust and the prisoners of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and other concentration camps, the more I see the necessity of learning to come from a place of incomprehensible horror to a place of deep understanding and compassion, and then choosing to do so.
”I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
— Anne Frank
We arrived at Auschwitz while the sun was shining and the day just heating up. It was gorgeous, and part of me dreaded the contrast between the beautiful May weather and the gut-twisting history I was about to witness. As I had mentally prepared myself for the trip, I’d imagined a blustery, cloudy day, more suitable and respectful of the camp. Instead, I did mental contortions to reconcile the gorgeous blue sky and the sight of the camp buildings in the distance. All around us, people waited quietly to be lead inside.
Our turn came, and we followed our tour guide down a gravel path and were lead beneath the infamous gate: “Arbeit macht frei.” The guide paused so we could take it in, and a sense of déjà vu washed over me.
"It was a beautiful day in May. The fragrances of spring were in the air. The sun was setting. But no sooner had we taken a few more steps than we saw the barbed wire of another camp. This one had an iron gate with the overhead inscription: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. Work makes you free. Auschwitz."
— Elie Weisel, Night
I was standing where Weisel had stood—where so many had stood before being lead into the camp that would likely be the last place they would ever live. The concept of work makes you free wasn’t meant to be a derision or a promise, but was an idealistic phrase meant to impart the idea that work is a path to virtue. “Destruction through work,” our tour guide commented, describing the conditions prisoners lived with. The phrase turns sour when you understand that in truth, the sign is a promise, because the Germans simply worked prisoners to death. So, if you worked hard enough, eventually… you’d be free.
With a sinking heart, I followed the group forward, and held my breath and my tears as we were guided to the Death Wall, past the isolation and gas chambers, and through rooms filled with shoes, hair from shaven heads, victims’ suitcases carrying their names and addresses, keys, combs, children’s clothing, dishes. Every belonging a signal of hope that each person would be returning home, that those keys would be needed to reopen the abandoned home, that the suitcase would be routed back to them if lost.
Throughout our tour, I was broken by the hopes the prisoners held onto, and the deception their captors leveraged to control them. “You can leave your belongings here while you bathe. We’ll keep them safe for you,” I imagine them saying. The objects the prisoners brought with them weren’t the only things they were robbed of. In true resourcefulness, the guards of Auschwitz mined the prisoners’ bodies for materials, too, calling it “recycling” when they took the gold from Jews’ mouths, shaved their heads and used the hair for fabrics, strew their ashes for fertilizer. All this was done by camp prisoners under orders—never by the SS men themselves.
When the guards threw Zyklon B down into the gas chambers, they did so from a hole in the roof, never having to look their victims in the eye. Other prisoners were made to “clean up” the bodies of their fellow men, and the guards never saw what they themselves had done. They buffered themselves from the humanity of their prisoners, which made it that much easier to rationalize what they were doing. “Do you know why they called us polenische schweine? Because we were Slavic. Inferior race. Untermenschen,” says our guide. His grandfather was a prisoner, and he tells us horrible things with a heavy forthrightness. He stresses the insidiousness of poisonous ideology.
In all of this, the collective response is simply an inability to comprehend what happened in these death camps. I can’t pretend to understand, nor can anyone else. The overriding theme we can all see is the large-scale rationalization of intolerance, discrimination, and mass murder. So what does it mean for us today? We can read Holocaust survivors’ first-hand accounts, immerse ourselves in psychologists’ and historians’ analyses of the events, and walk the halls of the Auschwitz or Birkenau barracks ourselves, but each of us will come to a slightly different attempt at true understanding.
For me, it comes down to two things: understanding and love.
Are we able to imagine ourselves as another person? Can we understand others' motivations and their pain? Do we have the mental strength and agility to see our similarities past our differences, and empathize with what we witness there? If we answer no to these questions, we have valuable work to do. The work, if we make the effort, is not difficult and yields huge rewards. One easy way to come to understand and empathize with others is simply… to read. Reading improves our minds beyond the benefits we observe in ourselves, carrying over into our communities and society as a whole. Studies show a simple truth: reading improves empathy.
The first step is empathizing—sharing the feelings of others different to ourselves. And the second step, love, requires us to do something with that understanding. Show kindness. Express gratitude. Offer love. Every interaction of every day carries with it a weight that swings out into the world far beyond what we might intend. The words we say and the actions we take are tossed out into the world like a stone into a pond, and the ripples carry far. Auschwitz was a horror, and standing in the place of so much despair has left me with a quiet truth: we must do our best to spread love and understanding to encourage the world to blossom around us.
"For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best."" ―Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning