I spent three weeks on a travel study in Poland as an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow. This program takes ten graduate level students from around the world to Poland to study the Holocaust and other related topics. This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. A month after returning home, I was still in awe of all the things we were able to see and do. Between being overwhelmed by it and continuing to process the experience, writing about it has proven to be terribly difficult.
You have to remember we were there–to study the Holocaust. Although we had time to experience Poland–walking centuries old cities, chatting over lattes in the endless cafes, consuming more pierogies than I thought was possible, admiring the beautiful historic architecture in Krakow and the more modern style of Warsaw. The very nature of our program was dark and involved difficult topics. I have spent the better part of the last decade studying this time-period, but none of it actually prepared me for being in this space.
Studying the worst crime known to man through the pages of books and behind the screen of a computer is nothing compared to standing before a mass grave, traveling on a train running on the same tracks that carried millions of people to their deaths, passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, or walking through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and along the selection platform of a crematorium. As hard as it was, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. Learning and teaching about the Holocaust is what I do. It is an extremely important task, especially with everything going on in the world today. This journey reinforced that for me. One particular day of my time in Poland speaks to this more than any other. This is the day I spent seeking silence in Auschwitz.
We spent our last week in Poland, staying in the town of Oświęcim, the city from which Auschwitz gets its name. (Auschwitz is the German equivalent of Oświęcim.) Our hotel was less than 2 miles away from the entrance to Auschwitz I–a fact that still astounds me. Much of our focus that week centered on this specific location. As a group, we spent three days between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau, touring the sites and attending educational programs.
The last free day of the trip, I returned to Auschwitz. In part, I went back to make the best use of my time there. I mean, what else was I going to do? Go to the Oświęcim mall? And when will I return to Poland? I also felt like my time here was incomplete. I could not put my finger on it, but I knew I was not yet finished. So I went back. Early that Saturday morning, with a few of my colleagues, I walked the mile from our hotel in Oświęcim to Auschwitz I.
Shortly after we arrived, cleared admissions and security, we all split up to tour on our own. It is an odd thing to experience Auschwitz alone. I was extremely grateful that Pawel and Maciek guided our initial days visiting the camp. I wouldn’t have had any clue of where to start. There is so much to see and too many people moving in different directions to make sense of it without having some point of reference. Additionally, the previous experiences here had been full of hustle-and-bustle, keeping up with a schedule or the tour guide, and trying to dodge other visitors. For anyone who has been here before, you know what I am talking about.
I spent some time revisiting some exhibitions we had already seen on our tour. I also checked out the national exhibition galleries we had to skip on our previous visit. Although going through the exhibits was interesting, it was not what I was searching for. I wanted to find a few moments to myself, away from the crowds. Eventually, I sat on a bench between two of the buildings. I cannot remember exactly what I was thinking about. There were several times when, as I sat there looking around the camp, I was surprised there were minutes when I couldn’t see anyone in any direction. It was eerie. Sitting on this bench with the sun shining and a slight breeze on this cloudless summer day, I tried picturing what it was like then, but the landscape is so much different from it was back then.
I had made up my mind to go to Birkenau, so I left and walked the mile distance between the camps. This walk was, perhaps, the strangest part of the day. As I navigated the Polish streets, I passed hotels, restaurants, businesses, and even personal residences. I tried to consider what it was like for the people who lived their lives here between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. Other than the fact life must go on, I could make very little sense of it.
When I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I was not sure what to do. Here, there are no galleries to explore and, in that moment, I did not want to return to the barrack, the latrine, or the registration building we’d gone to on our previous visit. I meandered around the site and stopped before Crematorium II. Again, seeking silenced, I moved to the far end of the structure away from the crowds. The remains of Crematorium II is one stop on the guided tour, so people frequently came and went. I sat there for several minutes thinking about this place, about the organized chaos of this murderous process, about the people who spent their final moments standing in this same spot in which I was sitting. I thought about how noisy it must have been and how ironic it was I was trying to be alone in the quiet. Finally, I got up to leave. Although I didn’t feel “done,” whatever that means, I wasn’t sure what else to do. I made my way through the crematorium towards the exit.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw four headstones just on the other side of Crematorium II. From our previous tour, I knew what they meant. These tombstones, each in a different language, marked a disposal site of human remains. With the ruins of the crematorium nearby, the headstones memorialized thousands of Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime, whose ashes were interred here. This is when I realized why I was here–why I had felt the urge to come back. I had studied this space for weeks, but had not taken the time to mourn or pay my respects to those who died here. I bent down and grabbed a handful of stones from the gravel path. As a group left the site, I approached. I was entirely alone. It was the silence I sought all day. As I placed the rocks on the headstones (a custom in the Jewish tradition to show respect for the dead), the tears began to flow. I couldn’t stop it, nor did I try. I said a few prayers, including what I remembered of the Kaddish–the Jewish prayer of mourning. Returning that morning and seeking silence in Auschwitz, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but at that moment, I knew I had found it.