Over the summer, 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, hands down, no-questions-asked, the single most incredible experience of my life. A month after returning home, I am still caught up in this whirlwind of a trip and in awe of all of 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 why we were there – to study the Holocaust. Although we certainly had time to experience Poland – walking centuries old cities, chatting over lattes in the endless cafes, admiring the beautiful architecture in Krakow and juxtaposing it with the more modern style of Warsaw, consuming more pierogi than I thought was possible – 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, travelling on a train that runs on the same tracks that carried millions of people to their deaths, passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frie sign, or walking through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and along the selection platform to the location of a crematorium. Don’t get me wrong – 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 that I spent seeking silence in Auschwitz.
We spent our last week in Poland staying in the town of Oswiecm, the city from which Auschwitz gets its name. (Auschwitz is the German equivalent of Oswiecim.) Our hotel was less than 2 miles away from the entrance to Auschwitz I – a fact that still astounds me. Understandably, much of our focus that week was centered around this specific location. As a group, we spent three days between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau, touring the sites and attending educational programs. Each of these days have their own story – perhaps another time? The relevance of this to the story at hand is that on this Saturday, the last free day of the trip, I returned to Auschwitz. In part, I decided to go back to make the best use of my time there. I mean, what else was I going to do? Go to the Oswiecm mall? And, after all, when is the next time I will be in Poland? And, in part, I felt like my time here was incomplete. I could not put my finger on it, but I knew that 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 Oswiecim to the entrance of Auschwitz I.
Shortly after we arrived and 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 our initial days visiting the camp were guided by Pawel and Maciek. I wouldn’t have had any clue of where to start or what I should do with my time there. There is simply too much to see and too many people moving in different directions to make much 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 of the exhibitions that we had already seen on our tour. I also decided to check out the national exhibition galleries that we had to skip on our previous visit. Although going through the galleries was interesting, it was not what I was looking for. I wanted to find a few moments to myself, away from the crowds. Eventually, I found myself sitting on an bench between two of the buildings. Just sitting and thinking. I cannot remember exactly what I was thinking about. There were several times when, as I sat there looking in to the camp, I was surprised that 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 clear summer day, I tried picturing what it was like then, but the landscape is so much different than it was back then. I am very grateful for this fact now.
Eventually, I decided that I was ready to go. I had made up my mind to also 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 my way through 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 that 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. In the other camp, I knew that I wanted to visit the exhibition galleries. But here, there are no galleries to visit and, in that moment, I did not want to go back to the barrack, the latrine, or the registration building we’d gone to on our previous visit. I meandered around the site and finally found myself standing before Crematorium II. Again, seeking silenced, I moved to the far end of the structure away from the crowds of people. The remains of Crematorium II is one of the stops 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 the same spot in which I was sitting. I thought about how noisy it must have been and how ironic it was that 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 began to make my way around the crematorium to take the path 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 headstones, each in a different language, marked a disposal site of human remains. With the ruins of the crematorium close by, 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. The irony was certainly not lost on me when I counted six stones in my hand. As one group left the site of the headstones, I approached. I was entirely alone. No one was around, not even close. I had found the silence that I had 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 in that moment, I knew that I had found it.