So. I’m writing this before on the ride there because I know I won’t have the words after – writing or speaking about this in a way that has not been said more truly or “elegantly” – and by that I mean horrifyingly – by hundreds of others.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the German name for the Polish town Oświęcim, so that’s where I’m headed.
I’m searching for what to say, about how and why I got here, on this bus, at this time. I can reach back to the age of 7 or 8 when I first read the book Number the Stars in one night. I vividly remember going to the bathroom to wash my hands for dinner while reading the book, and laying down on the bathroom floor because I couldn’t put the book down. Or the countless hours spent at the public library in Green Bay searching subject categories for World War II biographies or Holocaust. Or the dog-eared pages of my parents’ World Book Encyclopedia volumes of “H” for “Holocaust” or “I” for Israel or “J” for Jew, and so on. Or how so many of the “choose your own topic” school projects or book reports were about this time, this place. Or when I went to NYC with my mom and my grandparents at age 10 and the Broadway show I chose to see was “The Diary of Anne Frank” (with Natalie Portman as Anne, I later realized).
I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to it for so long – since 7 or 8. It goes without saying that it isn’t a topic most kids younger than 10 are interested in. But I was, and I am.
I have been to two concentration camps before, Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but this, of course, is the “big” one, the one that seems to encompass all others. It seems to be the most horrifying, the most unbelievable.
I have “been” to Auschwitz in my mind hundreds of times through books and documentaries and movies. Even before I get there, I can see it in my mind’s eye, especially the entrance.
I could go on forever about it, and it doesn’t seem real that I’m finally going. Will it be so surreal it feels like a “movie set,” will I feel the 1 million lives that were silenced and ended there, deep in my bones like cement that weighs me down and makes not just my soul but my body feel heavy and stuck in nothing short of blinding horror? I don’t know.
All I can do is hope that by going there, by coming here, that I see it as clearly as is possible in the context of the decades of history I’ve basically studied this place, preparing for a place that no one is ever fully prepared to see. I hope that I can proverbially “bear witness” to this place that must never ever be forgotten, downplayed, minimized or even treated as a tourist attraction. It isn’t. It never will be. And I don’t come as a garrulous tourist to only gape at the horror, to see it without really seeing it. I hope I come here and do what little I can to honor and remember what happened here, not for myself, but for the people who came here and never left, and for the families they never got to meet or never got to have.
To those who are reading this whom I speak directly to, and you know who, I wish I had more eloquent words.
We’re getting close now. The sun is coming out from behind the clouds. How unfair that a place like this should ever see sunshine again.