“To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice” – Elie Wiesel
It isn’t often that I am at a genuine loss for words. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I usually have a ready arsenal of words at my disposal; I’m a lawyer, after all, and I have a degree in History and English. Writing comes naturally to me.
Writing about my visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, however, has been unexpectedly difficult. It isn’t because I don’t have a lot to say. It’s because finding the words to articulate the experience has felt like an impossible task. Perhaps that is the way it is meant to be. Perhaps words are totally inadequate to describe places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the things that happened there. What does it actually mean, after all, to say that approximately 1.3 million people were taken there, of which around 1.1 million died? Or to talk about the history behind the manufacture of Zyklon B? Or to describe the brutal ‘roll calls’ of prisoners each morning which could last for hours, and proved fatal for some? These are all important facts, crucial for understanding the Holocaust. But there is something about visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum that goes beyond the facts, or at least gives them a meaning beyond what a textbook can do.
A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is best described as an experience, and, by definition, an intensely personal one. Different things are triggering for different people. For some, it is the photographs, so proudly taken by SS officers, of children unknowingly walking to the gas chambers. For others, it is the displays of various personal belongings – eyeglasses, shoe polish, toothbrushes, kitchen utensils, shoes, suitcases – taken from those murdered at the camp. One particularly awful room contains a mountain of hair taken from victims in order to be woven into cloth – the ultimate example of the Nazi regime’s dehumanisation of its victims.
The mind wanders in strange ways when presented with such an overload of horror. In the pile of victims’ shoes, I saw a red high-heel and thought, “that is something I would wear”. I felt an overwhelming sense of double injustice when I learned a boy who was sent to the gas chamber at the age of fourteen was also an orphan (a fact written on the front of his suitcase, along with his name and birthdate). Looking at the photographs taken of individual prisoners, which record their names, occupations and dates of birth and death, I silently played a macabre game, working out just how long each prisoner survived – this one survived just one day, this one two months, this one made it to nearly a year. In one photograph, a woman is smiling. Why, I wondered, is she smiling?
It also seemed strangely reprehensible to feel any sort of human discomfort during the visit. It seemed like a sacrilege to feel cold, or to complain about walking on uneven cobblestones, after seeing the thin garments worn by prisoners in sub-zero temperatures and the ill-fitting wooden clogs prisoners’ feet were forced into. Any complaints about the prices of food in the café rung hollow, after learning about the so-called “meals” fed to prisoners – one cup of tea for breakfast, one bowl of watery soup for lunch, one tiny piece of bread, with an even smaller piece of cheese, for dinner.
On a different note, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a master class in how sites of trauma should be presented. Our guide was almost unbelievably restrained in her approach, sticking to the bare facts of what had occurred and drawing no conclusions for us. The exhibitions are not only informative but carefully and sensitively presented, leaving plenty of room for introspection. Some of the displays are unexpectedly beautiful - in one room, photos and clips of life before the war are continually projected onto the walls, bringing home the extent to which individual lives were utterly destroyed by the Holocaust. The site itself, and the various displays, truly speak for themselves. I would recommend the full eight hour-tour, which involves visiting both Auschwitz and Birkenau. The two sites are significantly different. At Auschwitz, many of the buildings are mini-museums, containing various displays of historical documents, items stolen from victims and photographs and movie clips. Other rooms are set up as they would have been during the camp’s operation. Birkenau, on the other hand, has been preserved in much the way it was at the time of its liberation, giving a better insight into what the camp was actually like. After the emotionally exhausting experience of seeing the various exhibitions at Auschwitz, the walk through Birkenau (especially in summer) is strangely therapeutic and provides time for reflection.
I will not presume to imagine what a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is like for those who have an especially personal connection to the Holocaust. For me, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a place of eternal shame for humanity as a whole, not in the least because it is not, by any means, the only site in the world where genocide has occurred – simply one of the most notorious. It is not a place I would have visited on my own initiative, but I now believe that we have a duty to visit sites like it. There is nothing we can do to mitigate the sheer awfulness of what happened, but perhaps just taking the time to visit - to be there - is worth something. To visit is to recognise what happened; to make a commitment not to forget.
To paraphrase the words of Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, forgetting the Holocaust is like killing its victims all over again. The same might be said of avoiding visiting sites of trauma, because such visits are unpleasant, or make us sad or uncomfortable. We cannot forget what happened at places like Auschwitz-Birkenau. Neither can we ignore it.
Photo credit: Samantha Keen, my wonderful World Heritage Committee Co-Delegate.