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To Choose: Touring Auschwitz-Birkenau

These past three days, I have had the privilege to tour both the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps and Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, Poland.

Ever since touring the infamous concentration camps, I have been struggling with how to put the experience into words. after all, how does one describe walking on the same stretches of land where millions of people were violently mistreated and murdered?

Prior to my visit, I expected the tour to be primarily educational. Sure, a little eerie but I expected it to be first and foremost an opportunity to learn more about the horrors that the Nazi Regime brought to Poland between 1939 and 1945. An opportunity to pay my respects to the dead, to honor their memory, and then to return home and continue about my visit.

In the most basic sense, I suppose that it was a rather informational occasion. However, to describe it as such would be a terrible understatement.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are utterly chilling — haunting in a way that I had never experienced before, and never expect to experience again. Upon entering the Auschwitz camp, my guide explained that nearly 1,100,000 lives were taken there within the span of four years. She explained that the few who survived only did so after enduring unimaginable torture — both physical and mental.

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She relayed one survivor’s remark that he wished he had died in the cattle cars — among family and friends — as opposed to enduring the torturous pain of watching everyone he knew be murdered before his eyes, wondering if he would be next.  My guide explained that this man has no surviving relatives; his entire family was murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, and all that I could think was that the last time he saw his family — his mother and father and three siblings — he was standing in the very same place that I was.

He was 18 at the time. Only three years younger than I am now. That man — that boy — spent his college years in a concentration camp, while I have spent mine living in luxury…attending a top university, going out with friends on the weekends, eating Sunday dinner with my family each week, and now traveling around Europe without any fear that my friends and family may not be there when I get home.

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At the same time,  I couldn’t help but think of the startling similarities that we see between the United States today and the early days of the Nazi and Fascist regimes of the past. Of course, this is not to say that I believe we are on the verge of World War III, or that the present administration would ever go so far as to advocate for any form of cruelty that could match the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

However, as I walked through the doorway to one of the many blocks where prisoners were kept, and saw before me the wise words of George Santayana:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

I was immediately reminded of the fear and the hatred and the division that first enabled a man like Adolf Hitler to rise to power, amass such an army, and exterminate over 6 million people nearly 80 years ago.

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I do not believe I am being an alarmist when I say that I see many of these same characteristics reflected in American society today.

I see Democrats and Republicans more polarized than ever. I see more and more of our politicians moving towards extremism, and I see more and more of my fellow citizens becoming so enraged with “the establishment” that they would rather put their faith in alt-right candidates like Donald Trump or, alternatively, in far-left candidates like Bernie Sanders than in our government itself.

Whether this is a problem of our democratic system, our politicians, or the electorate itself is a debate for another day. However, the fact remains the same: our country is rapidly polarizing.

We throw around mantras like “Make America Great Again” without knowing (or caring) that Hitler used the very same phrase — “Make Germany Great Again” — to instill a sense of violent nationalism in his followers. A sense of nationalism that preyed on their fears, and utilized their hate and division to ultimately drive them to violence

I see more and more hatred between my fellow Americans — whether it be on social media or on the House and Senate floors. I see more and more minority groups being demonized for America’s social, political, and economic problems over which they have no power to correct and little power to influence.

I hear our top politicians referring to blacks and immigrants and Muslims and the elite with the same aggressive tones that past leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini referred to Jews, gypsies, and their respective political establishments.

I see these things, and I am afraid for my country. I am afraid of the road we may soon go down — a road marred with hate and discord and hostility.

I am afraid.

However, my fear is not the sort to effectuate paralysis. No, my fear is the sort that drives one to action. I believe with the utmost conviction that I am not alone in this fear, and I know for certain that I am not alone in my desire to act.

I have seen first hand the fear — and the subsequent action — of my fellow Americans over the past two years as we have taken to the streets to advocate for what we believe in and to demand that our voices be heard.

From our collective fear has emerged a sense of togetherness — of shared activism — and it has given me a renewed hope.

This reminds me of another thing that my guide explained during my tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

After being asked about what could have possibly motivated Hitler to such violent cruelty towards Jews — could it have been that he was rejected from art school in Vienna by Jews? or could he have just been raised to despise the religion? — the guide merely shrugged and explained simply that there are all sorts of rumors and myths and musings about Hitler’s motivations, but ultimately Hitler was one.

Hitler was one.

“What about his followers?” she went on to ask us. what of the hundreds of thousands of people who, blinded by their hatred and fear, bought into his extremist ideology without question?

Moreover, what of those who looked on in silence as millions of human beings were being massacred? What of those that saw, and heard, and did nothing?

Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly an abhorrently vile and cruel and insolent man, but he did not single-handedly commit mass genocide.

It was the people.

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This sentiment reminded me of another quote. My favorite quote, in fact. First expressed by a German pastor named Martin Niemoller who only actively opposed Adolf Hitler after he himself was personally affected by Nazi violence:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 There is a lot to learn from his words. However, first and foremost, I think that it is a clear warning of the dangers of indifference. Of inaction. Of seeing injustice, and doing nothing to correct it.

Just as the people were the driving force behind the Holocaust, they could have just as easily been the damning opposition against it.

What it came down to was individual choices. And, unfortunately, too many people chose wrong. However, we are now in the fortuitous position to learn from their examples — to take note of their mistakes, and consciously choose not to repeat them.

And there is a certain power in that. the power of Choice.

Today, I visited another monument. The legacy of another man. A better man. A man by the name of Oskar Schindler.

Anyone who has seen the film Schindler’s List is familiar with his legacy, but this museum in his honor brought to my attention something that I had previously neglected to realize.

All of the lives that Oskar Schindler was able to save. All of the cruelty that he was able to prevent. Everything he did hinged on a single choice: would he continue to support the Nazis and act in his own best interest, or would he risk it all — put everything on the line — to save the innocent?

Oskar Schindler was one man. One man that made one choice and saved hundreds.

In his museum there is a quote — a quote that has been echoing in my head since I very first read it:

“For some, war leaves no choice.

For others, it makes choosing a must.

A small gesture can yield irreversible consequences.

it can either save a life,

or ruin it.”

This quote is represented in an art exhibition entitled the Room Of Choices at the Schindler Museum, in which it is transcribed in over forty different languages:

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May we never repeat the mistakes of our past. May we remember them, and learn from them, and choose a different path for our future. May we choose it, and may we fight for it. Tirelessly.

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