Friday was Holocaust Remembrance day. The 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
I cannot even begin to tell you what visiting Auschwitz was like. I did not take many pictures there. But this is what a piece of it looked like.
I will tell you just a little bit though.
In one room, in the main camp (pictured above), there is hair. Hair that was scalped from my people when they were brought there. When I say room, I do not do the amount of space it holds justice. This is about 15.5 thousand pounds of hair.
Do you know how light hair is? That’s a lot of hair.
Google this room. It’s real and it’s there. It also doesn’t account for all the hair that was used in mattresses, sold as wigs, and made into so many other things that are not there at the camp, that are hidden around Europe or burned or wherever.
It’s a lot of hair. Each strand belonged to someone.
In another room there are shoes. About 43 thousand pairs, according to the internet. That’s 86 thousand shoes. Each belonged to someone.
In yet another room is suitcases. In another is prosthetic limbs. In another is combs and brushes. Another has toys. There are more rooms with other things too.
I cried a lot while walking through, as you can imagine.
At Birkenau, we walked miles through stone barracks with scratch marks crisscrossing their walls. Do you know how hard you have to press to make indents in stone with your fingernails?
We walked past gas chambers sunk into bubbling earth, with moss reaching up their crumbling brick sides, as if something beautiful could ever adequately cover what exists there.
We walked over grass fed by the ashes of more than 1 million people.
The gravel is rough. It poked hard at the bottoms of my shoes and hurt my feet. I imagined walking on it barefoot, or with inadequate shoes, as my family had.
It rained the whole time. Everything is moldy and it smells.
You can see for miles. There is nothing around. Just structures and gravel and grass and the aura of death. Wood and wire. Green in between them. Everything is metered. Built perfectly so. Symmetrical.
It is so quiet at Birkenau.
That’s what I kept thinking while there. There were some people at the back of the camp, near the commemorative memorial hidden but to those who walk its full length, chanting and praying, and we heard them as we got closer.
But overwhelmingly, it was quiet.
Still. Damp. Dripping. I could hear my own breathing ringing in my ears as we walked.
The gravel crunched beneath our shoes. The sound of our raw, cold fingers rubbing together for warmth felt colossal.
I could hear the wind whistle. A sniffle echoed on the ground.
I swore I could hear my heart beat from outside my body.
It was so quiet and so peaceful and so deceptively beautiful.
I take many issues with the seeming ease with which the world compares any new horror to the Holocaust. Of using Jews and my people as stand-ins for the terror inflicted upon other groups. As if we are the collective nameless dehumanized measuring stick by which all others can measure suffering. The Jewish experience is rooted in suffering. Please don’t force us to live with that more than we already do.
But I will say this.
Do not pretend that what is happening now is not like what happened then.
Do not pretend that hatred can be tamed if you are not vocal. Or that hatred is ever mild. Or that it is just a coincidence that the child inhabiting the White House signed an executive order banning legal residents of the United States from entering the country, simply because they are Muslim, on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Do not pretend that this is normal. And make sure others know that it is not.
My hope for the future is that there are no more mass slaughteryards that the families of those murdered can visit. No more museums. No more hair. No more toys. No more places we have to make commemorative memorials at.
Do not be quiet.
I want to add one thing.
Visiting Auschwitz is a thing I will forever be grateful to have had the ability to do, even if not grateful that it exists at all. I was there in November 2014, on a two-week whirlwind trip around Europe, partially alone, partially with friends. In Poland, I was with two other people. After a solo few days in Paris, I met up with them in Amsterdam and we made our way to Prague together.
We left for Oswiecim, in Poland, from Krakow at 6am, fresh off an overnight train from Prague on which none of us slept much. I spent a lot of that night looking out the window, trying to to figure out where the Czech Republic ended and where Poland began.
We spent almost four hours between the two camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
After the tour and the drive back into the city, we cheered ourselves up with beer and pirogies and a walk through the Main Square in Krakow’s Old Town, then got a cab to the airport and a flight to Copenhagen, with a layover in Frankfurt (I think, I can’t remember for sure). There, we met up with three other friends at a fourth floor walkup on the river, overlooking Norreboro.
We were awake for something like 20 hours. I fell asleep that night on a mattress on the floor in a corner of the living room. I was too tired to eat dinner.
It was worth every sleep-deprived second.
There are so many more things I could and want to say but none of it would be enough. So here’s this:
At the camp, our guide was a young woman, born and raised in Oswiecim. She told us that she had met and fallen in love with her husband while they both worked as guides there. She wore all light blue and purple, and carried a bright red umbrella.
As she led us across the train tracks that run up Birkenau’s center, a small tabby cat started to follow us, and kept pace behind for a while. She laughed and said there are many cats who live in the abandoned camp now.
We decided to name it Tikvah, the Hebrew word for “hope.”
This post was adapted from Facebook.