An Empath Visits Auschwitz
The following recollection is an essay I wrote upon my return to the United States from Europe. Still being one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve encountered in the past twenty-eight years, this prelude is a discretion for graphic content. The assignment was for extra-credit in German I class during my junior year at Northgate High School. Herr Thomas Michalow, German language and European history teacher, requested an optional short essay about what the experience was like for the class to have visited the memorial museum at Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz and work camp Birkenau.
Sequentially, after this introduction, are the two pages of my essay I wrote at age seventeen. With only minor punctuation and grammar edited, the essay is mostly in tact to how it was originally written in April 2005. This essay attests to the trauma which Auschwitz-Birkenau is still capable of imprinting within the human mind. Historically, the truth of disgrace and inhumanity of humans toward humans has permeated throughout man’s existence upon Earth. Even in the twenty-first century, Auschwitz-Birkenau still serves as an example to both commoner and elite of genocide’s effects on humanity from the darkest perceptions of difference between religions, governments, and cultures.
— M. Haas,
27 October 2015
Revised 19 March 2016, 10 March 2017.
The act of writing is for me often nothing more than the secret or conscious desire to carve words on a tombstone: to the memory of a town forever vanished, to the memory of a childhood in exile, to the memory of all those I loved and who, before I could tell them I loved them, went away.
–Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and author of Night
Physical and mental effects stirred in the emotions of our class who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on March 21, 2005. The remnants left behind of Jewish prisoners, especially of children, brought tears to the majority of eyes next to me. The devastation done to the human race by humans opened our eyes to the evil which penetrates us. We went there and saw what is left today, some sixty years later, explained by a guide what this is, what that is, what happened and how many people died everyday. I felt a depressive chill enter my heart as I stared at this gate to hell. Many were stricken with tears of sorrow, unable to pause and imagine what this very day was like in 1945 with a million starving, half-dead skeletons walking around them. They didn’t stop to think, but I did.
Am I cold for not crying at the death camp, land to the genocide of millions of human beings? Am I cold for not expressing emotion to their demise? Am I cold for not feeling the way everyone else appeared to feel?
Perhaps, I can give the excuse the whole place made me numb, an opiate of mental deadness, yet I could still feel something.
While I walked through the gas chambers, I felt the sensation of touching the same wall hand upon hand, back upon back, arm upon arm, scraped, leaned, and fell against in the process of being gassed. I felt the stone-pebbled ground beneath my feet through my shoes. I imagined the million people who walked that very ground, barefoot in the ice and cold, their feet numbed to a point where they couldn’t walk anymore. I could see through the barracks and bricks to the other side where, once, a pile of rib-protruding corpses lay for mass grave burial. I imagined the crowds of women who scattered about upon train arrival as SS soldiers forced half of them to work camp, half to gas chambers. I read a sign on the barbed-wire fence: VORSICHT HOCHSPANNUNG LEBENSGEFAHR, and imagined the thousands who had thrown themselves against that fence, electrocuting their bodies to end such life of affliction. I imagined the men and women whose pictures hung in the hall once walking upon this forsaken ground. Their eyes sliced into me with hunger and agony. I heard the sirens from the towers call out. It was these same sirens that began and ended their days until liberation. I felt the air and how this is the same air they breathed–the same air to which they gave their last breaths. I watched the sun, its bright orange blaze, and thought “This is the same sun they saw; the same sun that sat at the horizon of dead trees ending one more day of hell. These are the shadows the sun made for them– the shadows of the siren towers and the barracks –the shadows of their own skeletons.”
These images, as morbid as they be, were once real. I envisioned the reality of history in my mind while my classmates were crying at the sight of human hair & children’s suitcases, not pausing to think of the split moment when their heads were shaved and when those suitcases were taken and ransacked. Visitors wept in sympathy that this atrocity happened; they witnessed the history left behind, but they didn’t imagine. I did, and for this, I will always remember the depth this experience imbued upon my personhood. To quote Elie Wiesel, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” And to such it is, Auschwitz-Birkenau serves as a testament to the world to reject the despair of being human.