Monday, June 17, 2013

The Worst Place on Earth

I am en route to Auschwitz, in a comfortable, air conditioned van with 16 other tourists. The rustic scenery is beautiful.

This is after a nice breakfast at my hotel, and the previous 36 hours being among the best of my life (Springsteen at Wembley, arrival in Krakow, exploration of Old Town, excellent dinner, terrific jazz at Harris Piano Jazz Bar).

Of what I know of the Holocaust, it is the relative suddenness of going from a good life to complete hell that is most harrowing.

8:21pm: The above thought was verified by the sight that most "got me" during three hours of touring Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau.

Even more than seeing the entry gate--Arbeit Macht Frei; work will set you free--which is a replica since vandals stole and destroyed the original in 2009, or buildings that once housed barracks and yes, gas chambers, or miles of barbed wire (which made me think of Joseph Glidden, who invented it in DeKalb, IL), what hit me the hardest was seeing a mountain of shoes encased in glass.

Among these was a pair of colorful women's sandals, which I photographed. I truly know next to nothing about female footwear, but unless these were the only shoes a woman had brought into the ghetto, I can't imagine them being chosen for a long train ride, ending not with a fresh water shower--as the victims were led to believe--but with, for most, a trip to the gas chamber.

What happened during the Holocaust is too vast, and too vile, to acutely grasp in thinking about the millions--Jews and others--who died in the most inhumane way possible. I know the statistics, but thankfully I think, can't wrap my head around it in full.

It is the microcosms, representing the totality of Nazi atrocities, that I find most devastating, telling and haunting.

Such as, even more than the mountainous pile of shoes, a single pair.

Or eyeglasses. Or children's clothes. Or other commonalities of everyday life left behind for busloads of tourists to see at Auschwitz.

(On a similar level, Holocaust movies focusing on a single person--The Pianist and Life is Beautiful--for me tell the terrible tale even better than Schindler's List. And I'll never forget seeing, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a recreated Berlin apartment of a family who would perish. It made the Holocaust feel much more acute, as I could identify with not just the horrors, but how sudden and unsuspectingly they came about.

While seeing Auschwitz was obviously horrible--though quite worthwhile--it should have been a whole lot worse.

Although of many choices, I had selected Escape 2 Poland as my tour operator (simply for the Auschwitz/Birkenau day tour) based on several online plaudits, and paid a bit more for a more intimate van tour than a bus tour, the 17 people on my van were combined with a similar number from another E2P van when we got to Auschwitz--and we were all assigned to the same tour guide.

The guide spoke fine English and seemed quite knowledgeable, but if there was ever a place where you shouldn't be herded about like cattle and actually given some time to contemplate and ask questions, this was it.

Understanding that there were tons of other tour groups touring the same places--primarily old barracks buildings now containing displays on various aspects of the concentration camps--our guide seemed far more businesslike than humanly empathetic.

In a way, maybe this was a good thing, as simply being able to keep up with the group while snapping my typical plethora of photos, kept me from all too acutely considering the evil that enveloped my surroundings.

But along with a bit more time for reflection--there should be a memorial where one can simply sit and think--the guide should have paid more attention to the members of her group, including a slow-moving man with a cane.

I will never forget my visit to the worst place on Earth, but I do think the tour itself could have been a little bit better.

But at least I was allowed to leave.

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