I spent the better part of an hour trying to write this post. It is far too massive an experience to be reduced by what I say, so I decided to go with a straightforward account.
My wife and I visited Krakow, Poland this weekend. It is one of the most common places by which tourists visit the concentration camp of Auschwitz. When Katie and I learned about this, our plans for Saturday were quickly decided. We were drawn, as millions are each year, to remembering the site of one of the most horrific events in history.
I will not describe it, other than to say I think it is vastly important that we, as human beings, do such things. First (and this always comes first), because we must acknowledge those in our history who have suffered. It is getting far too easy in our world to insulate ourselves from the depressing realities of pain and evil. Shut off the news, ignore the hard conversations, and you can make it well into your twenties before experiencing the devastating realities for yourself. Ignorance is not any sort of power.
And when you read slave narratives, you can know at least how the slave felt. When you walk through a hallway of photographs, each listing the occupation of the person, the date they arrived in the camp, and the date they died in the camp, then you know this is not some ominous paragraph of history that can be read or not read at your leisure. These were people, and though you could not possibly remember each name that you see there, it is a duty of ours to collectively look back so that they are never forgotten.
Second, there’s great value in looking back at something like the Holocaust to better acquaint yourself with the face of evil. The variety and immensity with which the Nazi’s inflicted cruelty on their fellow man astonishes. Just as astonishing is the thought that such cruelties do not exist in our time and in our world. Know what evil looks like, know the costumes it wears, the various forms it takes, and at the very least you might carry forward a better sense of what to fight against, what to fight for.
Third, we went because it is not a textbook. The statistics you read are staggering. Elie Wiesel’s account can illuminate a great deal of how people suffered in those camps. But there is something different about walking the grounds where it took place. Your footsteps are tracing the routes of guards, the fading trails of survivors. You stand where the liberators first stood, though you can never see what they saw. As with anything, there is a difference in seeing it for yourself.
Katie and I will likely be wrestling with what that difference is and what it means to us for some time to come.