"...researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945." --Eric Lichtbrau, "The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking," New York Times (March 1, 2013).
It has been over two years since I returned from a week-long visit to Poland, a trip that included visits to Holocaust sites in Warsaw, Kielce and Auschwitz. When I was there, I blogged twice (see my entries from April 17th and 18th, 2011), driven by the need to process what I had seen during difficult tours of camps, museums and monuments to immense human suffering. I was also egged on by my students back home, whom I encouraged to follow my odyssey through my blog. I also posted a few snippets of video (with my commentary) I had shot at Auschwitz and elsewhere and, judging from their reception when I got back, were received with a mixture of curiosity and awe. I vowed to finish my "trilogy" of Polish blogs within a week of returning, to offer a final tribute to those who had died at or had survived Auschwitz (as if the world was waiting with bated breath for me to finish!).
Monday, April 18, 2011. This date marks my last blog from Poland. Since then I have been struggling to write about my visit to Auschwitz. My blogs from Warsaw and Kielce were written in the heat of the moment, as if I were a journalist working to meet a deadline set by a demanding editor. They reveal raw emotion in some places, as if I was trying to bear the weight of the terrible history I was contemplating. My difficulty may be rooted in the relief I felt in being back in the United States, safe in the sanctuary of my home with my wife and son, all too ready to jump back into a routine that kept me from facing what I had experienced.
This visit was different from my first encounter with Auschwitz during the summer of 1998. In the midst of a whirlwind trip across Europe, my wife and I bundled ourselves onto the Paris-Barcelona overnight train, then flitted across Provence and Northern Italy, through Salzburg, then Vienna, and into Prague. We saw cities built by monarchs and others that were beginning to emerge from years of Communist neglect. Our backpacks wore us down; trains sped up our travel. We drank the local wines, sampled the best beer and ate sausages with sides of fat (my wife sensibly waved the latter off, leaving me to suffer self-induced bouts of indigestion) and, finally, arrived in Krakow, Poland. The town is small, pretty, and, in the late-'90s, a difficult place for foreign tourists to navigate. We searched for hours to find a hotel in a place where the people still exhibited a Communist-era wariness of foreigners. After finding suitable accommodation, we made plans to visit Auschwitz. The day we spent there was emotional, not likely to be forgotten once we were back in the safe confines of our hotel room. Or, for that matter, ever.
When I returned in 2011, I was struck by what I had missed previously. I noticed how large the camp is--a large city of death with destroyed crematoria I was able to see up close; a pond where the ashes of hundreds of thousands of bodies were dumped; the fields where huge piles of bodies were burned. I was more sensitive this time around to the suffering of the children who died there. This was clearly due to the fact that I was now the father of a ten-year-old boy.
I think the fact that I had developed a better framework for understanding the Holocaust since 1998 made the 2011 experience intellectually richer. I have read more closely about this period because of my interest in the subject and because my teaching required it. I find it difficult to write about Auschwitz because I teach the history of the Holocaust, as paradoxical as that might sound. I can compartmentalize it when I am teaching because I can couch the problem of the Holocaust within bloodless theories (was it devised and executed by Hitler? Or, was it largely the work of his lieutenants? Is the Holocaust unique or can it be compared to other genocides?). I must also consider my students, many of whom are interpreting this period of history for the first time (they have read numerous survivor accounts, but not the theoretical work produced by Holocaust and genocide scholars). Teaching does not require hours in the archives, like research does. It is possible as a teacher to immerse oneself in a difficult topic one day and then move on to another the next. To me, one of the primary goals of the historian--to write about historical topics dispassionately--seems like a herculean task when considering the pain, suffering and death Auschwitz represents.
In the end, I am reminded of the sobering assessment of Primo Levi, the Italian Jew who wrote so jarringly about his experiences at Auschwitz. It's not a matter of whether ignoring the specter of the camps is possible or not. In Levi's view, we run the risk of losing much more than our delusions. He is calling on us to not slip into the mundane aspects of our lives that often take too much of our energy. He dares us to face inconvenient realities of the human condition:
“It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one's mind: this is a temptation one must resist. In fact, the existence of the death squads had a meaning, a message: 'We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies, but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.”