The silence on the bus is overwhelming, the air charged with anticipation and a sense of uncertainty that has been building steadily since we left Krakow. A quick glance at the faces around me reveals varying shades of the same panicky thought: What am I doing here?
Back in the safety of my hotel room, this excursion seemed like a brilliant idea, a way to educate, enlighten, move the spirit. But now, watching the Polish countryside unspool outside the window, I feel my resolve wane with every passing kilometre. It’s even worse when we finally arrive; confronted with those chillingly familiar iron gates, my mood plummets.
Glancing up at the inscription — Arbeit Macht Frei — which looms mockingly above us, I’m seized with the need to get back on the bus and return to my ordinary, unremarkable life. I’m convinced that the air on the other side of the gates will be thicker somehow, burdened with the remnants of an evil so palpable, even after all this time, that I will surely perish under its weight.
I wonder again, why am I here?
Then a small hand slips into mine and I remember: I’m here for my daughter. My happy child of privilege, who has never known hunger, or terror, or persecution. Our mother-daughter outing is motivated by the hope that showing her the depths to which humankind has sunk will inspire her to strive for something greater in her own life: an ethos of acceptance, a rejection of hatred, a refusal to tolerate injustice. It’s a lot to ask, I know. The world being what it is, I’d settle for a greater empathy for her fellow creatures. And perhaps a little kindness.
“Some parents take their kids to Disneyland,” she whispers, the ghost of a smile in her voice. I see that she’s nervous, too, and squeeze her hand in solidarity. If she feels me trembling, she doesn’t let on.
It’s not that I don’t know what to expect when we pass through the gates. I’ve done enough research to know about the misery, the horror, the atrocities that took place here. Back in the hotel room, I worried that this would be too much for a thirteen-year-old girl. Now it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve got that backwards, that I’m the one who will be overwhelmed. But we are here, and it is time. I take a moment to steel myself, and together we step into Auschwitz.
My first impression is that we’ve wandered onto the wrong movie set. I look about me in confusion, thinking, no — this can’t be right! Where is the lingering aura of malevolence? The suffocating crush of evil? The scene before me looks more like a summer camp than a death sentence. The sun shines benignly on rows of pleasantly shabby brick buildings. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the trees lining the paths. A laugh — quickly muted — erupts from a small group of passers-by. The dissonance of this sanitized version of hell is too much to process, and my disorientation unnerves me. Is it possible that Time has healed this most egregious of wounds?
Our guide is a slight, soft-spoken Polish woman whose father-in-law survived his time here. Her own family was summarily evicted from their nearby home, which, like so many others, was demolished to make room for the adjoining Birkenau camp. As she escorts us around the site, she speaks in the measured tones of one who has long since come to terms with the unfathomable. I will myself to concentrate on her words, and the banality of the surroundings finally begins to recede.
The exhibits are powerful in their simplicity. In one room, behind a long plexiglass shield, hundreds of battered suitcases stand in mute testimony to the cruel charade of deportation. Each is crudely inscribed with a name, a date, sometimes a place of origin. In another room are shoes stolen from the victims, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, jumbled together like forgotten bones in a mass grave. It’s a heartbreaking sight, made all the more so by the shock of an occasional bright, cheerful pair exploding poignantly from the drab sea of its utilitarian neighbours.
We walk into an exhibit of human hair, shorn from the dead and ready for export. As if on cue, every woman in the group begins to weep silently. Many reach up, tentatively, to touch their own locks. In this moment, a connection has been forged between us and the victims who, in the end, could not even lay claim to the hair on their heads. This is no longer a history lesson; this is personal.
By the time we reach the gas chamber, my daughter is squeezing my hand so tightly I think it might break. The room is everything you would expect: cold and hard and yes, evil. This should be the climax of the tour, the grand finale, as it were. But we are almost numb by this point. We don’t linger. We, the lucky ones, have the luxury of passing through quickly.
The mood is sombre on the ride back to Krakow. My daughter rests her head on my shoulder, her hand still tucked safely in mine. She doesn’t say a word, but her eyes are haunted. I wrap my arms around her, and we settle in for the long journey home.
Note: Today is Yom HaShoah, the annual Jewish remembrance day for victims of the Holocuast.