AuschwitzThe 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.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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14 Responses to Auschwitz

  1. I went to Dachau once. You describe the experience very well.

  2. Kym Hamer says:

    An experience as a 17yo in Australia listening to an Auschwitz survivor as part of my Twentieth Century European History class was finally followed last year by a visit to the Holocaust Exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. That’s sobering (they have glass cases full of shoes there too) in itself – I can’t imagine what a visit to Auschwitz must leave you with.

    Thanks for sharing…

    • Maria says:

      I wonder how many memorials there are around the world consisting of cases full of shoes? There’s certainly no shortage of stolen shoes available; the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum has over 110,000 of them (along with 3,800 suitcases, 12,000 kitchen utensils, and 470 prostheses and orthotic devices.)

  3. ‘An ethos of acceptance, a rejection of hatred, a refusal to tolerate injustice…greater empathy…a little kindness’. Exactly what our world needs, today and everyday. Beautiful, really beautiful. You should be proud.

  4. Judy says:

    I might have gone when I was younger, but I know I couldn’t go now. For some reason as I get older I find cruelty and horror too much to bear. Seeing these place “for real” is good thing though and you were right to take your daughter.

    I remember visiting the cemetery for those who died in the siege of Leningrad. There is row after row of huge mass graves marked just as “citizens” or “soldiers.” Although I had read about it and watched documentaries on it, it was the sight of those graves that made me realize the true scope of what had happened.

  5. Great post. You were brave and wise to take your daughter, no matter how hard and scary it was.

    My fiance, who is American and whose uncles fought in WWII in France, took me to the Canadian cemetery in Normandy near the beaches of D-Day. I was totally overwhelmed and wept for the whole time, struck as hard as you by how personal and real this was — not something in book or a movie. I had no personal family connection to it, but came away in awe of what had happened there and deeply proud of Canada’s role in it.

    I think it’s a powerful act of love and education to be shown such things, which I — and your daughter — will never forget.

    • Maria says:

      It’s only when things become personal that they have any meaning or power. This is what the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial does so well: standing before a pile of eyeglasses or hairbrushes personalizes the victims in a way the abstraction of the figure “6 million Jews” cannot.

      I took some flak for allowing my daughter to come with me that day — thank you for recognizing that it was truly an act of love. Time will tell if it achieved what I hoped for her.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this very moving experience with your readers. We must never forget.

  7. Sine says:

    Wow. I am deeply humbled. You wrote this so well.

    Just a few days ago I had similar thoughts when visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and so many others were held. I’m going to write about it soon, but I don’t think I can find such powerful words as yours. Thanks for your beautiful writing.

    By the way, I just watched the movie “Good”, which I find very well portrays what happened back then. How a normal, even skeptical person can be drawn into this web of evil, without every committing any singular evil act, but just a string of small bad decisions…

    • Maria says:

      Thank you so much, and please write about visiting Robben Island — it’s another story that needs to be told over and over again. You’ll find the words.

  8. FranYo says:

    Beautifully written, Maria.

    On my last visit to Poland, I could not brave the emotions I knew would be confronted. At the last minute I cancelled my planned trip to Auschwitz and have never been sure that was a wise decision on my part. I couldn’t even imagine taking my then teen aged daughter, as you did.

    I really like that you faced your discomfort and that you made such a wise choice to have your daughter join you. She’s fortunate to have you as her mom, guiding her towards such a pivotal moment of reflection, holding hands, supporting each other.

    I applaud you.

    • Maria says:

      Thank you for that. At first I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to take my daughter, but in the end we drew strength from each other. I’m glad I was able to share such a moving experience with her.

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