Lesson Learned

I have spent the past couple of weeks on a Holocaust in Europe trip with EF Tours. Though it wasn’t a school trip, four students from the school where I work and one grandparent went on this trip, along with 43 other parents and students from three other states. This trip covered many Holocaust-related sites in Germany, Poland, The Czech Republic, and Austria--including a visit to the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto and to the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau. Below is a diary entry that I wrote about my experience.

I don’t know if any of my ancestors were actually in the Warsaw Ghetto--a place that I visited just yesterday. While I took pictures of that wall--which couldn’t be more than twenty feet in length and eight feet tall and is practically the last remaining piece of the original infamous ghetto that once housed hundreds of thousands of Jews--I could feel the agony of their suffering from living in utter destitution. It was palpable. How fortunate the students on this charter bus are to be able to take pictures of this iconic piece of Holocaust history and live to tell others about it. For the Jews who were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto, that antiquated brick wall was the last thing that many of them saw before they died.

At the Auschwitz death camp, I became overwhelmed with emotion when I walked under the infamous gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Make You Free). I literally broke down and cried. The only “freedom” the prisoners experienced was through their deaths. Many of my ancestors were persecuted and murdered here. This place has a special meaning for me.

I can not overstate the size of this death factory, which measures a little over fifteen square miles. (As a point of comparison, Manchester, TN is listed at a little over fourteen square miles.) As I walk through the remarkably well-preserved camp, I see row after row of large brick buildings surrounded by watchtowers and a tall barbed wire fence. Several of the buildings have been converted to museums--each one centered on a different topic. Once building has artifacts and pictures detailing various extermination techniques, another focuses on unsanitary living conditions, and another has piles of ceramic pots and dishes, eyeglasses--even human hair.

After visiting Auschwitz, my group traveled to Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Birkenau. This was often considered the reception center for Auschwitz because it’s where the Jews--and other prisoners--first arrived and were sorted based on their ability to work. Birkenau measures one mile long and two miles wide. The train tracks divide the camp, with a mile of buildings on both the right and left sides. Through the barbed-wire fences, there are rows upon rows of chimneys where entire buildings once stood. I was allowed to enter a few of the remaining buildings.

Beginning my morning by visiting these two concentration camps was quite depressing and mentally exhausting, but I’m glad I was able to witness firsthand the results of what happens when mankind becomes intolerant of, and is determined to destroy, itself. I am equally resolved to help others see what I saw. Nothing can replace actually being there, but that’s why I feel compelled to share a little about my experience. As society continues to grow, we are increasingly less tolerant of each other’s differences when we should be celebrating them. I will share my collection of the hundreds of pictures from these different concentration camps with the history and English departments at my high school and with anyone else who asks. Many people don’t realize that genocides have continued to happen since the Holocaust. In fact, according to the website http://www.genocidewatch.com/countries-at-risk, there are currently nine genocides occurring in various parts of the world right now. We must all work together to help harmonize humanity or we will continue to suffer as a result of our own divisiveness.