Sobering. Disturbing. Haunting. These words are apt descriptors for a few of the places visited during my travels over the years. On a cold, drizzly day in January, I stood in the trenches near Sanctuary Wood a short distance from Ypres Belgium where thousands of Canadian soldiers died from a gas attack in 1915. On a hot summer afternoon I visited the site on the Washita River in western Oklahoma where General Custer massacred hundreds of Cheyenne; men, women and children. Another summers afternoon found me in deep contemplation on the overgrown breastworks that marked the site of the brutal Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia. Nothing, however, prepared me for the experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
As have many people over the years, I have long puzzled over how a nation such as Germany could commit the atrocities associated with the holocaust. This was a Christian nation, an advanced industrial nation, a nation of educated and cultured people. American soldiers in WWII noted how the country felt like America in many aspects. In a quest for answers I developed a deep fascination about Germany, specifically the period between the unification of 1871 that resulted in the creation of the modern state and 1945. In turn this led to a quest for understanding and the study of other periods of genocide and holocaust; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the decimation of American Indians, the Spanish Conquistador’s annihilation of the Aztec and Inca, the attacks of the Apache and Navajo against the pueblo dwellers of New Mexico. Again, even though I knew that the horrors of the holocaust had been repeated countless times throughout history nothing prepared me for that day in the summer of 2018 when I visited the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was a working holiday of sorts as the trip included the European Route 66 Festival in Zlin Czechia and a journey across scenic, beautiful Germany. It was also an emotional trip as it included our 35th anniversary celebration in a German castle high above the Rhine River courtesy some dear friends who live near Frankfurt. On the road to Zlin, traveling with the owners of Netherlands based U.S. Bikers, friends we have known for many years, we made a stop in Nuremburg and toured the Palace of Justice courts where the post war trials were held as well as the museum at the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. That set the stage. As we continued our trip east the following day was marked by subdued conversation, deep contemplation, and a sense of heaviness that was difficult to shake.
For many years I had lived with a silent promise. If I had an opportunity a visit would be made to one of the death camps. But I also wondered if it was something I could do. Was I strong enough?
After the festival we returned to Frankfurt with friends from the Netherlands on a rather circuitous route; north through the Czech Republic to Poland, south through Slovakia to Bratislava, and west to Germany through Austria. Before leaving Zlin we had discussed a stop at Auschwitz and the implications. We had no illusions. This would be difficult. It would be disturbing. Still, nothing prepared me for the visit. Nothing can prepare a person for this visit.
We arrived at Birkenau in time for a stunning sunset. Even though it was a day of record breaking heat, and the sunset was spectacular, the sense of a chill was tangible. The heaviness was palpable. Standing at that gate, peering into the camp through the wire there was a feeling that the horrors of the past were only thinly masked by the veil of time.
Our attempts to recover the joy and excitement we were sharing before the visit were futile. The laughter at dinner was hollow, the food seemed to have lost its flavor. And that evening I was privileged with an increasingly rare opportunity; an encounter with a survivor, a witness. The owner of the small B & B where were stayed in Oswiecim, Poland, site of the infamous camps, was born in the city but had worked in Italy as well as England. Her grandmother was also born in the town, a rarity in itself, and had been forced to work in the camp offices at Birkenau. Our conversation ran late into the evening but sleep was elusive. They were genuinely surprised that so many people from throughout the world would travel to see the site of such horrors. They also lamented how the sites had transformed over the years. Now there was more than just the camp. In the former rail yard a short distance from the main gate at Birkenau there was the surreal site of a modern glass and steel cafe and book store that were packed with visitors.
Our friends and I dedicated the following day to touring the camp at Birkenau. My memories of that day are a jumble, a conflicted series of haunting emotions. The overwhelming sense of loss when standing in the former processing center and staring at thousands and thousands of family photos; baby pictures, wedding pictures, graduation photos, birthdays, grandparents, work, family picnics, school picnics and knowing that these people, these families, these babies, these children were murdered mere yards from where I was standing. The towering display of personal items; shoes, dolls, baby toys, glasses, dentures, souvenirs from holidays that their owners carried with them until the very end of their life. I know that it was a manifestation of my imagination but mixed with summer smells on the breeze there was a hint of the stench of death. Adding to the poignancy, the overwhelming sense of loss was pushing my dearest friend through the camp in a wheelchair and knowing that she would have been one of the victims.
But most disturbing and frightening of all were some of the school groups. There were far to many teenagers that were being teenagers; pushing, joking, laughing. They seemed wholly unaffected by the reality of this place of death, by the somber faces or even the sobbing visitors. That is something that will haunt and worry me for quite some time, especially in an era where rabid nationalism and old prejudices, and politicians that are quick to use both for profit and power, are blossoming anew.