Travel Journal

A Reflection

(Friday 29 August 2014) by Mariken
Entrance gate to Auschwitz II Birkenau
Entrance gate to Auschwitz II Birkenau
Yesterday, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest Nazi concentration- and extermination camp and now a solemn witness of a horrible past, is visited by thousands of tourists, if only through the lens of a camera, every year. It is the paradox that surrounds incidents of great evil: at the time of operation, those who were destined to go through it tried to escape the reality that surrounded them, if only within the confines of their own thoughts and feelings. Nowadays, people flock to these remains of mass destruction to face the reality head on, to witness what happened, to even relive the past to a certain extent. Places to which people were sent by force, against their will, are nowadays visited voluntarily by thousands of tourists annually.

Why do we do this? To understand what is incomprehensible? To share in the memories of despair? To witness the horrors in the vain hope that it will never happen again? Can memory indeed serve as a remedy for evil?* Or do we simply visit these places of tears and sorrow because 'you ought to have been there once in your life', because it is simply part of the modern tourist trail? An undeniable part of the history of this country,so it's on the 'to-do-list', as is a visit to Wawel Hill, the Tatra Mountains and the Masurian Lakes?

I still don't know my own motives. Because I have always been interested in this period? Because I am an academic, a legal historian, specialised in this part of modern history? Because I needed a reminder of what can happen? I went there, voluntarily, and walked the fields, 175 hectares of destruction in Birkenau, took pictures of the 'iconic' entrance gate to Auschwitz I, viewed approximately 1950 kg of human hair on display and the predominant feeling I had was: 'We are nuts.' Crazy for doing this to each other, crazy for visiting these places of despair, crazy for looking at pictures of bodies, piled high on a burning pyre, of women, running naked to the gas chambers, of emaciated survivors, reduced to a body weight of 25 kg. I made a living for 6 years, earned the money that enabled me to see this, because of what happened here, because of this horrific past. How sick is that?

The entrance gate to Auschwitz I
The entrance gate to Auschwitz I
And still... I am glad I have been there, glad that I have viewed the landscapes of the metropolis of death.** Of course, I cannot say it was fun or that the past suddenly came to life. Some things are, fortunately, too horrific and therefore too bizarre to imagine. When it comes to factual information I did not even learn much, although some places were different than I had imagined. What I did learn is that we are all part of this. Not of the suffering; I would never want to diminish what people have gone through by claiming that I can imagine what it feels like. I cannot. Not even if I live to become a thousand years. What I mean to say is: it were all just humans. The victims as well as the perpetrators. No aliens involved, no higher power who ordered people around, no external force who guided everyone in their actions, no natural phenomenon that could not be avoided. Just humans. Like you and me. It could have been you in that striped pyjamas, it could have been me with that cannister of Zyklon B. I could have looked into your eyes and seen a fellow human being (even though my indoctrinated mind would have told my eyes otherwise) and still have killed you. Man knows no mercy. It wasn't Auschwitz-Birkenau that killed all those people, it was man. And in doing so, it killed its own soul: humanity.

* Tzvetan Todorov, Memory as a Remedy for Evil, ISBN: 1906497435/978-1906497439
** Otto Dov Kulka, Landschappen van de metropool van de dood, ISBN: 9000315328/978-9000315321 (Thanks Marianne!)

  • Mooi verwoord by Marianne
  • stil by mama
  • KZ-lager by Jac
  • ........... by Ilse
    • twee zielen, een gedachte by Mariken

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