I am Here

[Reflections on Auschwitz & Birkenau]

The sky hangs low and heavy, threatening to weep the tears I cannot. The wind cuts in uncharacteristic cold for midsummer. I imagine there are days of sunny cheer over this place but today I am grateful the weather has sobered up. We wander among ruins trying to absorb the realities of this place, trying to recall scenes from books and movies that might help to fill the place with faces and voices and daily rhythms. It should stop me in my tracks, drop me to my knees, draw my forehead to the ground, wrench an anguished cry from my lungs, it should undo me, rend my heart, leave me weeping into the dust that has witnessed such violence, such suffering.birchenau

But mostly I am numb. I stand in the places where millions suffered and died and remain mostly unmoved. We pass a middle-aged woman weeping into the arms of a friend or sister or stranger compelled to hold her grief. They stand in a long embrace by a tombstone to the memory of the thousands who were murdered in the dynamited shell of Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV. There is another woman who keeps groping for a seat, face red and blotchy, hands fumbling for the earpiece into which her tour guide recites the horrors faced in each successive building. She cannot continue, cannot hear any more.

“We should all be like that,” I think.

But we are not. The rest of us – hundreds? thousands? – of us wander from exhibit to exhibit in dazed silence. The hush is uncanny. For so many of us there should be more noise, but instead all that can be heard is the crunch of gravel underfoot or the muted shush, clomp of shuffling feet through haunted corridors, and the low, calm explanations spoken into radio headpieces. A baby shatters the quiet in an eruption of happy babble and I start – the sound of innocent new life too jarring in this place of death. Yet it makes me smile. Perhaps such things can occupy the same space, perhaps innocence and utter violence can coexist. Perhaps even in this God-forsaken place, death does not have the final say.evidence

I do not wish to disrespect the memories of those who lived and died in this hell so I try to feel it, to wrap my mind around it, to somehow enter in. I whisper, “I see you” to the woman I imagine once donned the cute red shoes half-buried in the mountain of soles and leather and laces.

“I see you,” to the man who wore the round spectacles, now rusted and entwined in a heap of uncountable frames.

“I see you,” curly-haired toddler whose soft, round tummy filled out the fabric of the now faded blue jumper.

“I see you,” young girl with the auburn braid, which now lays atop a roomful of shorn hair.

I see you.
I see you.
corridorNearly every corridor is lined with the prison photos of inmates taken meticulously until trainloads of prisoners became too frequent to make such record-keeping possible. Even so, there are so. many. photos. Rows upon rows of eyes stare down at us – eyes of fear, of sorrow, of death, of defiance. Some eyes are kind, some mouths manage a slight smirk or smile. Some have already witnessed such loss and trauma they simply stare unseeing, uncaring. Some are wide with terror, some are resolute, challenging, dignified: “You may take my freedom, my family, my worldly goods, you may strip me of my clothes, my hair, my very name, you may make me a number among the thousands, but you cannot destroy me.”

I walk slowly, calculating life-spans within the camp. Six months, three months, two weeks, I stop before the portrait of a woman who was deported to the camp on 06.08.1942 and died 04.11.1943. “She lasted over a year,” I hear my voice announce, as if it were some kind of contest. 15 months of hell. Another portrait catches my eye because her long matted hair is not yet shaved like the rest. She was only 17 when she arrived. She died before her 18th birthday.

I stop counting and start whispering again. “I’m sorry,” I say as I meet each unseeing gaze, “I am sorry for your suffering, your pain, your loss, your fear. I am sorry this was your story. I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

We emerge blinking into sunlight too bright for our eyes and our souls. Overhead a bird trills a cheerful song with the same dissonance as the baby’s laugh. The weeping woman makes her way to the curb and sits, dabbing her eyes, the toes of her brown sandal tracing circles in the dust. It is only later, sitting at a coffee shop with pen in hand, that I will finally feel what she does. But in the moment I just regard her with the reverence we use around mourners.


There is another wall of photos. This one mesmerizes me; walls of radiant women, shy children, happy couples, vacationing families. Photos of life in a place of death, in the place of their deaths. I like these walls because they preserve a life before Auschwitz, they let those they bear dwell in the bliss of moments when war and ghettos and betrayal and loss and death have not yet touched them. These photos give names, histories, memories, identities in the place of shaved heads, striped uniforms and tattooed numbers. They restore humanity to those who had been robbed of everything.

I peruse the wall, reading plaques, hoping the story will end differently, I skip to the end of each new chronicle, hoping maybe this vibrant young girl or that reserved-looking man, or this ridiculously happy couple won’t end up crammed like cargo into a train car headed for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But of course they do. They all do. I shake my head.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.


There are some things that I find surprising – some idiosyncrasies evidenced in Birkenau that puzzle me. Paintings of children heading to school adorn the entrance hall to the children’s quarters, chimneys stand tall amidst the ruins of men’s and women’s barracks, a whole infirmary for the sick. Why? I wonder. If you are already exterminating so many people, why bother adding a touch of cheer to the nursery? Why warm the bitter winter nights? Why treat the sick?

Perhaps these small gestures – insignificant in the face of the insurmountable cruelty of the rest of the camp – perhaps they were just crumbs of hope thrown to prevent revolt or to multiply brutality with disillusionment. Or perhaps they are evidence of SS humanity – strange quirks that leaked out unintentionally. To me, this is more disturbing. Traces of humanity are alarming, for if the SS were not monsters but mere men then the distance between them and myself shrinks. Small proofs of their humanity are reminders that we are not so different – that as they carried within them the capacity for decency, so I carry within me the capacity for unspeakable violence. They are safer as monsters. As men they are too close for comfort.chimneys

Back outside we have departed from the main tourist traffic and the grounds are almost peaceful. I find myself searching for beauty – wildflowers, dappled sun filtering through a a tree grove, the irresistible green of early summer.

“Did you see glimmers of beauty?” I ask the ghosts that hover. “Did you find even the briefest moment’s cheer in a delicate yellow flower or the smell of the cedars in summer? Did the sky’s deep blue ever warm your soul or the call of the songbird pierce your heart?” Perhaps it is trite, insensitive, vulgar even to search for beauty here, but I cannot help pausing by a lone tree, hoping its life had offered someone the smallest reprieve from hell. Somehow, I know that it did.Tree


After reading this, Andrew showed me the following passage from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s candid and haunting search for meaning amidst the horrors of Auschwitz:

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “in my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the brach were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here – I am here – I am life, eternal life.’”


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