A Moment For Reflection…

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While this is a personal blog, I try to keep it focused on either technical topics or personal development and leadership related to technical topics. This post is a complete deviation from all of the above. Please, read it anyway.

I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Words are failing me here.

Before I went, I was terribly conflicted about the trip. I had the opportunity to visit another Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, and I deferred. I know horror was committed there. Why should I voluntarily subject myself to it? As part of a trip to Poland, Aaron Bertrand suggested we should take a couple of extra days to see the sights, including visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t want to go. Then I started thinking.

Obligation. Honor. Remembrance. Humility. Respect.

I truly don’t consider myself to be all that good a person. However, I’m trying. I see how my betters behave and I try to appropriately ape that behavior. In this case Aaron was setting the path for me, so I followed.

What to say about the place?

The scale is staggering. You may have looked at pictures. You might have seen films. While a picture may paint a thousand words, you need millions of words to appropriately describe the utter enormity of the staggering horror that place represents. 1.3 million people in the door and 1.1 million died. That required massive, focused, efficiency, planning, thought and nearly limitless evil. It’s not the act of foaming at the mouth madmen. Standing in the middle of Birkenau, in the rail yard (a ******* rail yard for ******* humans, by all the gods… anyway…), you can feel and see all that, despite the fact that the place is mostly a ruin. Lots and lots of people visit Auschwitz. The name is synonymous with… all of it. However, fewer go over to Birkenau. Honestly, you have to go to Birkenau. Nothing can prepare you and nothing is equivalent.

Emotionally…

Horror, of course. Way too much rage. Sadness. And, frankly, and very surprisingly, a certain deadness inside. I actually got to the point where I read another plaque about X number of people being processed and there was nothing there. It had all been hollowed out. I think that was the single most surprising moment. My empathy pool and just been utterly drained. It only took 1.3 million people. Of course, with a little time between me and that place, I’m back to tearing up as I type this.

I’m not completely sure why I feel so compelled to share this, yet I must. I cannot recommend enough that you go and visit this place if you have the opportunity. If you don’t have the opportunity, you need to make it. I read  a lot of history, so the concept of “Never Again” is a sad joke. However, maybe, just maybe, if enough people stand in that rail yard, or in front of Incinerator #5 (which means there is 1-4…. rage again), maybe if enough people get the education that place provides, maybe “Never Again” will actually come to be more than just a vain hope.

 

8 Comments

  • Stephen Manson

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Grant. I served in the UK Army for a number of years and was based for a while at Bergen Belsen. Also I visited several camps as a child in France and Germany. As you say it is a life changing and affirming point in peoples lives to actually physically see, touch and feel the depravity that man can descend to. May we actually learn from history, though I think history teaches us that we don’t.

  • American readers – if you don’t get a chance to go over to Europe, try your nearest Holocaust Museum. This sounds odd, but I’ve been to several in the States, and they’re usually very well done.

    The one in Houston is particularly amazing. The museum takes you on a chronological tour of the years leading up to WWII and into it. As you walk through the halls, they start out with tall, bright ceilings, with a lot of the information and visuals up in the air, forcing you to keep your head up and look around. As you progress through the museum timeline, and the Nazis do their thing, closing in and herding people into ghettos, the exhibits get lower and lower to the ground, and the ceilings close in. By the time you get to the gas chambers, the ceilings are dark and low, and the exhibits are set into small slits in the wall, forcing you to bow your head down and stay low.

    It’s the most remarkable psychological job on architecture that I’ve ever seen, and the first museum that I immediately toured again just to understand how the mechanics worked.

  • Agreed with all of the above. I’ve been to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in DC 2 times (well technically 3, on the 2nd visit it closed before we could finish the tour and we felt compelled to go back the next day to complete it since we felt we needed the full tour for closure.)

    It’s very well done and like Brent says of the one in Houston, the architecture is part of it.

    I do wish we would learn more from history, unfortunately as events show, I think we often don’t.

  • Johan Bijnens @alzdba

    Don’t hate the people! Hate their leaders who got them to act the way they did.

    And above all, keep Martin Niemöller’s poem in mind !
    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_

    Act Now !

  • As you know, I went to Auschwitz I/Birkenau the week before you. It’s VERY different from Dachau, which I found much more chilling. Don’t get me wrong – Auschwitz is disturbing, but in “comparing” (is there such a thing?), I found Dachau more impactful. The sheer size and scope of Birkenau is … disturbing. You can walk Dachau corner to corner easily. Birkenau? No. And if you got a chance to go up in the guard tower right as you walk in (our guide let us up), you can really see the size and scope in a different way. There was no escaping the hell.

    http://sqlha.com/2012/03/25/reality-is-always-different/

    I will disagree about the USHMM. I found it to be not very impactful and way too slick/heavy handed. I found it to be more like the Hollywood idea of a Shoah museum. The best museum exhibit I’ve seen for the Shoah (I have not been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) was the Imperial War Museum in London. I have not been back since their remodel so I don’t know if it is still the same or they changed it (for better or worse).

  • Johan – it’s easy to say that, but if you’ve ever been to Dachau, for example, there’s no way that the locals didn’t know about it. What happened in the 1930s can absolutely happen again. People did those horrible things to people. It wasn’t just the leaders. Whoever participated is just as complicit. Hatred is learned. Unfortunately, it generally is not unlearned.

  • Johan Bijnens @alzdba

    @Allan I’ve been there, to track down the horrible path of the grandfather I never knew.
    Indeed, the people knew and participated. The alternative as getting shot as the culture at that time didn’t allow for alternatives.
    That’s why nowadays education is so important, to make people aware this very threat is still existing and pops up about everywhere in the world. It’s all about power, nothing more, nothing less.
    The poor will be walked over, the rich may have a choice. We often forget we are the rich. It’s up to us to speak up!

OK, fine, but what do you think?