To comprehend something as horrifying as the Holocaust is an impossible task for anyone who wasn’t there. The terror, the lack of dignity, the fear and the pain are — thank God — unknowable to most of us.
But on Good Friday, my mother and I visited two Polish concentration camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, to try to get some kind of grasp on what is arguably the greatest crime ever committed against the sanctity of human life.
Visiting the first Auschwitz camp was a surreal experience. It was a glorious spring day in Poland — bright sun, cool breeze, green grass and blossoming trees. The rows of brick buildings called to mind a summer camp; the site was actually pleasant and appealing.
And then you saw the barbed-wire fences, once electrified, that surround the compound.
Our tour guide took us through numerous “blocks,” showing us photos and maps that detailed the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate Jews and other “undesireables” while creating a steady flow of cheap labor. Victims were prisoners for religious, social and political reasons, and they came from as far north as Norway and as far south as Greece.
In one exhibit, a display case the size of an entire room held a pile of shoes once worn by the camp’s prisoners. Another such display case was filled with piles of human hair shorn from prisoners upon their arrival to the camp. One can clearly see entire braided pony tails in the heap. It turns your stomach.
In Block 11 — which was notorious as a place of murder and extreme torture — our group was able to see the cell where Father Maximilian Kolbe was held after volunteering to give up his life to save a fellow prisoner. We were not permitted to take photos of the dark cell, which is now a candle-lit memorial to the martyr. But to walk in the path of a true saint was an experience I’m still processing emotionally and intellectually.
I’m still processing the entire visit, honestly. What do you say about Auschwitz?
How do you react when you see the scope of Birkenau – all 350 acres of it? How on earth can you ever really understand what took place there? The breadth of the evil and the suffering is too great to describe with mere words.
Of course I’d learned in school about the Holocaust, and I’m sure we’ve all seen movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Life Is Beautiful” that have elicited visceral responses and copious tears. We know it was horrible. But I believe we can never truly understand it.
That got me thinking about the world today and news stories I take for granted.
We all know it’s horrible, but we can never truly comprehend the devastation caused by natural disaster, genocide, war and terrorism. Furthermore, we’ll never be able to predict the far-reaching social and political effects of those situations, for pain on such a grand scale takes generations to fully manifest and heal.
Sundown marks the beginning of this year’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a day when Jews recall the 6 million family members who died during the Holocaust, and it’s a fitting time for people of all faiths to pray.
We might pray for an end to the waste of human life our world is currently experiencing, particularly in the Middle East and parts of Africa. We might pray for peace in wartorn nations and for comfort in areas reeling from weather-related disasters.
And we might pray for understanding — among peoples of different races, ethnicities and traditions, and even within our own hearts.
May nothing like the Holocaust ever happen again, but may what did happen never be forgotten.