A person doesn’t visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and come away unchanged, and I was no exception.
The empty barracks, the barbed-wire fencing, the solemn exhibits, the telltale chimneys – all these vestiges left a strong impression. But what struck me most was the sheer vastness of the sprawling memorial to history’s most notorious death camp.
Walking through Birkenau with my tour group, I gaped at the emptiness stretching for a mile in every direction – nothing but the crumbling remains of buildings half-buried in snow.
I tried, without success, to imagine this inhospitable space filled with tens of thousands of soon-to-be-murdered prisoners whose only crime was to be born in the wrong place and time.
If watching a testimony on the Visual History Archive drives home the point that genocide amounts to the murder of millions of individuals – each with a unique story – Auschwitz-Birkenau reminds us of the opposite: the Holocaust happened on a scale so breathtakingly enormous it can never be fully imagined or understood.
Perhaps this is particularly true of post-baby boom, middle-class Americans like me, born in a time and place where war happens only to those who volunteer, and notions of state-sponsored invasion are limited to what we’ve seen in movies or read about in books.
As a non-Jewish person of Polish heritage, I caught myself wondering: What would I have done, had this hell factory been located in my proximity? What could any reasonable person have been expected to do?
It wasn’t until our trip took me to downtown Krakow, and I had the opportunity to interact with people who miraculously survived Auschwitz, that the human tragedy of the Holocaust truly hit home. Here was the lovely Paula Lebovics, fussing over her hair for a photo shoot. Here was Dario Gabbai, singing a song. Here was Eva Kor, joking around with her son about her ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. Regular people like you and me – grandparents and siblings and fathers and mothers -- whose life stories, for reasons that are senseless and evil, a nation state wanted to not only extinguish but erase.
These interactions helped me make an important mental leap. Instead of wondering: “What would I have done?” I asked myself: “How can I be more like those who helped?”
I came away from the trip realizing that, at their best, organizations like Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and USC Shoah Foundation encourage every viewer to confront some version of this question, and to, in turn, become a more empathetic person.