On the day that ultimately ended Steve Jobs’ life, October 5, 2011, I was on-site at the location of many individual’s final days: the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (A2) Death Camps.
The following is an open letter to Auschwitz. You may find it difficult to read, but I sincerely hope that you do.
I stand before you not as a descendant of Holocaust survivors or as a German. I am an American. And a non-religious, open-minded and accepting of one-and-all colors, creeds, faiths and fortunes American at that. I am a lover, not a fighter. But I come to meet you today as a scholar. Trying to learn your secrets and the exact line of demarcation that made you the symbol of hatred.
I must tell you, Auschwitz, that you are not like a memorial in my country. In fact, 10 years ago, a smaller scaled event took place here, in New York City, and, much like your goal, the goal was to instill fear and massacre a people. In the magnitude scale, it was barely a rift on the amount of people that died, but it also was a calculated act that spanned several hours. Not like you. Not the years of continual killing that you aided and abetted. But a tragedy nonetheless.
Yet, in the 10 years since September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center site is not like you at all. Somehow, in that time, the location of my nation’s greatest tragedy and worst day, became a tourist attraction. Commercialized. It went from a symbol of total chaos, devastation and “hell on Earth” to a seemingly happy-go-lucky staple of Instagram culture of hey-let’s-snap-some-touristy-photographs-of-us-all-smiling-in-front-of-it-to-show-friends-back-home-about-our-trip-to-New-York-and-or-America. It’s not like you, Auschwitz. It is now a prominent fixture on the New York City entertainment sightseeing tours. Which is sad.
And that’s wrong to me. It is disrespectful. Not to mention, it’s completely inappropriate. And you can call me a traditionalist, Auschwitz, but I think a true memorial leaves be what it was, as it is: a constant reminder. Like you, Auschwitz — an in-your-face historical tableau that will not go away; isn’t covered over with spackle and fresh paint. You, Auschwitz, are nothing like what my country has made. You are a throwback in a way. Sure, I paid to enter into a guided tour because it isn’t permissible during this time of year to enter the grounds alone (unlike other parts of the year when admission is free), but I wouldn’t ever mistake you for a tourist trap. You aren’t catering to make everybody happy and feel fresh and alive inside with new granite and marble arches.
And although people do take pictures, they are done tastefully — out of respect for those that did not choose to be here. Those whose lives were terminated by you, within these confines, on the outskirts of an otherwise sleepy town off-the-beaten track in the south of Poland. I chose not to take any pictures of myself standing in front of you, and I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to take any pictures of myself standing in front of various symbols that, with all due respect, represent the roots (and routes) of pure evil.
Now I know it is at no fault of your own, as you were just the bricks and mortar of a plan that was carried out in the cruelest of ways. So I shouldn’t be blaming you. But, your association with genocide is just too real to give you a pass. Sure, it was the Nazi SS soldiers and Third Reich that are to blame, but you are guilty by association.
I didn’t take pictures because I think that visiting you is deeply personal. I also think that a pilgrimage to you is something that everybody should do in their lifetime. The unspeakable tragedies and mass killings that you symbolize are so tangible, intimidating and powerful in their silence that it is impossible not to have a visceral response.
You overload the senses, Auschwitz. From the rickety trains to get from Krakow to the main station, to the beautiful wilderness and rail paths lined with birch, Bartek and these beautiful orange bark trees that tuck you away from the outside world, to the air that smells of a perfume in purgatory between stagnation and hope, to the palpable taste of what you are breathing in — it all culminates into an experience that you can’t fully explain but can never truly forget. You are frozen in time yet still leave an indelible mark on the mind, eyes and heart. Even your silences have a distinct sound — a sound that chills to the very core.
I understand, and take full responsibility that my findings with you today may strike chords in people that were directly and indirectly affected by your reign in the 1940s. The annihilation that played out on these very grass patches, within these erected buildings and between these barbed wire boundaries changed the course of history for a region, an empire and an entire existence.
Present-day Germans, whose group I was in (because only groups are permitted into the complex in October — so I was at the mercy of the masses), try to distance themselves from Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, and are, for the most part, very accepting people. However, they are not ostriches. They are very aware and cognizant of this time in history and the shadow that you cast over their gloomy past. Your museum is the bridge that keeps such history in their conscience.
But for members of the Jewish faith, which my group had a fairly large composition, you serve a very different purpose: one of healing. And that is ironic to say, hard to fathom and nearly impossible to understand unless the person is standing in your presence, surrounded by your aura. As mentioned, I’m not Jewish — so I can not speak for all Jews. However, I do find the Jewish faith to be the most fascinating of the religions, and if I was made to adopt one, I would be a Jew. I just agree with so many of their principles and love their customs. But your true symbol to the Jews is not the root of all evil, despite being exactly that. No, your true symbol to the Jewish people that I met and who were walking alongside me on your property is, believe it or not: hope. Coupled with perseverance and rebirth.
I did find it very interesting that the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) tries its best to keep you at bay. They have all but dismissed you from their lives. For Polish locals, the wound of 70 years is still too fresh. You have always been a polarizing figure, but nowadays you are an afterthought. There are no markings from the train station. I had to ask a local boy about what bus to take to get to you. And that was after three other people flatly refused to acknowledge your presence.
In total, it took me just over two hours to navigate everything that you have to offer, including Auschwitz-Birkenau — the hulking answer to overcrowding at Auschwitz I in the “Final Solution” pact by Heinrich Himmler. Some portions of the museum were being renovated and no admittance was granted, but for 40 Polish Zloty, it was a priceless experience.
I have a confession, Auschwitz. Hollywood is what really turned me on to you. I truly believe that Schindler’s List (1993) is the most important movie of my lifetime. People can agree or disagree to their hearts content but, to me, that movie can be put up against the best movies of all-time. It was a cinematic marvel and was a movie that transcended life itself. I never go more than a year without watching it. Because it is so much more than Steven Spielberg’s take on the Holocaust and of a man and his accountant. For me, it is the greatest story ever told. A story about rising up and surviving against all odds. It inspires the hell out of me and tugs at my heartstrings in every sequence.
You see, Auschwitz, my Dad (Michael), who passed away in November 2008 after a five-year battle with cancer, led his life much like that of Oskar Schindler — minus the Playboy lifestyle. My Dad believed until the very end that selflessness, humility, helping out others (against all odds) and having the courage to try were the pillars of a fulfilling life. That was exactly what Schindler was doing — unbeknownst to him (at least in the beginning of the movie).
Then there is that moment towards the end of the movie when Schindler (Liam Neeson) is forced to flee, and Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) delivers the following from the Talmud.
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
We incorporated that into my Dad’s viewing. Because it’s true. He saved lives, and guided people through life. For that, he saved the worlds of many.
And after seeing you for these ephemeral moments, the location that inadvertently inspired all of these moments/events, I can only say that I have never had such an emotional response to a place. And it ran the gamut of emotions. I thought of my Dad… I thought of my Mom and sister… I thought of friends that have come and gone… family members that are no longer with me… and people that I never even knew. And in some kind of therapeutic way, I felt their triumph. Over you.
To survive the Holocaust in general, and the all of barriers that you put up specifically, is the single greatest test of will and fundamental internal strength. I was physically moved to the verge of tears just learning of the struggles. But not just through sadness for those that perished at your hand, even though you can be considered the epitome of infinite sadness. But I was also moved because of the eternal fire that lives within all of us:
The will to live.
Because, at the end of days – that is what defines us as a people. The strong — even when odds were stacked against them — survived. You saw that first-hand. Not even you, with an army behind you, could complete the “Final Solution,” because you failed to take that into account. After years of killing, you still failed in the long run. Because you underestimated that power. The power of will and faith and survival.
You failed at your objective, Auschwitz. Thank you for that.
And you can ask any Jewish person about the Holocaust generation — and they will tell you that it was the strongest generation ever. People survived. And even those that perished by your hand, or the collective hands of the numerous extermination camps under the Third Reich reign — they did not die in vain. Because although you took their lives, you did not take their kindred spirit. And it was that spirit that illuminated the fire in the Jewish faith to rebuild, survive and thrive. At the cost of much too many — for certain — but people survived. And as sobering and somber as you are — you also do a wonderful job in orchestrating this light with this museum that you now call home. By not doing anything other than simply honoring the dead.
Soundtrack of the Moment: Yyerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)
I don’t know why the Holocaust is such a fascination of mine. Perhaps it is because my birthday, January 27th, symbolizes International Holocaust Remembrance Day (as it was the day, in 1945, that Soviet troops liberated the camp). Or perhaps it is just my ignorance as to how man’s inhumanity to man can be played out: to have such a sheer hatred for another person or people just because they are different. I still can not grasp my head around how somebody could be so delusional, warped and broken in the brain as to carry out complete massacres in the name of promoting one’s self and one’s belief. And, furthermore, to have devout followers that shared this same vision.
You taught me a lot today, Auschwitz — a lot more than I ever knew several hours ago.
I’m proud that I saw you. In truth, I built this entire Eastern Europe excursion around this focal point. I wanted to see you. And it was, without a doubt, the most moving experience of my life — rivaling the day that I gave the eulogy at my father’s viewing.
For me, that day will always be my proudest moment because I got to share, in a first-person view, just how many people my Dad and his life affected. Or perhaps the correct word is infected. My Dad gave other people hope, he gave them strength, he gave them knowledge…
He did so much for so many.
My trip to you on October 5, 2011 shared in a moment that did the same thing for millions of people the world over.
Time will never diminish the atrocities that took place in your Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps in the years of 1940-1945 and concentration camps throughout the region, but it will also never diminish the strength that was birthed out of this place either. A place where cowards tried to strike down and fundamentally shake the greatest power in the world: the human spirit.
And they failed. And you failed, Auschwitz.
And the spirit still lives on. Through the deafening silence — of voices, at full voice — screaming that they did not and will never go quietly into the night.
Peace be with you,