Auschwitz: More Than a Place

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Every visit to Auschwitz yields a new sadness. With every season the camp reveals new secrets, an uncomfortable combination of inherent natural beauty and an overwhelming feeling of despair and darkness. In the summer, wildflowers grow and can be seen through the barbed wire. Animals roam the grounds, and even with these signs of life, you never forget where you are, or why you are there. The spring is wet and muddy; patches of remaining snow dot the landscape, creating the chilling effect one expects. Fall brings out the reds, oranges and other colors that mirror the hues of the bricks of the barracks. I cannot remark on winter as I have not been, but I imagine the cold snow-covered ground, the wind whipping and think of Primo Levi’s description in Survival in Auschwitz of the welcome change from winter to spring: “Today, in this place, our only purpose is to reach the spring… in two months, in a month, the cold will call a truce and we will have one enemy less.” (p. 71)

On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we reflect on those who were alive on January 27, 1945, on those who were murdered, and those who suffered the loss of their loved ones to the cruelest of humanity’s capabilities. Over time, Auschwitz as a place has become a symbol of the Holocaust and the worst of human behavior. It is easy to focus on the enormity of the space, the gas chambers and crematoriums that have collapsed into the grounds of Birkenau. They are broken and twisted reminders of the mechanisms of killing, dismantled by the perpetrators to cover their crimes. But we cannot forget all of those who were lost to these crimes, whose presence is very much felt by their absence.

I am reminded of a quote by Eva (Gryka) Kohan that has stuck with me since viewing her USC Shoah Foundation testimony. In speaking about Auschwitz and the smell of the crematorium, she said, “It was awful. Things like that you do not want to talk about it—the pain and memory of the suffering comes back to you, and you cannot deal with it.” But she did continue, and as we head towards the next anniversary and the next, it will fall upon all of us to continue to share the testimony of those who found it painful to speak but did, and for those whose voices were silenced.

To honor the voices, we will be telling 25 stories in 25 days in the month of January on social media as we move towards our one-year anniversary that we will commemorate on January 26, 2020. The stories will feature all local survivors who were either in Auschwitz or lost loved ones there. We hope these stories will remind you that Auschwitz is more than just a place to visit, that those who experienced it need to be heard so that their voices will remind us to act when we see the history creeping into the present; we all have the capacity to use our voices for change, and to be the best of humanity today.

-Jodi Elowitz, Director of Education and Engagement