All I noticed were the scattered train tracks along the deserted road. You could catch glimpses here and there, parts of the tracks that hadn’t been overcome by weeds or taken apart. Our small car traveled along, my thoughts wandering, thinking back to sixty years before and how many frightened eyes had seen what I was seeing now. The beautiful hillsides and valleys had once been a sight of turmoil and terror.
Finally, our car turned off into the parking lot and within the next few minutes I was standing in front of the gates. The words, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ echoed in my mind. The millions of voices forced to recite the now recognized verse, ‘work equals freedom.’ Within the gates of the concentration camp, Auschwitz, I saw the last of the tracks. They continued into the camp about five-hundred feet and, just like that, ended. I struggled to catch my breath because the sight was truly overwhelming.
After hundreds of miles of tracks they just stopped, ending in a camp where the unthinkable had happened. At the thought, the biting cold seemed to wrap itself tighter around me. This was my parent’s idea of a vacation, I thought, dumbfounded.
This place was horrifying. I failed to understand at the time that this terror was an important part of history, my own history. I didn’t know this visit would change me. As my eyes traveled farther down the tracks, I noticed what they were dividing. On both sides there were rows of identical wooden buildings. You could see the rooftops of them go on forever.
‘That was where all the prisoners were held,’ my dad remarked, but I already knew. It was clear by the simplicity of them. Long and narrow, they were clearly put together with the intention of temporary shelter until the ultimate goal was achieved. Continuing along the path, I heard the gravel underneath my feet and was suddenly surrounded by the emaciated figures. I felt their callused hands, smelled the burning bodies, and only imagined what terror they had been through. Jerked to a stop, I was torn back to reality by the sign in front of me. I scanned the many different languages for English and read.
The building before me, which I had only seen as another identical building, now held a different meaning. As the sign said, this was the building that held the Hungarians prisoners. Shivers ran down my back as I stared at the exact place that my own grandparents, aunts, and uncles had been kept during the war. I remembered stories my aunt had told me and imagined how they were kept here like caged animals. How on Earth could a human being treat another human this way? No answers came to my mind.
I felt myself go numb after that and proceeded along with my family, taking in more shocking sights and facts. My legs seemed like those of a sleepwalker, dragging aimlessly beneath me as we passed the second of the three gas chambers. With every furthering step, I felt the need to hold my breath and my intense emotions in. The repulsion was draining and yet, I continued to feed it. Auschwitz was part of my past and I was beginning to feel an obligation to understand it; a responsibility to connect with all of these emotions. In some odd way, it brought me closer to my family.
Looking back, I realize the deeper importance of my shock and disgust. Not only did they teach of my past, but defined my present. They evoked compassion, an emotion only toyed with, but now very familiar. Auschwitz taught me about evil and what it can do in the wrong hands, but I also learned of the good waiting for those who are willing to fight for it. And while I was exposed to true hatred, I felt sadness move me and the many other visitors, and I was inspired to prove the good in this world; a noble aspiration, but one that can be done little by little.
When I think back to the first, haunting sight of those train tracks, I realize their end was not at all the end of the story. The millions of lives lost continue to live through the quiet words of sympathy and the gracious acts of compassion committed every day. They are a reminder to think twice about the well known phrase ‘learn from the past’ and are inspiration to institute good for the future.
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