A Visit to Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland

How? A word used to unlock a treasure chest of the unknown during my days as a child, a simple syllable that revealed everything I wished to discover.

“How does this work?”

“How are you so tall?” 

“How can I do that?” 

I was the poster-child for unbridled naivete surrounded by a world of questions to ask and information to learn, but as I sat shivering on the bus, “how” was the last word I wanted to think about.

The word “how” had sat poised on my tongue, but was not once uttered for fear of shattering the insurmountable silence that followed me like an acrid odor all day.  A silence that extracted all energy from my body leaving me numb and apathetic. Yet as tired as I felt, I knew it meant nothing, nothing compared to the suffering I had witnessed.

Entering the Nazi Germany concentration camp, Birkenau in present day Poland, my thoughts ran rampant, bouncing off all sides of my skull as I observed my surroundings: the looming watchtower, the decaying wooden cabins, the chain link fences, all constant reminders of imprisonment, but horror after shiver-inducing horror, my mind went blank. From crematoriums to gas chambers, small bits of my being were torn away. And it wasn’t until we stood inside the chamber where so many screams were stifled that my legs buckled beneath me and my last ounce of energy dropped to the cold cement floor.

It was then that the word which had once represented innocence and youth came to mind. This raw and devastating landscape stripped this word of the wonder and playfulness it once held, and left it barren. The word how did not even begin to capture the atrocity of Birkenau. It could not withstand the pain infused into every brick or the tears absorbed by the brown gravel of the walkway. 

The word that once preceded questions of innocence now dripped with melancholia, and one question loomed before me: “How could this happen?” 

And with that question came many more:

“How can people decide they are superior to other people?” 

“How can you justify such actions?” 

“How can such innocent people be judged so harshly?”

The primary problem with the Holocaust revolves around judgment. People judge every day, but when judgment surpasses the realm of the mundane, and enters the realm of extremism then injustice occurs. For the simple act of judging an action is justifiable, but judging a person is impossible. To judge the character of another human based on race or religion is hate. 

Religious tolerance involves abolishing judgment. To accept people of all religions, judgment must become obsolete. Similarly, the word itself does not express all that religious tolerance encompasses. To tolerate is simply to allow something to happen without interference, but isn’t this exactly what the bystanders of the Holocaust did? Their tolerance was deadly. Tolerance must give way to acceptance, and acceptance to love. 

Acceptance revolves around the word how. The word how opens the gates to knowledge. Where the word why is critical, how is inquisitive; how begins dialogue, the fusion of ideas and opinions. Ask all your questions with the word how to properly understand others. Instead of asking “why do you pray like that?”, ask “how do you pray?” With one simple change of vocabulary, religious tolerance is enabled. How is important because when you share information you share your soul, and if people take the time to understand more about others then acceptance becomes possible. 

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