My whole life revolved around summer camp. I would dream of climbing onto the bus and taking off for another summer spent lakeside with my best friends at Emma Kaufmann Camp. The school year was just a buffer between summers, like a sip of water is the buffer between comforting spoonfuls of warm and creamy mac and cheese. But my anticipation did not stop at home. Every summer the most meaningful campfire conversations, the most exciting flights down the zipline, and the most daring pranks clustered around final night. So when the camp director notified me that my mom was picking me up before final night, I was shocked and eventually devastated. On the ride home I remember rubbing my wet cheeks with a tissue at the thought of all the life-long memories I would miss by leaving before the pinnacle of summer camp.
Despite my grievances, my mom’s reasoning was sound. We had a flight to Paris the next morning, and then a connection to catch in the notoriously confusing Charles De Gaulle airport. Because this was my first visit to Europe, I was perplexed as to why my family was leaving the most celebrated and iconic tourist destination, Paris, for a country in Eastern Europe that I had only associated with frigid temperatures and angry grandmas, Poland. But I soon learned that we were more than just the average American tourists seeking nicknacks and next year’s holiday card picture. My parents schlepped my brother, sister, and me to Poland to expose us to the reason that our Great Grandpa had to flee Germany.
After four days of chasing monuments, museums, and pierogi restaurants, we left Warsaw for two nights in Krakow. From the car window, I saw expansive clover green fields of potatoes and corn striped across by freshly paved roads where tiny Soviet era sedans made way for brand new American SUVs. With golden rays shining through the corn fields and a gentle breeze drifting the tall and healthy stocks, Poland’s countryside felt entirely peaceful. However, just seventy years prior to my trip, this same countryside had hosted a horrific holocaust. The most iconic example of the Holocaust being the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Upon first glance, the concentration camp felt ominous and sinister. A few lines of track funneled into one railroad which divided a rusty brick building into two with a pointed tower at the helm. Inside the camp, vegetation had encroached upon the gravel walkways and brick walls. A blackened metal sign over the gate condescended the phrase “work will set you free” in German. The long red brick structures were either barracks for the dieing or factories where prisoners would labor to their death for the benefit of an evil empire. Our tour culminated in the gas chamber where tears flowed down my cheeks as I stood in front of deep scratch markings on the wall. I wondered if those were from a friend of Papa or a relative of mine. I wondered if that could have been Papa’s desperate attempt to grip his vanishing life, had he not escaped Munich.
As we left through the gate that so many people had only entered, I was bouncing between anger, shock, and pride. Only once I saw life at an unlivable state could I appreciate the millions of comforts and freedoms that I enjoy each day. Above all, however, I was grateful that Camp to me only equated to innocence, freedom, and friendship, and that my final night at Camp could be spent cultivating memories rather than losing each and every one of them.
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