We went to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Saturday, riding a local bus out to the town of Oświęcim and getting off a block or so from the entrance to the “park”. I have a hard time talking about it, and when asked by my wife “What did you think?” an hour or so after we’d left, all I could reply was, “What can you think?”
My main discomfort grows from what Auschwitz shares with the rest of the world. I already showed my hand a bit putting the word “park” in quotes. It is a national park, designated so for its protection and funding, but it bothers me that it shares this title — and thus a category — with the transcendent beauty of the Tatra Mountains along the Slovakian border, with the joys of Disneyland, and with the culture and community of Central Park, New York. It felt inappropriate to arrive on the same bus that people were taking to work, or to grocery shop, or to visit relatives. We piled out, walked along a nice sidewalk, past tended planters and pruned trees, and picked up our tickets at the window next to a cafeteria where hamburgers and Sprite can be purchased. There were employees texting, or chattering amicably in Polish. Patrons pulled ponchos onto their children, and teenagers laughed at a joke from a friend. It was all so normal, so pedestrian.
Inside the museum, it was odd that the buildings were just the same as all buildings we have in the rest of the world. Four walls, bricks (stolen from the homes of evicted Poles), chimney, hardwood. People entered through doors, unlatched with the turn of a handle, palm on metal. The gas chambers had entrance and exit, were planned according to human occupancy. The gargantuan pile of shoes, several tons worth, just sat there behind the glass like it would in a Goodwill storage container. Hundreds of tin cans of Cyclone-B poison crystals, open and empty, somewhat corroded in the one lifetime that’d passed since their use, but still readable, were piled in another case.
It was all too close; it fit too well in our world. I needed to descend in a ratcheting cart, down into a tunnel deeper than I thought it could go. I needed darkness and an absence of weather. I needed to click into a different dimension, or perhaps add the alternate ones where we think wholesale slaughter takes place. The rain that fell, the commuter bus, the shoes sitting as gravity dictated — it was so much a part of a world that feels too real to share with incomprehensible tragedy.
But we do share this world with such things, and Auschwitz-Birkenau isn’t the only one, and World War II wasn’t the last age to create them — nor will our age be. We don’t get new dimensions or opposite paradigms to separate Netflix binges from genocide or small-talk from human trafficking. We step off the bus and in through the normal doorway at the end of a sidewalk just like all others we’ve walked. We share the same Earth and stone with Hoess and Mengele as we do with Malala, our parents, and the chef at a sub shop we pass without stopping. We think this world is not that one, but the student of history and the visitor of Auschwitz know all-too-upsettingly that it is and always will be.
Accepting the instinctive idea of a separation justifies inaction or apathy toward the crises that develop now. Certainly we would all stop a recurrence of the Holocaust, but would we know it when we saw it? Do we know that the buildings in Syria have bedrooms and fireplaces? That the Rohingya eat with spoons and nurse their children? Do we know that only physical distance separates us from where they are? Confronting our shared identity and shared world directly is an essential human experience.