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photo courtesy Jonas Ojerstam

Auschwitz, a horror in the past

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I walked down the green promenades, the trees planted just so, with a group of about twenty others in this foreign land. Red brick buildings sprouted up at regular intervals, giving the impression of some kind of a nineteenth century gated community. Leading us in the eerily serene and leisurely stroll was a smallish old woman speaking in a broken, monotone, horribly disinterested English.

Auschwitz is a far too sterilized and beautified place.

I had long wanted to visit the most infamous of the Second World War concentration camps. Not out of some morbid curiosity or as a historical exercise, but out of a personal desire to see how I would respond, how I would feel.

As Canadians, we have been told our whole lives how horrific the Holocaust was and we see how evil man can be nightly on the evening news. I wondered whether a trip to one of the hearts of evil this world holds would affect me all that much or whether it would be another watered down desensitized episode of facts over emotions.

The trip from Krakow, Poland took about an hour and it was surprisingly boisterous on the tour bus. I was anxious, my stomach in knots, not knowing what to expect, while my travelling companions were joking around and having a grand old time. I almost felt offended for some reason. It seemed to me this was a day that demanded solemnity, not levity.

The tour itself was unspectacular. It's strange; it almost seemed designed to be cold and emotionless. Even though some kind of emotional tie or drive leads people to visit Auschwitz, the tour was unnervingly sterile. "This is this," "that is that," "don't fall behind," "speed it up." It was like getting a tour of an automobile assembly line.

Still, it is a place where emotion is difficult to escape. It's near impossible to walk down the promenades or stand in the cells without being consumed by chills. To know that so many lives ended there is an overwhelming experience. There were times when my head would spin, my vision would go spotty, my stomach would turn and I would be forced to close my eyes and steady myself.

Oddly though, the most amazing thing about my own visit was that the most touching and overpowering part of the experience had nothing directly to do with the past, the horrors or the camp. It was a pair on a separate tour from my own.

He was in his early 20s, she in her late teens. They were stylish, obviously German and dressed very conservatively. They had their own personal guide, a taller woman of about 30 speaking German in very low tones. I kept falling behind my own tour group, as I found the experience to be much more personal than collective, and I continually found myself caught between my companions and the trio of Germans.

Looking at them, my mind wandered. What would it be like to visit this place as a German? How would the experience differ? How would I reconcile the fact that my grandfather, perhaps my father, may well have been in a place like this doing these things?

Then I looked over at them, still speaking silently, and saw tears rolling, just as silently, down the cheeks of not only the two young Germans, but also of their guide.

That is emotion, I thought.

Emotion wasn't the people who were curious like myself, nor was it those who came to mourn ancestors they likely never knew. No, the truest anguish and suffering I bore witness to in Auschwitz was found in the faces and the tears of those trying to reconcile the fact that their loved ones still living, their fathers and grandfathers, could well have been carrying out the executions, the experiments, the gassings, the cremations. That is emotion in the present.

The rest of what I saw that day was lament, regret and loss. It was facts, figures and blueprints. It was horror in its purest form, and for the survivors, triumph in all its glory. But it was all mired in the past, not the present.

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