Visiting Auschwitz, the imagination can only handle so much.
View of Auschwitz barracks. (© 2013 Larry Stritof)
I always imagined that if I visited a concentration camp it would have that lingering feeling of evil having once been done there, the way some places do. I had a strange closet/room in a house I rented back in the late ’90s that just felt horrible to be in—everyone felt it—and you just knew something bad had happened there. So I guess I expected something like that when my partner, Larry, and I visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, only more so.
In reality, I’m not sure what I felt when we went there. Exhausted, mainly. Exhausted by the enormity of it and the rapid pace at which the guide took us through. It sometimes felt like so fast a pace, and with such an endless string of information being poured directly into my ears via headset, that there wasn’t any time to really take it in, to stop and acknowledge what I was looking at. Instead, the constant cluster of people, the pace, the headphones, all insulated me from the horror.
Yes, I am looking at a glass case the length of the room, and it is full of human hair. Full. Of real hair taken from real human beings. How many heads had to be shaved to make this pile of hair? I don’t know, can’t begin to fathom it, but now we’re moving on anyway.
But then, I think maybe at some point your mind just can’t even comprehend a horror this great, no matter how much you study it or how many pairs of victims’ shoes or pounds of hair or gloomy bunkers you see in front of you. You simply can’t make it translate into something real. You can no more imagine the camp full of thousands of people, the room you’re standing in packed with frantic humans being gassed, than you can genuinely imagine the faces of all of the people living in Massachusetts. It’s too enormous. The imagination can only handle so much. Your mind puts up a filter, distances you from the truth of it, closes your emotions up so tight you can’t feel anything at all.
And so you numbly follow the guide, trying to keep up and take everything in and just breathe and process and understand, and you can’t. You can’t possibly. But at some point you cry anyways because you don’t know what else to do.
And that was my visit to Auschwitz.
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (page 20).
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Sonja L. Cohen is deputy managing editor of UU World and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
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