I write from a little cafe in Auschwitz, Poland. In four hours I’m due to catch the overnight bus back to Prague. I spent today in somber silence, remembering.
Last fall, I wrote a paper for my Western Civilization class about Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz. The paper was entitled “The Silencing of Consciousness,” and I turned it in with a feeling of triumph as I grinned at my own cleverness and all the interesting things I pointed out regarding Levi’s fluctuating notion of the consciousness of one’s humanity in the face of great suffering. Job well done, Abbie. An excellent paper. What I failed to realize then, and what I realized today, was that I had erred, greatly. Instead of treating it with the greatest reverence, and the greatest solemnity, I treated the memoir as another puzzle, another Socratic text or literary narrative to unravel in my own mind.
Last night at 11:00 p.m., my bus pulled out of Prague and began the overnight journey to Auschwitz. On the whole, I slept badly; the bus was cold, and try as I might to stretch out, I couldn’t seem to get comfortable. But the highlight: a girl with an unmistakably American accent boarded after me and grabbed the seat right behind me. We made small talk, and I met Megan from Colorado, who had spent the past year teaching in Madrid. She was headed to Krakow, Poland, but at 1:00 a.m. at one of the bus stops in a random Polish town, she decided to join me for the day to Auschwitz. We both thought it was better not to do it alone.
Five a.m. rolled around, and our bus dropped us at a gas station in the town of Auschwitz, a few kilometers from the concentration camp. Megan and I headed into the gas station to get coffee and directions to the camp, and the day’s trio was completed with the addition of Sailesh, a 28-year-old guy from India who now lives in Norway. We sat around the small cafe table in the gas station as the sun rose, pooling our snack resources and sharing a breakfast of coffee, muffins, pretzels, and apples before we headed to the camp.
We spent the entire day walking the grounds of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and by the end of it, I was exhausted and sick at heart. All three of us were. We spent most of the day in silence, but it was good not to be alone. I don’t have the words to describe the camps. Sickening and horrifying do not quite describe the place that is Auschwitz. How can I describe what it’s like to walk into a room where thousands of people were murdered? To walk into a room piled high with 4000 pounds of women’s hair, shaved from dead victims? To look at a crematorium? To stand in the place that was absolute hell, with only time separating me from the victims?
I visited Maximilian Kolbe’s cell. The cell where the priest slowly starved after volunteering to die in the place of a Czech man who had a wife and children. The cell where he loved and gave everything he had for a stranger, even when he had next to nothing to give, where he sang to and loved the other prisoners in that dank hall underneath the execution yard. It was holy, cold, and dark.
The words I found myself whispering to describe Auschwitz were only these: