One place that I was sure that I wanted to visit while living here was Auschwitz.  Ostrava was actually the site of the very first transport of Jews in all of Europe, and it's only about 100 km from Auschwitz.  During my time here, I've been impressed with the physical and emotional closeness of the Holocaust.  If you are a Jew in Europe, you're bound to have a personal connection with someone who suffered or died in Auschwitz.  It's a closeness that I don't experience in the USA.  I was awed when a colleague recently reminded me that before WWII somewhere around 1/4 or 1/3 of Europe was Jewish, and after . . . mere thousands total.

So today, I went with a school group of students and two accompanying teachers on a bus to Auschwitz.  I had to continuously tell myself, "This is where it happened.  This is where they lived, worked, sweat, were beaten, humiliated, starved, demoralized by others who might have even claimed to be Christians."  It was a powerful experience.  I was overwhelmed by the immensity of Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Block after block, and the place had been packed with thousands upon thousands.  I learned today that the reason they started tattooing the Jews was that the mortality rate was so high and so quick that taking photos wasn't effective enough of a method to keep track of who was still alive.  Moreover, the corpses were so mangled that it was impossible to identify people any longer.

I could recount many details learned on the tour of torture by starvation, standing in enclosed cells, or about the products made by the human hair harvested; however, all of those facts can be read elsewhere.  What made the experience today profound for me was the spiritual element, which for me was also a question of personal responsibility.  Yes, the Holocaust was horrific, and its memory is haunting--yet, there are also atrocities being committed all over the world today.  Injustice prevails in so many nations in so many different forms.  Today, I was reminded that there were people outside Auschwitz that knew at least some of what was happening.  Yet what action was taken?  Yes, eventually Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, but it's interesting to note that Auschwitz was never bombed.

I don't want to go into a retrospective history lesson; I have no idea what "ought" to have been done.  While I wandered the uneven paths, I was asking myself what I would have done.  As a prisoner, as a foreigner looking on.  Would I have taken some concrete action, some other action to raise awareness, contacted those who have the power to implement change, or would I have passively sat by and let someone else manage it? During my time there and now, I am choosing introspection over retrospection and wondering what injustices are happening in our midst or outside of it, of which we know, and yet of which we are doing nothing to end.

Auschwitz was crowded today, and I was encouraged, thinking that such an experience could transform people.  And yet in queues I heard impatient sighs and felt the push of people eager to move on.  At some places, I wanted to stop.  To pause.  To let the truth permeate my being.  But the surrounding impatience prevented me.  In these little sighs and pushes, I felt a superficial selfishness, the same sort of self-interest that when compounded leads to implementing such atrocities or apathetically letting them be committed while you go on with your day.


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