I was scrolling through Facebook on my way to Auschwitz, as you do… and as I was reading a post about people caring too little or too much about Cecil the lion, the audio from the video on the bus suddenly got louder. Somber narrator: “They were stripped of their clothing, possessions, and even their names, treated worse than animals.” Well, shit. How the hell am I going to be able to care about all of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust when I already used up my sad face emoji on poor Cecil?! Should I just ask them to turn the bus around? Oh wait… you mean I’m not only allotted a certain amount of empathy for each day? I can care about lions, and Jews, and Blacks all at the same time? Shocking. But not as shocking as what I was about to see at Auschwitz.
The death camp was horrifyingly tragic and yet, somehow beautiful. I took the same six minute walk from the rail car to the gas chambers that thousands of men, women and children took over 70 years ago. We all thought we’d be alive at the end of the road. The only difference… They were wrong. They thought they were being led into showers after spending weeks crammed into cattle cars like animals. The end of the rail line for me meant an opportunity to look back at the camp in its horrific entirety. The end of the line for them was indefinite. These people were rounded up from all over Europe and brought to the very spot I was standing in; tricked into taking a six minute walk to their slow and painful deaths.
Among the Jews in the death camp were Christians and Catholics, some were even priests and monks. My tour group wasn’t allowed to enter an area of the camp today because there was a memorial service being conducted for a monk who volunteered to give his own life in exchange for that of a young Jewish man. According to records, the monk was starved to death. But the young man lived to tell the heroic story. Inside the walls of Auschwitz and other concentration camps there were countless acts of bravery and humanity.
Going to Auschwitz wasn’t my idea. One of my best friends from home asked me if I would go with him and my first question was, why? This would be his first trip overseas and he wanted to go to a concentration camp? WTF?!?! He isn’t Jewish and neither of us are particularly religious, so I was taken aback when he suggested coming here. When I told my mom about our plans she simply said, “Good. You should. Everyone should. It’s important.” She was right. And I was embarrassed for not even having it on my radar.
I didn’t necessarily learn anything new about the Holocaust from being at Auschwitz. I’ve seen countless photos and plenty of documentaries featuring some pretty grim shit. I had to report on one recently before I left my job at Fox. Some never before seen footage was released and I had to watch it to pull clips for broadcast. In the film, bodies were being thrown into a pit, one on top of the other. At the time, I couldn’t deal. I simply lost my shit. I called my friend and colleague, who happened to be Jewish and told her I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t watch another second of it. Now fast forward almost two years and I’m standing over that very pit. But somehow… I’m holding it together. I’m more worldly now, I thought. I’ve been to 48 countries, dammit! I can handle this, I told myself. It wasn’t the names and photos on the walls, it wasn’t the gas chambers, it wasn’t even the piles of human hair cut from the scalps of dead and soon to be dead women… It was the shoes that did me in. Stacks and stacks of shoes piled floor to ceiling. Shoes taken off willingly by men, women and children, thinking they’d be slipping them back on right after their shower.
I realize I’m not the first non-Jewish American to go to Auschwitz. I’m also fully aware that these stories have all been told. But here’s the thing, people of 2015… There is a reason I’m telling you about this today. Auschwitz was reopened by the survivors as a museum just two years after the last prisoner was freed. When asked why they would revisit such a horrific place they said they wanted people to know what had happened there. So, history; they thought, would not repeat itself. But here we are, 70 years later living in a world still divided by race and religion. I’m hardly an expert on the matter, but I’ve spent time in the Middle East and Africa and I’ve been exposed to blatant racism. But I didn’t have to travel the world to see that we are a long way from peace. America isn’t exactly setting a good example when it comes to ethnic and cultural differences.
As I left the camp and promptly checked social media, I wondered if the Holocaust was now my Cecil the Lion. Should I be bringing attention to the race issues in my own country, or those facing my Palestinian relatives; who, to be fair might actually be holocaust deniers?! (shhhhh) Point being… Just because you’re upset about a lion being gunned down for sport doesn’t mean you don’t care about the innocent lives of humans suffering in your own neighborhood, or across the globe. There isn’t a limited amount of empathy in the world. Using up some on animal rights issues doesn’t take away from the amount left for the women and children being slaughtered by ISIS. All of it is fucked up. All of it deserves attention and everyone just needs to stop blindly sharing posts on social media perpetuating more hate. Except my posts. Blindly share my posts.
#NeverAgain? I’m not so sure.