Auschwitz: How Do You View Cruelty, Death and Destruction from Behind a Museum Case?
A large group departed from Memphis International Airport Sunday, traveling to Poland to begin their journey from Warsaw to Israel. The JCP/MJCC-sponsored trip will connect the travelers to their Jewish history, taking them to important sites from the recent past. Here, our director of community impact, Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein, shares her thoughts from the group’s experiences touring the ruins if Auschwitz.
Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Challenges
After experiencing the stark evil of Majdanek, what shocked me at Auschwitz-Birkenau was its vastness – its size and the volume of its killing machine. The number of people starved, tortured, shot, hung, and gassed there and the precision of how it was all carried out are beyond human comprehension. But its vastness dilutes the horrors. It could just be that having been traumatized at Majdanek first, I was somewhat numb at Auschwitz.
Or, perhaps the enormity of it was just too much, in the same way that learning about one family who perished makes connecting easier than trying to relate to six million.
Another challenge I faced there was picture-taking. Yes, we need to document the atrocities and share the evidence with the uneducated, the doubters and the deniers. And, it is due to picture-taking that we have photographic evidence of what happened. But I felt like I was invading the privacy of the Jews who were murdered there by taking pictures of their personal belongings- their suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses and clothes.
It was definitely soothing to see so many non-Jewish groups there, especially groups of Polish young adults and I take comfort in knowing that the next generation of Poles is being educated in what happened there. But I kept seeing these young adults smiling while taking pictures in front of the infamous “Work Sets You Free” sign at the entrance. I can only hope that they regretted having done so after their visit ended.
Auschwitz is now a museum. I understand that preservation of the artifacts requires them to be behind cases. And, managing one million visitors a year certainly demands a well- organized, structured protocol of how to visit the site. But the museum atmosphere made it more difficult for me to connect to the horrors. At certain points, you have to wait in line to see something behind a case as if you are at an art museum eagerly awaiting an artistic masterpiece. How do you view cruelty, death and destruction from behind a museum case? Our Auschwitz Polish guide was quite knowledgeable and clearly the Holocaust really did mean something to him, but we walked through the Auschwitz gas chamber and crematorium as if we were touring an antebellum home. How do you stand in a gas chamber, listen to the technical details of how the gas was dropped inside, snap a picture and then move on to the next room because another group is waiting?
Fortunately, our wonderful tour educator later brought us into an empty barracks where some of us shared our families’ Holocaust stories and one of our trip participants read a letter from her liberator grandfather documenting what he saw at Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Afterwards, we sat in the restored synagogue of Osweicim and reflected on our four days in Poland.
We were all touched in different ways and on one point we all agreed: We are ready to leave the darkness of Auschwitz and engage with the light of Israel!