Witnessing: Remembering the Holocaust

As one can imagine, this was by far the most painful and hard-to-process subject that I encountered on my trip. The Holocaust has a special kind of lore in America, and is consistently taught as the greatest crime against humanity. It is important to note that this lore is largely shaped by a pro-Israel, anti-USSR sentiment and is largely political. The narrative of the big, bad Third Reich brought to its knees by American liberators is as propagandist as Mein Kampf. It is obviously motivated by different (some would argue moral) intentions, however the level of manipulation is comparable.

I was aware of the political spin on my conception of the Holocaust as we began our trip, and I was struggling to find a way to have a meaningful experience without co-opting the suffering of others for my own political or moral education. I was hypersensitive to the fact that neither I, nor my ancestors, had been victims of the sort of systematic oppression and genocide that the Jews and other people groups murdered by the Nazis had been. While I certainly could empathize with the unimaginable suffering of concentration and death camps, it felt wrong to try and glean any kind of trite message from the deaths of millions. Simply put, I didn’t feel like there should be a lesson from the Holocaust.

This led me to one simple goal as we experienced Dachau and Auschwitz: bear witness to suffering and be open to the emotion the experience would bring. It felt like the most significant thing I could do as an outsider was to allow the sadness and horror to deeply affect me, to simply mourn for the victims.

This is not to say that I didn’t walk away from the experience with any new knowledge. Seeing the absolute intentionality of the Holocaust first-hand drove me to questions about the morality of politics and the circumstances necessary for mass genocide. It forced me to reflect on the reasons I was enthralled with rhetoric and underpinned my quest for a moral code for political communication.

But more importantly than that, I feel very grateful for the opportunity to mourn. The Holocaust was not the first genocide, and it certainly hasn’t been the last. Dachau and Auschwitz not only stand as memorials for 11 million people, they remind us of the millions more since 1945 who have been victims of fear and hatred. They are ugly reminders of the capacity of humanity to do harm to itself and monuments to the necessity of tolerance. The most terrifying part about walking the grounds of Auschwitz is just how “normal” it looked. It could have been a village if it were not for the evil of the men who created it.

I still don’t think there’s a “lesson” to be learned from the Holocaust. The only words of remembrance in Auschwitz read: “At this place where the Nazis assassinated a million and a half men, women, and children, a majority of whom were Jews from diverse European countries, will always be a cry of despair and a warning for humanity.” There’s no nursery rhyme morality that one can glean from the gas chambers, no epitaph on the mass graves. Rather, the Holocaust stands as a terrifying reminder of what we’ve done and, in some cases, what we continue to do.

Berlin (December 31-January 4)

After driving across most of Germany, we finally arrived in the bustling, edgy, unique city of Berlin. We quickly got ready for what we knew would be the New Years celebration of a lifetime. Unlike the tame (lame) American tradition, the Germans go all out and take full advantage of the lack of open container and fireworks laws. It was certainly a memorable experience.


Our new Syrian friends in the haze of what can only be described as a TON of fireworks.

Through the magic of the New Year, we ended up meeting a group of Syrian refugees who had been in Germany for about a year. Through a complex chain of translating from English to Arabic we were able to have a fascinating conversation about their families still in Syria and American responsibility to intervene. I was struck by the similarity of the conversation we were having about appeasement and crimes against humanity in Syria, and the ones that must have been had as the Nazis and later the GDR rose to power.

A theme of our time in Berlin would be exploring the German national identity and the ways in which they have begun to reconcile with the wounds and wrongs of the past. As xenophobic rhetoric reigns in the USA, I was absolutely awed by the German commitment to provide a safe place for those fleeing persecution. It seems that the painful process of remembering the history of totalitarianism and fear in Germany has allowed them to see past nationality to the common humanity in all those seeking a safe place to exist. America has largely chosen to ignore the dark and shameful parts of our history, hoping that the future will abstain us of guilt. However, it seems obvious to me that this has created a cycle that returns the same problems of racism and distrust into the national dialogue frequently.

As we continued our time in Berlin, exploring both the Nazi and Soviet history, I was consistently reminded of the willingness of Germans, and specifically Berliners, to publically explore their past. This was a powerful theme as we would continue into Poland to explore the pain of the Holocaust. Instead of being able to think about these events in black and white dichotomy as is frequent in the American conception of suffering, we were introduced to the power of the German dialogue regarding Nazism.

Munich, Obersalzburg, and Nuremburg (December 28th-31st)

After 18+ hours of traveling in coach, Munich was a welcome sight! After a much needed wheat ale and German sausage, we took in our festive surroundings. Christmas is a weeks long celebration and the hot wine and baked goods were plentiful.

We started the academic portion of the trip with an excursion to Austria to see Obersalzburg which served as Hitler’s mountain fortress for much of the Third Reich. Underneath what seemed to be an idyllic ski resort for top Nazi brass, Hitler had a massive system of bunkers constructed. Although he would end his life in his Berlin bunkers, Obersalzburg was used by Nazi officials until the very end. The museum


A beautiful Austrian day with the exposed part of the Obersalzburg bunkers.

illuminated the propaganda of Hitler’s personal life that was used to portray him as a likeable god. He was portrayed as serene, quiet, yet in perfect physical and mental health. He was the people’s leader.


We continued our day by lunching at a gorgeous alpine lodge where Hitler himself dined often. It was a little surreal to realize that we were quite literally on the ground that history had happened on. This would be the first of many times where I was struck by the depth of history in the places we visited.

Another notable experience in Munich was visiting Ludwig Maxmillian University, home to the White Rose Resistance movement. In the height of the Third Reich a brave group of university students and one of their professors published several leaflets denouncing the Nazi regime. Among these was Sophie Scholl 21 year old student who would be executed for her part in the resistance. I was captivated by Sophie and the courage it took to face one’s impending death with grace and even beauty. It was a welcome story of bravery and even triumph amidst a narrative of suffering


The balcony from which Sophie Scholl dropped hundreds of anti-Nazi leaflets. This action would lead to her execution just days later.

and injustice.

As we left Munich (and the best beer I’ve ever had in my life) behind, we continued onto Nuremburg for a quick afternoon stop. Infamous for persecutory laws against German Jews, the site of The Triumph of the Will propaganda film, and eventually the location of the court that would sentence many Nazi elites following the war, Nuremburg was steeped in history. Most significant to our theme of propaganda was the half-finished rally ground building that was to become the primary speaking hall for Hitler and other party elite. The sheer size of the building that remains speaks to the Nazi fascination with all things grand and imposing.


What remains of the speaking hall building in Nuremberg.

Much of our time on this first leg of our trip was spent exploring the Nazi regime’s goals and history. This would prove to be an interesting foundation for the following emphasis on the victims of the Holocaust and WWII. It also set up a nice foundation for comparison with Soviet controlled Germany.