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.

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