Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Michelle: Among the Lost

I am the way into the city of woe, 
I am the way into the eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.

'Per me si va ne la citta dolente, 
Per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.

- Canto 3, Dante's Divine Comedy

On the syllabus for this course, one of our trip's guides, Dr. Procario-Foley, pointed out a quote from a Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim. He says, "Auschwitz is a unique descent into hell". Today in Auschwitz-Birkenau I found myself asking questions about this idea and trying to search for the right things to think or say. When I returned to the Center and stared at my luggage, I found it fascinating that a book I have been reading for another class could say the words I was too deranged to find yesterday in Auschwitz. It could also say the words that could communicate what went through our minds as we walked in the valley of the dead and breathed in the cold and silent air.

But is this place just for the dead? Countless groups of Israeli students and soldiers walked through the camp as well, proudly draped in the blue and white of their flag. Other English speaking groups circled up discussing the ideas of humanity and life. Rocks placed on almost every of the language's plaques at the memorial in the camp are signs that people, regardless of nationality, have some connection to the atrocities of the Holocaust, even almost a century later. 

In the spirit of Dante, the Italian plaque of the memorial
Among the living were us. Among the rememberers were us.

Yesterday, in Auschwitz, I was stifled. It was hard to breathe as everything was so close together. Barrack next to barrack. Fences and gates trapped me. I descended into woe, pain, and the feeling of lost. Senselessness.  I descended into Dante and Fackenhein's hell. Today, however, in Birkenau which is so wide and vast, my senses were allowed to feel out the environment. I was able to see further than the fog, smell more than the forest of towering Birch trees, feel harsher than the jagged rocks of the pathways, taste bitterer than the words I choke on, and finally, hear louder than the sound of silence.

I become a victim to feeling too much, while yesterday I could barely feel. However, when you feel, you have to admit, even the most terrible things. I can admit my fright. I was terrified of being in such a place, filled with such pain and misery. I was terrified of breaking down. I was terrified of what happened there and what type of people must have existed in this world to let that happen. I was terrified of asking What could have stopped this, because that What is a Who, and you're not supposed to ask that, are you?

My fear was in many ways quelled, by images of hope. Dante further describes his hell, as abandoned of all hope. However, Birkenau of today is not abandoned. Candles are lit, wreaths are placed, roses are left. People are coming, and people are remembering. People are consciously making an effort to witness and prevent something like this from ever happening again. People are trying, and people and thinking. They are feeling. Sometimes too much, but enough.

Wall of photographs found in the camps at Liberation

Rose placed on the wall of a destroyed gas chamber


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