By Danielle McDowell
Walking through the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau can be an experience that overwhelms its visitors into an emotionally numb state. Combing through buildings for hours that were designed with rooms for each phase of dehumanization and killing can leave you leaping into an abyss for answers. It was important to me as someone who has worked in civil conflict and war zones, having seen lesser forms of the horror people are capable of inflicting upon one another, to simply take notice of who filled these gates. I think the massive size of the grounds can get visitors spinning around in the original success of Nazi distraction, once more concealing the people deported to this extermination camp. Looking at Auschwitz-Birkenau in terms of scale also puts a collective identity onto those who were persecuted and further repeats the desensitization of others to how a campaign of hatred gains momentum. However, sharing the human aspects of war and preserving those memories for future generations is one of the strongest ways to prevent recurrent destruction.
When so many layers of personal identity were being taken away, it was poignant to see the drawings of children and feel their individuality and unforgotten joy helping them depict their torment. You could see how their experiences had affected them in the drawing; the use of size and the weight of their pencil exposing their understanding of what was next. What I was surprised about in the “Traces of Life” exhibit was the number of drawings that showed a woman pushing a baby carriage. This seemed to be a common image that popped in their minds and I interpreted it as being a symbol of safety and comfort for them. Their subtle choices on what to draw demonstrate that even though they had to emotionally distance themselves from thinking about the comforts of pre-war life for the purpose of survival, those same memories gave them a sense of resolve to endure the conditions of captivity. Being in a developmental stage of life only increases the disadvantage children experience in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, where any outburst or perceived deviance made execution more likely. These are concepts that should not have to exist together, children and war, and I walked away from this exhibit with a heavy heart knowing the two cross paths every day.
In a building labeled ‘Extermination 18’ we watched testimonials from survivors and an account that stuck with me came from a woman who had lost her sister shortly after the liberation of the camp. In 1945, as she walked the path exiting its gates in search of food to help her ailing sister, she was given an egg by a local resident who acknowledged the moment by saying, “you will get to be a lady, too.” Even though her final days at Auschwitz-Birkenau entailed such heartbreak, on film it looked as if she almost enjoyed recounting those moments because she was accessing the part of herself that existed with her sister. Watching her slip back into her younger identity and share their darkest moment with unconditional love made me think of the survivor’s guilt she must have had to come to terms with. Thinking about the aftermath of war on an individual level and how trauma reshapes a person’s sense of self helps, also, build a better understanding of how groups or countries navigated their pasts since.
These stories help people today who live in relative peace recognize how familiar the casualties of war can be. People who live through devastating conditions have to determine which identity they go forward with while carefully balancing the memories of their past. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau provided a sobering view of its size that cannot be fully felt on film or through photos, but the same characteristic seems to have the ability to mask other important learning outcomes for visitors. Reading about the large families that were wiped out by the Holocaust, looking at the drawings of children and listening to survivors were the most interesting areas of the camp for me, because these personalized exhibits helped increase the plausibility that my own family could be left devastated by socio-political division. The hate-filled people who built this camp exploited every option available to oppress and erase the identities of not only the deported persons, but also of those who silently became complicit. Distracting the public into political polarization and establishing those soft boundaries allowed for the Nazi Party to exercise freedom of movement to pursue achieving their ‘Final Solution’. Working through the failures of this past and distributing its memory in a way that honors the individual lives impacted will hopefully help strengthen diplomatic efforts and communication between groups who oppose one another.