MIDN 1/C Roarke Baldwin
When I first walked into Auschwitz I was struck by the beauty of the area. There was a cool breeze that gently pushed through the long grass surrounding the complex. A few fluffy clouds dotted the otherwise pristine blue sky. The sun felt comforting on my skin and the air was filled with the calls of songbirds. At one point, I sat down on the grass at the base of a weeping willow and thought for a minute that I was home. But my mind kept grasping at the thoughts floating around in my head and I could not quite comprehend why I was so confused...
I guess deep down I must have assumed that Auschwitz was in some alien place. There had to be some reason why this place was the location of the greatest mass murder in history. Something so terrible could never happen at my home. Yet, after traveling thousands of miles to get there, I could have been exactly where I started. That weeping willow and those birds could have been in my back yard. That night ...I realized that my understanding was not, and could not, be linked to the land. The events that happened there were the result of human hands. And as soon as I grasped that concept, I realized the true danger of this mindset because it allowed me to deny the events of genocide by creating a dichotomy of separation.
The following day our group traveled to Birkenau. If anything, I was even more confused as we wandered around the grounds of this massive killing center. In Auschwitz there were buildings dedicated to the physical evidence of the atrocities. The same intensity was drowned out by the scale of Birkenau. And the wooded areas on the outskirts of the camp provided an almost scenic backdrop that belied the horrors that occurred here all those years ago. But Birkenau meant so much more to me because it was there that I found something I could relate to.
In the "shower room," I was looking at the pictures that lined the walls. Typically, the displays with photographs have so many pictures the individuality and humanity of the victims is masked by the overwhelming scale. But this one was different. Rather than one picture of hundreds of different people, this display had several pictures of a very few people. And one of those pictures showed a little boy just wearing his diaper clutching a dog. And the thing that struck me about that picture was the fact that my family has a picture exactly like that of me clutching our family dog. Granted there were some small differences between the picture of the little boy and the picture of me, but my first thought when I saw that photograph was that the boy in the picture could easily have been me.
Since I came back from Poland, I have often wondered how I would describe the horrors of the Holocaust to my family and friends. Telling the history of an entire people is too overwhelming. Figures and facts are informative, but lack a personal basis that is crucial to developing a connection with the victims. I personally struggled to discover this connection to the history of the Holocaust. I was enraged when I saw an entire room filled with human hair at Auschwitz. I felt a terrible sense of loss when I saw a child's shoe amongst the vast waves of personal belongings. But I felt like something was missing. I did not feel the same sense of loss that I did when my grandfather passed away. Until I saw that photograph of the little boy.
I do not have a perfect formula for everyone to develop the same sort of connection that I did. But I do know that seeing that photograph in Birkenau changed my life and I will always be able to view the Holocaust from the context of a personal tragedy. This understanding has also allowed me to focus on the education of others and provides me a perfect platform to launch further studies. Because without this personal connection I think I might have always been able to deny the possibility that something this terrible could happen to me and it could happen in my home. Now when people ask me about the trip I can say, "Look at this picture. It could have been me." I think that is the most potent connection I could ever make with history. And I am anxious to share that lesson.