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January 25, 2010

FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT: Auschwitz, a place of death, feels full of energy

Oswiecim, Poland — It’s my first time visiting the Auschwitz camp, and I’ve just stepped through the “Gate of Death” at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where 1.5 million people were murdered. I thought the place would look desolate, and perhaps it does. But it feels like it’s teeming with energy.

I am traveling with a group of 54 others through a tour arranged by CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, led by the museum’s indomitable founder and Auschwitz survivor, Eva Mozes Kor. Mostly, our group members are teachers and students from Indiana, but we have some from all over the United States who joined our trip.

On the flight over, the group member next to me remarked that his first impulse when we arrived was to scoop up the earth and kiss it. He admitted he did not know if that was an appropriate sentiment, but now I understand why he felt that way.

Over three years, I have heard countless personal anecdotes about Auschwitz from Eva, and I have read a few books on the subject. But nothing prepared me for actually visiting the camp.

I wanted to hug the chimneys and concrete posts, which stand just the way they did 65 years ago. They are silent witnesses, patiently waiting to tell me all they have seen of the desperate suffering and unbelievable strength of the victims and survivors.

I wanted to kiss the barrack bricks, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the horror that they had seen and touched. We were standing in the place of humanity’s greatest wound, and my impulse was to make myself a human Band-Aid.

But first I had to feel the pain. As the group moved through the camp, I realized I was struggling to hold myself together. We stepped onto the selection platform, where Eva saw her family for the last time. She recounted her arrival in the cattle car. I stopped trying to hold myself together and just burst. I thought of Rumi’s poetic line: Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged wound. That’s where the light enters you.

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