"How can something so terrible exist in a place so beautiful?"
Those are the words Margie said to me as we toured Mauthausen, a concentration camp in the Austrian countryside.
We were on our way to Salzburg for a weekend of fun in the Alps. It was supposed to be the first snow of the season. I could hardly contain my excitement. Seeing the Alps had been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. But first, we needed to make a stop. It was a stop I will never forget.
To this day, I know I will never be as cold as I was during those few short hours. The wind was biting that day, and it cut through the many layers of coats I was wearing. We each had a remote control listening device that led us through the camp. Like robots, we wandered through the camp; our faces displaying little emotion, our bodies barely moving except for our feet as we plodded along, our mouths set in a grim absolute silence. I eventually wound up by myself, wandering through the "infirmary". I think that was the official name for it. But that's not what it really was. I had found myself alone in the gas chambers. I had come upon them quickly, and it had startled me. The dead feeling in the pit of my stomach was too much to handle. I had to get out. So I walked out as quickly as I could, never wanting to look back.
I've been thinking about that memory a lot today. We're studying the Holocaust in my German Culture and History class and the memories of that day still trouble me sometimes. I can't imagine how it is for people who actually lived through it.
How does humanity get to that point? My German professor kept asking that question over and over and over again. Normally, I always have so much to say in each of my classes. But this huge event in history literally leaves me speechless. I sat there today silently wrapped up in my own thoughts as I stared intently at my desk.
I'd like to say that I would be like Viktor Frankl. He withstood. Through the demanding days of physical labor, and the cold nights, with little to eat, he developed the theory that man's will to find meaning life is the ultimate motivating factor in human survival. He said that "the salvation of man is through love and in love". He found meaning in intolerable circumstances through love. That's a beautiful sentiment. But I wonder if I could ever be that strong?
As my professor so gently reminded us today, genocide on a grand scale is no isolated event. We could just as easily become victims of hatred as well as becoming perpetrators of such crimes. What a scary thought.
But that's not what I worry about the most. I worry about being one of those who stand idly by. I love the German people. German culture is a part of who I am. It is my heritage. I see their characteristics in myself. But I find it hard to grasp the fact that so many people turned a blind eye to what was happening. And that's a part of me too.
When they said they didn't know, did they really not know?
Our next assignment for the class was to write about an art piece that depicts the Holocaust. I can barely write about it in English, so I'm sad to say that my German does an even worse job at capturing how I feel about it.
It is so hard to talk about, and think about. And maybe it's a good thing. How disturbing would it be if I could think about it easily. But my mind's initial reaction is to glaze over everything that happened. It's so sickening. I have a hard time believing that humans could ever treat one another that way. But then what would be the point of remembering the Holocaust at all if I just glaze over the stuff that's too hard to deal with?
The point of remembering it I suppose, even if it's hard sometimes, is so that we'll never forget. And next time, hopefully, we won't just walk right on by while it happens.