By Cheyenne Paris, Brandeis University
People often ask me: “why are you so interested in the Holocaust?”
The answer has always been, “you know, I’m not really sure.”
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with World War II and Jewish culture. From the books I’ve read to the movies I watched—I would consume whatever I could get my hands on. I went to Shabbat services, met with Holocaust survivors, and for a long time considered conversion.
For much of my life this interest has manifested itself in personal scholarship; I did not pursue structured education.
However, in 2018 I began graduate school at Brandeis University studying conflict resolution and coexistence and near eastern and Judaic studies. I devoured everything I was taught. Finally! I was around people who were interested in the same thing I was. Passionate about similar questions and topics and literature.
But more frequently than ever I was approached with, “well you aren’t Jewish. Why are you interested in this stuff?”
Again, I would respond, “you know, I’m not really sure.”
Through a stroke of good fortune and happenstance, I had the opportunity to be a part of a writing seminar traveling to Poland to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. And I am not exaggerating when I say, this is something I’ve wanted to do for almost 20 years.
Again, I was approached with the question: “so why are you interested in this?”
And I finally felt comfortable exploring the answer.
For those who have not visited Auschwitz I, it is not what one would expect. It is a solemn site filled with hundreds of people from all over the world. Groups of all ages walk around with headsets, often with indifferent expressions. For most, this is one of their first introductions to the Holocaust.
Coming the Auschwitz I with the background I have (and by no means do I feel superior) I was picturing something very different. Like the photos I’ve viewed hundreds of times, I half expected everything to be in black and white. As a site of torture, persecution, and death I imaged a perpetual black cloud to hover over, grieving for those who perished and suffered. I assumed everyone to be in mourning. For people to be reserved and tearful.
The reality, however, is slightly different. Auschwitz has become more than I think anyone could have imaged. Auschwitz opened as a museum in 1947 under the Sejm Act. According the museum’s website, about a little over 250,000 visited the site in 1959. In 2018, it was over 2 million. In an attempt to pay homage to the victims, survivors, and families, Auschwitz as an educational site has made minimal changes to the existing structures. The walls are bare, the rooms are sparse, and the overall feeling of the converted barracks is somber and dated.
Understandably, changing too much at the camp into an educational site can be problematic. Preservation is the name of the game. Respect is the backdrop on which to play it.
The camp is a place of pilgrimage for so many yet the importance of preserving the camp for the purposes of educating is vital. Important questions must be asked: has this site of mass murder become a site for the “wrong” kind of attraction?
Why is it that the world knows Hitler’s name but so many people can’t name a single survivor?
As educators and students, we need to focus more on the lives not simply the act. When we forget them, we dishonor them.
Situated in Block 27 the Shoah exhibition prepared by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem manages to address questions about balance. The exhibition opened the 13th of June 2013 and was ushered in with a ceremony attended by survivors, Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage Bogdan Zdrojewsk, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The use of mixed media in the exhibit is stunning. Screens are placed in straight, clean lines accompanied by maps and wall text. The use of empty space, light, and the monochromatic pallet of white and greys makes for an extremely modern experience—especially in contrast with the rest of the Blocks. Yad Vashem offers a book of victims’ names at the end of their exhibit, allowing visitors to touch and search for names. This tangible feature connects visitors to lives more thoroughly than other exhibits in Auschwitz I.
But should one feel transported to a modern museum in such a place?
Ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons. The exhibit is beautifully curated by Avner Shalev and does something the other places don’t—it celebrates life. Block 27 Is dedicated not to the atrocities but to the people that experienced them, which is something that needs to be remembered. While the pounds and pounds of hair will disgust and anger visitors, the testimonials of survivors and names of victims will humble them.
As I questioned my own interest in the Holocaust and walked the grounds of Auschwitz I and visited the Shoah exhibition, I came to a controversial realization.
I was not here to mourn. I was here out of respect. I was here to honor and commemorate the 1.7 million lives lost from the Auschwitz Zone of Interest. I was here because they could not be. Because for so many they weren’t able to have descendants. There was no one left from their family to mourn for them. To celebrate their life.
I use the word “celebrate” with caution but it is important for me to say. The Holocaust was not simply about mass murder and I believe it is so important to remember this. It was about the loss of each individual life. Each individual story.
So why am I so interested in the Holocaust?
I guess I’m really not.
I’m interested in the lives. The people. In the stories and in the culture. I want to remember them. I want everyone to remember them. Not only because it was an unconceivable event, but because they were victorious. We know their stories when the perpetrators imaged a world in which we never would. They live on. And we have a duty to remember them.
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory