I spent my spring break with 32 other students from Georgetown and Seton Hill University on a Holocaust Forensics trip to Poland and Belarus. My experiences on this trip have changed me and will have a permanent place in my consciousness. What I saw gave me hope for our future, but also deeply worried me.
We spent two days in Poland and five in Belarus. Although the trip as a whole was memorable, my day in Auschwitz will forever be in my mind. Auschwitz was far more than a concentration camp; it was a complex with over 39 factories. One-and-a-half million people were sent to the complex of Auschwitz during World War II, including 1.1 million Jews, thousands of Roma, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war. There were almost no survivors.
All concentration camps are dehumanizing and make you question human nature, but Auschwitz was on a level of its own. A total of five gas chambers — all the size of a small building — did the work of the greatest evil the world has ever seen. Auschwitz has the largest graves in the world, now-green fields that contain the ashes of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Seeing the graves in person was a sad, sobering moment. No words can describe the enormity of the tragedy.
However, what I saw at Auschwitz gave me much hope for “never again.” Not all of Auschwitz II–Birkenau — the site of slave barracks and the gas chambers — remains. Some of the land has since been sold, and regular people now have homes on the former grounds of a death camp. If you look outside the camp, you see an ordinary Polish town. There are houses, dogs barking, a church, a playground and people going about their everyday lives.
On our visit, we walked the same path that the Jews who went straight to the gas chambers took. The first crematorium, the site of the “Red House,” is now a plot of green grass surrounded by a locked chain-link fence. On this plot of land, the Nazis built the crematorium and killed 100,000 people, before destroying it to hide the evidence at the end of World War II. After they retreated, a Polish landowner used blueprints of the gas chamber to petition for a subsidy from the Polish government to rebuild his house. It took over 100,000 euros to buy back this murder site and commemorate it.
Auschwitz was a concentration complex and a death camp. The Nazis had no regard for human life. A million Jews were gassed in five small buildings, and their ashes were scattered in mass graves the size of a football field. There are no markers pointing to these spots as the greatest evils ever known to humanity. Nowhere does it say that this was the worst crime ever perpetrated against the Jews. The gas chambers were for the elimination of the Jewish people, but all signs seem to omit the fact that the victims were Jewish.
As our group’s leader, Fr. Patrick Desbois, said, “We look at Auschwitz and say never again. Murderers look at Auschwitz and say ‘Never Auschwitz I again.’” That sent a shudder down my spine. Auschwitz I was the original camp, which housed Polish political prisoners; Auschwitz II was where the crimes against humanity happened.
Fr. Desbois, when not teaching at Georgetown, runs a global humanitarian nonprofit out of Paris called “Yahad-in Unum.” Since 2004, Yahad has worked to find the graves of Jewish victims of Nazi death squads. Millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust did not die in concentration or death camps. They were killed in mass graves by their villages. Yahad has found the sites of thousands of these graves. “We don’t work to find big numbers,” Father Desbois said. “We work to find the graves of Anna, Itshik, David and Boris.”
We visited one mass grave in Belarus: Bronna Góra, where 54,000 Jews were killed in pits, which were dug by locals at Nazi gunpoint. The site is now a clearing, surrounded by forest with electrical poles running through it. If I did not know where I was, or what I was standing on, it could be any place in the world. The banality of the site shows that nature has no memory; humans, too, easily forget. Anna, Itshik, David, Boris and so many others now lay there at rest; their names, though, are often overlooked. We often think of what happened in terms of numbers, not in terms of people. The Holocaust is dehumanizing — so large, we cannot fully wrap our minds around it.
Fr. Desbois is a hero. The Holocaust was not just the attempted extermination of the Jewish people; it was a crime against all humanity. It does not matter who you are; everyone should make dedicate themselves to ensuring that “never again” actually means just that.
We are quick to forget, and uncomfortable dealing with death. We memorialize the wrong things and let politics decide what gets said: Poland now has a law which makes it illegal to criticize anything it did during World War II. The Yazidis in Iraq and Syria were murdered the same way that the Jews of Eastern Europe were murdered — in pits. We remember things, not killing zones.
I left spring break scared knowing that mass murder can easily happen again, but hopeful because of the work of Fr. Desbois and Yahad-in Unum, and because of a desire within everyone who came to make an impact and do everything in our power to make “never again” come true.
ALEXANDER COOPERSMITH is a sophomore in the College.
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