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Arbeit macht frei

I’ve been dreading writing this blog post. Even before leaving the United States, I knew visiting Auschwitz was going to affect me, I knew I was going to write about it effecting me and I knew it was going to be hard. Much like everything else put in front of me this past year though, I knew that wasn’t going to deter me and I was going to do it regardless. I need to get these thoughts out on paper, to share them with you and more importantly have them in a place that I can come back to in the future to revisit and think about how important this specific experience was as a part of my grief process.

Auschwitz. Even typing the name sends shivers down my spine. It conjures images of darkness, sadness, death, fear, pain. It’s a powerful enough image that even saying the word brings me to a specific headspace of what I can only describe as sadness. This was all before even stepping foot on the gravel and cobblestone grounds leading into the cemetery.

We hired a van to drive us the 4 hours from our Airbnb in Warsaw to Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located. On our drive over it came up that our driver has two daughters, ages 5 and 7. I asked him if he’s taken them to tour Auschwitz yet and he rapidly replied “No, it’s not a place for kids. Maybe when they’re older.” He was a very friendly young man and he was very kind to us and to my three kids in the van with us, but he was the second person who had told me they wouldn’t bring their kids there and I wasn’t sure if it was because they didn’t think kids should be exposed to that type of information, or if they saw kids as a nuisance in a place where people were trying to mourn. I was contemplating his response as I pulled out my camera to film a little bit of our drive when all of a sudden, the barbed wire fence and watch towers were in view. “Is that it??” I asked him as my heartbeat started to race. “Birkenau.” He replied, emotionless, obviously used to this sight after 5 years of providing these tours. I looked back at the girls, Kasey was already in tears, Kay with a pained look on her face and me with my hand over my heart. I was trying to keep it from breaking. The sight of this first camp coming into view had us speechless. And then we drove over the train tracks. The train tracks we’ve seen in the pictures. The movies. The ones we’ve heard stories about. The train tracks which had carried dads and husbands, wives and mothers, kids just like Izzy, Hudson and Adeline, people just like us, into that exact spot and to their death. There they were. And just like that, we crossed over them, drove another mile down the street and parked the van. We were here. I was sick to my stomach. I did my best to take a few deep breaths and speak very calmly to Izzy and Hudson in the back seat as I said, “Hey guys, do you remember what we talked about last night? We need to be on our best behavior today. This is a place where a lot of people passed away, and a lot of people you’re going to see today are going to be very sad about it. Just like we were really sad when Dadda passed away, all of these people are really sad about the people who passed away here. You might see me and Grandma Kasey and Kay crying today too. We’re ok, just a little sad, ok? I want you to ask any questions you have as we walk through but you need to be very respectful and be on your absolute best behavior, ok?” They both said, “YES MOM!” And then Izzy asked, “This is where Otto Frank was in prison, right mom?” I was floored. Kayla looked at me with giant eyes and said, “Izzy, you are SO stinking smart.”

THIS is the reason I travel with my kids. This is the reason I bring them to places like this. This is the reason we make these experiences a priority over Disneyland or sitting on a beach somewhere. My 4 year old daughter, in the parking lot of Auschwitz concentration camp, in the town of Oswiecim, Poland, from the backseat of a rented van had connected that Otto Frank was Anne Frank’s dad (learned in Amsterdam a few weeks ago) and he was imprisoned here in this exact spot we were about to see, before he was released and went on to publish Anne Frank’s diary. It was an incredible moment. She’s curious and she understands and it’s amazing to witness it happening. As trivial as it may sound, that moment made me so unbelievably proud to be her mom, to be a part of her education and a piece of information she’ll never forget. This alone was enough for me to be comfortable bringing my kids here. I know they can understand some of it, they are mature enough to handle themselves in a place like this, and when they get tired or can’t, we’ll stop.

Arbeit macht frei

I grew up seeing images of this slogan in my high school history books. ‘Work will set you free’ It appears on the entrance gates to both concentration camps I’ve had the privilege of visiting: Sachsenhausen in Germany and now Auschwitz in Poland. It’s an image engrained deep in my soul, haunting me as I think about the fact over 1 million people walked through these same gates, saw this same sign hanging above them, but didn’t make it back out.

Our tour guide led us through the gate, past a row of brick buildings, all with numbers (referred to as blocks) on the outside, each with a different purpose. One a medical ward where terrible experiments were conducted on kids, one a prison ward for non-jewish offenders who were awaiting execution, we walked through halls depicting living conditions through the years the camp was operational, seeing photos and hearing stories of the trains arriving, the SS separating families by saying the women and children needed privacy while bathing, we walked through a single gas chamber and the crematorium next door. And then we walked through the human remains room. I lost it here. If you’ve never seen a case containing two tons of human hair, blonde, brown, gray, some still braided, some unraveled, some fashioned into hairnets or woven into fabric, consider yourself lucky. I couldn’t stop the tears here. The suitcases were next. A handful of them marked with their owners names and birthdates, carefully written before being packed with their owners most prized possessions before boarding the trains which would bring them here, thinking and hoping they’d be reunited with these possessions at the end of the war. Unreal. Except, that it’s not. I turned to Kay, she was in tears. I turned to Kase, she was holding them back. Adeline was asleep in her carrier on my back so I held Hudson’s hand a little tighter and we continued on.

We eventually walked through one of the housing blocks and saw the wooden three tier bunk beds. Picturing 20 people trying to sleep on each of these beds, rats and mice scampering around them, each person so unbelievably hungry and desperate, it was an indescribable feeling to see this. Picturing moms holding their children, their children begging for food, for a scrap, a morsel of anything, and being powerless to help. It’s just something I simply can’t imagine. The pain and sadness in these thoughts alone was palpable. Picturing guards coming to work every day and hearing the kids cries, seeing these babies starving before their very eyes, how did they live with themselves? Going home to their own families, sitting down at their dinner table knowing what was happening behind these gates. I looked down at Izzy and Hudson walking next to me, I felt Adeline, asleep on my back, and I shook my head. I just can’t imagine being a mom to my three kids in this place, desperate for help, willing to do anything to take their pain and their hunger away. Unbelievable.

So, why in my current state of trying to heal, of trying to grieve my own sadness, my own loss, would I choose to go to a place of such devastation? It’s a valid question, I’m sure many would not choose to do this, to put themselves in a position knowing the despair they would feel walking into a place of death like this. I feel quite the opposite, I want to expose myself to sadness, to open myself to grief and to let myself feel everything I have to feel. Experiencing emotions, the ups and downs of experiences like these, is how I know I’m living and how I know I’m going to make it. Hearing Izzy thinking out loud as she makes these connections of things she’s learning with things she’s seeing and experiences makes it worth it. Brian’s motto was ‘No bucket lists’, make each day count because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I’m trying to live up to and promote that legacy, to teach my kids what’s important and why we’re going to take advantage of every opportunity we have, especially when it’s an opportunity to learn from and/or connect with someone on.

Despite all of the sadness felt while walking the grounds, I also feel so incredibly humbled and grateful that they’ve opened those gates to us, to allow people from around the world to come visit and grieve and mourn and ask questions. It’s such an incredible opportunity for growth and learning, and I for one absolutely took that away with me as I walked back out the gates and towards the life I had waiting for me on the other side.

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