There is no denying how somber it was to walk around the grounds and imagine all of the atrocities committed against humanity there. Nate and I walked into dormitories with children's drawings still on the wall, communal bathrooms that, like most of the facilities, were specifically engineered to erase any traces of human dignity. Most of the gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis just before liberation, but we walked through one smaller chamber that had the appearance of human claw marks covering the walls. Several buildings had photos of prisoners who were found alive at liberation but who had been used for medical experiments by the SS. The photo captions told how much the sexless, skeletal forms weighed when they entered the facility and how much after -- sometimes a number in the 40-50 kilos mark, or around a 100-pound difference. Starvation was a fascinating field of study for the Nazis.
Each fact from our tour guide's mouth seemed more horrifying than the last. I think the worst, though, was seeing signs of hope. The prisoners brought in on cattle cars were told they were being relocated. They were told anything to keep them silent and cooperative. Even the guards who helped the prisoners disembark were prisoners themselves, I'm sure providing some reassurance of safety. The phrase like lambs to the slaughter must have been penned after this place. The families were unloaded from the train onto a platform inside the camp along with anything they carried of their former lives on their backs. They were put into two lines: people who looked like they could work and those who couldn't: children, pregnant women, the elderly. The latter were marched straight to the chambers, but not before being separated from everything they possessed for "delousing." One building contained glassed-in displays of these items: suitcases, glasses, hair that had been cut off to be used for the war effort. The worst for me was a sea of pots and pans; each carried whispers of hope of a life beyond this temporary horror.
Auschwitz is bad medicine, like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, that one has to take to remember what hate can do unchecked. I didn't have to travel to Poland to recognize that the hate that sparked the mass murder of millions of innocent Jews, Gypsies, and many, many others during the Holocaust still echoes today. It was at the jewelry store in Sri Lanka where a man thought he was connecting to the American couple in front of him by talking about how he liked Chicago, but not the black people there. It's in casual jokes or comments by family and friends over dinner about this or that group of people ruining the world through "their ways." Auschwitz just showed the end result of hatred; all of it starts as talk that is planted in the minds of those who were willing to listen and never question.
Luckily, all of it is just as easily erased with curiosity about the deep values behind behaviors that are foreign or strange to us. From there, tolerance takes over and sharing the planet with people different from ourselves becomes a blessing and not a curse. As a teacher, trainer, and instructional designer, I have to practice curiosity and tolerance each day in order to do my students justice. I teach intercultural communication as an inseparable partner to language learning. I help people to understand the why behind what they see. As a person, I do all of this because I want to leave a legacy of love, kindness, and caring behind to whomever just might be listening to me. In America, the land of immigrants, we don't have very far to go to meet someone with a different upbringing, with different colored skin, with different values, and different life experiences or views. Seeing past all of that to see the person isn't easy, but it's possible with practice. And it's the only way to avoid the horrors of our collective past.