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Okay so I always have said that I want to write, that I should write and that I have a lot to write about. However, here I am starting or trying to start a regular routine of writing and I have no idea of what to write about.  I have set a goal that I will write for at least two hours every day. Does that mean Saturday and Sunday as well? I guess I get to answer that one and I would say yes to that. I have this idea that if I start the routine and establish it I will in fact have lots to write about.  I could write about the trip that I just completed and all the adventures associated with it or I could write about some meaty social issue or maybe just ramble on about whatever. So here goes.

Our recent trip included a visit to Auschwitz and Birkeneau which are now museums in rural Poland close to the Czech border and about an hour from Krakow. This was must-do on our visit to Poland and it really was. I had heard mixed reports about the museum and the experience of wandering through the previous concentration camp. The one comment that kind of stuck in my head was that it was not much to see. Actually now that I think of it, an American woman I talked to at some point prior to our trip suggested that the visit to the Holocaust museum in either California or New York were probably more useful than a visit to the actual site in Poland. I believe that she said that these museums were more graphic and were more explicit in outlining the horrific acts that were undertaken in the concentration camps. This remark was also consistent with comments that suggested that there was not a lot to see at the Auschwitz site. Thinking about these observations after a visit to the actual site makes me think that perhaps our need or society’s need for graphic depictions of everything is necessary if we are to be impacted. Maybe because we are so inundated with depictions of violence both real and enacted we need to bump it up to be able to feel something.

Maybe this is where I can see a difference between myself (and my companions in the visit to Auschwitz) and the rest of the world. The difference that stems from no longer watching television and restricting the viewing of movies to ones that tend to have less violence as their foundation. Perhaps my tolerance for violence and acts of inhumanity is lower than that of the television watching public because I am not constantly exposed to violence. I am still the frog jumping out of the boiling water, not the frog that is contently sitting in water that is slowing reaching the boiling point. I still naively think that acts of violence are for the most part unnecessary and that treating other humans in cruel ways is not acceptable. Maybe that is why I did feel something during my visit to the stark museum that is Auschwitz and Birkenau. I did not cry while I was there and was not outwardly disturbed. However, the visit did impact me enough to get me thinking about this episode in human history and interested in revisiting the books I had read, the movies I had seen and exploring new works to broaden my knowledge about what happened in this and other concentration camps and how this relates to my constant musing about human nature. Musing about what make us tick and maybe not tick so well.

What is it that allows one group of humans to believe that they are superior and superior enough to not only exclude other groups but to actively harm others just because they are part of another group. It reminds me of the story by a favorite author of mine, Dr. Seuss entitled the Sneetches. In this “children’s” tale Dr. Seuss reminds us of the folly of exclusion and the wisdom of inclusion. The energy put into excluding others from our select group is not always wise, is discriminatory and in most cases is just a plain waste of energy. It is clear that trying to separate one group from another using an arbitrary characteristic, in this case “the star upon thars” just does not work in the long run. Interesting that Dr. Seuss used the star image in the tale given the use of the Jewish star as a brand of discrimination in the concentration camps and in particular in Auschwitz and Birkenau.  The link made me investigate when Sneetches was written and lo and behold I discovered that Sneetches was actually written in 1961 as a reaction to the anti-Semitism rampant in World War II and beyond. I also discovered that my other favorite Dr. Seuss book, Yertle the Turtle was Dr. Seuss’s response to Hitler’s inappropriate and destructive rise to power. Both stories provide an excellent and gentle way to portray the folly of discrimination and the inappropriate use of power. It seems strange that people can read these stories to their children yet seem to miss the significance themselves.

I return to my response to the visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. We boarded a bus near the centre of Krakow early one foggy morning along with several other tourists from around the world. The commentary on the bus was done in several languages, Polish, English, Spanish and Italian and we would be split into these groups at the museum each with a guide who spoke the language of choice. A film shown on the bus set the tone, giving us an account of a Russian soldier/photographer’s experience during the liberation of the camps near the end of the war. The film provided some important context for the visit to the museum but it also raised some questions in my mind. By the time we reached the site, we were aware of the broad facts about the camp and given some glimpses into the immediate impact of the camp on the human landscape at the time and the impact on the world that continues even until today. We also now understood that we would visit two separate camps, first Auschwitz I the smaller of the camps in the area and then Birkenau or Auschwitz II, a much expanded and much more “efficient” camp nearby. We were warned that the two tours involved a lot of walking and that some people may find this difficult so could choose to only visit a part of the camp. This immediately made me think about the choices that the inmates at these camps were given or should I rephrase that and say that I thought about the absolute lack of choice that the countless people brought to these camps were faced with. Maybe it was the fog and clouds that made me think about the stark and cruel features of winters in this area of the world and about the added pressure this would have placed on the inmates and their lack of choice. We just disembarked from a clean new state of the art bus after a comfortable drive for a little over an hour; this in contrast to the people who arrived packed into cattle cars after many days trudging along train tracks without food or water only to be provided no choice for participating in what would happen next. Walking in shoes that did not belong to you and that did not fit would be problem enough. But to imagine what it must have been like to have to walk in these shoes in all kinds of weather including snow and rain without relief was enough to leave an impact on my psyche. I did not need the graphic pictures from the Holocaust Museum to raise my ire and more importantly put me in a state of awe at the capacity of the human spirit. Would I be able to continue to walk and to function under the conditions of the camp and the countless indignities faced? How would I respond? What choices would I make in my personal response?

I am able to imagine and wish that I would respond in the ways depicted by many of the survivors of the camps. Survivors like Viktor Frankl a person I have massive respect for and someone whom I have learnt a lot from through his writings in “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  Reaching the nadir of our most basic being affords us an opportunity to consider our choices and perhaps lays bare the very foundation of what it is to be human. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to study this lesson based on the excruciating experiences of others without enduring the suffering they did and I choose to be aware of the lesson and take it to heart in my choices for now and the in future.

Irene McDermott © 2011