Traveling, for me, is about so much more than “seeing.” It’s about immersing myself in cultures and meeting people who think and live differently than me. It’s about embracing a heightened state of awareness of this crazy beautiful world. If more people sat down with a stranger from across the globe and truly made an effort to understand their beliefs, there could be less hatred, racism, and religious intolerance. I travel so I can learn as much as humanly possible through firsthand experience. And the more I travel, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Reading about the history that’s shaped our world is fascinating, but seeing it firsthand, as I had the privilege to do several weeks ago with the Candles Holocaust Museum, is something else entirely.
I spent three days in Poland at the mass human extermination factory better known as Auschwitz-Birkenau with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor. The older, smaller part of the complex is Auschwitz I, while the larger section several kilometers away is known as Birkenau, built specifically to murder as many people as efficiently as possible. It was a place where families were ripped apart at a selection platform and unknowingly marched to their death. Where up to two thousand people were crammed into a room as guards shoved canisters of Zyklon B through holes in the ceiling to annihilate humanity.
Where the only reason Eva survived was that she was a twin, and Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele kept her alive as a subject of horrifying human experiments. I had learned about the Holocaust in school, but had never been able to put a face to the atrocity that killed 11 million people in the most sterile, efficient manner, until meeting Eva. Until realizing that despite the inhumanity she experienced being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, she has forgiven the perpetrators of this injustice.
On our first day, we left sunny Krakow only to arrive in Birkenau a little over an hour later to a downpour and wind that chilled us to the core. The whole world seemed to weigh in on itself, the heavy burden of the sky masking the rows upon rows of barracks in gray. We stood at the selection platform, a long concrete slab where victims were selected for either death or slave labor. I couldn’t quite comprehend the immensity of this factory of death stretching in all directions. I couldn’t grasp that at just under five feet, rain hailing down on her, Eva could stand tall before us at the very spot she was ripped from her family.
Filing into a barrack that was once lined with rows of rat infested bunks that crammed up to five people per bed, Eva told us about the moment she made a silent pledge to herself. “The first time I went to use the latrine located at the end of the children’s barrack, I was greeted by the scattered corpses of several children lying on the ground. I think that image will stay with me forever. It was there that I made a silent pledge – a vow to make sure that Miriam and I didn’t end up on that filthy floor.”
As tour groups filed past us, some people would stop. They would inquisitively wonder why a group of over one hundred of us stood before an 82 year old woman. I would observe them go from curiosity to tearful recognition as they realized that they were listening to a survivor speak in the very spot where everyone she had ever known was reduced to ashes billowing from the death chambers. As they realized that the stories of suffering at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele were her own.
She had witnessed a pair of Roma twins brought back from Mengele’s lab after they were sewn back to back, an attempt to create a conjoined twin by connecting blood vessels and organs. They died several days later in screaming fits of gangrenous pain. She had fallen ill when injected with numerous chemicals, while her twin Miriam had been quarantined – if she died, Miriam would be killed and used as the control in her autopsy. She stood before us, a beacon of positivity and light; a triumphant survivor rather than a victim.
On our second day, we walked through the harrowing gates of Auschwitz I, the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” – work sets you free – ironically staring down at us. We walked through a large room with nothing but human hair. Human hair that was shaved from the dead and sent to Germany to be used in textiles. When asked if she remembered the camp’s orchestra, or all of the beautiful trees planted around the complex, Eva remarked that she had no recollection. Her entire focus had been on surviving. All other details were mere background noise in a life with one purpose.
We say it’s important to learn history so it doesn’t repeat itself. But, what good is knowledge if nothing is actually done with it? What good is knowing that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust if similar atrocities are happening today in Syria? If 800,000 Rwandans were killed during a 3 month period in 1994? If a quarter of Cambodia’s population was decimated? If we are facing a very real scenario in the U.S. in which intolerance will be perpetrated by one of the world’s most powerful leaders? Knowledge is a tool, and is only as powerful as what you do with it. History is bound to repeat itself, but each and every one of us has a choice with what to do with that knowledge.
In the words of Eva Kor, “We can do evil. We can stand by and do nothing. Or, we can do good.”
And, “doing good” doesn’t mean you have to single handedly save the world. Imagine the impact of a small act of kindness multiplied by the 7 billion people on earth. One person can make a difference. Towards the end of 1941, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz I, prompting the SS camp commander to pick 10 men at random to be starved to death. When one of the selected men stood crying for his family, Father Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to die in his place.
A sacrifice for a complete stranger, an act of faithfulness with no expectation for reward. A group of us stood before the remnants of Eva’s barrack at Birkenau, as she reached into her purse with a huge smile on her face and pulled out a contraption she uses to pick up trash, in an effort to leave the world just a little cleaner than she found it. No act of kindness is too small. It is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated way to leave a lasting impact.
A life of travel led me to a situation where a group of people arrived in Poland as strangers and returned home a tribe, united by Eva’s message of illuminating the world with hope, healing, respect, and responsibility.
So I will continue to seek every nook and cranny of the world. I will continue to discover every religion and culture, every other-wordly landscape and impossible sunset. Traveling comes in all forms, but is so much more than the photos, the mementos, and the memories you bring home. If you are open to the unknown, there are trips that can transform your very notion of what it means to be alive.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, all foes to real understanding. Likewise tolerance and charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in our corner of the earth.” ~Mark Twain
Learn more about visiting Auschwitz with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor: http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/