The thing I remember most about Auschwitz is not the sight of barbed wire surrounding the camp, not the morbid walk from the main living quarters to the crematorium, not even the nausea induced by the sight of the fingernail marks etched in desperation on the walls of the gas chambers.
What I remember most clearly about my visit to the death camp in Poland last spring is a group of three European teenagers. I noticed them soon after entering the camp, just beyond the gate reading "Arbeit Macht Frei," words I think I learned to say in German before I even knew how to construct a proper sentence in English. The three kids were taking a photograph. Two of them flanked a sign by the gate that depicted a skull and crossbones and the German word for danger, a dire warning for any inmate who might try to escape. Kneeling close to the skeleton head, the two teenagers put on their scariest faces and lifted their arms and legs in the air, crossing them to mimic the sign. The third snapped their picture, while all three laughed jubilantly at their joke.
Their laughter was the first sound I heard in Auschwitz, an otherwise silent, lifeless place. Guided tours of the Auschwitz grounds are muted; the guides dress in drab colors, the pathways and bunkers seem eerily sterile. For the most part, the tourists I saw there, even large groups, were hushed and inconspicuous amid the desolate scenery. It's a place where laughter stands out, and even now, close to a year later, the sound of those kids' laughter still echoes in my mind when I think about that visit. I went to Auschwitz because it is part of my own story; I left thinking about how little it means to many others.
This week, amid reading about the commemorative events surrounding the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and watching webcasts of the historic special commemorative session of the U.N. General Assembly, I cannot stop thinking about those kids. Now that the eyes of the world again turn to the horrors that took place at Auschwitz, do they regret taking that photograph? Or do they still laugh about the fun they had at the concentration camp?
The clowning kids might seem like they'd be an anomaly in a place so redolent of death, but their behavior was not the only example of blatant disrespect I saw during my three-hour visit. A father and son similarly posed for a photograph, with the son pretending to be electrocuted on the barbed-wire fence. I am sure things like this happen every day. As the world saw last week with the controversy over Britain's Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party, this kind of insensitivity isn't limited to the grounds of Auschwitz, or to ordinary people in their unguarded moments. All these examples remind us of the inevitable distortions and sanitizing brought by historical distance. Sixty years have passed, and a death camp has become a tourist attraction. A Nazi uniform, a costume. Barbed wire, a vacation snapshot.
I didn't take any photographs at Auschwitz because I didn't need to: horror, even seen 60 years after it ended, isn't easily erased from memory. Speechlessness cannot be captured on film. Sheer incomprehension at the senselessness of what happened there does not translate digitally. The pain caused by standing on the same ground where my mother's four grandparents perished is not the kind of thing one can record with a camera.
Even my guilt remains raw, undeveloped. Guilt because as I rage internally over others' insensitivity to memory, I have lost a piece of mine. My family always intended to videotape my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, though not of Auschwitz, telling his story. When he died two years ago at the age of 87, that became impossible. Documenting his life was something we always talked about, but found easier to put off. His story remains scattered now, in the memory of his four children, those of his 11 grandchildren who are old enough to know, in a few other surviving relatives. In my grandmother, barely 18 at the time of the Auschwitz liberation, for whom, like all Holocaust survivors, there is no such thing as historical distance.
This week's commemorative events and speeches and museum exhibits can remind the world of the atrocities humans have inflicted on each other, and of the necessity of doing good in the face of horrendous evil. But they cannot stop the ebb of time, the inevitablity of survivors dying and the memory of what happened to them and to their families being distorted. There are many still alive on the sixtieth anniversary to remind us of their pain, to show us their permanent wounds. What happens on the seventieth, or eightieth anniversary?
If I had taken one photograph at Auschwitz, it would have been of those three teenagers, or of the jovial father and son. I would have marked it with a skull and crossbones, and a German word of warning. That would be my commemoration. I would document such heartlessness in a heartless place, the true danger of the passage of time.
On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we must listen to the testimony of people who were there and mark the occasion with solemn ceremonies. But it's also a time to figure out how to reach those who are oblivious to history, or so far removed from the experience that they perceive horror as kitsch.
I grew up with the knowledge of the tragedy of the Holocaust as a fundamental part of my identity. Now that I have only one remaining grandparent to share her story, the urgency of transmitting this reality to future generations is even greater.
My experience at Auschwitz taught me that to correct the distortions of memory, witness must go beyond family, beyond official commemorations. Somehow, the experience of the Holocaust must also become part of the identity of those people who regard it as a distant curiosity. If not, the shape of memory will be defined for future generations as much by the distortions as by the stories of families like mine.