Tears Part I: Socks and Bricks

I think I’ve figured out why I don’t like writing:

  1. I never seem to have a pen and paper or my laptop with me when I have all these thoughts I feel like I need to write down before I forget about them. “Well that’s an easy fix Meriel, just carry a notebook with you!” I wish it were that simple. I do have a travel journal and a perfectly matching handy dandy pen to go with it (Chris you’re the bomb dot com) but there has been many a time when it’s not smart/possible to just stop and pull out a journal (e.g. on a metro, in the funicular, while I’m walking) and other times I simply can’t physically carry it with me (e.g. some places have limits on bag sizes and my journal doesn’t fit in a purse).
  2. My writing can’t keep up with my thoughts. Ever. If there’s one thing Cornell has taught (or perhaps more accurately, conditioned) me to do is to be constantly thinking. Whether it’s about the problem set I need to finish, the meeting I have to attend, wherever I need to be exactly 6.5 minutes after this class ends, the thank you letter I should probably write, or the GF Cornell Dining brownie I’m really craving (fact: they are amazing), my mind is pretty much always racing, jumping from one thing to the next.

Today I encountered both of these dilemmas because I visited Auschwitz, the most famous of the concentration/extermination camps from the Holocaust. I could only bring a small purse so I couldn’t bring my journal, and even if I had been able to, there were so many thoughts racing through my mind both during and afterwards that there’s no way even a fraction of them would’ve made it onto paper. As a result, this is only a fraction of a fraction, which, as you can see, is still quite a lot.

After two decades of frequently learning about various aspects of one the largest genocides of the 20th century, a few years of AP history classes, and the phrase “60 million Jews” forever ingrained in my brain, I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on the scale of the Holocaust. Looking back I realized that I absolutely did not.

While visiting Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, Auschwitz I Museum, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau,* there were countless thoughts and emotions wreaking havoc in my mind, but I’m just going to focus on the three things that truly struck me:

#1: The “Room of Choices”

Room of Choices (a stock photo)

The entirety of Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum was incredibly well done, but one of the last rooms was especially overwhelming (as it’s intended to be), both visually and emotionally. It’s a relatively small circular room with several rotating columns (each in a different language). The white walls and columns are entirely covered with fragments of memories and quotes from survivors, witnesses, and people who had the chance to hide/rescue Jews. I wish I had taken a picture but in the moment, taking a photo was the last thing on my mind. There were snippets of valiance: a sister who volunteered to be deported solely because she wanted to protect her younger brother who had been randomly selected. There were also harrowing regrets: a farmer who turned away a Jewish family who asked to hide in his house during a raid, only to then witness their capture when they subsequently hid in the bushes outside his home.

#2: A girl’s recount of her mom giving her own socks to her and her brother, one each, before the siblings were transported to a different camp. I’ll spare you the rest of the story because I’m sure you can imagine how it ends. I myself could hardly read the rest after that because my vision became so blurred with tears.

#3: The silent forest of brick “chimneys”

A very small glimpse of the hundreds of towers

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the vast majority of the killing took place, was incredibly eerie for several reasons. It was strange to see the main gate, railway, and watchtowers because I felt as though I was simply looking at a photo from a history book, except this time I couldn’t just turn the page. The trees were bare, the land relatively flat so there was absolutely no protection from the wind and simply walking from one end of the camp to the other took about 10 minutes. To the left were rows of dilapidated wooden sheds, the “bunks” where the prisoners slept. To the right were rows upon rows upon rows, as far as I could see, of brick towers. This side probably used to be a mirror image of the wooden sheds except there were only outlines where the walls used to stand, with two towers in each silhouette. They resembled chimneys but I wouldn’t believe for a second that they were used for warmth, cooking, or anything of the sort. The most unsettling part was that despite the highway located not far away, all the tour groups meandering around, and the incessant wind, the camp somehow remained in almost complete silence. It was as though even the slightest sound was absorbed back into the muddy ground. I could fill a book with all my heartbreaking realizations, but essentially every train of thought always came back around to a single phrase: “I can’t even imagine…”

I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.

Oddly enough, I very rarely cry when I’m overwhelmingly sad, and this today was the rarity. Honestly, I was incredibly self-conscious while standing in front of a wall of text, sniffling and hiccupping while trying to make it to the end of the sock story, and standing frozen in front of the brick towers (still crying a bit) for what felt like an eternity because I simply could not processes the sheer size of the camp. It even sounds rather silly having written it down. But I absolutely believe it was anything but a waste to shed a few (hundred) tears on behalf of those who couldn’t in order to remain courageous for the sake of others.

While I  wouldn’t describe the visit as easy or pleasant, it’s a humbling opportunity that, if you ever have the chance, I would highly recommend. Perhaps the most important thing that has resulted from this experience is that I left with a permanent reminder to act upon and speak nothing but kindness, always.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

-Anne Frank


*Oskar Schindler’s Factory (the focus of “Schindler’s List”) is museum in the office building where the factory used to be (all traces of the factory’s existence were removed when Schindler fled the Nazis). Auschwitz I is the concentration camp with brick building “blocks” and one gas chamber, used as more of a labor camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is an expansion of Auschwitz I but it’s a few kilometers away and built on a much larger scale, including five gas chambers, each twice the size of that in Auschwitz I.


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