“Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately would not be worth living at all.”
– Dr. Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor
As soon as Natalie and I booked our trip to Krakow, Poland for the first leg of our Christmas break in Europe, I knew I had to visit Auschwitz.
And for a few weeks leading up to the trip, I’d made a conscious effort to truly open myself up to the experience. I suppose I hoped for some sort of transformational moment from this visit, some sort of inspiring insight I could hold onto and share. This was not a visit to just another monument, or the home of some historic leader. This was Auschwitz. The site of over a million human deaths to starvation, illness, and mass execution in the gas chambers.
But I felt conflicted even before the trip. After all, how could I possibly reflect on human suffering, having never truly suffered deep, unexpected loss or pain in my own life? Is it possible to search for triumphs in the face of atrocities without painting yourself as insensitive and out of touch?
Maybe not, but my hope is that these pages can serve as small artifacts of inspiration, and in the spirit of paying my respects to those who perished in that horrible place, I wanted to try.
From the start, the day was filled with perverse ironies and disturbing contradictions that I had trouble shaking. The transformative experience I’d hoped for seemed at risk before even setting foot in the car.
- “Layer up,” I thought as I dressed in our apartment in Krakow. After all, I’d be outside in the cold for a couple of hours. That thought made me quickly conscious of my simple comforts while setting off to visit the camp.
- As we made our way through the 90-minute drive, I thought about the victims’ journeys to the camps on overcrowded train cars 70 years ago. From that point on, everything I observed was a little bit grayer, a little bit more lifeless – happy families Christmas shopping in the small towns we passed through, the quaint and welcoming roadside homes, even the beautiful countryside. Visiting Auschwitz reframed everything through a dark and disturbing lens.
- The first step on the tour was to break into groups by language – Polish, French, German, English and more. Seeing such a variety of nationalities represented was powerful, and a thought stuck with me throughout the tour. I could take some solace knowing that my country, including my grandfather who served in the Pacific Islands during World War II, sacrificed so much to put an end to this evil. We were on the right side of history. But what must this experience feel like knowing your country was on the wrong side?
- The tour permitted photos and discussion, with the exception of only two areas out of the entire three-hour visit. But given the history of this place, it felt as though every part of it should be viewed in silence. I’d listen to the instructions to remain silent in those two specific places, all the while mindful of the fact that nearly every step we took was likely atop a forgotten grave.
- The “tourist” nature of the visit itself was a contradiction. From the concession stands outside the museum entrance, to the souvenir shops, and especially the visitors taking pictures throughout. Hopefully the images they captured were personal, intimate ways of paying their respects, but it felt like a cold and an insensitive way to experience a place I expected to be completely solemn.
And so these tensions nagged at me during my visit, making it just a bit more difficult to pay the type of respect that the space deserves. But the history was appalling, and the enormity of it all was impossible to ignore.
A few days before our trip, I cracked open a book I’ve long considered a favorite, Dr. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The first half of the book details Frankl’s horrific experiences in concentration camps during World War II, including Auschwitz. Following his liberation in 1945, he also learned that his mother, father, wife and brother had all died in various camps during the war.
But the breakdown of his psychiatric philosophy, logotherapy, in the second half of the book is one of the most important concepts I’ve ever been introduced to. A well-known passage illustrates a critical piece of his philosophy, and one I turn to often:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl had spent most of his life developing a philosophy built around the importance of meaning in a person’s life. Then, on his first day at Auschwitz, a camp guard destroyed the manuscript containing his life’s work. Re-writing the thesis in his mind and on any scrap he could find gave him meaning that, he argues, was a big reason for his survival. He carefully lays out examples of other prisoners who survived because of their ability to find their own meaning, and others who died immediately after losing theirs.
Frankl suggests we find meaning from three sources: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
Finding meaning from suffering, even the most unjust suffering imaginable. A difficult contradiction to process, but a powerful one just the same.
The afternoon before my Auschwitz trip, Natalie and I visited Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto, where the final remains of the ghetto wall stands today. The top of the wall was built to resemble a series of tombstones, a clear example of the deliberateness of the Nazi’s evil, and a constant reminder for those who struggled inside that all hope was lost.
But just a few blocks away from that wall sits Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Schindler was a man conflicted. After initially setting out to profit off of the Jewish persecution, he ensured the survival of 1,500 people by hiring them and all but ensuring he lost any profits he might otherwise have enjoyed.
Near the entrance to his factory hangs a plaque with a quote:
“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
So while I struggled with my own inner conflict leading up to the Auschwitz visit, and the contradictions during the tour itself, the experience eventually provided some clarity. Because those stories of hope and triumph that I find most inspiring are contradictions in themselves, and for Frankl and Schindler and so many others, they represent the greatest contradictions of them all – redemption amidst death, hope in the face of evil, even inspiration and meaning from suffering. Their stories help make human all the Nazis tried to dehumanize, and because so many people will forever find inspiration from their stories, they will forever be a living tribute to those who perished.