When I went to Europe for the first time, I didn’t know what toexpect. Before I left for eleven days of trekking through foreign cities, I had unbelievably highexpectations and the only one that wasn’t met was my desire to stay and never go to schoolagain, unless it was in Krakow. The culture in all three cities (even Prague, my least favorite)was amazing and wonderful. Shopping for souvenirs is a whole different endeavor in a place likePoland, with street vendors and matrioshkas galore, or in Prague, where the thing to bring home wasBohemian crystal. And we were trying to communicate with these people not knowing much more thanhow to say “hello” in German, Polish and Czech!
Because it seemed that justabout everything was different, I noticed it all, including how the doors overlapped the frameswhen closed. All the toilets had unique flushers that had to be scrutinized before deciding to pullor push. The trains seemed operated by computers (getting stuck in the door and having it move waskind of a tip off, or else we had an extremely heartless conductor), and the metro system in eachcity was basically run on the honor system, a concept practically unknown to a cynicalAmerican.
The main point of my trip was not, however, to max out my credit card in trendyEuropean shops. The purpose was to visit concentration camps and museums that most Americansdon’t see. The entire experience threw me for a loop because of the immediate culture shockon top of thinking, Oh, my God - this is ... a concentration camp. Only, it was a lot moredifficult to grasp this confrontation with history than it was to realize I was on a differentcontinent.
Visiting the first concentration camp, Majdanek, was one of the mostindescribable experiences I’ve ever had. We visited Auschwitz, the most “famous”concentration camp, as well, but I most remember Majdanek. It was four hours from where we werestaying, tucked away in the rural town of Lublin. I had heard of Auschwitz and seen countlesspictures of the train tracks and the gate declaring Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free) andheard various survivor stories, but I’d never heard of Majdanek. It was a mystery.
Idon’t remember what I saw first but two very distinct images are seared into my mind. Thefirst is a dome under which was a large pile of what looked like dirt, only it was ashes - theashes of human remains. A few yards away was a lumpy hill that served as a memorial where morevictims had been buried. After relentlessly snapping pictures in Auschwitz, I hardly took out mycamera during the long walk here in the sharp cold. I saw
others around me taking picturesof the pile and couldn’t help but wonder why. I didn’t need a picture. I would rememberwhat it looked like without having to degrade the memory of those whose remains were right in frontof me. The size of the mound was incomprehensible and the number of people it represented even moreso.
The second image is the hill of houses on the other side of the barbed wire, outside thecamp. They were built before the war, stood during the war, and were still there for me to considerwith disbelief and disgust. These houses had people living in them. Families perhaps not unlikethose who had been taken from their homes and brought to this camp. These people were certainlyaware of the camp’s existence. They were close enough to smell the crematoriums, and based onsurvivor accounts, the smell was horrific and unforgettable.
As I stood on the hill with myhand on my camera deep inside my warm bag, I couldn’t help but wonder what those onlookersshould have done. Realistically, what could they have done? It’s easy now, of course, for meto believe it was impossible for all those people to be aware of such a horrible thing and donothing. I can easily look down on them and say I could have done better. Have we learned anythingfrom this display of apparent indifference from basically an entire population? I thought about theU.N.’s reaction to Colin Powell calling the Sudan conflict genocide - there wasn’t one,and nobody did anything. We’ve learned nothing.
We’re not living right next doorto the massacre of innocent people but we’re all aware it is happening. We as Americans havethe right to protest, to do something to make the government care. I think the problem is that mostAmericans are only concerned about their own interests. If there’s nothing to gain, the causeisn’t worthy. If that’s not it, I don’t know what else it could be exceptlaziness. And if it’s neither of these, I don’t know what it says about us as a people,but I would like to think that people aren’t ignoring this just because they trulydon’t care.
I don’t know if genocide is preventable. I’d like to thinkso, but my cynical side keeps the topic open for discussion. The thing is, it’s not just thepeople who are committing the crimes who are responsible - the Nazis, the Hutus, the Janjaweed.Genocide would not exist if it weren’t for them, but without intervention, it’s aone-sided battle. What message does it send to the perpetrators if no one is willing to put an endto their crimes?
I only began to process everything I saw in Europe when I got home andlooked at photographs I’d studied before the trip. They were of an unimaginable hell onearth; I’d known that when I first saw them. But the picture then was from the past, in blackand white. My mind had created a wall that said, “No, those are just pictures. Picturesdon’t show everything.” When I saw those same pictures again after coming home, it feltlike an eye was blinking slowly open inside my head. I rubbed at it. I recognized those places fromstanding there in the biting cold, and being able to see the endless rows of barracks, and the rowsof houses not a mile away. It was more than just an image from the past that doesn’t existanymore. The dilemma that both confuses and haunts me is that it still happens, and is happeningeven now.
The thing is, genocide is a topic that is okay to be confused about. In fact,people should be confused. Being able to understand why there was an attempt to systematicallyexterminate a certain group of people puts it into rational terms. It shouldn’t be put inrational terms since this gives its motivation a tiny bit of justification.
Europe is aplace people go every day for business and fun, trips like the one I took. Before I went to Poland,I thought everyone who came to America should learn English. I was sick of trying to deal withpeople who would talk to me in a different language. The people I encountered in Poland were someof the kindest I have ever met. It was the first time I truly felt like a tourist, like those Ilaugh at every day. Now I was the foreigner. I didn’t belong, but I wasn’t unwelcome.Many of the vendors I haggled with knew little English, but not once did I run into someone whobecame impatient with my ignorance of their language. They always offered a kind smile, not apatronizing one like would be given to a tourist here who doesn’t speak English.
WhenI was in Majdanek, the memory of some of these people floated into my mind. I imagined that thosewho lived in the houses over the hill during the war might have been similar to the kind faces Imet in Krakow. It suddenly didn’t make sense that the previous generations were apatheticwhile the current one is so empathetic. It seems like it’s the ever-present enigma of theimpartial witness. There’s an unknown force that prevents people from getting too involved,not because they don’t care but something else.
One of the amazing things about Europeis the history buried in the cities affected by war. Poland, along with most of Eastern Europe, hasthe dark burden of Hitler’s tyranny. The worst thing would be to pretend it never happened,though many have tried because they’re ashamed. Not many tourists venture to Poland becauseof the stain from the genocide, but Eastern Europe’s culture is not defined by World War II.
It’s important to travel and see the world, especially places where the history isnot as glorious as its citizens would like. It reminds us, while we’re watching the eveningnews with all the horrible images of persecution, that we can’t take a page from ourpredecessors’ book and say, “Oh, that’s terrible,” and go back to eatingdinner. Whatever that something else may be, even if it’s unknown, we have to fight it, whichis a lesson we should have learned from previous generations.
I doubt that genocide iscompletely preventable, but there’s no way to test it if we remain apathetic. As T. S. Eliotalluded to in his poem, “The Hollow Men,” having apathy in society is almost worse thanhaving bad intentions. It’s better to try and fail, rather than not to try at all.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way theworld ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.