“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana.
Why going somewhere that deems to make your heart heavy? From Warsaw Old Town to Wieliczka Salt Mine, there are quite a lot more to see in Poland that bring you delight. But getting a closer look at this eastern European country which emerged as a developed country in the 21st century, you will find its history full of scars: its territory being completely wiped out from the map twice by Germans and Russians, 85% of its capital city Warsaw being destroyed into ruins during World War II, and its soil being soaked with blood of over 1 million war victims of the most catastrophic genocide in human history: Auschwitz.
Grown up with historic literatures especially about World War II, I feel that documentaries are never enough to describe the impact of what happened before. And that is the reason why my roommate Daniela and I decided to walk through Auschwitz, the darkest wartime, in person.
It was late November 2019, and the weather in Poland exactly matched the destination we were going: Gloomy with slight showers, and piercingly cold as 2 degree Celsius. Unfortunately, I did not bring too much clothes (only a jacket and a light sweater) and was trembling throughout the entire trip, especially on the open field of “extinction camp” Birkenau (the second concentration site of Auschwitz).
If the living conditions inside the brick architecture of Auschwitz seem gruesome enough, then Birkenau could only be far worse: A place in the wooden dwellings where parts of the “beds” ripped off was already a luxury, because the first life-and-death selection at the Birkenau train station will send more than half prisoners (who survived the airtight and unsanitary carriages) for “a shower” in the gas chamber. Needless to say, prisoners were often waiting for their fate in such harsh weather (or even worse), sometimes even forced to be naked.
Able-to-work individuals were further transferred to other Auschwitz camps. Yet the gallows, incinerators and countless used Zyklon B tins behind the electrical fences indicates that “Arbeit macht frei” ( the most ironic German sentence I could recognise) was just a fake promise. The Nazis took away not just their lives, but every single remains of the prisoners as possible: suitcases, glasses, shoes, even women’s hair (for textiles)!
Still, there was warmth in such a cold place: Underneath the Death Wall in Auschwitz, where Nazis shot dead prisoners, were flowers from all over the world, including Germany. Beside the international monument in Birkenau were German leaders from Schmidt to Merkel (she visited the camp a week after us), who
mourned the victims and have made over 1 billion Euro donations to conserve Auschwitz after wartime.
The trip to Auschwitz did not make me hate Germany. Instead, the responsible role of next generation Germans has won back the respect of the entire world. It is also known to all that Germany has quickly recovered from war loss and built economic miracles on the ruins as a perfect example of “becoming great again.”
I have read WWII literature from the perspectives of Fascism-influenced states: The aggression of war could be sparked by dissatisfaction of domestic problems, eager of expansion and colonization in order to become a global superpower. Yet what was in common was the authoritative will of “state machines”, which forced citizens to conquer even by means of injustice. Anyone who did not want to kill would be accused of “betrayal of the motherland,” the most devastating damage to one’s reputation.
Still, governments are led by humans, and humans are deemed to make mistakes. The greatness of a country will not diminish by a flaw on its image, but covering the dark history up somehow indicates a lack of confidence. A great country, in contrast, is able to face the mistakes from the past, take responsibility in the present and reminded not to repeat it in the future.
While the year of 2020 did not start peacefully, every escalation of the regional conflict reminds me of the day visiting the Holocaust, the faces of victims on the photo gallery, and how fragile peace could be. Yet just as our tour guide said, “those lives were gone forever. The only thing our ordinary people could do for them, is to respect and to remember.”
Yuwei Liu is senior majoring in International Business with and emphasis in German and Western Europe participating in the IB exchange program in Reutlingen University Baden-Württemberg, Germany for the fall semester.
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