While visiting Europe can be the trip of a lifetime, it can also serve as a reminder of Europe’s World War 2 fascist nightmare. Many Americans learn about the Holocaust and Hitler in school. But there is just something different about seeing the barracks, some of which are partially still standing, or the foundations of where the guard towers once were, or clearings where people were gunned down by the masses. There is something different about descending into a crematorium, or walking through cells that were the sites of human medical experiments and torture, or standing alone in front of the Black Wall at Auschwitz.
As the years pass, the meaning the Holocaust is contextualized differently among Americans. There are less survivors, less survivors’ children. The facts of the Holocaust are becoming less personal and more historical. They are stories rather than realities. They are black and white pictures rather than broken homes, tortured livelihoods, and terrible deaths. But visiting a concentration camp in person can change your perspective about racism and fascism.
Visiting a concentration camp challenges you to walk through and see the reality of what happened under fascist rule. You observe sites of beatings, torture, killings. It gives you names, and families, and you see mounds of shoes, hair, eye glasses. You see children’s shoes. You see what happens when one person thinks his or her skin color, religion, beliefs, or just life situation is better than any other’s. I think the most appalling thing for me was more deeply understanding that there was no reason for this hate. No reason to kill children, families, gypsies, Jews, gays, twins, priests, handicapped, or the mentally ill. No reason to kill mothers, brothers, children. No reason to exterminate masses for any other reason than racism and hate.
It is impossible to take a tour of Dachau or Auschwitz or any other concentration camp, and not feel compassion for humanity. It is impossible to think that Hitler should be worshiped or saluted. It is impossible to even think of Hitler without feeling something sickening in the bottom of your stomach. Yet here we are in 2017 and I hear Americans saying hateful and racist rhetoric- idolizing Hitler. Is this real life? It’s certainly not how God wants us to be or how God wants us to treat each other.
As I reflect on what to do- on what to tell my daughter, on what to post on Facebook, I am so tempted to just “stay out of politics”. To tell my friends I’m indifferent or not about that marching life. I’m so slow to respond. But then I realize that is only my privilege that allows me to feel that way. What if I was a different race, religion, or of a different socioeconomic status. What if I was disabled? What if I wasn’t an American citizen or what if I didn’t speak English? What if I grew up in a bad neighborhood? What if I wasn’t educated? What if I truly had to fight for my rights or for my safety every single day. My response to Charlottesville and all other acts of oppression is that I cannot stand idly by. I will promote love and stand against racism and pray for God’s redeeming love. Because I’ve seen what could happen if we don’t do it.
Although the Holocaust grows further in the past, people are still finding ways to contextualize and give meaning for the present. I certainly am. All I can do is pray that history will never repeat itself. Pray that love outshines hate. Pray that we move forward rather than turn back. Pray that America will one day eradicate racism. Stand with the groups marching against white supremacist in Charlottesville. There is no place for white supremacy or fascism in the US. There is no place for racism in 2017.
There were 23 concentration camps in Europe, each having subcamps totaling nearly 900. Camps were used for many purposes, from temporary way stations, to extermination and mass murder. If you can make it to one of these camps that are open to visitors, here are some tips on how to visit the sobering sites:
- Be respectful. Hold off on the small talk.
- Don’t take goofy pictures or selfies.
- Strongly consider if the experience is appropriate for your young children.
- Plan a somber day (Don’t pack in a concentration camp after a tour of a German castle or before a Polish pub crawl).
- Know that you are probably emotionally unprepared.
- Know that something may change inside you- and that’s a good thing.