Visit included trip to the site of the former death camp
In late August 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Poland as a guest of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Together, our delegation of federal government employees spent one week diving into graduate level coursework on the heart-wrenching history of atrocities perpetrated against mankind, and atrocity prevention strategies so that we may better identify, counteract and prevent future acts of violence against humanity. Genocide has been perpetrated over the centuries all over the world, but the scope of the Holocaust is unparalleled. Two-thirds of the Jews in Europe were exterminated during this time.
I have resisted writing thoughts on this experience over the last five months because I felt that no matter what I write, I will not appropriately describe what I learned and the raw feelings that accompanied these experiences.
Today is a significant milestone to all of mankind, but specifically for our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community. It is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz, but not before 1.1 million men, woman and children of all ages died there - simply because of who they were as individuals and who they prayed to. Today is the day I finally share my thoughts.
Fear is a powerful weapon. Left unchecked, it can lead people down a path of developing intense and unbridled hatred for others. Blame is often misplaced on a minority group for a societal ill. This was the case for the Jews in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the lead up to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.
As I sat in the prisoner barracks of Auschwitz I on the first morning of the seminar, I felt the weight of the souls that were lost all around me. It might sound dramatic but visit and you will see. Dehumanization, hate and scapegoating led to one of the most shameful periods of human history and here I was sitting in the middle of it. Over the next few days I walked through the gas chambers and crematoriums. I viewed the displays of luggage and personal items, shoes, glasses and women’s hair that was used to stuff Nazi furniture. I watched as countless groups of visitors walked by the “hospital” where Josef Mengele performed surgeries to experiment on perfectly healthy people, and the courtyards where prisoners were publicly executed by firing squad en masse.
At Auschwitz II - Birkenau, which was over 400 acres of land designed only for death, our group walked the train tracks, observed living conditions that were not fit for rodents and walked the final path of prisoners. Our steps were their steps - we entered the processing center where Jewish families were checked in, separated from loved ones, stripped of their clothing and belongings, had their heads shaved and made to shower with either freezing cold or steaming hot water - and sent off to the gas chambers. The only people who were not killed immediately were the strongest males who were made to clean up the remains after the gas chambers had done their work. Can you imagine being made to throw the lifeless bodies of your family, friends, countrymen and fellow worshippers into a furnace? The inhumanity is truly unbearable- but it did not end there. Our tour guide, a Polish woman from the town of Oswiecim where the camps are located explained that pregnant women were made to deliver children with their legs bound, and their babies would be drowned in buckets of water. I asked our guide through my tears, “how am I supposed to tell these stories. It feels impossible.” She became very serious and took my hand and said, “you have to. That is how people will know what happened here. We must never stop telling these stories and working for a better future.” She couldn’t have been more correct.
Today, we must continue to educate others, remaining ever vigilant and calling out every instance where the seeds of hate are being sewn. The dehumanizing of people, the stripping of status, unjust incarcerations, separating families and vilifying based on ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. must be stopped by the collective of humanity - or be assured, we will lose humanity itself for our children and their children’s children. We owe it to ourselves and our shared future, that on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we remember and honor the lives lost by reestablishing our firm conviction that never again means never again.
Lemma is Meng’s District Director
By Sandra Ung
My mother doesn’t really talk about it much but growing up, I always wondered what happened to her parents. I am of Chinese descent and was born in Cambodia in September of 1974. As I grew up, I learned about the horrors inflicted on people by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Much to my surprise, the atrocities committed against the innocents in Cambodia were only recently classified as a genocide. Since then, I have sought to further educate myself regarding the concept of genocide and how it relates to my own suppressed family history.
In August of 2019, I was afforded a unique opportunity to participate in the Raphael Lemkin Seminar hosted by the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation in Oswiecim, Poland. Over the course of seven days, I participated in graduate level seminars presented by experts in the history of atrocity and atrocity prevention. During the week, I visited Auschwitz I and Birkenau. At first, I was taken aback by the enormity of the place, and how odd it was that everything was so quiet and eerily peaceful.
This observation was in stark contrast to the horrors that occurred in these camps. I will always remember seeing the suitcases with people’s names on them, valuables they bought with them, the hair, the shoes, the looks of anguish and starvation of those forced into the camps. I equally will remember the pictures of the SS and other Nazi officers who inflicted so much pain yet, their eyes were filled with so much joy.
As I took in the totality of this experience, I began to better understand why the Jewish faith is so strong in our community, our country and throughout the world. The determination of the Jewish community, and their collective will to continue after the extermination of six million of their people is a testament to their faith and resiliency.
My mom always said to me, we are lucky to be alive! She was right, and as I grew into adulthood, I could never articulate the responsibility I felt to serve others to help assure a more equitable and just future.
When I read Primo Levi’s quote on the wall of the museum at Auschwitz, “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere,” the weight of my family’s experience and the experience of the Jewish people came together in my mind.
In this moment, I realized why I choose to work within my beautifully diverse community, serving and advocating for more than 14 years. We must all work together to create a more inclusive world and that starts at the community level. Through mutual understanding and forging meaningful bonds with people from all walks of life, we must work to ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide remain a part of history, not a reality of our present society.
Ung is Meng’s Special Assistant