„The Divine Comedy would have been a sensational work of art, if Dante had not been in hell but in a Concentration Camp“ H. Szuman
Fall 2009. It was our graduation trip, and my friends and I decided to take on the 17-hour train ride to Poland to spend a week in the beautiful city of Krakow. Krakow – what an amazing place to visit……the wind seems to carry a rush of magic - through the narrow alleys and over the cobble-stoned streets - with every breath it takes. A trumpet chimes in all four cardinal directions from the bell tower to mark the full hour and while jazz music in the cellar bars makes the ground beneath your feet vibrate in a pulsating beat, stories of enchanted pigeons that had once been knights take flight with each stroke of their wings. And, back then, you could buy a beer for like 50 cents, which made both our empty, young pockets and youthful hearts very happy.
But the main reason I chose Krakow over Vienna was the planned trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau on the third or fourth day.
Growing up in Germany there is no escaping our history … not any more … our parents' generation made sure of that. No hiding the truth, no faking the past … 6 Million Jews, 200,000 Roma, 250,000 people with disabilities, 70,000 criminal offenders and so-called a-socials, homosexuals, political opponents, prisoners of war … lives ... taken for an ideology, an idea and the megalomania of not just one man … but a complete nation.
Entering through that broad gate crowned with the well-known sign „ARBEIT MACHT FREI“ (work sets you free) and listening to our tour guide rattle on about the facts, it was hardly more than a kind of „seeing-the-textbook-in-real-life“ … there is an undeniable chilling energy, yes … but we already knew that feeling from Dachau, Jewish museums and various memorial sites.
So we chatted – how weird to think that these charming brick buildings had housed something so evil – remember that Holocaust survivor who came to talk in class that one time? That was intense, man! – Crazy to think all of this happened not even a century ago …
And then we entered one of those charming brick houses … thick silence hit us like a cement wall and our chatting was crushed by it's sudden force. The smell of something … so old ... it could only be dead … crept into our noses.
We are so used to perceiving the world with our eyes that when our other senses pick up on something first … we can't quite comprehend, can't quite grasp what it is we are to think or feel. All we knew was that something dreadful was coming and as soon as my eyes caught up with my other senses, my vision blurred in disbelief and yet I could see it as clearly as ever.
Behind glass, along a wall that seemed to go on for miles and miles, was a sea of grey, lifeless human hair, hair that some 65 years prior had been shaved off of the heads of living people.
From there we entered a room full of suitcases with the names of their previous owners still written on them in white letters; from there ... a room filled with shoes … a room with artificial legs and wooden crutches. With every barracks a new horror … reminders of what humans are capable of.
I remember exactly when the emotional dam I was trying to maintain came crashing down with a violent rush of tears that, for the rest of our stay, I was unable to contain … because my best friend lost it at the exact same moment. It was the eyeglass frames - golden colored frames whose lenses had been removed and that had been stacked together … thrown over each other like a metaphor for the dead bodies that had once been carelessly heaped to light a human bonfire… the vision of their owner's eyes stolen twice.
I don't know why the glasses had such an effect on us. Maybe because of the vulnerability they portrayed, maybe because it was the last strike after having seen all those other artifacts, maybe because nobody else seemed to pay as much attention to them, just like neighbours, friends and co-workers chose to look away back then … I don't know what it was … all I know is that for the rest of our tour through Auschwitz and Birkenau I was heartbroken. The only thing that made it bearable were my friends who … each in their own way … felt the same pain.
I remember walking through one of the smaller barracks that was plastered with black and white pictures of little children … the Jewish children that had been murdered on the same ground where we were standing. My friends and I stood close together, arm in arm, holding on to each other thinking of those young lost lives as we stood in silence in front of the „Black Wall” - the „Death Wall” - where the Nazis had shot deadly bullets through innocent bodies.
It was tough, it was painful, and my heart broke more times in that one day than it had the entire year. But the thing that completely numbed me … that I will never forget as long as I live … happened on our bus ride back to the City.
We had just spent hours walking through that massive graveyard … a graveyard that, like it or not, our ancestors dug … and all many of my classmates could talk about on the way back was how they couldn't wait to get back and take a nap, what they would have for dinner and how drunk they were planning to get that night. Sheer and utter indifference. No outrage, no discussion, no sadness … just stupid, superficial, millennial talk.
It wasn't until years later that I started to understand why they were able to detach themselves so much from what we had just seen. Not because, what I thought back then, they were cold-hearted people, but because of the slogan that hovers over our history: NEVER AGAIN!
We learn to remember but we are also lured into a false sense of security – it's history ... done … over … and it won't happen again.
I was born on the 27th of January, 1991, the 46th anniversary of the liberation of the Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Funny, when I tell people that, most of them react in a kind of „Oh man - I'm sorry for you“ way … I, myself, always thought it to be a positive thing.
Either way, this date naturally marks an important day for me, so this year instead of just celebrating my birthday I decided, in light of our work at the „Amnesty International Education Group“, to organize an event for the 74th year of liberation.
Honoring victims is remembering. Remembering is understanding one’s history. And understanding one’s history should mean: to try and learn from it.
But we have seen „Never Again” happen over and over again after the end of the Second World War. The genocides in China, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, the racism of segregation in the States and apartheid in South Africa, the religious discrimination in places like Burma, Ireland and many countries in the middle east and nationalistic, far-right politics have been gaining more and more popularity in the western world over the past years.
Honoring past victims is trying to prevent new victims. In order to do that, one must stop the oppressors; and to take action on anything, one must first understand who and what one is up against on the other side.
Something like 80% of gun deaths in African American communities are homicides. 80% of deaths by a gun in the white communities in the States are suicides. Girls and young women often express their inner pain through cutting themselves or succumbing to anorexia and bulimia, while boys and young men rather join gangs and meet on a field as hooligans to mindlessly beat the shit out of each other over their favorite soccer teams. Self-loathing and external wrath - flip sides of the same coin. The same number: violence! The same currency: hate!
Why do you join an extremist group? After all that we know, after all the world has seen, why would you still believe in such ideologies? What in the world would motivate you to live a life of hate? And how do you physically and mentally find the heart to change and leave that chapter of your life behind?
„Hurt people, hurt people“ Y. Berg
The opposite of hate is not love, but compassion. In June 2011, the „Summit Against Violent Extremism” invited former radicals from all walks of life to come together to try to find answers as to why they had joined - and why they had left - fanatic movements. There were former skinheads, white supremacists, radical Muslims, gang members, conservative priests … all coming together to seek understanding, find common ground and look for ways to prevent young people from following the same path.
What they found was, no matter how different the ideas, ideologies or methods of those organizations … the reasons to join them were the same: a sense of belonging, empowerment and solidarity by depicting and enforcing a notion of superiority over another race, religion or group.
And the reason for leaving? Receiving compassion from someone from whom they didn't think they deserved it.
The keynote speaker at our event in January was Tony McAleer, the board chair of Life After Hate, a North-American Exit Organisation that was founded after the summit in Dublin. I sent the organisation an Email request, not really expecting it to actually work out. Tony got in contact with me just a few days later and said he was happy to speak at our event. A former white supremacist himself, Tony's views and ideologies changed after he became a father and found himself obtaining unconditional love from his children, which he believed was a gift he did not deserve.
A few years ago, when Tony was already very active in his anti-fascism work, he was asked to join a documentary that was to be filmed in Auschwitz.
When I visited Auschwitz, I knew that, had I lived back then as a mixed-raced person, I could have been a victim, which is frightening.
Tony visited Auschwitz knowing that, had he lived back then at a certain point in his life, he would have been a Nazi, a Guard and a Murderer – which is absolutely devastating.
We all have things in our personal history that we are not proud of, things we would prefer to lock up, hide out of sight and never talk about again.
Imagine all of those skeletons, all of those hidden Pandora’s boxes crashing down on your chest with a force so hard you can hardly breathe.
Imagine having spent years of your life denying the Holocaust, claiming the numbers don't add up, insisting those children never existed, those suitcases were brought there by the Americans, the whole thing was set up by the Jews to claim some sort of world dominance …
And then imagine walking through Auschwitz, smelling the hair, seeing the smiling faces of murdered children, counting the numbers of artificial limbs, glasses and shoes …
And then imagine having to try to find a place in all that shame to forgive yourself.
Just like poverty is exploited by gang leaders in the black community, insecurities are exploited by the leaders of hate groups in the white community.
Shame is what drives people to hurt themselves and shame is what drives people to hurt others; shame is such an overwhelming emotion it needs some sort of outlet – it is so unbearable that you have to find a place to let it go ...
„Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and hoping someone else will die from it“ Unknown
Forgiving is not forgetting – but sometimes forgiveness can feel like betrayal. - How can you forgive your partner for cheating on you? Have you no respect for yourself? How can you forgive that hit and runner for killing your child? Have you no respect for their memory?
You might be able to separate the person from the ideology, but where do you draw the line separating people from their actions? Where does a failed system end and personal accountability start? We tend to alienate those with whom we don't agree. We mark them as stupid, uneducated or just plain bad people and leave it at that.
Many white nationalists do not stay extremists for their entire lives because, as Tony put it, it is very exhausting to live in hate and anger all the time. So I guess the real question is, who are you hurting in the end and how many friends instead of enemies could you make by just simply listening and trying to find the source of pain behind the words? I'm not gonna lie ... it is hard and it is a challenge, and being the emotionally driven person that I am, I'm not sure I am able to do it.
But I will try!
A coin will never see its own flip side … so the only way is to melt it ... brake down those barriers and cross those borders ... seek those who are and think differently ... have a discussion … and then we'll go on from there. There is always more to a person's story, than what we first perceive … we all have room for improvement … and opinions can change, if you give them space to do so.