“We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. 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.”
― Primo Levi
A thousand feelings and memories came to my mind at the entrance of the Auschwitz memorial and museum. A lifetime of books, films, articles and conversations referencing the holocaust and the atrocities that were carried out, but not one single thing or any of my life experiences could prepare me for the horror and tangible feel of being at the site and how it would ultimately change my perception once leaving. From the moment I stood under the entrance gate to Auschwitz with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei´ (Work makes you free) hanging above, I realized that whatever I experienced inside was more relevant than the fear I had of doing so.
The importance of visiting this place nullifies any other emotional response that I might have had before, during or after despite the difficulties in being able to process such unspeakable horrors inflicted by hate. There is no real healing from the amount of pain and anguish wreaked upon and suffered by so many people in this place and the air is palpable with lingering, residual impressions of the atrocities carried out here. Walking though, I could only think how much I wanted to run away…far…fast…instead I trudged ahead into the misery knowing how crucial it is to experience even a fragment of those who had been murdered and suffered in this hellish nightmare.
At one point during the tour I realized that I was crying. Tears streaming down my face as I gazed into a room full of human hair. Our guide told us that the remains filling only a portion of the room partitioned behind glass, which is the size of perhaps one of the rooms in your own home, was of 50,000 souls…a fraction of those who had been sheared of their dignity and humanity. Human hair that would be used to stuff pillows, mattresses or weaved into rugs. Photography is strictly forbidden here and for good reason.
Photographing Auschwitz and later Birkenau was one of the more unpleasant things that I have documented and perhaps ever will. I take no pride in any of it. Having the camera with me gave me some comfort of normalcy to cling onto and a sense of purpose to focus on. My intent with the photographs is that I hope they provoke something in you, to visit, to read about it, to spread knowledge, and to not let it repeat. There is nothing new in any of my images that perhaps you may have seen others like it before nor can they cannot convey to you the reality of being there, feeling the atmosphere, hearing the silent screams locked into every inch of this place. History tends to repeat itself and its our moral imperative to make sure that this never happens again.
I went in as a version of myself only to come out feeling different, tainted by the inhumane atrocity of this place and the extermination of the victims by those who carried it out. Standing outside of Auschwitz, I watched others trying to cope in their own fashions. Some somber, some crying and in a state of shock, quietly whispering, drinking coffee, smoking, but all affected and, in some way, changed a bit.
In time, these impressions will eventually weaken and there will be a feeling of distance, but I can’t help but feel that my own shadow has grown a bit darker, a stain that has changed me, leaving me questioning everything that I thought I knew.
For the last week I have hesitant of sharing any of this as my personal feelings are still settling, but the sense that it may touch someone and perhaps inspire them to make the trek and face this history head on overrides it. And yet, I am conflicted with it not being nearly enough.