By: Lauren Polhill
I’m not sure what I had expected really, but this wasn’t it. Assuring myself that I was mentally and emotionally prepared for the experience, I walked through the wrought iron gates with a false sense of security and straight into the remnants of a hell on earth.
Tens of thousands of innocent people were murdered here at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp by Hitler’s army. The ironically beautiful backdrop of lush green scenery and an endless blue sky was in stark contrast to this desolate desert. Shivering on instinct I reached for my jacket, but I knew it wouldn’t protect me from the cold’s invasion. The chill I was suffering from came from within and an extra barrier laid against my skin wasn’t going to be able to stave it off.
I wasn’t expecting to be so affected. To be so prickled by the camp’s sense of eerie calm. To feel the need to glue myself to fellow visitors’ sides, refusing to walk any of this unholy ground alone. Entering the crematorium, the fake medical center, and the room for asphyxiation was like accepting a swift blow to the stomach as I swallowed back bile.
Knowing that I was standing in a place built to torture people not so long ago was horrifying. Forcing myself to go downstairs to a room still lined with hooks and drains in the middle of the floor, I wanted to kick my own pathetic butt and say “Suck it up.” If these innocent people had to bear this unfathomable pain, then I could certainly gather the strength to honor them by witnessing the site that their captors desperately tried to hide.
It is one thing to learn about the Holocaust – read the facts and statistics, even see a few photos of the grotesque reality. However that is nothing in comparison to the visuals only gained through a firsthand experience that is now etched in my memory.
I will carry those images with me for the rest of my life. Brought by train, degraded beyond even the darkest imaginings, treated worse than animals, as if human blood didn’t run through their veins, most of these people never saw past those gates of hell again. I still can’t fathom that this all took place as recently as during the lifetimes of my grandparents and great grandparents.
Today is about mourning the thousands upon thousands of lives lost and the bright futures that were stolen. Today is about entering another’s prison. It’s about being angry over their senseless slaughter. It’s about closing my eyes, getting outside of my own head and truly being present.
Looking out over the horizon, I know this place was the last view of the world that many people had, the place where they took their last breath, the place that tried voraciously and violently to break their will, the place where the monsters of man came to life and ran rampant spreading terror. In the face of such malice, I was ashamed to have ever thought that I knew what real fear was or what real pain felt like. I had no idea.
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