Books have always played an extremely important role in my life. Growing up, my father would often provide me with literature that he felt was instrumental in teaching me the many fundamental truths of life. Often these books would lie dormant upon my shelves, hibernating among the numerous other titles I never found time to read in my adolescence. But eventually, the curiosity would beckon and I would be swept up into the trials and tribulations of the people and places of many far-off places. Every book he ever asked me to read changed my life in many subtle ways.
I don't remember the day I picked up "Night," by Elie Wiesel, but I do remember the feeling when the novella was within my hands and I learned the truth about the compassion and the cruelty of this fragile world. I've never really understood the ethnic and spiritual strife so prevalent in the world and I've come to realize that I likely never will.
"Night," a book written about the true experiences young Elie faced within the confinement of the Nazi prison camp Auschwitz, in Poland, was a life experience when I first read it as a young teenager. Captivated by its harrowing tale and savage truths, I never imagined I would read the book again, let alone step upon the grounds of the infamous death camp. But as I read an e-mail from my lifelong friend Dan while he was in Africa and I was in Western Europe, just days after I had finished "Night" for a second and likely last time, he proposed that we meet in Budapest and make our way to Krakow to begin to try to understand some elusive questions that are still very relevant in the 21st Century.
Dan is really more than a friend. He is almost like a cousin, as we've literally known each other since the very first months of our lives. Our fathers used to work together, and we have many cherished memories as friends, and as families, like the time I lit the first candle on the menorah at his bar mitzvah. Growing up in a family that didn't subscribe to a religious belief, being exposed to Dan's Jewish roots helped me experience and understand the diversity that creates the world's fabric.
We arrived in Krakow after an extremely long red-eyed train ride from Hungary, which ran through Slovakia and had the luxury of multiple meet-and-greets with customs agents of several nationalities. After recuperating at a hostel that appeared to be a dorm of some sort converted into a travel den, Dan, myself and a British guy named Chris shrugged off a bike tour due to a rainstorm and decided to check out the city by foot. After visiting a market and looking for a restaurant, we settled for Subway sandwiches and found a quiet bar where we discussed the state of the world as three quarter-century-year-old travelers interpret it.
Dan was the first one to bring up Auschwitz, and for the first time I really began to feel the magnitude of what we were about to witness. All the vivid images from "Night" would no longer be built from words and imagination, but forever more would be reinforced by my own eyes. Dan began to apologize in advance for how he would react when we actually stepped foot upon the grounds where a major portion of the Holocaust took place, but we assured him that he had no reason to worry about a completely natural reaction and promised we'd be there to console him if needed. After debating how I could change the world for the better in seven days if elected president of the United States, we went back to the hostel early and decided to catch up on some sleep for the big day.
The shuttle left the hostel early in the morning and it took us a little more than an hour to make it to the concentration camp. It was a somber ride in procession with another van, as if on our way to a funeral. Like most places that I visit for the first time, Auschwitz was not at all visually what I expected. After viewing a short informational film we were given a tour book and left to roam through the Auschwitz camp for about an hour before the van would bring us to Birkenau, where the major incinerator was located. The curators of Auschwitz have done a remarkable job over the years to preserve and protect as much of the original facilities as possible. The rows of bunkhouses contain a variety of informational, respectful and emotional displays that range from rows of mug shots of those imprisoned to large caches of spectacles and toothbrushes of those condemned by the Nazis. Only fractions of the personal items that were looted remain, but the sheer volume of them shook me to the core, seeing how much life was wasted over hatred and aggression.
True to Dan's words, while we came upon an infamous courtyard with an impromptu memorial where hundreds had been shot and killed, he was overcome with emotion and began to weep. As Chris gave him a hug, I knew that was a moment I would remember for the rest of my life. As we left the courtyard and began walking through the gantlet of various types of buildings, Dan turned to me and said something to the effect of, "Sixty years ago I would not have been able to walk down this path." There should never be a reason why anyone of a different class, color or creed should not be able to walk down the same path as another.
Birkenau was daunting and I was overwhelmed by its sprawl. Many of the bunkhouses were destroyed by the Nazis when they fled, as well as the incinerator, but the skeletons of the buildings remain alongside a number of structures that are intact to serve as a reminder of the atrocities.
I still think I could change the world for the better in a week if elected president, but as the state of the world seems to be spiraling out of control ever faster, it's perplexing that we haven't learned more from the mistakes in our past. For there to be genocide in the 21st century seems impossible, but the sad fact is that it does still happen and will likely happen in the future if we don't come to a serious global understanding. I don't claim to have any profound answers, but maybe visiting a place like Auschwitz can help the dialogue.
Elie Wiesel ends "Night" by describing looking in the mirror for the first time in years, writing, "The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." Auschwitz has never left me and never will.