By Max Pancer
for the course Rhetoric
Instructor: Roy Cartlidge
Challenging the Exterior
The view out of the fogged window was worse than I had anticipated. The sky was a mixture of white and ash grey, with not a strand of blue nor a streak of sunshine in sight. Below stood drooping trees, which appeared to have had their lives drained. Although it was April, the wailing trees contained not a single green leaf, or a leaf of any color for that matter, nor any budding flowers. The ground beneath us consisted of black, muddy gravel, due to the rain from the three previous days. I had always enjoyed looking out of windows, yet this time I felt indifferent. The bus, which had been travelling on a fairly straight path for the majority of the ride, veered left and momentarily came to a stop. Just as I tilted my head to the right in order to hesitantly gaze out the window, I suddenly became one of those lifeless trees. A road sign, not ten feet from my window, pierced my heart like a thousand knives, and I struggled to mutter its content: “Muzeum Auschwitz”.
Growing up in a tight-knit Jewish community, holocaust education played a vital role in my childhood. Throughout both elementary and high school, teachers, family, and friends alike had stressed to me the significance of the holocaust. I was taught that it was imperative to preserve the legacies of the survivors and the memories of the dead, in order to ensure that such genocide never take place again. As a kind of conclusion to my high school holocaust education, a trip to both Poland and Israel was organized for secondary five students. The goal of the trip was to help us understand, first hand, the journey of the Jewish people during the Second World War, beginning with their persecution in Eastern Europe, and concluding with the creation of the state of Israel.
At the time, it seemed almost comical to me that while my educators had always emphasized the cliché sayings that one must avoid judging a book by its cover, and that one can never truly understand any given event unless they have relived it, these exact educators had simultaneously instilled in me the chauvinistic idea that all Germans were, and still are, Nazis. Little did I know, I was about to embark on a voyage that would not only question, but also test, the very mindsets of the relatives of those six million Jews who perished in the seven year massacre known as the holocaust.
From the moment we got off the bus, I felt as though I had been transported back in time. I could only imagine that I shared the similar anxiety and fear of the countless Jews who arrived in cattle cars at the infamous extermination camp. Less than five minutes after our arrival, my tough exterior slowly faded away and revealed an unfamiliar vulnerability. My friends quickly surrounded me, but I could only accept so much comfort. When my ancestors entered Auschwitz, the sky was not grey from the clouds, but rather from the ashes of their brothers and sisters that filled the air. The ground was not damp from rainfall, but rather from the tears and blood of their loved ones. For a moment, I appreciated the fact that I would eventually be able to leave the camp. My family, however, was never given that option.
Auschwitz, the site where more than 1,100,000 men, women and children lost their lives, was one of the very few concentration camps in Poland that was not destroyed after the defeat of the Nazis. Consequently, the preserved memorial contains many of the original structures from the time of the Second World War. The guided tour led our group along the original train tracks, and through bunkers and crematoria. The most disturbing building, however, was the gas chamber. As I slowly made my way, I noticed scratch marks along the walls, as well as the remains of blue Zyklon B gas. At that moment, everything became tight. My shirt was tight, my chest was tight, but most of all, my grasp on the holocaust was tighter than ever. It was overwhelming, but once more, I understood the pain and suffering of the victims of Auschwitz, and felt compelled to flee the chamber. Again, I was grateful for my ability to make that independent choice.
I stood just feet away from the building, sobbing as a result of my disbelief. The thought of German inhumanity penetrated my mind, but before I could spiral down a path of questions that could never be answered, I felt a pair of arms tightly grasp my waist. I emerged from the hug, and, to my surprise, discovered that the culprit was a young German girl from another tour group visiting from Germany. A German was hugging me. In broken English she whispered to me: “I’m sorry, and I knew then and there that I had found compassion in a hopeless place.
It will never be enough to judge a book based on its cover art, title or description. Rather, one must challenge the exterior by experiencing the interior. My eye-opening trip, entitled “The March of the Living”, taught me this life lesson, and consequently shaped me into the person I am today. In less than two weeks in Poland, I faced some of the most evil places in the world for someone of my religion. However, I discovered copious amounts of love in those exact places as well. I am forever grateful for that German girl, for if she had never approached me, I would live my life in constant fear of the interior, as I would have never understood the impact of breaking open the surface.