Traverse City Record-Eagle

Generation Why

July 6, 2010

The Auschwitz Gate: Field trip becomes lesson of a lifetime

Field trip turns into a lesson of a lifetime

I had no idea what to expect when I walked through a revolving door from the hot Washington, D.C., air into the cool processed air of the Holocaust Museum. But how could anyone? I guess that's the point of its bannerless exterior and glassy surfaces: They beckon the mind to find out what secrets lay beyond the glass.

When I walked through, I was with friends, people I knew and love to be with, and with whom I have learned. I was looking forward to finding out something interesting at just another museum in the United States' capital. That expectation did not last.

When I began my tour, things changed. The elevator that brought me to the beginning of the exhibit was chrome and barren, save one TV secured to the ceiling. On it, old footage from World War II was playing with commentary. "People that did not seem to be people at all ..."

The images spoke louder than the announcer. It showed the liberation of several concentration camps — the starved, dying bodies of people abandoned by justice and equality. All they did was stare, grabbing onto the fences of their prison, staring at people thousands of hours of suffering away. This set the mood for the museum. No one joked or laughed anymore. We moved more slowly and seemed to be aware that every movement we made was one more than what others had due to the Holocaust.

People read, looked, walked; read, looked, walked as they navigated their way through a story of the most twisted minds and actions. The hours and powers of Nazism became more real than any book could tell or any word of mouth could say. The possessions and objects, sitting so silent and stationary, yelled as they ran around my mind. The train car, not more than 10 feet by 30 feet, had held 100 people at a time. The shoes never seemed to stop their walking as they left footprints in the minds of everyone who cast their eyes upon them. The suitcases, once filled with the bare essentials that Jews were told to bring, only to have them taken and plundered. And the gate.

I have never really thought about what imprisonment for myself would be like. I never really wondered how I would spend my last days if I could not determine where I could be. But right as I emerged from the train car that had carried so many lives away, I was faced with something that truly stopped me in my tracks. It was the inscription over the gate to Auschwitz, the concentration camp where more than a million people were killed.

I was awestruck as I stumbled beneath the gate. How many people who had walked underneath this same arch had wished that they could walk straight back to where they came?

The lying words in the arch, "Work makes you free," had caused so many tears to be shed, and I struggled not to join them.

I realized just how riveting, how terrifying, how torturous the Nazis truly were. In that moment I believe I came as close as I ever will to understanding the pain so many felt as they stumbled, as I just had, under that arch.

I later learned that the arch in the National Holocaust Museum was a casting of the original, which is in Poland. More than 22 million people have walked under the original gate into the concentration-camp-turned-museum. I found the experience no less moving after I learned this, and still hold that feeling of understanding today.

I believe that no other thing: no book, picture, movie, or story could help me in my understanding of the Holocaust more than going underneath the arch of the Auschwitz gate. As I did so, in my mind I saw the actual individuals who had passed through it on the way to their deaths. This truly made me understand how, while the death of millions can seem a statistic, the death of one is a tragedy.

Michael Siciliano will be entering ninth grade at Traverse City Central High School in the fall. He went on a class trip to Washington, D.C., in May.

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