Thomas Emmert, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe with a research focus on the former Yugoslavia. He received his B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and his Ph.D. in Balkan and Russian history from Stanford University.
Recently, Thomas led a Smithsonian group on a trip around Old World Europe. One of the most important and moving visits brought the group to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where one of the travelers had a chance to honor family members lost in the Holocaust. See his post from the visit below:
No one is ever truly prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a generation born in the years just before or after the Holocaust, this inexpressible horror of the twentieth century continues to haunt us even as we move fully into our new century with all its possibilities. We left Warsaw early in the morning and drove through the lush, rich countryside of south central Poland, eventually catching our first glimpses of the Tatra mountains on Poland’s southern border. It was a warm, sunny, infectiously beautiful, late spring day, and one could be forgiven for wishing for a lovely, leisurely picnic instead of contemplating a visit to a concentration camp. We were all so very quiet that morning, deep in our own thoughts, reflecting perhaps on our memories of reading Wiesel, Levi, Borowski or the memoirs of some other Auschwitz survivor. We were steeling ourselves for the shock and the tears even as we knew that nothing could really prepare us for this experience. As we drove into Oświȩcim and caught sight of the first red barracks of Auschwitz, I reminded everyone that we came here to honor the memory of all those who suffered and perished in this nightmarish place. The silence continued.
I don’t know if it’s easier to come to this place when the sun is shining and the weather warm and inviting. I have seen it in pouring rain and in deep winter when the bitter damp cold freezes the tears on our faces, and we cannot imagine a single minute in this place without adequate clothing and food. But the sun and the warmth could not distract us from the reality of what we were seeing.
Zorica, our fellow traveler, was as ready for this day as she could be. All her life she had waited for this moment to honor all the members of her family who never returned from this earthly Hades. The tour was almost finished when she gathered us together as a group next to the train tracks and the unloading ramp at Birkenau where Zorica’s relatives and millions of others experienced their last moments of life. Embracing Zorica in a circle we together read a Psalm and listened as some of the group said Kaddish. Finally after almost seventy years, Zorica’s relatives and, for the rest of us, these representatives of the millions, were honored and given their own short funeral.
Afterwards, everyone was silent for a very long time on the drive from Auschwitz to Cracow. Silvija, our Tour Leader, played a CD of some meditative violin music for us. As we approached Cracow, I spoke briefly and reminded everyone of Primo Levi’s admonition to us all. He said that we must not leave Auschwitz despondent and without hope. If we are to honor truly all those who died and suffered there, then it is our duty to live our lives as beautifully, honestly, and justly as we can. I know that these words were very cathartic for all of us. We had made our pilgrimage and were humbled beyond words by the experience. But we had indeed honored the millions and we accepted the admonition to live good and just lives. A great burden had been lifted from Zorica’s shoulders, and together we were ready to continue our great adventure into Central Europe.