Reflecting on Auschwitz

By Dustin Volz

I am walking deliberately through a row of still-standing brick barracks of the Holocaust’s most well-known landmark, a place that annually draws more than a million visitors. Despite the remnants of genocide—-a sardonic welcome sign promising salvation through work, a well-preserved gas chamber, a room filled with mountains of human hair—it’s impossible for most visitors to fathom what it was like here at Auschwitz 70 years ago, when the world was busy denying the true motives and consequences of Hitler’s war.

We are here to bear witness, as Primo Levi commands, to try and understand, because “it happened, and therefore it can happen again.” But even with that palpable knowledge I feel like little more than a distant spectator, late to arrive and all too eager to leave.

As much I try to meditate on the suffering of more than a million Jews who died here, other thoughts fill my head. Would I have been a perpetrator in Nazi Germany? As a blond, blue-eyed WASP with a preponderance of German blood in my veins, I have much more heritage in common with the SS, after all, than I do with any of their victims.

I’m afraid to admit it to the other journalists among me that I have nothing to say or write about Auschwitz. I am not Jewish, not Polish—-I have no poetry to offer. What could my voice possibly add to the canon of Holocaust literature?

Book of names in "Shoah" exhibit at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.  Photo by Dippy Bhattacharya.

Book of names in “Shoah” exhibit at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Photo by Dippy Bhattacharya.

I find myself grappling with a mix of guilt and shame as I enter Israel’s living memorial in one of the barracks at Auschwitz. Near the end of the powerful memorial-—replete with video and audio reels of those that perished—-is a mammoth book spanning the length of the room. In it, in tiny script on thousands and thousands of pages, are the names.

Six million Jews.

I take time to absent-mindedly run my fingers through the pages, stopping every so often to try to comprehend the staggering scale of death confined in the book’s pages.

When I get to the letter “V” I begin searching for it. I don’t know what to expect.

And then I see it. Twice.

Volz.

Emilie Sara Volz. Mitel Volz.

Later I asked my dad, and he told me our family has no known relationship to the two Volz’s kept in Yad Vashem’s database. But in that moment I feel a profound, challenging

connection to Auschwitz and the Holocaust, as if I, too, have finally bore witness.

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