Lessons from Auschwitz

By Lex Talamo

I could still hear my heartbeat in my head as I descended the uneven concrete steps and left Block 11. Moments before, I had crawled into a torture cell in the bowels of the building. Inside there had been darkness, silence and barely enough room to stand.

Outside in the cobbled street I soaked up the sunlight. I listened to the birds sing. I watched the breeze rustle the fairy-thin branches of the poplars. I made my way to the next block, the next exhibit, the next seemingly endless series of photographs of those who had lost their lives at Auschwitz.

The more I saw, the more I realized the importance of documenting through photographs and writing. I realized the importance of bearing witness to others’ struggles and making those stories available to the public. As I walked, I also thought about what our mentors had said to the FASPE group before we got off the bus. Go without expectations. Don’t be concerned if you’re not feeling what you think you should feel … or what you would expect yourself to feel.

I felt a lot. But one of the most important things I felt when witnessing so many other people’s stories was how I had neglected my own.

I have learned so much from the past two weeks with the FASPE program about history, the Holocaust and Germany and Poland during the 1930s and 1940s. But, in all honesty, this trip has been a life-changing experience for me because of the people I’ve met and the conversations I’ve had.

Before joining this program, I spent five years teaching on a reservation in South Dakota and at a charter school in Peoria, Arizona. I helped and learned from hundreds of amazing young adults. Because of the demanding nature of those jobs, I devoted almost all my time to my students. Though I am grateful for those experiences, I lost touch with friends. I lost touch with myself. I was always “Miss Talamo.” When I stopped teaching, I found I had no idea how to be simply “Lex.”

When I started graduate school, I felt weighed down by the pain and suffering I had witnessed. I found myself questioning why I wanted to read and reflect so much. I wondered why no one around me seemed to want to talk about social justice or anything below the surface.

Within a few days of starting the FASPE trip, I realized that the people I was around had already helped me reclaim an important part of myself. On our first full day in Berlin, my roommate and I were up at 6:00 a.m. ready to run to the Tiergarten and explore the city. The next day a group of us went running and I found out that someone else had also done Teach for America. On a bus ride to an exhibit, I learned that another FASPE fellow had reported on prayer camps in Ghana. Every day our professors and the directors started our sessions with enthusiasm and questions that cut straight to deep thinking. No matter whom I sat next to or ran into, within moments we were engaged in intense and genuine conversation. It was clear to me that everyone in the group was insanely intelligent and that every one had sought out and lived through challenging and meaningful experiences. Being surrounded by people who mirrored back to me what I most value in life helped me appreciate the journey I have chosen for myself. 

It may seem self-indulgent to reflect on my own journey when faced with the collective suffering of those in the Holocaust. But following my second visit to Auschwitz I, I had a powerful talk with another fellow. Both emotionally exhausted, we slipped into a conversation about whether Oświęcim should be uninhabited because of the atrocities committed there. We talked about how normal the town seemed outside the camp, with people walking their dogs and children playing like normal children. We noticed a group of people eating ice cream and laughing just beyond the Auschwitz gates. We talked about the magnitude of death that occurred at the camps and about survivors’ testimonies that they had wanted to create new lives. We decided it was important to remember the past, but to not let it overshadow new life.

After hearing from survivor Inge Deutschkron about acceptance and forgiveness and from our guides about how prisoners in the camps had clung to any sliver of hope, I felt empowered by the resiliency of the human spirit. But what made a bigger impact on me was the daily goodness I saw in the members of our group. When we talked, we listened to each other. When a member of our group seemed overly reflective, someone was there with a hug or to be contemplative company.

In the midst of the darkness of the past and what I had witnessed in the present, I needed to see that goodness still existed in people. And it does. My takeaway from the conversations and the visit to the camps was not that humans are capable of incredible evil—which they are. Instead I am left with the deep convictions that I want to LIVE fully, LOVE deeply and remember every day how *precious* life is.

The only thing left that I have to say is: THANK YOU. Thank you to everyone on this trip for being who you are. I feel beyond blessed to have spent two weeks with all of you. You have helped changed my life, and I have no doubt that you are going to help change the world with yours. In a few days we will be leaving Poland, but these lessons I have learned—about human goodness and compassion and the desire to live fully and to live well—I will carry with me.

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FASPE fellows in Berlin’s Tiergarten. (Rebecca Rosen/FASPE)

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