The fields of Auschwitz-Birkenau

By Katelyn Verstraten

The birds sang the whole time we were at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It may seem a strange thing to remember about the Nazi concentration and extermination camp where more than a million people were murdered, but that’s what I most recall.

Bees buzzed over the ruins of gas chambers. Buttercups and daises dotted the lush fields where thousands of bodies were burned. The heady scent of fresh grass and pine filled the air.

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Daisies and buttercups dot the fields of Auschwitz-Birkeneau. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

And the birds chirped and chirped and chirped.

I’m far from the first to notice this paradox. In 1958, A.M. Rosenthal described the disturbing beauty of Auschwitz-Birkenau in his New York Times article “There is no news from Auschwitz.”

“It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka [Birkenau] the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter,” wrote Rosenthal. “It would be fitting if at Brzezinka [Birkenau] the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror.”

More than 50 years later, I feel largely the same. But I also wonder if it would be better if the site were ugly, if no flowers grew, if the birds were silenced as if by the weight of all that had occurred.

Perhaps it is fitting—eerily perfect somehow—that the site where more than a million people met a brutal end is capable of beauty, much as a cemetery can be.

I will never forget the time I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And in my mind the birds will always chirp.

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