Day #11: On Optional Free Time in Birkenau or Auschwitz

By Shira Telushkin

We’re sitting around a table in Oswiecim, arguing over whether a journalist should or should not change the grammar of a quote. Would our audience know that “hooping on a Sunday” means playing basketball? Should we preserve different dialects and norms of speaking, as a matter of principle? What about on radio? The conversation moves on.

Now we’re swapping stories of unpaid internships, parsing the inequality of newsrooms, and questioning translation practices in the field. Somebody mentions knocking on the door of a mother whose son had just been murdered; somebody else mentions being sent to sit outside a homeless shelter until 6 am, waiting for a woman en route to her son’s murder trial. We’re wondering if journalism can even be a moral profession when our very work is rendered from the raw material of other people’s lives. The session ends but we all keep going. How can we report on disabilities with consistent language, when people themselves often use different terms? How do we fight back against an insensitive headline put on our story? Who is the presumed audience of our stories, and how does that change the way we report on minority communities? Would it matter, really, if Trump cancelled daily press briefings?

Eventually we pause for a coffee break. In an hour we’ll go back to Krakow. We have the evening free. The day after Auschwitz is light on activities.

We are days from the end of the trip, and the FASPE curriculum has taken on a new level of urgency. Though we’re still in Oswiecim — this place will always be Auschwitz to me — we’ve done the hardest thing we came to do. Two days ago we toured the camps, and the day before we had returned on optional site visits to either Auschwitz or Birkenau (who chooses to go back to the camps?), where we looked again at the exhibits and places and monuments that mark this ground.

Yesterday, I stood alone outside the gas chambers, watching strangers wander in and out. A hand-holding Polish couple came up to me and asked (first in Polish, then Italian, then English), if I knew how to get to the room with all the hair. I didn’t. I watched them ask a nearby guard, swinging his baton. He points right. Was it really swinging, or just sitting there, flat against his hip? In the shadow of Auschwitz, everything seems sinister.

Yesterday, when we gathered for the return trips, we were told that only 15 people could go back to Auschwitz, though we were nineteen in our group. Today, we laugh about the selection process, how a few fellows gave up their spots, only to be reassured that Birkenau was just as good. We were fighting to go back to Auschwitz, and it’s weird. Because in the shadow of Auschwitz, everything–-the countdown on the bus, the pile of luggage in the lobby, asking the vegetarians to stand apart as we file into lunch — feels weird.

What’s weird, perhaps, is how recognizable the order of the camp is. The paved streets, wooden bunks, and leafy trees all make this place look like a retreat center. We’ve all heard people say, looking in horror at such dirt and such cramped spaces and describing the smell and the screams, that these people lived and died like animals. But it’s not true: This was a human death. Dirty and screaming. This place is so human it hurts. Organized, methodical, planned. The structure of daily life so recognizably human. Except here every normal human system became evil.

Auschwitz is humanity in its most hellish form, but there is nothing animalistic about it. We laugh anxiously at how everything reminds us of Auschwitz because it’s true. And so we make sour jokes on the ride back over (we, the lucky ones chosen to be sent back to Auschwitz), and try to imagine the survivors. What it meant to live afterwards, where everyday life, from the ambulance shriek to waving goodbye at a school bus stop, could remind them of hell.

But today is the day after Auschwitz, and we don’t talk about what we saw. Instead we talk through the topics of our two morning seminars, parsing our assigned readings and pushing back on each other’s assertions, until the bus comes and takes us back to Krakow. I climb aboard and settle in. As we pull out of the parking lot, my seatmate mutters a quiet, “Thank God.”


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