By Cheryl Chaffin, 2014 AJC Fellow

Italian chemist, writer, and camp survivor Primo Levi wrote in his “Self-Interview” in 1976, “I returned to Auschwitz in 1965…I didn’t feel anything much when I visited the central camp. The Polish government has transformed it into a kind of national monument.” What does it take to feel the past and to mourn at Auschwitz, I wonder as a visitor, a scholar, an Auschwitz Jewish Center fellow, and a human being horrified at the genocide that transpired here. What does it take to feel in this place and in response to this place and its history when Levi felt nothing upon his return to the camp twenty years after his imprisonment there? In asking this question, I have in a mind a turn to narrative, the definition of which I delineate here in a narrative of my visit to Auschwitz. My own entry into Auschwitz has been through narrative. The reason I had come to Auschwitz, even to Poland, was because of a passion for reading and teaching Levi’s two-part memoir, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, of his ten months in the camp, in particular Buna-Monowitz, a labor sub-camp known also as Auschwitz III. His memories channeled into narrative motivated my desire to apply to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program and to visit the sites about which he wrote, sites that had drastically influenced his life course, his thoughts, and his writing career. He had even admitted, bravely, I thought, that if he had not lived his Auschwitz experience, he probably would have never have written anything. So, it was Levi’s words and his need to write that emerged of his camp experience that I carried with me into Auschwitz, even as I visited a place that I understood has become a tourist site, a memorial drastically changed from the killing and labor camp it was from 1940-1945.

Given my own narrative pull to Poland, I want to explore here how a turn to narrative offers a way to navigate the camp space, both mental and physical. Over my three days at Auschwitz I experienced that the possibility that knowing, hearing, seeing, and imagining individual and community stories of those deported to the camp opens to the visitor space for grieving, feeling, and acknowledging the horror and loss implicit in a visit to these charnel grounds. Levi’s humanity as it emerged in his language and his writing over the years influenced me as a writer, thinker, and scholar to seek out other such narratives during my several day-visits to Auschwitz. In speaking of survival, Levi wrote that he felt his steadfast interest in the human spirit and his determination to “recognize in my companions and myself, men, not things.” So, too, narrative matters because it grounds the visitor in the experience of individual human beings whose memories as reflected in a written account, a sketch, or a photo—convey relationship with others, emotions of hope and fear, and the courage that documentation and reflection requires. Such narratives help visitors to connect to the tenacious continuity of human experience within the camp. Finally, the attuned visitor may discover several small stories, or the possibilities of such stories, in the documentation and artifacts (Levi called these artifacts “relics”) in the exhibits at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a state museum, funded predominantly by the Polish government. It was established in 1946 by former prisoners who wanted to create a memorial at the site. Gradually, the memorial developed into a museum. Under Communism the emphasis on memorialization was on those “martyred” in the Second World War, with less emphasis on the genocide of specifically Jewish prisoners. Since the early 1990s with Poland’s transition to democratic government, there has been exponential growth in the preservation of artifacts, including buildings, as well as in the scope of educational programs and global digital presence of the museum. At peak periods—from April to October—up to 15,000 people visit Auschwitz in a single day. Individuals must visit the camp in tours, between 10-3, with a specially trained guide so that they stay together, learn the history and see particular areas of the camp. Our guide was Paweł Sawicki, a journalist and writer with the Press Office for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. Paweł noted that in visiting the camp “it is individuals who are a problem; people must take tours.” What this means is that individuals sometimes venture into areas not open to the public or under renovation. The emphasis on groups helps to deter individual exploration of Auschwitz. If individuals experience the camp only in groups, they have little space for their own experience of the place. This loss of individual experience constitutes the very reason that stories should constitute a core element shaping the contemporary visitor’s time there. However, due to sheer numbers of visitors, people must move quickly through exhibits housed in the former cellblocks of the Auschwitz I compound.

Keeping a steady pace through narrow hallways that open into crowded exhibit rooms, a summer crowd ahead and behind, the visitor may try to comprehend the enormity of atrocity and the total loss for individuals, particularly for Jewish people, as they arrived to the camp from transport trains. The effect of such absorption is stupefying. Cases of hair, shoes, glasses, prosthetics—extensions of one’s very self and one’s ability to function in the world—form decaying mountains of intimate things that never should have become relics of genocide.

Inherent to the museum’s visitation policy is the notion that how one conducts oneself is important to the maintenance of the place as memorial and one’s experience of it. This is a museum after all. Yet, some fellow visitors’ faces betray horror and disgust. A restless silence periodically befalls us. In the long narrow room with suitcases, hair, and children’s shoes there is a tangible atmosphere of disbelief—in confronting the space and its remains. Right here and now we visitors must confront the evidence that systematic cruelties happened and, how, if at all, we are to respond. Sighs puncture the space, small words between intimates, people who have known one another over time and who can, perhaps without misunderstanding, confess their horror to one another. The sighs seem to surge into one sustained out-breath of injury and mark a particular heaviness of repressed emotion in response to these artifacts.

In the exhibits of Auschwitz I there are placards, dates, numbers, statistics, reports of transports, and historical photos, particularly of a particular Hungarian transport in 1944. But the visitor must glimpse these artifacts, rather than linger and invite a potentially emotional response to them. In this space, I sometimes stop to hear Paweł’s voice explain photos, documents, and artifacts. I search for relationships within photographs of transports. These isolated images move me. I gravitate toward particular moments, names, a face, toward evidence of life. A photo of a man, in prison clothes, seemingly well fed, and woman, newly arrived, talking, saying something urgently, some last words, some counsel for survival, an almost passionate moment on the train ramp. What could their relationship be? I may continue to read, imagine, and translate that photo for the remainder of my life.

A boy holding a woman’s hand—his mother?—surrounded by children and women hurrying along, apprehension, exhausted. Those photos will catalyze poems. I will return to them in search of vaporous specificities of personal histories never available to me, never narrated and remembered to anyone, but somehow shared with all of us. Facing those photos from 1944, what stood out to me were instances, vitally important, between people on the ramps as they were driven from trains and corralled and ordered into lines that led towards the gas chambers. I knew that I would later attempt to express those subtle yet vital interactions between people: moments of shared humanity, of fear and love, of existing together in myriad ways, clinging to one another in the face of grave uncertainty, subsumed with hope and desperation and aching need.

“We must be disciplined now,” Paweł tells our group, “in order to get through this tour and see certain things.” We are slow, dragging, lingering over documents and relics. He may lose us in the hallways. We will not have time to finish the tour. Disciplined, orderly. Is this how we visitors are to behave here in Auschwitz? Yes, there are lines, streams of people channeling through halls and stairways. Yet, even as we hurry and attend to our guide, we see so little of the camp. Past the shooting wall, through Block 11, in a line past cells—one of starvation, another of standing, into which four men bent and crawled and stood for days. I rub the Buddha charm at my neck. “How do you do this?” I ask Paweł who is just in front of me. He grimaces. “Do you get used to it? It’s your job.” He hardens himself. “Yes,” he says, always focused on moving us through. We enter the innards of a gas chamber for a minute. We move through. Perhaps moving through is a glimpse, a memory with intention to return to full life, an entry into and surfacing from the historicized grounds of genocide and murder.

Paweł later shares that at Auschwitz “the tour suppresses a need for internal narrative and also prevents emergence of such a narrative.” The museum’s aim, he explains, is not to encourage an emotional experience of the place but to impart historical knowledge of the camps. I resist the idea that one can or should suppress an internal narrative, but upon further reflection imagine the problems germane to a museum space of sobbing and shaking, overtly horrified, grief-stricken, enraged, or overwhelmed people. The priority is to recognize the place and the things within it that point to an historical understanding over and above an all-consuming emotional response to its energies.

At home with books and solitude, a quiet afternoon, a garden at the window, I listen. I turn to songs and voices, writing towards poetry, pleas for forgiveness, for life, full of grief and understanding. In these crucial texts of Auschwitz I return to, to grapple with what Father Manfred Deselaers at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer called the lifelong wound of Auschwitz. In dialogue with the fellow, Fr. Dr. Deselaers said, “The task is to try to understand and to take this wound seriously. It touches us and we think it has to do with us, but what?” Such a lifetime inquiry brings one into an ethical engagement with the place of Auschwitz and the words that remain among humans because of that place. Auschwitz began with the killing of relationship, says the Father. My turn then to narrative, both in visiting the camp and once home, reflects a deep desire to mend relationships across time, place, and event. One such text that nourishes that longing is Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, written twenty years after her repatriation to France. She describes this no-place where she has landed from her native France, transported into some dislocated deep winterscape, “We arrived on a morning in January 1943. The doors of the cattle cars were pushed open, revealing the edge of an icy plain. It was a place from before geography. Where were we? We were to find out—later, at least two months hence; we, that is those of us who were still alive two months later—that this place was called Auschwitz. We couldn’t have given it a name.”

Seventy years later, its name has burned in our consciousness. Of our contemporary relationship with the camp, Paweł says, “We have only the place and words,” neither of which Delbo and her compatriots had upon their arrival. It is words that persist and flourish against the violence and against the forgetting of history. The modest, even minimal, remains of buildings, monuments, exhibits, and words structure humanity’s current relationship with the camp. For example, just 3-5% of all original documents and records in the camp remain. Most were destroyed, some were confiscated by camp liberators, the Russians. The loss of objects through war makes potent the gradual shift to narrative as a means of processing and feeling one’s visit to the camp. Such a shift indicates that this memorial-museum space has begun to relinquish a focus on historical facts and a lingering political ideological narrative (of Communist Poland) that speaks of martyrdom over the uniqueness of individual lives for more personal, narrative-driven guidance through the camp. Such a turn manifests in an exhibit at Birkenau of 2,400 photos found in suitcases and discovered after camp liberation in 1945. It is reflected, too, when in Birkenau on the second day of the tour, Paweł reads to fellows from testimonies he has carefully chosen to allow a feeling for camp conditions and how those who lived and survived here experienced the place. At the edge of a stand of birches, near the crumbling bricks of former gas chamber five he reads to us from Henryk Mandelbaum recounting of his experience as a Sonderkommando. Mandelbaum describes the process of killing within the gas chambers, the extraction of hundreds of bodies and the subsequent cremation of bodies. We are in Birkenau, the death camp, built to house more prisoners and to accommodate a growing number of gas chambers to kill them. Ironically, the vastness of Birkenau (“birch” in German), the spaces between structures and the paths through woods and along marshy waterways, allows more time to think and feel. In the former barracks, many of these buildings currently undergoing restoration, Paweł reads a woman prisoner’s careful logging of the disease, filth, and dying that developed in the female camp quarters.

These readings are somewhat new for our guide. He holds in his hands white sheets of paper of laser jet words. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. He wants us to hear firsthand accounts of the places we stand. Paweł wonders if narrative accounts of the camp help us to understand events from both historical and personal perspectives. Does it add to our sense of the place and what transpired here? He seems tentative, alert to our responses. As I leave the camp, I contemplate what a turn to narrative implies for historians, curators, educators, and press officers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum—those who preserve, present, and offer the memorial-museum and its space to those of us who visit. This turn constitutes a sort of risk. First it signifies that they make narratives essential to the visitor’s tour of the camps, so that narratives hold the rich potential to figure prominently in one’s post-visit recollections of the camps since they constitute a vital element in feeling and knowing the camps as they once were, not simply as historical markers of criminality and genocide, but as terrible and unforgettable spaces wherein people lived, loved, struggled, and died. It is life that must be honored, not en masse but as a unique and idiosyncratic expression of each individual. It matters that the guide feels the same way. That he believes reading a narrative memory is a way of remembering and feeling. It makes the guide, perhaps, as emotionally vulnerable, as human, as are his visitors. His turn to story validates all our stories in this place. This is not just an office, an everyday routine for him; it is a place of words and through him we listen.

Narratives mean that visitors need time and space to listen, to hear, and to respond quietly, as an interior process, to the experiences of others. The importance of visiting the camp resides in feeling the texture of life from the perspective of another human who experienced the camp. The connection to narrative facilitates a particular, yet enlarged, perspective of the camp as once inhabited by individuals. Delbo wrote in her memoir, Auschwitz and After, “Listening to their stories, I took the measure of the incommunicable.” It is the incommunicable that one may hear in Auschwitz. That listening happens in a space that fosters the ability to attend and feel narratives, both documented and silent, of former prisoners. Levi confessed he could feel nothing there, but because he gave me his story I felt something large and moving there, something with which to grapple for my entire life. So it is that narratives affirm our humanness in the exact place that sought to annihilate that humanity.

Cheryl Chaffin teaches English composition, literature, and rhetoric at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California. She is director of the college’s Writing Center. She has an MFA in Writing from Goddard College where she focused on feminist literature of exile and immigration. Cheryl has published poetry as well as personal and academic essays. She recently received her PhD in Humanities from Union Institute and University. Her dissertation project, “Speaking from Memory: Writing and Reading Women’s Political Memoirs,” concerns the role of memoir in directing public attention to injustice and towards activism for change. Specifically, she examines works written by women who have suffered severe limitations to freedom due to social, economic, political, and cultural situations. In 2014 she traveled to Poland as one of ten scholars with the Auschwitz Jewish Fellows Program. Her blog is Speaking from Memory.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit All Spring 2015 newsletter articles are found here.