By Katy Matello, 2018 AJC Fellow
When a person studies history, one of their many aspirations is to be able to visit various sites relevant to the event, historical figure, or time period. For scholars of the American Civil War, Gettysburg National Military Park is likely high on their agenda. Those who study the Italian Renaissance dream of going to Florence and other cities in Italy. As a student of the Holocaust, travelling to Poland was something of great importance for me. Since high school, I have felt compelled to visit the site of the former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz. I have spent the better part of the last decade studying this time-period, but none of it prepared me for being in this space. Studying the worst crime known to man through the pages of books and behind the screen of a computer is nothing compared to standing before a mass grave, travelling on a train that runs on the same tracks that carried millions of people to their deaths, passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, or walking through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and along the selection platform to the location of a crematorium. Do not get me wrong – as hard as it was, I would not trade this experience for anything. Learning and teaching about the Holocaust is what I do. It is an extremely important task, especially with everything going on in the world today. This journey reinforced that for me. One particular day of my time in Poland speaks to this more than any other. This is the day that I spent seeking silence in Auschwitz.
We spent our last week in Poland staying in the town of Oświęcim, the city from which Auschwitz gets its name. (Auschwitz is the German equivalent of Oświęcim.) Our hotel was less than two miles away from the entrance to Auschwitz I – a fact that still astounds me. Understandably, much of our focus that week was centered around this specific location. As a group, we spent three days between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau touring the sites and attending educational and conservation programs. On the final free day of our time in Poland, I returned to Auschwitz. In part, I decided to go back to make the best use of my time there. And I felt like my time here thus far was incomplete. I could not put my finger on it, but I knew that I was not yet finished. So I went back. Early that morning, with a few of my colleagues, I walked the mile from our hotel in Oświęcim to the entrance Auschwitz I.
Shortly after we arrived and cleared admissions and security, we all split up to tour on our own. It is an odd thing to experience Auschwitz alone. I was extremely grateful that our initial days visiting the camp were with staff from the Auschwitz–Birkenau State Museum and the Auschwitz Jewish Center. I would not have had any clue of where to start or what I should do with my time there. There is simply too much to see and too many people moving in different directions to make much sense of it without having some point of reference. The previous experiences here had been full of hustle-and-bustle, keeping up with a schedule or the tour guide and trying to dodge other visitors. With more than two million visitors in 2017, the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum has become an improbable major tourist attraction. People come from all over the world to visit the sites that have become symbolic of the Nazi crimes against humanity. Some come because of educational interests, others because of a personal connection, and others are vacationing locally and have succumbed to so-called dark tourism. Despite the efforts by the museum to restrict the number of visitors on site at any given time, the volume of people can be overwhelming. Anyone who has been to these sites before is familiar with this.
To begin my solo tour, I spent some time revisiting some of the exhibitions we had already seen on our previous tour. Because I had been so overwhelmed by the experience, not to mention all the people, I wanted to make sure that I had not missed anything. I also decided to see the various national exhibition galleries that were not part of our previous tours. Although going through the galleries proved to be very interesting, it was not what I was looking for on this particular day. I wanted to find a few moments to myself, away from the crowds. Eventually, I found myself sitting on a bench between two of the blocks. Just sitting and thinking. I cannot remember exactly what I was thinking about. There were several times when, as I sat there looking in to the camp, I was surprised that there were minutes when I could not see anyone in any direction. It was eerie. Sitting on this bench with the sun shining and a slight breeze on this clear summer day, I tried picturing what it was like then, but the landscape is so much different than it was back then. I am very grateful for this fact now.
Eventually, I decided I was ready to leave Auschwitz I. I had made up my mind to also go to Birkenau, so I left and walked the mile distance between the camps. This walk was, perhaps, the strangest part of the day. As I navigated my way through the Polish streets, I passed hotels, restaurants, businesses, and even personal residences. I tried to consider what it was like for the people who lived their lives here between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. Other than the fact that life must go on, I could make very little sense of it. This was an idea that our group had continuously circled back to throughout our time in Poland. When I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I was not sure what to do. In the other camp, I had known that I wanted to visit the exhibition galleries. But here, there are no galleries to visit and, in that moment, I did not want to go back to the barrack, the latrine, or the registration building we had gone to on our previous visit. I meandered around the site and finally found myself standing before Crematorium II. Again, seeking silence, I moved to the far end of the structure away from the crowds of people. The remains of Crematorium II is one of the stops on the guided tour, so people frequently came and went. I sat there for several minutes thinking about this place, about the organized chaos of this murderous process, about the people who spent their final moments standing in the same spot in which I was sitting. I thought about how noisy it must have been and how ironic it was that I was trying to be alone in the quiet. Finally, I got up to leave. Although I did not feel “done,” whatever that means, I was not sure what else to do. I began to make my way around the crematorium to take the path towards the exit.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw four headstones just on the other side of Crematorium II. From our previous tour, I knew what they meant. These headstones, each in a different language, marked a disposal site of human remains. With the ruins of the crematorium close by, the headstones memorialized thousands of Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime whose ashes were interred here.
This is when I realized why I was here – why I had felt the urge to come back. I had studied this space for weeks but had not taken the time to mourn or pay my respects to those who died here. I bent down and grabbed a handful of stones from the gravel path. The irony was certainly not lost on me when I counted six stones in my hand. As one group left the site of the headstones, I approached. I was entirely alone. No one was around, not even close. I had found the silence that I had sought all day. As I placed the rocks on the headstones (a custom in the Jewish tradition to show respect for the dead), the tears began to flow. I could not stop it, nor did I try. I said a few prayers, including what I remembered of the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer of mourning. Returning that morning and seeking silence in Auschwitz, I was not sure what I was looking for, but in that moment, I knew that I had found it.
Katy S. Matello graduated with her Masters of Arts degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Gratz College, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In her short time at Gratz, she was named a Ferst Fellow, which is awarded to candidates who have demonstrated commitment to Holocaust and Genocide education. Her research encompasses the roles and experiences of women in the Holocaust, specifically women in social welfare-oriented professions in Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland. Katy graduated Magna Cum Laude from Kennesaw State University with her Bachelor of Science in History Education in 2012. Her senior thesis focused on Holocaust Denial and the significance of education in transmitting accurate history for future generations. While at Kennesaw State University, Katy interned at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education where she worked with museum staff to curate an exhibit entitled “Beyond Rosie: Women During World War II.” In 2016, she was appointed to the Museum of History and Holocaust Education’s Advisory Board. In this capacity, she promotes community activities, offers advice on the development of museum initiatives, and leads professional development workshops for teachers. Katy is also a full-time history teacher at South Cobb High School in the Cobb County School District. During the 2018-2019 school year, she designed and implemented the district’s first Holocaust and Genocide Studies elective course. Katy has been invited to attend the 2019 Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel. Katy plans to obtain her Ph.D. and to teach at the collegiate level.
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: https://mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2019 newsletter articles are found here.