Why every Jew (and anyone, honestly) should visit a concentration camp at some point in life

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By Jacqueline Hyman
Editor-in-chief
@jacqbh58

It’s a horrendous thing to witness. It’s uncomfortable, saddening, and haunting. And yet, visiting a concentration camp is an absolutely necessary experience.

There are so many reasons people should visit at least one concentration camp in their lifetimes. For Jews, they’re a reminder of what’s lost, and how tortured our people have been throughout history. And for everyone, no matter religion, race, or sexuality, a visit to a concentration camp is an eye-opening, heartbreaking lesson. Just walking the grounds of the concentration camp gives you chills. To know you are so close to where the atrocities of the Holocaust were committed is uncomparable.

In the summer of 2017, just months ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. When I learned this was a required part of my study abroad program with the Salzburg Global Seminar, I was excited because I knew it would be life-changing.

And it was. We started outside the camp and saw a large swimming pool the Schutzstaffel, or SS, soldiers used while they were employed at Mauthausen. We walked the long way around the camp; the same way prisoners were forced to march so the local residents would have trouble seeing them walk past. We saw memorials outside the camp. We saw bunkers where hundreds of prisoners were forced to “live,” squashed into a tiny space.

I was most affected by the shower rooms, where prisoners were forced to strip down, and given a surprise each time of either freezing cold or scalding hot water. The gas chambers. The ovens. These things, particularly that last one, just rendered me emotionally, mentally and physically weak.

The entrance arc to the SS quarters of Mauthausen-Gusen. There used to be a large eagle sitting atop the arc to symbolize the Nazi eagle. On liberation day, the prisoners were empowered to climb up and tear the eagle down. Jacqueline Hyman/Mitzpeh.

You’ve heard all this before. You know what there is to see. I could try to spell out for you the feeling of seeing the horrors during the tour. But without going yourself, it’s impossible to quite understand. You may say, “I know it’s important, but I just don’t think I can bear to go.”

That is exactly why you must go.

This was not a one-trip visit. I return to that site over and over again in my mind, never letting myself forget what it meant to me to walk through a room where the hundreds of thousands of names (just of the dead at Mauthausen) are carved. The hallway where the victims’ pictures and handwritten notes have been put up on the walls to commemorate our loss of them.

It humanized them. I had to see the faces of those who died in the very chambers through which I was walking. There is nothing more haunting than that. This visit made the Holocaust feel like it had a direct effect on my life.

After we left, someone asked me if I looked up my last name in the book of names at Mauthausen. I hadn’t thought to, but I wish I had. I don’t know if I had family members who were put into concentration camps, but I’d like to learn. I know my great-grandparents immigrated here through Ellis Island from Ukraine (which at that time was part of the USSR). It’s entirely possible that I could’ve had distant relatives in concentration camps. I think that’s part of what makes the experience so powerful and significant for many Jewish visitors.

Putting into perspective the fact that the concentration camp I visited was only one of thousands is disturbing. But it’s a reality we must face. About 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and so were millions of people of other groups, such as political prisoners, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and others who were unfavorable to the Nazis.

There is something we can learn from the kind of senseless persecution these groups of people faced simply for being what and who they were. It’s not only part of Jewish history, it’s part of everyone’s history. Those of us who are relatively privileged with healthy, forward-moving lives can never truly understand the brutality the Holocaust victims experienced. But shying away from visiting a concentration camp will deny people of the ability to visualize and gain insight to these horrors.

There have been numerous genocides around the world since the Holocaust; Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, to name a few. We must not forget. We must not allow these horrible acts of war to go unrecognized. We must continue to fight that injustice. We must not allow intolerance of any people simply because of race, religion, ethnicity, political views, or sexual identity.

When I stopped outside the camp before entering with my tour group, I found some pebbles and put them on the stone of a Jewish memorial — as is customary for Jews with gravestones. When I left, I took a couple of rocks from the ground and brought them with me, because I knew I would always want to keep a reminder of what I’d experienced that day.

I hope I get the chance to visit more concentration camps in my life, because I know each experience will bring me closer to my people. Closer to some kind of awareness. I felt connected to humanity. Everyone else who hasn’t been at least once should go too.

Jacqueline is a senior journalism and English major. She can be contacted at jbhyman@terpmail.umd.edu.

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