I fell in love on a train ride to Auschwitz.
What an awful notion.
But so true.
I managed to fall in love
On one of the deadliest train rides in all the world’s history.
It was raining hard. Too hard for our train to continue on its path from Krakow to Auschwitz.
So we stopped on the tracks and our conductor turned off the lights. Maybe to conserve energy. Maybe so we could better watch the light show out our rectangular windows.
It was a humid August day and five people occupied our car: A young couple clearly infatuated with one another, a boy sipping on a bottle of whisky hidden by his backpack, a gentleman keeping to himself, and me.
The young couple noticed nobody but their love, the young boy noticed his bottle of whisky and me. The gentleman noticed lightning.
Whiskey boy asked me every few minutes for an update on the train’s location, as if I had been entitled to a conversation with the conductor and could keep him posted on our nonmoving whereabouts.
Lightning Lad was submissive and waited out the storm without saying a word.
Finally, the storm gave way and we continued chug-chug-chugging along to Auschwitz. I didn’t think about the brutality or the horrifying sites we were all about to encounter. I don’t know what I was thinking about. Maybe the storm. Maybe about Whiskey Boy’s incessant comments. A few hours later, we arrived at Auschwitz station. My view at the time was optimistic. I was so excited to see such an important historical location, and thought it would be similar to the visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which Ben and I had experienced in Germany.
Stepping out of the train station, I stopped at the city map to get a hold of where I was and where I wanted to end up. The young couple was too in love to notice a map, and so was Whiskey Boy. Lightning Lad joined me and together we figured out where to go. Headed to the same location, we walked through the small town’s streets and as we passed the large central park, he opened up about his education and what had drawn him to visit this spot on this particular day. His family had visited Poland from his home in Switzerland several times, each visit intensifying his lifelong curiosity to explore this land of history. He described Switzerland’s public school system as one much different than any I’ve ever encountered: one which allows students to visit another country in order to learn history in a more realistic way. These visits are put together on a yearly basis for all students of the public education system. No special fundraising, no big promotions. Merely a trip across borders for the sake of understanding the genocide which I’d mainly familiarized myself with via The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars. For one reason or the other, he wasn’t able to join classmates in their annual trip to Poland during secondary school, but had studied the Holocaust extensively so could offer up fact after fact about the deadly concentration camp.
We walked silently through each exhibit, housed in different buildings throughout the grounds. After exiting each building, he would debrief the ideas covered within and we would share our thoughts. For him, the most difficult building to walk through was the gas chamber. We didn’t look at each other when we were inside. I remember instead staring at two straight lines leading into deadly rooms and imagining what once occupied those tracks. I remember thinking back to high school when my girlfriends and I used to pretend that some showers we’d enter at different pools were gas chambers. We never thought about the severity of the actual chambers nor did we think how heavily they effected the entire world.
When we left the gas chambers, Lightning Lad and I talked about these ideas, and apologized to each other, for each other, vowing to react differently in future scenarios and acknowledging that in the past perhaps we were just too naive to realize the severity which surrounded our actions.
I hid from him within another building, where the names and photographs of each Auschwitz prisoner was posted. These photographs brought each person to life for me. Not necessarily because they were each named and pictured, but instead because each of them was listed as having a specific career. Teachers, engineers, farmers, doctors – they were all prisoners in Auschwitz. They had no control over their final days. They simply obeyed commands and lived out the end of their lives in horrific situations. I nearly had to step out of the building to regain my ground. These notions weighed so heavily, easily absorbed and difficultly digested.
We stayed until no one else was left on the premises. Passing one last time under the gates marked “ Arbeit macht frei” meaning “Work makes you Free,” I thought we were saying goodbye to the thoughts stacked sky high in our minds. We walked together and exchanged stories on the way back to the train station. When we got there, I thought I was feeling more energetic and at ease.
Then I glanced up at the train station’s sign. “Auschwitz” it read. My mind raced back to the articles I’d just read about all the prisoners who’d made their way to this exact location via rail.
I fell in love on the way to Auschwitz.
Not with a person, not even with a place.
With an education that I didn’t originally take seriously.
With a system of learning that encourages discovery and awareness.
With the power of second chances and making that education our own responsibility.
And with lightning, which forced us to slow down, understand, and make peace with the moment.