POWHATAN – Arbeit macht frei.
In case, like me, you don’t speak German, this is a phrase meaning "work sets you free." I remember growing up reading about that sign and the lie it carried. For so many years, I had read of the horrors of the Final Solution and the concentration camps that the Nazis used to try to wipe out the Jewish race as well as anyone else who opposed them or was thought to be “undesirable.”
But while I am a huge advocate of reading and the worlds it can open up to you, nothing I had read or seen in a documentary or film could have prepared me for the first sight of that sign when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was April 30, 2004, and I was traveling by myself in Poland after studying abroad in London for a semester. A little over a week later I would be graduating college, and, a few weeks after that, I was off for an internship with The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. It literally felt like I had my whole life ahead of me.
But then there was that gate – that lie. And I cried. It wouldn’t be the last time I found myself tearing up, feeling my chest get heavy, or outright sobbing.
There was the moment we saw the buildings where horrific medical experiments were carried out on prisoners.
There was the Execution Wall of Auschwitz, where disobedient prisoners were shot.
There were the railroad tracks that brought more than 1 million people to their deaths or an existence that must have felt like a living death.
There was the electrified barbed wire fence that made escape nearly impossible.
There were the barracks where rows of prisoners slept cramped together in unimaginably overcrowded and dehumanizing conditions.
There were the rooms filled with giant mounds representing an untold number of lives lost to mass killings – human hair, worn shoes, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs.
I remember the tour guide warning us as we arrived at the entrance to the gas chamber that it might be an overwhelming experience, and she was right. I wanted to be sick when I entered that room as every image, every documentary, every movie I had seen depicting the moment people were herded into those rooms flooded my mind.
The memories of that visit and the photos I have seen showing the horrors of the concentration camps came back to me as I read about the different ceremonies and memorials that were going to be held to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp on Jan. 27, 1945, by the Soviet Army.
I didn’t originally intend to write about Auschwitz or my visit there in this column. That memory is intensely personal, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it.
But I changed my mind after I posted the stories from the Jan. 29 edition of the Powhatan Today online, including the story about the Powhatan County residents who participated in the rally downtown on Jan. 20.
Now I know that the fact that neo-Nazi groups and the KKK didn’t show up in droves to hijack the rally has led many people to talk about media hype and over-exaggerated security measures. But the fact is, it hasn’t been that long since those groups were proudly marching down the streets of Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, chanting white supremacist slogans. It hasn’t been that long since one of those protesters plowed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Rather than focus on what didn’t happen on Jan. 20, I would urge us to remember what could have happened. These groups are still here, capitalizing on the disenfranchised, exploiting ignorance, and spreading their messages of hate and prejudice. The messages of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia are still being spread. And the passage of time and distance from World War II is erasing the collective memory of the horrors perpetrated against an entire race of people.
History has shown us time and again that people who forget their past are doomed to repeat it. We need to continually educate ourselves and our children and have the hard conversations about what humans are capable of doing to each other so we can hopefully show future generations a better way.
“To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. So I couldn't prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death.” – Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and survivor of Auschwitz.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.