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They were. And then they weren’t.

No number of grade school World War II units, Holocaust documentaries, or survivors’ memoirs can prepare you for the brutal reality that is Auschwitz-Birkenau: grossly enormous, bizarrely modern, and disconcertingly quiet.
With over two million visitors a year, the grounds see thousands of people each day. But throughout my lengthy day spent at the camps, rarely did I hear conversation or make eye contact with the many grave faces I passed. Our 20-person group spent the day standing alone and staring idly, lost in our own thoughts.
Hearing our tour guide say aloud the sheer number of people that who their lives, and how they lost them, was impossible to process. It is so inhuman. I have barely experienced death in my own life—how can I wrap my head around over one million people being killed, and where I am standing no less?
How can anyone?
I found myself wondering exactly how I should be responding, both emotionally and physically. Is it weird to cry? Would it be rude to talk about something else while here? Why do I feel strange for taking pictures? I wondered how to feel when I saw children laughing and running and playing while visiting the grounds. Is it disrespectful, or could it be the biggest “fuck you” to the Nazis that there is? We are still laughing and living on, even after the lengths they went to extinguish the happiness and life of entire populations of people.
It took me some time after the trip to realize that no one knows how to act—there is no right or wrong way to respond to something like this. Who can say how we treat such a dark spot in human history, and maybe even the worst? Do we solemnly honor the victims’ memory with silent respect and sunken hearts? Will their lives be remembered with pity and sorrow for the rest of eternity?
Do we honor them and their courage by continuing to grow as a people and by distancing ourselves from the people who did these horrible acts? Perhaps we honor the victims more each day with the compassion and equality that we are slowly attempting to cultivate with each new generation.
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