My family visited Auschwitz for Christmas that year. It seemed only fitting, for a masochistically-sympathetic group such as ourselves to relive the trauma of our ancestors, specifically, my father’s parents, on such a celebratory occasion. But, I guess, as your average multiracial, secular New York Jews, the time was as good as any to explore the site of one of history’s most enduring scars.
Okay, to my parents’ credit it was the day after Christmas. Phew! What a relief! Alas, it was still dead midwinter, and, from what I could tell, the entire country of Poland was coated in a thin layer of frost. As we sat in the back of the old gray van, which was to drive us the hour from Krakow to the camp, my sister and I clung to each other for warmth in between swapping phones to help each other in Candy Crush. A few months later, I would morbidly joke that my hands were so purple on that day, I briefly wondered if I would be the first Sulkowicz to die at Auschwitz. This elicited an instantaneous eruption of laughter from my father, such that I was worried he would pass out from lack of oxygen.
Eventually, my sister, Emma, fell asleep against the window. She’d done a great deal of sleeping on that trip, whether during our many long car rides or in the hotel room as a form of stubborn refusal to join us for meals. It had been a hard year for her, and I wondered if this languor was the result of the emotional strain of the trip, some unresolved familial frustration, or the physical and mental challenges of her mattress-carrying performance art, which had made headlines overnight and skyrocketed her to unprecedented fame. Probably some combination of the three, although it didn’t help that the New York Times had just that week given her rapist a front-page platform from which to call her a liar. In advance of the trip, I had been excited at the prospect of one-on-one time with my sister, but reading in bed as she lay a few feet away from me with the covers over her head wasn’t quite doing it for me. We didn’t spend that much time together that year, she was always busy balancing her project and a constant stream of interview requests, and I was busy with senior year and college apps. Sometimes it was easy to forget I’d gone weeks without seeing her, though, as both my family and Facebook feed were caught in the shadow of the enigmatic mattress.
The morning of our journey, I’d ordered sausage for breakfast, and received a single boiled hotdog on a large plate. I filled up on bread instead, feeling that to arrive hungry would be some offense to my grandparents’ memory.
The reception area was buzzing with visitors, and the walls were lined with books about the war in various languages. The sign for the restroom reminded me of a story I’d once heard. It was about a woman who had been held in Auschwitz as a young girl. After it was turned into a museum, her friends urged her to return to obtain closure. Eventually she went, and when she arrived at the visitors center, she went downstairs to use the restroom. The attended said, “One Zloty,” to which she responded, “The last time I was here, it was free.”
We walked through the houses, saw the famous “Work Will Make You Free” gate, the glass-encased pile of confiscated shoes, and the gas chambers. We were shown a cozy looking home which had once been occupied by a high-ranking SS officer’s family. After some light research, I found an interview with one of the children of the family, who insists she was completely ignorant of the goings-on at the camp. One brick wall outside had a grouping of distinctly bullet-hole shaped marks at about waist level. I attempted to resist knowing what they could have been shooting at.
After the first leg of the tour we were driven to Birkenau, the adjacent death camp. Our bus pulled up near the train tracks, at the end of which a short section of train had been symbolically left. It sat there, open on both sides and empty, the wheels rusted from lack of use. My father had barely taken two steps toward the train, which may once have held his parents, before he slipped on some ice and badly bruised his side. It seemed he too felt a strange obligation to honor our family in some excruciatingly Jewish manifestation of guilt.
Although much of the camp was destroyed, a few structures still remained. Our tour entered a drafty, cramped living quarters to escape the cold. Eventually the tour guide turned to leave, but I stayed behind for a moment. The wind picked up again and whistled past the wooden panels that held up the cabin. What struck me was not so much the horror of the conditions, but how unwilling I was to take it in. I began to picture the families that had once lived here, and felt my body physically reject delving any further into this image. I realized it had been a long time since I had last heard anyone but the guide speak, shocked as we all were by how the terror of the camp exceeded our wildest expectations. Despite the wind, the room felt completely still and soulless. So strange that my first time alone with my thoughts, first time to selfishly think about myself after this uneasy year, was in one of the main places that ought be about so many other people than myself. Standing alone in that room, I felt the full weight of so many put-off emotions nearly drive me into the ground. I was reminded of the fact that my sister’s rapist was German, and how simultaneously inconsequential and deeply significant that was. I thought about how strange it must have been for my father, raised by parents fashioned out of tragedy. I thought about every time during the past year I’d wanted to run away, but realized it wasn’t (not usually, anyway) my mom, my sister, my dad, and my dogs I wanted to escape. And besides, how could I outrun the entire internet? This sensation scared me in its intensity, but I allowed it to overwhelm me for a second. Soon, I felt too alone, I clenched my jaw and blinked away tears. I quickly ran back to my family.
I recognize that this wasn’t the first time I’d been forced to confront the strange pain of the whole ordeal. Occasionally, in school, former teachers of mine would approach me in the hallway and fumblingly attempt to be supportive. A few standouts include, “Well that was surprising news to hear” and “You two are all they talk about in the teacher’s lounge.” In retrospect, these are pretty humorous in their insensitivity, but in the moment, they were enough to send me running to my favorite teacher, who would let me cry under her desk during lunch. After these brief indulgences however, I’d have to wipe away my tears, reapply my eyeliner and continue on as if nothing was wrong. It often felt like everyone around me was waiting for a breakdown, and I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of getting to watch.
Looking back on that moment in the camp, I’m oddly reminded of a passage from Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet. In this interaction, Holmes tells Watson that he believes the mind is like an empty attic, “you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”1 Holmes believed that, like an attic, the mind can only contain so much information in one lifetime. Perhaps during that year of craziness, I had done nothing but add to my attic. I’d kept adding to the already toppled over piles of thoughts, and feelings, and too much information. Only standing in this room full of tragedy I was unable to process, incapable of adding to my attic, was I able to take a step back and examine the information my brain was now saturated with. Maybe only when there’s nothing to take in, can we begin to look inwards. Maybe then we can start to make some fucking sense of it all.