by Emmitt Sklar ’21

For a week, I sat in a stupor at the Union computers trying to figure out how to answer the question, “How was your break?” At this point, no one really asks. Still, I’m trying to dilute a kaleidoscope of feelings into concise talking points fit for drive-by consumption. It’s an exercise in introspection, now. What’s the best way to briefly transmit an experience that makes you want to tell the casual questioner everything but also nothing?

I missed the elusive “restful break.” It’s difficult to explain the impact of death camps with adjectives, none of which are adequately built for translating these places. It was unclear to me, until I stood on that barren ground which reeked of death, that, like Elie Wiesel once said, “Any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.” It was unclear to me until I confronted the hair of victims ripped from them alongside baby shoes, resold and repurposed in one massive death machine. It was unclear until I looked down and saw my own name reflected back at me, repeated 50 times in the book of the dead — people I will only ever know because of the way they died. It is still not clear, and no amount of imagery can make me understand.

Now, I’m home, but I still feel trapped in Poland. My feet are stuck to the Polish earth like the ground tried to grab me too — like it was used to pulling people in. Look through my haunted eyes and see the train tracks at Auschwitz in the rail line which wraps around campus. See, in the piles of discarded construction dirt, a mound of ash. My gaze is still fixed to it. “Where are the others,” it asks, “who said, ‘never forget’ and left me here?” Look at me and see the bodies once discarded in the pits at Majdanek and know that part of me is buried there too.

When you ask me about my break, I won’t tell you it was fine. I see now how easy it is to be submerged in the debris of a broken world. But, I do not want to be imprisoned by this place. I cannot betray the victims, forced into the ground, by lying down beside them. Generations of weeping have watered this place. As I stood over the remains of Majdanek, the cold rain mixed with my tears and we cried together. Grass now grows over the wreckage of past crimes; it has for years. Rebirth, I think, is the only way out of this graveyard.