Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Valuable Experience

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s good to be back. My little jaunt to Eastern Europe was fantastic, educational, and relaxing. Thanks to everybody, especially Fish, Fite, and Stats, for keeping things rolling in my absence. Now, I’m back with a vengeance. I leave the country and when I come back the BCS is in total shambles, Mike Vick and the Falcons are falling apart, UGA loses to Kentucky then thumps Auburn at Jordan-Hare, Rutgers wins a landmark game, The Hawks have the second best record in the Eastern Conference, UNC finally found Mack Brown’s replacement and hired Butch Davis (which, by the way, will only intensify the Mark Richt to Miami rumors – I don’t think he’s going anywhere, but brace yourself Bulldog Nation, it could be a stressful month or so). In other words, a lot happened in my absence, and we’ve got a lot to talk about in the days and weeks ahead. As usual this time of year, you can probably expect college football and the NFL to dominate the discussion, but we have to keep an eye on this constantly developing Hawks’ story. I’m telling you, I’m a believer. Then again, I haven’t seen them play a minute yet, so I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

This morning, however, before delving back into the world of sports, I want to do something that I very seldom do, I want to discuss a very serious non-sports issue. Specifically, I want to briefly discuss one of the most humbling, horrifying, gut wrenching, and ultimately important experiences of my life. I’m referring to my trip last week to the Concentration Camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, about an hour outside of Krakow, Poland. As a preliminary matter, I have to admit that I am very intimidated by the prospect of writing about this experience. Honestly, this is a topic suited for a much more accomplished and eloquent writer than myself. Names like David McCullough and Steven Ambrose come to mind, and let’s not kid each other, some guy that blogs under the name, The WAD, isn’t anywhere near that category. That being said, I feel its important for me to write about this experience, and I hope that comes across in the words below, and I apologize for any injustice to the topic arising from my deficiencies as a writer.

First, let me provide you with a brief history of Auschwitz/Birkenau. At its inception in June of 1940, it was, in fact, a concentration/work camp. A place where the Nazis exiled their enemies, mainly Polish and Soviet prisoners of war, and forced them to work inhumane hours to build supplies to aid the Nazi army. Make no mistake about it, the motto over the gate, “Arbeit Mact frei” (Work makes one free) couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The people that were initially brought to Auschwitz, as with all the other concentration camps, never had a chance for freedom. Instead, they were actually worked to death. Around October of 1941, however, the Nazis took the horror of Auschwitz to even more unspeakable levels when they opened another camp less than 3 kms. from Auschwitz known as Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Birkenau was no concentration camp. It was an extermination camp. From October 1941 until the camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, approximately 1.3 million people (the vast majority of them were Jews) were brought to Birkenau, and approximately 1.1 million were exterminated. Most of these 1.1 million were exterminated within minutes or hours of their arrival in the gas chambers, but some were still forced to work the camp and ultimately either succumbed to the labors or the firing squad.

So, those are the basic facts of Auschwitz. I’m pretty certain that you’ve all heard them before, as I had, and you may be asking yourself, why I have felt compelled to write about this. Well, the answer is rather simple: There are very few times in your life that you can say with an absolute certainty that you will never forget exactly how you felt and exactly what thoughts were running through your mind at a particular moment. Thus far in my life, I can say that for a few moments, specifically, when the Challenger exploded, September 11, 2001, and when I got the news of the death of certain friends and family. So, as you can see, I’m talking about transcendent moments. Well, my five hours at Auschwitz is now a part of this list.

Yes, through the years, I have read and heard the facts I recited above. I have heard the horrifying numbers that 6 million Jews fell victim to Hitler’s evil, I have seen documentaries on The History Channel, I’ve read “The Diary of Ann Frank”, and I’ve seen “Schindler’s List”. But, not until I stood on those grounds, not until I viewed with my own two eyes the horrifying barracks, the gas chamber, the railroad tracks that millions of people traveled to their deaths, the hundreds of thousands of locks of human hair still preserved on the grounds, and the suitcases of those that were exterminated, did I really understand the magnitude of what happened in those years when Hitler pursued what he deemed the solution to the Jewish Question. As I walked the grounds, I couldn’t control my thoughts and emotions. One minute, as I viewed all the inhumanity, I found myself wondering how there could actually be a God that could allow something like this to happen. Then, in the next moment, I would think of the 7,500 prisoners that survived until liberation, and I found myself realizing that only with the protection of the hand of God could someone survive this horror. In short, Auschwitz made me question my faith in God, while simultaneously reaffirming that very same faith. I know that probably doesn’t make sense, and this is where a more eloquent writer could do a better job of articulating what I am trying to say, but I just can’t think of a better way to say it.

As a child and a young man, I was a pretty optimistic person that focused on the positives and the opportunities this world provides. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become somewhat jaded. I find myself fixating more on the negatives and the hassles of the world and allowing them to control the direction of my life. In other words, I never stop anymore and think about how good I have it, I only think about how much better I wish I had it. Well, I’m not going to be so bold as to proclaim that I am a changed man after my visit to Auschwitz. What I will say, however, is that I am a more aware man. I have seen with my own two eyes how horrible and disastrous life can be, and the next time I start to complain about something in my life, I hope I have the presence of mind to stop and reflect on my memories of Auschwitz and remember how blessed and easy my life is. The people that died at Auschwitz were unwitting heroes, but heroes nonetheless, and I hope to draw on the memories of those heroes when necessary as I shape my life from this point forward.

As I said above, I had read all the facts about Auschwitz and the Holocaust before. I studied them briefly in high school, and even a little in college. But, I’m ashamed to admit that while the raw figures staggered and horrified me in the brief moments I studied the Holocaust, they never affected me on a personal and meaningful level. Well, for me, it took a trip to Poland to be properly affected. For the rest of you, while I would definitely encourage everyone to make the pilgrimage to Auschwitz, I hope it doesn’t take that. That is why I felt compelled to write this article. I truly felt that I had an obligation to share these thoughts with you, and if the affect this experience had on me is apparent to even just one of you, then I will be prouder of this article than anything else I have ever written.

Thanks for your indulgence today, and I promise we’ll get back to the fun and games tomorrow.