Photo Credit: archives
The entrance to Auschwitz

I have just returned from a journey that forever changed my life as a teacher, a writer, and as a human being. Nothing will ever be the same. I attended the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz in Poland as a personal guest of Rainer Hoess, grandson of the former commandant of the camp, Rudolf Hoess. Although he may seem an unlikely participant at such an event, the truth is, it was vital that he be there. In a world where hatred is rampant across the globe, anti-Semitic acts are still ever-present in the news, and the public often still indifferent to what goes on, who better to remind the world of where these attitudes can lead?

Rainer has had to live with the heavy burden of carrying the Hoess name and the realization that his grandfather was responsible for turning Auschwitz into the efficient and menacing death factory that it became. Now, after having severed ties completely with his remaining family members who still accept Nazi ideologies, he fights globally against hatred and educates on the importance of remembrance of the past. Since these are the same lessons I share with my students and the readers of my books on a daily basis, I joined Rainer and three other Holocaust scholars (avid readers, researchers, and writers on the subject) from the United Kingdom, Jessica Clark, Lee Freeman, and Simon Bell, and we began our journey to feel the past to better educate for the future as the Footsteps Community.

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As Rainer consented to interview after interview in the press, the rest of us met survivors and local characters. Our team met with survivors and descendants of victims, explored museums and camps, and accepted invitations to see the effect of these atrocities on both Jewish and Gentile residents. All of these experiences were instrumental in helping me achieve my personal goals for the journey, which were to honor the survivors, to honor my family members (nearly two hundred total) and millions of others who were killed at the hands of the Nazis, to find my own proof to use against deniers and revisionists, and to feel the atrocities, rather than just read about them, to make the lessons of the past more meaningful for future students and readers. The journey fulfilled these goals and did not disappoint.

Admittedly, the thought of being with such dignitaries as the heads and representatives of many countries and stars such as Steven Spielberg for the actual commemoration on Tuesday the 27th intrigued me, but after having stood in the gas chamber at Auschwitz I at night when the camp was closed to the public, where many of my own family members were killed, and actually touching the concrete walls, none of that mattered any more. I was no longer star-struck even as I stood mere feet from the motorcades delivering the aforementioned dignitaries. This was not about them. It was about those who endured and rebuilt lives, and about those who could not.

I could no longer even respond to messages from home such as, “Have a nice time,” “Enjoy your trip,” or something as mild as “How was your day?” I could no longer find the right words to answer these questions or comments, at least not in the space of a text message or Facebook post. Life is no longer that easy. The luxury of simple canned answers is a thing of the past. A new vocabulary is needed to express how each day was, with its roller coaster of emotions hitting highs and lows before unknown to me.

Although visiting Auschwitz during the anniversary of its liberation was a time to remember life, I was clearly surrounded by death, the ghosts of which could not be ignored. How can anyone visit this place and deny or diminish the atrocities that happened here? Death is built into its very foundations. It is in the ashes mixed amongst the slushy mud paths one must trudge through, the mounds of mass graves that arise from the earth, and pits and trenches, no longer undulating as in the past, but still alive with the echoes and energy of the victims they once swallowed whole.

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Debbie Callahan is a 9th and 10th grade English teacher and college adjunct instructor of Writing. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Language/Literature, a Master’s Degree in Education, and is in A.B.D. status for a Doctorate in Teacher Leadership. Recently, she has returned to her true passion of freelance writing and editing, while writing two books of her own on education reform and a memoir of a Holocaust survivor.
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