Story and Photos by John Moore
I vividly remember the moment I opened the email confirming my spot for a trip to Central and Eastern Europe where I would explore the sites at which the atrocities of the Holocaust unfolded. The trip was organized through the Facing History and Ourselves program at my high school, Boston Latin School. After an arduous application process—over 13 pages of writing—finding out I was accepted onto the trip was hugely relieving. When the realization hit me that the timing of the trip coincided with my 18th birthday, my excitement grew; I knew that it was not going to be a typical birthday celebration week, however, I was certain that the experiences on this trip would be immensely profound and meaningful in other ways.
Upon receiving my acceptance, I frantically flipped through the itinerary, attempting to memorize the hundreds of activities crammed into each day. In 12 days, we were set to travel to three countries, tour over 20 museums, visit five concentration camps and stop by a myriad of other sites throughout the region, exploring various cities from a historical and contemporary lens. Our goal was to get a grasp of how such terrible events occurred in the late 1930s and early 1940s and also evaluate how these countries were grappling with that history today. Part of this trip was also meant to be personal, which certainly was the case for me.
Growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic—and vehemently anti-Semitic—father made for a unique and turbulent childhood. Though, this toxic chaos characterized my first years of self-discovery unquenchable curiosity, traits to which I tightly clung. I began wrestling with my internal struggle about how so many people I loved, identified with the very quality my father painted to be so despicable. I began skimming every book I could get my hands on, shuffling through my maternal grandmother’s cultural and religious items in the back of her closet and conversing with intellectually-challenging people. Thankfully, by the time I reached early adolescence that curiosity had saved me from a life of self-hate. Not only that, it propelled me to further explore and admire my Jewish identity as well as the history of the Jewish collective through avenues such as this trip.
I remember when flipping through that itinerary just how my stomach dropped when I got to page six; February 19th, my birthday—we were going to Auschwitz. I was unsure about my feelings at this moment, the best way to describe that emotion was blank and empty. My reaction was a combination of anxiety about having read the word ‘Auschwitz’ on my trip’s plan and coming to terms that I would be going there on my 18th birthday. The naivete of my younger self did not mean to sound selfish, but I’d be lying if I were to say that I was satisfied with how the scheduling rolled out.
Anyway, months flew by, and finally that day arrived. Smiling faces greeted me at our luxurious breakfast at a hotel only steps away from the camp. Birthday wishes from my peers took me out of context for a brief moment, and into a place of birthday familiarity. I felt guilty, however, for letting my mind wander to the realm of happiness due to my proximity to the largest extermination camp in human history.
From the entrance of our hotel, we could quite clearly see Auschwitz I. We walked there in fewer than five minutes. I still cannot fathom that I had the opportunity to voluntarily enter such a haunting, despicable place. Its pure evil lingered across the street through the flimsy glass of my hotel room window and into my nightmares the night prior. Because of this I felt serious fatigue that day. This disorienting lethargy, coupled with the suffocating smog of the brisque Polish winter, created one of the eeriest ambiances I’ve ever experienced—quite fitting for such a horrific place.
Walking through the once crowded, disease-ridden barracks of Auschwitz I, filled again with visitors hailing from all corners of the globe, it was evident that the sentiments of despair were mutual. Language barriers fell and the universality of human grief was on clear display. This was the most dismal place I have ever had the privilege of entering. Room after room brought up emotions I had never experienced before.
As our day continued, and we were corralled from exhibition to exhibition, the stories of individuals who did not last in the camp long enough to see their own 18th birthday tore me apart. Moreover, hearing the names of people who did make it, and had nothing to look forward to that night besides a bowl of hot dirty water, made any desire for a birthday cake seem trivial at best.
After some hours at Auschwitz I, we then took a bus over to the massive and barren Auschwitz II death camp. Unlike its predecessor, Auschwitz II was not converted into a proper museum. For the most part, due to a considerable amount of effort placed into conserving certain parts of the camp, Auschwitz II was left just how it was upon the arrival of the Soviets back in 1945 after Nazis bombed various areas of the death camp to cover up their crimes.
Walking through this camp was a vastly different experience than that at Auschwitz I. For starters, it was absolutely massive. It was impossible to view every part of the camp in just a few hours. Yet, that was not our purpose, and that should not be one’s purpose in visiting a site such as Auschwitz. It is futile to go to great lengths in attempting to see and feel all of Auschwitz; we will never be able to. The magnitude of horror is beyond our comprehension because we did not experience it. The value in going on one of these trips is most meaningful if it is personal, which I discovered at the end of my day at the camp.
While my aching feet walked me out of Auschwitz II, I couldn’t help but look back at that infamous, now decaying, watchtower standing empty over the camp, just to get one last look at this place. I was shocked by what I saw. The bright orange sun marbled with what was left of a clear blue sky to cast the most beautiful, radiant light over the darkest place on Earth. This paradox of beauty in a most horrific place perfectly summed up my day there.
An 18th birthday is supposed to be one for the books. The tools you need to succeed on life’s journey are awarded to you on this special day: the right to vote, the right to own land and the right to sue if you are so inclined. My 18th birthday, however, gave me much more than your standard toolbox for adult life. I saw first-hand the devastating consequences of when hateful rhetoric—such as that to which I was exposed—goes unchecked and reaches the highest office of the land; I witnessed hard proof that the fabric of empathy is far more fragile than we think. We must never forget, and more importantly, we must never stop asking why.
Facing history on the largest scale, yet taking away such personal ramifications, was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had thus far. There could not have been a more suitable day to have gained this perspective on the world than the day I also gained a mountain of responsibility. And while it was not the standard 18th birthday gone rogue in Europe, I am eternally grateful to have acquired the emotional drive to do something positive with this newly awarded knowledge.
The story is featured in Spring 2021 (Print Edition).