A visit to Cracow in Poland means you have a lot of things to see and do, but a visit to Auschwitz may not be at the top of the list for everyone. I decided to join a tour during my recent visit. It took about 7 hours, with a lot to see and learn; what it was like during World War II. The guide in the concentration camps – Auschwitz I and II – stated very clearly to the group: “You are not tourists here. You are visitors – at a memorial”.
If anybody might start to think of a sandwich around the usual lunch-time, this was hardly the right place. Eating was forbidden, as one visitor was told when he tried to take a bite of the sandwich he had brought (there are no coffee shops around). Auschwitz is not the kind of place that makes you eager to eat, anyway. To wait for some hours seemed more natural; since lack of food characterized daily life there.
Despite many TV documentaries from concentrations camps, including the well known gate where the trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was quite different to be there. It had actually been real; although it also seemed unreal. Was it really that bad? In barracks meant to be stables for 52 horses, 600 persons were packed together. Everything that might increase the chance for survival was taken away from the moment one arrived. It came as no surprise when the guide said: “Nobody escaped from Birkenau. It was impossible to get out”.
It was hardly a place for meditation (chairs didn’t exist anyway), but the impressions have kept coming back in my meditations afterwards. Images from the camp, that could have left no doubt for those who arrived there: the main question was about life or death. What were the options – with very little food, very hard work, no possibility to take care of one’s health, sanitary conditions were horrible, no warm clothes, surrounded by seriously ill fellow prisoners, being totally dependent on the mood of the guards? How long would it be possible to endure those conditions, without control over vital factors, like diseases that spread rapidly?
In the modern, more peaceful society we are from time to time reminded about the fact that we don’t live forever, but we can more easily forget about this question. Under the “unreal” conditions in Birkenau, nobody could forget about it, but it was hardly the place for philosophy about existential questions (although there are some impressing testimonials from some prisoners). Nowadays, when survival is not the only challenge, it may be possible to go deeper into such questions. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be easy. So many impressions and tasks keep us busy with other things. Meditation may help us get beyond the daily residues and be more open to reflections upon psychological and existential issues that otherwise will not be dealt with. It may help to focus some attention on these areas of life, as well as finding some time for meditation.