When going to a place like Auschwitz and Birkenau, the key question is what is the appropriate experience to have. At Auschwitz, people talk about breaking down and crying. But the tears didn't /wouldn't come. I felt the sort of nausea of sorrow in the face of true human tragedy, but it was all too strerile, too cerebral. I wondered, "Am I too distant from the experience? Is it because it is not my family experience?"
Then we went to Birkenau. Birkenau was 8 times the size of Auschwitz. It had the crematoriums as well as gas chambers and "dying" quarters. More importantly, you are better able to imagine the guards with guns pointed in watchtowers. You can touch the beds upon which people slept.
This all affected me, but the appropriate experience didn't come until we were making our way back to the car. I had walked ahead of the group to escape their chatter. They had already begun to intellectualize the experience, where I wanted to FEEL it.
I began walking faster and faster towards the gate. My heart started palpitating and I couldn't breathe. I realized that I was on the verge of running All I wanted was to get out. Once out, I sat on the bench to catch my breath.
Although it passed quickly, I had caught the essential feeling of the place which was the fear and the desire to escape. The great human tragedy is that while I could run out, so many did not.