There’s something about the physicality of an experience which always feels so much bigger than reading about it in a book. Not only did we tour the grounds extensively of Ravensbruck concentration camp; we slept on site. Prior to its conversion to a youth hostel, our lodgings belonged to the female Nazi guards. It was primarily a women’s camp, meaning these guards ran the entire operation. Needless to say, sleeping at night was pretty hard. We were forced to physically and emotionally confront the atrocities which happened at Ravensbruck, every day for a week. I don’t think that will ever stop digging at me, nor do I want it to.
Obviously, it was a really sad and hard experience for everyone on the trip. But what really bugged me was a question I could not fully answer: where do we go next? Yes, all of of our hearts were wrenched. What happened at Ravensbruck was evil and haunting and we all know that. But why did we visit? Did we visit to get perspective on our own lives? I hope not. What a waste of time and money. What a commercialization of tragedy. I know the answer should seem like an obvious one, but everything felt so futile to me after witnessing such a vast, calculated failure in humanity.
The very same day we toured the barracks, two girls on the trip got into an argument. It was over something so petty, but one of the girls called the other a cunt. And that really stung me. I know conflict and tension are unavoidable for human beings, but the fact that she called her a cunt seemed so awful. Cunt, one of our culture’s most vile expressions against women, was used by one woman against another. The very same day we witnessed what such terrible words can do. I know this sounds melodramatic, but I don’t know, the whole thing just felt so wrong. It made me feel like nothing is going to change. The holocaust was not an anomaly. Genocide is something that society is always capable of committing; and in the case of the holocaust, it just seems like all of the variables were lined up in some sick kind of unity. And those variables can line up again. In fact, they have lined up again in places like Rwanda.
How can we deal with this? How can anything else even matter when humans carry within them the potential to do such disgusting things? It’s not just the villains. It’s everyone. I couldn’t help but look around and wonder who in my group of 20 would go along with the Nazis. I couldn’t help but question if maybe I would allow it to happen. Everyone tells themselves they would never be that person, but think of all the people who were those people.
This question festered inside of me for a long time. I thought about the two educational instructors who led the program: Matthias and Meg. These people dedicated their careers to making sure people knew the stories of both the victims and the perpetrators. For a while, I felt bad for them. Their job is so painful and often times it seems like their work doesn’t even make a difference. But then I realized how much they had inspired me. While I always thought of myself of somebody who tried to be ethical, I don’t think I actually understood how to be ethical. If I choose to be honest with myself, there have been plenty of times that I have laughed at insensitive jokes and plenty of times that I’ve let people get away with cruelty. Sure, I never said those things–but I didn’t stop them. And while those things seem petty– hateful language can be incredibly powerful.
Meg and Matthias taught me to hold myself to a higher standard, even if indirectly. That laughing at stereotypes can truly perpetuate cruelty, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal at all. When I condone the people around me to take the low road, I take the low road too. There are a million tiny pieces, tiny variables, that I can control in order to avoid another act of hatred from occurring. And when I control what I can control, then maybe I can even inspire other people to do the same, even if I can’t affect everyone. Maybe the people I do affect will end up affecting the people I don’t. While writing is my strength, there are other people who can tell great stories or create amazing works of art or network with others really well. Maybe their strengths can affect people in a way that mine can’t. Maybe together we can all stitch together into some tangled, more compassionate web.
I know that sounds a bit idealistic, but honestly I can’t think of any better alternative. And if I don’t believe in this idea, everything would be in vain. .
I guess my point with all of this is that I’ve become even more passionate and interested in learning about the art of preserving narrative. I think that art is a brilliant way to tell stories of tragedy and simultaneously avoid the plight of turning a large number of people into a statistic. Stating that one million people died doesn’t affect people in the same way that a song, poem, story, painting, or conversation would. I truly believe that. I think that the more mediums exist to express the terrors of genocide and other atrocities, the more we can prevent it.
At the Library of Congress I’ve been working with archives and reading a vast amount of old news stories every single day. I create pages online that chronicle these often forgotten moments in American history. I originally was interested in this internship simply because of the writing and research opportunities, but that seems so small to me now. This is so much more than a self-serving opportunity that will help me get into graduate school. I can use this job to resurrect the stories of the forgotten. They may not be the same people that I remembered at Ravensbruck, but some of these people’s stories are bound to give some perspective. And by learning how to exhibit stories, I’ve been given a medium to both express myself and affect other people. I’m aware of risking naivety. I know a million people will never read my work. But if just a few people do, maybe that web can grow just a little, and then I will have contributed my piece to the world.
There are many facts and figures I could tell you about Ravensbruck concentration camp, but what I’ve learned is that I can and will be a force of good in the world.