*Excerpt from Creative NonFiction Workshop class piece entitled On the Butterfly in Auschwitz.
*For Ariella, for making this journey with me. For comforting me within the gas chamber. For holding me beside the ashes. For our silence by the train tracks. For being my person.
*For my grandmother, a survivor, who speaks of the spirits of butterflies.
*For every member of the delegation who saw the scratches and heard the cries.
*For every prisoner who entered and never left.
April 22, 2014, 1:19pm
I am in Auschwitz, a network of concentration and extermination camps (I, II, and II) in Poland operated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. I am walking on the soil of a hell where the most streamlined mass killing happened.
I saw a butterfly in Auschwitz. It flew through the entrance cautiously, but willingly. The reflection of orange and yellow wings shine through the rusted gates that read Arbiet Macht Frei, work will set you free. Its fluttering echoes the marches of the prisoners who entered but never left. The butterfly drifts over the muddy ground and kisses the places where the flowers used to grow with its antennas. It flies over the bunkers where the starved and beaten prisoners who experienced nightmares without slumber. It soars over the gas chambers where the children died first because they couldn’t work or obey or provide and were rendered useless because all they did was cry and when they suffocate they can’t cry anymore and they sang songs beneath the ground until they were choked with Zyklon B and scratched the walls begging to be released and I know this because I’ve been inside and I’ve seen the scratches and heard the cries and the songs but the butterfly was there so I was lucky enough to follow it out but they never did.
The butterfly dances through the air with great force and I wonder where all the butterflies were during the Holocaust and why they couldn’t just flap their wings all at the same time because they’re mightier that way and then they could have emitted the biggest butterfly effect the world has ever seen and it could have triumphed over the hate of Nazi Germany and broken down the gates of hell and released the Jews and the communists and the Gypsies and the homosexuals and the disabled and all the outsiders. For if a butterfly’s wings in a single area of the world could impact the weather in another area of the world then I’m certain if all of the butterflies circled around concentration camps and beat their wings hard like drums they could set off a storm and rain down on humanity.
April 24, 2014, 9:23am
I am standing in the middle of Treblinka, an extermination camp in northeast Warsaw that operated between July 1942 and October 1943. I am mourning the lives of those who never left.
Treblinka was beautiful, peaceful, content. Birds chirped, trees grew, and life existed. Underneath the park’s freshly paved pathways were buried bones, bleeding blood, hopeless tears, and a haunted history. During the Holocaust, there was an eighteen minute life expectancy here. In the field was a memorial site of stones, each one representing a town population of Jews that was murdered. I don’t know what I thought I would expect. Burnt down rubbles? Gray skies? A stench of death? Nothing.
In Treblinka, there was absence.
I closed my eyes and listened to Mother Nature. When I blocked out the sound of the birdcalls and rustling in the bushes and focused on the howling of the wind, Treblinka wasn’t peaceful anymore. The absence became the screams of 840,000.
April 27, 2014, 12:06pm
I am walking around Birkenau- also known as Auschwitz II- the largest of the Auschwitz camps. The majority, about ninety percent of Auschwitz’s victims, were murdered in Birkenau. Besides Jews, more than seventy thousand Poles, twenty thousand Gypsies, and numerous Soviet Prisoners of war also lost their lives. I am present in the place where my family took their last breaths. I am listening to my grandmother give her testimony to our delegation.
My grandmother survived Birkenau with only her meatless skeleton, a pocket full of hells that cannot be unseen, and a web of suffering that cannot be undone. She was taken on a death march, where prisoners were forced to march miles without food, water, shelter, sleep, or proper clothing to other camps away from front lines and allied forces. This gave Nazis the chance to destroy their evidence to the best of their ability. On a very dark night, she escaped into the forest and hid until American troops found her and brought her to safety.
She remembers being beaten like a calf in a herd of disobedient cattle and almost having her soft skin made into lampshades and getting injections into her eyes to change the color and almost being blinded and having a roll of bread every few days and weighing thirty pounds at fifteen and surgeries without anesthetics and watching her family walk underground only to exit as ash in a chimney and the barking of dogs and the agony of standing for hours completely still during roll call and what it was like to be stripped of identity and being called a number because she wasn’t worthy.
When she remembers, she calms herself down by knitting baby blankets. I always thought this was because old people like to knit. In reality, she told me that she worked in the camp sorting baby blankets for the Nazis that had previously belonged to Jewish children. She knows that the Nazi children are too naïve to understand the hatred they are taught, but she resents the fact that the Jewish children have either already been murdered without a blanket to hold or must go through the night without something to keep them warm. When she remembers, she makes a baby blanket for every newborn that she knows to compensate for it.
April 27, 2014, 2:39pm
I am participating in the March of the Living, an international, educational program that brings Jewish people and allies from all over the world to Poland on Holocaust Memorial day to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memory of those who were murdered in Nazi Germany. I am here to serve as a witness.
We laughed behind the gates of Auschwitz. Isn’t that strange? Thousands of passionate Jews and supporters from all over the world will walk a march of life in the same footsteps of those who suffered. So when we first laughed behind the gates of Auschwitz, I was angry. But then I saw the butterfly dance over evil. We were not here to wallow in sadness or to hate those who inflicted pain on the innocent. We were here to celebrate the strength of our people and live for those who were murdered because of their religion or beliefs or sexual orientation or or political views or identity.
I marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau and sat on the train tracks with an Israeli flag draped over my shoulders and a heavy heart. I cried because to the left there was a man wearing a kippah from Brazil, and to the right there was a woman reciting a Hebrew prayer in an Australian accent. I cried because Catholic boys dressed in school uniforms were holding signs that read “I am not Jewish, but I am human. Honoring 11 million people who perished in the Holocaust.” I was not connected by my love for my religion but by my love for people. I wanted to dance but scream and laugh but cry and question but think.
My grandmother brought me to a pile of rubble that had once been a gas chamber. With shaking hands, we lit a candle in honor of our family that suffocated in chambers below. The youth delegation from my hometown watched and cried and I hated being the center of attention. “They come to me every time I am here,” my grandmother whispered to me. “It’s okay if you hear or see something. It is your family talking to you. They want to meet you.”
She was crazy and I was senseless and no one told me I would meet the ghosts of my murdered family and I wanted to hold them and ask them if I had turned out okay but I also wanted to run back to the charter bus that was waiting outside. My grandmother pointed at the caved in entrance of the collapsed chamber and I was horrified. She started speaking in Hungarian and gestured towards me, as if introducing me to an old friend. “My mother said that you are so beautiful. You have her blue eyes. Don’t you see? This is where your family was taken away from me.” But I didn’t see anything and I felt eerie and cold but that could just be the weather and the fact that I was standing on a mass grave and I wanted to feel something more but I just shook and hugged my grandmother and I didn’t know what to do. I never know what to do. Is there a right thing to do?
Then, I walked my grandmother out of Birkenau. I brought her out of hell. I know I needed her more than she needed me, but it was the best that I could do. That day, the Jewish people made it out. I walked my grandmother out of Birkenau and brought her back to the hotel and fed her soup and laughed and tucked her in under the warm blankets.