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15 minutes at the gates

Seventy years ago today, the Red Army released the last inmates of Auschwitz. Approximately 7,000 people lived to see that liberation, but over a million did not. Today Auschwitz is a museum, and seven years ago I spent a quarter of an hour outside its gates.

It was the end of a glorious summer trip: by train from Moravia through Slovakia to Kiev, up to Moscow and then Helsinki; by ferry across the blue and white waters of the Gulf of Finland to Old Town Tallinn and a Baltic road trip to Art Nouveau Riga, to medieval Krakow with its flowers, horse-drawn carriages and the best dumplings in a stiff contest.

Of course the trip was going to end in Auschwitz; there was no question of missing it. However, I was sure I could not take the tour. I could not see the exhibit of shoes. So we agreed to drive by Auschwitz at the very end of the day, after the gates had been shut.

Auschwitz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is not like Quebec City or Česky Krumlov or the Cathedral at Chartres. And while I knew this, I was still not prepared for the drive through the Polish countryside on a summer afternoon, following the signs for “Muzeum” to the town of Oświęcim, down a street where children played in the shadow of their communist-era flat blocks that abruptly gave way to fencing and the dorms of the concentration camp.

We pulled up in front of the gates. It was not the infamous sign that got me, it was the innocuous railroad tracks: the end of the line for interminable cattle car rides across Europe that ended far too soon for all the mothers and lovers and sisters and brothers who had the last look at their loved ones at that spot. “Work Makes You Free” was the destination for some, the rest were immediately sent to be gassed.

I stood by those tracks and thought of Sophie’s choice. I thought of Anne Frank. I thought of the countless other stories and accounts I’d read, the names I’d forgotten, the names I’d never know.

It was a passing cloud that darkened the sky and blocked the light. It was the setting sun that made the air suddenly grow cold and the windows of the buildings black out into big blank eyes. It was not the memory of millions of tears, but fresh ones that made my face wet.

My travel companions were still trying to take the perfect picture of themselves in the dying light. I had to ask them to go. We drove away in silence, but I thought how the buildings were in remarkably good condition and could easily be used again.

I didn’t stop crying until we were over the Czech border. I never saw the pictures my companions took that day. I never took any pictures of my own, but those fifteen minutes, standing outside of Auschwitz, are indelibly etched in my eyes.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany
photo credit: Bust it Away photography