“Weren’t you scared?”
It’s the inevitable follow-up question I receive after revealing the name of my high school alma mater, Columbine High School, where the infamous 1999 school shooting took place, resulting in thirteen lives lost. Most people hear the word “Columbine” and associate it with tragedy, a pivotal moment in America’s history of gun violence that began to shine a brighter light on the problem. I think of pep rallies, taking part in plays, and awkward adolescent dances, singing along to Justin Timberlake with my friends.
When I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps this past April with the AJC Program for Students Abroad, we stayed the night in the Polish town of Oświęcim—the original Polish name from which the German word “Auschwitz” is derived. I was unexpectedly struck by the parallel of Oświęcim—much like my hometown of Littleton, Colorado—as becoming synonymous with a tragedy, a scene of a crime. More than 1.5 million people visit Auschwitz each year, yet few are aware that Oświęcim is home to some 35,000 Polish people who maintain normal, daily lives.
Let me be clear: I do not mean to compare two tragedies. A school shooting and the Holocaust are vastly different devastations in entirely separate contexts. But this common thread brings about the same question raised by the photo series in the Kluger House at the AJC , “Land of Oś: Life in the Shadow of Auschwitz,” by Danny Ghitis: “How can life exist in the aftermath of such overwhelming evil?” What’s more, why do people want to visit these sites of sadness?
During my second year of high school, I directed a tourist who was wandering the hallways taking photographs out of the building and to the nearby Columbine memorial. I was angry, not because I was late to class, but because that person saw my school as a place to be mourned, not a place where hundreds of students were learning.
For some, to see something is to believe it. By visiting these locations, perhaps they can fully comprehend what surpassed. But truly, how can we ever understand the magnitude or meaning of such heinous acts? At Birkenau, I was baffled into silence by its vastness alone.
In a world where people select their travel destinations based on reported violence, we must remember that evil can be present and acted upon anywhere. However, if we choose to be afraid of every place that has bore witness to tragedy, then we choose to be afraid of the earth itself. If we cut ourselves off from certain experiences on the basis of terrible things happening, then we, too, surrender to the same evil.
No, I was not scared to attend my high school.
This coming fall, a new group of teenagers will attend their freshman orientation and go on to journey through the exciting and strange years of adolescence.
Birds chirped and flowers were blooming the morning we arrived in Oświęcim as people went about their day. The George Santayana quote greeting visitors in the first bunker of Auschwitz seems fitting: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In carrying on with life, we carry the memory of the past. I believe this is the best and most effective way we can pay homage and move forward.
Let us triumph over these devastations by continuing to live.
“Weren’t you scared?”