Affin­i­ty Konar is the author of the nov­el Mis­chling and is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The Pol­ish coun­try­side flashed through the tour bus win­dow: white chick­ens, nod­ding sun­flow­ers, chil­dren on bikes. That such pro­sa­ic scenes could exist in such prox­im­i­ty to where the hor­rors had occurred was dis­ori­ent­ing. I felt small, returned to a child­ish state.

Part of this rever­sion was due to the fact that I’d come to Poland as a grown woman accom­pa­nied by two over­ly-proud par­ents who boast­ed to any Eng­lish-speak­er about my nov­el, Mis­chling. I’d want­ed to prove to myself that I could han­dle this trip alone, but when the birch­es of Oświęcim began to flash, sig­nal­ing our prox­im­i­ty to Auschwitz, I was too grate­ful for the fact that they watched over me.

Because while I’d writ­ten a nov­el about the twin exper­i­ments at Auschwitz, I nev­er imag­ined that I would see the camps myself. For over a decade, I’d stud­ied nar­ra­tives, pho­tographs, per­son­al his­to­ries. Long before the book’s gen­e­sis, as a teenag­er, I’d read every piece of Shoah lit­er­a­ture I could find. So while no one can pre­pare for such depth­less sor­row, I didn’t imag­ine I’d be bro­ken by the mere sight of the woods that bor­dered Auschwitz. But too much his­to­ry was sug­gest­ed by these birch­es. They were woods that had been spied through the win­dows of cat­tle cars. The fact that they were beau­ti­ful, still, seemed an insult.

And once we arrived at Auschwitz I and stepped beneath the gate, with its mes­sage inscribed in the dust in shad­ow, it became clear that my emo­tions would bear more com­plex­i­ty than I could’ve antic­i­pat­ed. We walked through the place I’d long ago read described as a lit­tle city with win­dow box­es and gar­den plots, from the build­ing that housed the orches­tra to sites of tor­ture and death. To places I couldn’t bring myself to pho­to­graph, and places we were thank­ful­ly informed could not be photographed.

What couldn’t be pho­tographed had been shorn and stolen and now sits under glass; it is mass dehu­man­iza­tion made vis­i­ble. What couldn’t be pho­tographed is what I will nev­er for­get the most. I know that the sight of it must rein­vent grief and sor­row for many, that it must fol­low us as it should, but even now, at some dis­tance I won­der, how we’re able to see such a sight and still speak. One would think that see­ing such hor­ror should make me unable to even write this, and yet, I was wit­ness­ing its effects at an extreme remove. The fact that poets and writ­ers who sur­vived found a way to artic­u­late the unspeak­able — I hadn’t thought my awe could ever increase, but there I was, try­ing to fath­om, yet again, how they came by their bravery.

I tried to take a pho­to­graph of a child’s suit­case. His name was blurred by the shak­i­ness of my hand. I erased the pho­to­graph. I didn’t take anoth­er. But the name remained: Pavel Kohn. Born 1935.

So much of Auschwitz blurred like that pho­to­graph, as if my mind want­ed to keep a safe dis­tance. Even the site of Rudolf Höss’ exe­cu­tion felt indis­tinct. I thought of my teenage self, obsessed with Nazi hunters and vengeance — back then, I would’ve thrilled to this sight. But to the right of those gal­lows, I saw the eaves of the Höss house, where his wife had boast­ed of a lux­u­ri­ous life, and this unseat­ed the slight­est glim­mer of satisfaction.

To steady myself, I retraced my intro­duc­tion to this place, Pri­mo Levis She­ma:

Con­sid­er whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

We board­ed the bus and trav­eled to Auschwitz II. I saw the path the twins had walked, over and over, dressed in striped uni­forms they’d nev­er worn, for the Red Army’s footage of lib­er­a­tion. I saw that so much had been destroyed by Nazi hands in their eager­ness to cov­er their crimes. Here, there were blank spaces to sig­ni­fy tor­ment, all ques­tion­ing the view­er. How was suf­fer­ing endured? What did one held onto, or invent? How did sav­ing some­one save you? How many doomed them­selves sav­ing others?

Our guide, a res­i­dent of Oświęcim, whose ances­tors were vic­tims of the camps, offered sto­ry after sto­ry, all beau­ti­ful­ly told. I’d hear one name and won­der how many oth­er names have gone unrec­og­nized. I’d hear an account of resis­tance, and won­der about oth­ers lost to us. I’d walk through the women’s bar­racks and won­der about the rela­tion­ships between moth­ers, daugh­ters, sis­ters, friends, strangers whose details will nev­er be ful­ly known. Some speak of a cathar­sis in vis­it­ing Auschwitz. I didn’t feel that — if I did, it took a mys­te­ri­ous form. Because what I tru­ly felt was this: a belief that the won­der­ing will be end­less. And it should be.

Affin­i­ty Konar was raised in Cal­i­for­nia and holds an MFA from Colum­bia University.

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