I often wonder about people who claim they don’t like to travel, or those who won’t make the attempt because of fear. I’ve been thinking a lot about the places I’ve been, the places I want to go, what it is that draws me there. I have tons of stories, some funny (like washing my pants in a toilet at the Berlin Zoo, listening to the gentleman explain to his daughter in the British Museum that it’s Patrifyeed Harse Puuu , the drunk tour guide on the way to see Glen Coe and the Highlan’ Coos, and entire bus full of drunken teenagers who just ate candy, dammit), some tales of beauty and awe, (Mozart’s music in Vienna, Yosemite, the absolutely greatest writers of all time etched into Shakespeare’s glass window), and some shit I’d rather forget, like losing my shit in London and sitting down on my luggage and crying and crying because we were lost. Thankfully, I don’t get lost in London anymore!
But, and this was a huge surprise to me for some reason, going to Mechelen was and is by far the place that left the greatest impression on me. Now, obviously anyone with a heart should grieve just for entering one of these horrific places, and yet I thought I would be ready for it. You can never, ever, ever be ready for it. And it wasn’t as if you could say, well it isn’t Auschwitz, because it isn’t, but that matters little.
It doesn’t have to be.
It’s a small camp, one that was used mostly for transit to Auschwitz, one that only had a few rooms. The small cells held so many men you could still see grooves from their bodies, and the bunk beds are tightly packed into space…twenty or so in each cell. The train car outside reminds you that many never made it as far as those bunks. Still in good condition, it serves as a sentinel to the ovens that also still stand, guarding them, their evil presence seemingly lost among the green grass that is growing over the camp.
I traveled there with a group of teenagers, athletes, kids who had been given a lot in life. The trip, being in Belgium, was not inexpensive. These were elite kids, smart, attractive, bratty. But for the most part, great kids, the kind who laugh a lot and have ambition. On the bus to Mechelen they were rowdy, although I did notice Cecily was more subdued than normal. She acquired a romance for this soccer tour and she’d been chatty about Aaron the entire time, yet now she was quiet.
I knew why. The other kids, maybe they’d heard of the Nazi’s exterminations of Jews, but it’s not likely that they’d studied it, or seen much of it. They weren’t quite old enough to do so on their own, and the internet wasn’t quite accessible as at the time. But Cec, she had a grandfather who had liberated a camp. Who had brought home photographs of bodies piled up like logs, emaciated, sunken faces, the tears of joy as a piece of bread was shared, the Nazi’s hung in the camp square. She knew what she was walking into.
And it was devastating. The loud, boisterous, happy teenagers left Mechelen in tears, not just tears of sadness, but sobbing, the grief and pain and shame and horror spilling from them with each step they took away from this smaller camp, one that wasn’t ever supposed to have ovens, but had them added when Hitler realized he was going to lose the war. Cecily was OK, but it changes you, makes you realize that when we don’t speak up and take a stand we are just as evil as the perpetrators. We can deny this all we want, but it’s the truth.
But the worst was the smell. I’ve smelled a lot of nasty things. Dead chickens. Rotten fish. Dead things in general.
This was not something as natural as death. Fear. Filth. Must. I swear you could smell the evil there, the malodorous creature that clutched at the souls of everyone involved. It has never left, and I’m not sure it can ever be cleansed, and it feels like it’s never gone away, like it’s still there, even fifteen years later.
This is why I really think censoring history in order to be sensitive is a huge mistake. But that’s another story.
More importantly, although teenagers experiencing something like this and gaining humanity, empathy, and being changed for life is epically significant, is that not only is human tragedy on display here, but the human spirit. Evidence of the gift that life is were displayed. In most instances you really had to look for these small things…the names scratched into the wood, hearts, dates. The small treasures on display in the small museum on site, a ragged doll, the locket with a tiny lock of baby hair, the tiny earring.
And then, in one small cell, there is art. And I’m not talking about some little drawings here and there, but an entire cell covered in pastels that the guard smuggled to the artist who resided in Mechelen. I wish I could remember his damn name, but he was astounding. His pastels showed not only the pain of where he was but the joy of life outside of his cell. The colors were so jarringly different than the dull, ugly, rotting timbers, than the unsanitary clinic that looked like any medicine done there was not for health reasons (although the docent said it actually was).
The aspects of a life lost, but one that wasn’t lost without dignity, and one that will never be forgotten lies in this tragedy. Mechelen gripped my heart, my head, and my soul. I will never forget what it said to me, what it tells me about the world. The kids who experienced something that they never thought possible were changed intrinsically, never to forget.
And that’s the point. We cannot forget. We cannot. The Holocaust affects every one of us today. It cannot be changed, but it can teach us to be better people. And to love one another as we are.
And that’s the truth about travel. It changes you irreversibly, makes you realize that life outside of you is amazing, that a fluke of nature can build an entire empire (cement/volcano, google it), but most importantly, it can alter your universe and allows you to experience a life no one else has. And maybe, just maybe, it can alter your perspective so much that you change the rest of the world, too.