Last July, I travelled 8 500km to go back 72 years. What was it about Auschwitz that had captured my imagination from a young age? Why, even as Krakow dripped charm from every sidewalk café and cobbled street, was my upcoming visit to the concentration camp what I looked forward to most? It was probably the same reason why, a few years ago, I’d scrutinised with some degree of macabre fascination, the sash windows and three-arm candelabras at a former slave owner’s plantation house in Barbados.
But I’m not just a period junkie, although I can smell an antique shop a mile away. Upon entering the 9/11 Museum, I had pulled my shawl over my shoulders with the same reverence as I did when passing the ground-to-ceiling-height glass case containing the hair shaved off Jewish women in 1944.
There’s something about sites where both atrocities and survival have occurred that speak volumes about our potential as human beings.
At Auschwitz, I walked along the same path that women, children and men too old to work had trudged unwittingly to their deaths. The information filled my headphones faster than I could process it, each story ghastlier than the last.
I tried to ignore the obvious tendency to hate the Nazis, instead trying to imagine the innermost, subtlest of places those who survived had had to go to hold onto life. In the end, it was the eyes that did it. Eyes in framed, named prisoner photographs, hanging on either side of one of the longest corridors I’ve ever seen; faces identical only in the straight set of a jaw and a fierceness still glowing in the dark eyes. Those eyes told me my two cents worth of hatred wasn’t what the world needed.
Since the start of the new millennium, the world has seen the rise of new fundamentalist movements and views. If Nazism or the transatlantic slave trade taught me that systematic abuse could survive and mutate over long periods of time, the 9/11 Museum reminded me that my life could change in a second. And if this is true, I asked myself why I wasn’t more grateful more often? Along with the millions of pieces of paper, the equipment and the lives that blew out of those buildings, were millions of what-ifs. Such as what if my cousin Lystra, who worked on the 77th floor of the South Tower, where one of the planes made a direct hit, hadn’t skipped work that morning to visit the doctor?
Why, if we’re like candles in the wind that dance with life and death from moment to moment, do we fret over hair and taxes, and fail to spend enough time with those we love?
And then there are places like former slave plantations that remind me, as a black, Caribbean woman that my birth was akin to a lottery, since my ancestors could easily not have survived the Middle Passage. They remind me that when I worry I’m not good enough to achieve something that I’d better think again. And maybe the #BlackLivesMatter movement was, in fact, born at the Door of No Return on Gorée Island, Senegal.
How could we have come full-circle so quickly?
We are witnessing – in real time – the inhumane treatment of the Rohingyas, the Yazidis, young girls in northern Nigeria and countless others. In the future, it will be too easy to pay an entrance fee to the historical sites that tell their stories of pain and grant ourselves atonement. We must act now. We must be examples of tolerance now, and in time, perhaps even of forgiveness. Maybe, we could demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit to be able to reach places hardly imagined before.