Vivid symbols of the past

Learning something about my family on a trip to Auschwitz


On January 27, it will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Nazi German concentration camp that was responsible for the death of approximately 1.1 million people, most of whom were Jews, during the Second World War. As the anniversary has been slowly approaching, I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means in modern times, and the importance of remembrance of this event.

This past May, I participated in a program called “The March of Remembrance and Hope” (MRH), where I traveled with 30 other students and a Holocaust survivor across Germany and Poland for nine days. We started our journey in Berlin and made our way across several Polish cities, such as Warsaw and Krakow. Over the course of nine days, I learned so much about the Holocaust from visiting different memorial sites and concentration camps, as well as from hearing stories from Pinchas Gutter, the survivor who was traveling with us. It wasn’t until we had visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi German concentration and death camp, that I realized what it meant “to remember” and why it is so important that we do.

I come from a Polish background on my father’s side, and always knew that we had some sort of connection to the Holocaust, but never knew or cared to learn more about it until returning from this trip. In Auschwitz’s first camp, a lot of the old buildings’ exteriors have been kept, but inside they have set up an amazing museum and memorial that no words could do justice to, especially the “Book of Names” exhibit. I hadn’t expected to see this exhibit, so when we entered the room I was a bit taken aback, especially when I noticed that several other students whom I had been traveling with were flocking to the pages and searching for names. At the time, I wasn’t aware that approximately 4.2 million names belonging to Holocaust victims filled this huge book.

Out of pure curiosity, I started to look through the pages and names and wondered if I would find the names of any of my family members, but I was doubtful. I made my way to the “K” section of last names and started browsing through, and felt my stomach drop. I recognized the name, place of birth, and place of death belonging to my great-grandfather. There it was, in the pages of a book overwhelmed with millions of victims’ names: the name of somebody in my family.

My great-grandfather, among millions of others, died under terrible, atrocious circumstances, but he mattered. They all mattered and their place in history will not be forgotten. The book is imposing in its physical size alone; however, once you realize that every single person in that book had been murdered in the Holocaust, that feeling of being overwhelmed grows. This feeling underlies the importance of remembering, and why the phrase “Never Again” carries so much meaning.

Traveling through Germany and Poland, I noticed how modern the cities were. If you had no knowledge of the Holocaust, it would be very hard to tell it even happened, because of how well the cities were rebuilt. To remember the Holocaust means more than just being aware of historical facts, it means that the millions and millions of lives lost are not forgotten. It means ensuring that as we move forward, we do our best to advocate for social justice, and speak up when there is anything less. Finally we remember so that this never happens again, regardless of who is affected.

My grandfather had lost all but one brother in the Holocaust, but he worked hard sacrificing all that he could to rebuild a family and offer his children the life he never had. That is a life of opportunity, freedom, and dignity, and exempt from the burden that he, himself carried for the rest of his life.


Sharon Kowalski

3rd year, sociology & criminology