I can commemorate the Holocaust, but I can't do much more. I can't imagine it, I can't describe it, I can't understand it.
My parents weren't Jews. They weren't in the Holocaust. They were Polish Catholics who were taken to Germany to work as slave laborers in the concentration camps there. My dad spent four and a half years in Buchenwald, and my mom spent more than two years in a number of camps around Magdeburg. They suffered terribly, and they saw terrible things done to the people they loved. My mother's family was decimated. Her mother, her sister, and her sister's baby were killed outright by the Germans. My mother's two aunts were taken to Auschwitz with their Jewish husbands and died there.
I remember asking my mother once if she could explain to me what she felt in the worst month of her worst year in the slave labor camps in Germany. All she could say was, "you weren't there."
I wasn't there.
I've spent much of my life writing about the things that happened to my parents in the slave labor camps and reading about what happened in those camps and in the German death camps in Poland where so many Jews died, and still I will never be able to understand or comprehend what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.
I went to Auschwitz in 1990 with my wife Linda and our daughter Lillian. We walked around, took pictures, tried to imagine what had happened there. We couldn't. We were just tourists.
I wrote a poem about it:
Tourists in Auschwitz
It’s a gray drizzly day
but still we take pictures:
Here we are by the mountain of shoes.
Here we are by a statue of people
working to death
pulling a cart full of stones.
Here we are by the wall where they shot
the rabbis and the priests
and the school children
and the trouble makers.
We walk around some too
but we see no one.
Later, we will have dinner
in the cafeteria at Auschwitz.
We will eat off aluminum plates
with aluminum knives and forks.
The beans will be hard,
and the bread will be tasteless.
But for right now, we take more pictures:
Here we are by the mountain of empty suitcases.
Here we are in front of the big ovens.
Here we are by the gate with the famous slogan.
Here we are in front of the pond
where the water is still gray from the ashes
the Germans dumped.