Worry Stones

Okay so I have been terrible about posting and I have had plenty of excuses.  I have a week off school right now and I decided to travel without my computer, which is like having my third arm amputated, but in a good way.  I still need to tell you about the rest of Bosnia, Norway, and now Barcelona.  Thus I am proving my dedication to my writing by the fact that I have borrowed a PC from my hostel, on which I am currently typing.  That also means I don’t have access to my photos, but I will add them later from Copenhagen.

On my morbid bucket list of life activities, is visiting genocide sites around the world, so in some ways I have always known I would go to Bosnia and consequently go to Srebrenica, but I was not sure under what circumstances.  The Tuesday of my Bosnia trip was that day and it was very different from expected.

We woke at 5am to crawl to a bus, that took us three hours east of Sarajevo to the area around Srebrenica.  I slept the entire time and was gently awoken by my professor as we pulled into the Identification Center.  I didn’t have much time to prepare myself in the few yards between the bus and the front door.  We were met by a young forensic anthropologist who heads up the program, which is in part funded by the government and the international community.  The Center works to identify the over 8,000 victims from the mass graves of Srebrenica.  Most of the bodies were relocated over three times, which means body parts from the same individual ended up at multiple burial sites.  This produced a long and gruelling DNA identification process that is no where close to finished. 

We were ushered into the cold storage room where the remains are kept.  Floor to ceiling there were over seven thousand body bags containing clothes, personal affects, and partial body recoveries which are waiting to be examined.  Still groggy, I struggled to process the fact that I was surrounded by the all of the unidentified victims of the genocide.  I did, however, recognize the smell of death – more specifically the smell of damaged body fragments.  It was the same thick ashen smell that hung in the rooms of the concentration camps.

Then we headed into the identification room.  On the table were the remains of a young man who was in the process of being identified.  His skull, arms, legs, and femur had been recovered, but his spine and rib cage were still missing.  We stood, a group of nearly thirty, around this small table nodding in unison as the anthropologist explain the identification and testing process.  We took notes.  We listened.  We acted as scholars and not humans.  By the end of her lecture I realized I was standing in front of the body of a person who was murdered in genocide and I was not feeling anything, which was alarming.  I had to remind myself to transition from academic to empathizer.  Then I focused on the facts, a man in his twenties, in the military and I thought about someone who would have fit this description.  Immediately a dear friend came to mind.  The feelings came back and I was strangled with emotion.  I thought of my friend, reduced to bones on a table, and selfishly I thought of myself, not knowing where he was, what happened to him, or having any closure about his death.  The visit was over and were herded to the bus, but I was caught up in my thoughts.

The next stop was a small town where the Serbs had been persecuted by the Bosniaks.  There is a memorial room in the town, where there is a picture of everyone who was killed.  There is a Serbian man in his thirties who manages the memorial, and through a translator, he explained the history of the town and the space.  I have a feeling some things were distorted, adjusted, or lost in translation, but he explained how the Serbian population of the town had suffered.  More interestingly he created a very hopeful picture of post war Bosnia where everyone gets a long and attends school together. 

We then walked through the town and it became obvious this part of Bosnia does not receive many tourists, especially busloads of young Americans.  We were met with confused stares.  Our guide was a young woman who is a youth activist and organizer.  Part way through her tour two high school age girls got in a fist fight next to our group. It was clear that the relations between the youth are bad and quickly deteriorating. The woman walked us to the WWII memorial on the outskirts of town.  The once imposing structure is now defaced in Technicolor graffiti.  The guide explained that ¨"once upon a time" the ethnic groups got a long, fought together, and could even have on singular memorial.  As she spoke her voice shook with conviction but she was massively disenfranchised.  Stuck between a corrupt far reaching government and an overlooked enraged youth she cant imagine progress anytime soon. 

On this note we headed back to the bus and made our way towards our final destination – Srebrenica.  As the bus pulled up, hundreds of Bosniak women were leaving the grounds.  It happened to be one of the main memorial days for the families.  We meet up with a man who is a survivor of the genocide and our tour guide while were there.  He walks us to the main museum where we watch a thirty minute video accounting the events that transpired during the summer of 1995.  We learned that the UN peacekeeping forces, were passive at best, and have recently been tried for covering up the death of Bosniak civilians.  They were convicted in the Netherlands and the case is being appealed.  The video was gruesome, not only in the way it detailed the murder of Bosniaks, but also in the way it contrasted the death of thousands with the complete awareness of the international community.  We knew and we were complacent. I, although just born, will forever belong to that inactive “we.”

We walked the rest of the museum, during which time some of the Bosniak women entered.  Before our visit, I hadn’t realized that Srebrenica had been a genocide of men.  Women and children under the age of eight were led to the left and all “men” over the age of eight were sent to the right and to their death.  Everyone who had come to remember was a woman.  Their husbands, brothers, uncles, sons, and fathers had been killed.  Every man they had grown up with, loved, birthed, or cared for were killed. 

Outside of the museum, the survivor we were traveling with gave us a detailed account of the genocide.  The entire time he held intense and unwavering eye contact with me.  It was a bit unnerving, but as I looked around the group of my intently listening peers, I realized very few were looking up at him.  I had seen it before, and it made sense, that he decided to tell his story to one specific person, since it makes it a little easier.  In big group I had never been that person before.

We proceeded into the warehouse where the locals were temporarily housed by the UN.  The building is kept in its original state, except for a wall of photographs and artifacts. The objects are matched with the images of their owners, who were all killed, as well as a short description of their personality from their family.  

After which is was time to  go to the main memorial and burial site.  There is a small stand outside the space, where a group of Bosniak women sell flowers.  DIS, my university, had preordered a wreath for us to place.  The women working at the stand were so excited that a group of Americans were first of all in Bosnia, and had come to Srebrenica to properly show their respects. 

As we walked into the memorial complex I picked up a stone, smooth and white like the graves.  I had the intention of placing it on the memorial in the Jewish tradition.  The Bosniak Muslim gravesite was crafted of white simple marble and the graves are organized in perfect untouched and unending rows.  It is a minimalist form of memory, that unlike the concentration camps, are not trying to manipulate a specific emotional reaction.  The graves of the 6,000 identified and buried bodies are there.  You may react as you see fit. Due to the precision of the space it seemed wrong to impose a Jewish tradition on a Muslim resting place.  So I kept the perfect stone in my hand and kept turning it over between my thumb and forefinger.

Our professor placed the wreath and then spoke a few solemn words, and we were excused to explore.  First I saw the large stone, etched with the number “8372…"  and lists the towns the victims came from.  This is the only image of the memorial that is available in American textbooks.  So, after years, to stare at something I had only seen printed on a page, was striking.  I looked over the horizon of the large stone and saw everything that the frame of the camera fails to capture – an expansive sea of graves.  The 6,000 white points are bordered with a space for prayer (facing Mecca) and a wall with the name of everyone who was killed.  Certain names had fresh flowers lain over them, reminding me just how recent this genocide was. 

Alone, I wandered the complex with the rock still turning in my hand.  I found myself emotionally muttering apologies that the dead would never hear. 

“I am sorry we did this.  I am sorry we let this happen to you.  I am sorry we let it keep happening.  I am sorry you are being forgotten, but I promise to remember you.  I am jut so sorry.”

But as much as I muttered these words to myself it didn’t assuage any of my guilt or sadness.  Instead I was overcome with a sense of isolating loneliness.  Not that my pain or emotions in this place were unique, but I don’t really know how to describe it.  Here I was in a space I had wanted to come for years, surrounded by graves and I wanted to talk to them.  I wanted to hug their families.  I guess I felt helpless. 

I put the worry stone in my pocket and decided to take it home and put it on my shelf next to the stone from Barrack 14, Birkenau Concentration Camp, where I Holocaust survivor I know lived.

Then Wednesday April 16th I found myself with the stone it my hand again. It was Yom Ha Shoah or the Jewish Remembrance Day for the Holocaust.  It marked five years since I visited the concentration camps, and in a lot of ways I use that day to measure the ways in which my life has changed.  I ask myself where was I last Yom Ha Shoah and where am I now? This year with the white worry stone from Bosnia in the palm of my hand, I remembered and mourned but not only the Holocaust. I decided that from this year forward, Yom Ha Shoah, in the spirit of the Jewish Tradition I prescribe to, should be all inclusive.  It should be a day on which we remember, not only the genocides that garner international attention, but also all the lost lives that we have forgotten.

Looking in Someone Else’s Mirror

I have been feeling awfully consumed by my condition lately.  Every morning I am comparing how much pain I am to the days before.  My muscles have a pulse and there are moments where each motion feels like a stiff struggled war against my body.  I been having problems getting treatment and healthcare since I have been in Denmark.  It is very easy to step inside of my disease and let it wrap me up.  I find myself muttering in the silent moments of my days “this does not define me,” “I am not my pain,” “this does not define me.” But believing the voice in my head is easier said than done.

When my mornings are dictated by vitamins and my evenings by a routine of physical therapy it becomes easy to forget parts of myself.  It feels like my passions need exercising, but I am too tired to chase after them.  Pain is an easy excuse to stay in bed and hide behind a computer screen, while the world continues around me.  My condition holds me back, but it is also an excuse to be passive.  I dread being one of those people who is consumed by their disease.  

Realizing my own strength, my own identity, requires stepping out of myself.  I was skyping with a dear friend last week and outlining my concerns.  On the verge of hysterics I explained that I was having trouble seeing through the fog of my pain to a clearer version of myself.  She smiled endearingly and went on to empathize with my experiences and explain how she see me.  She said when she talks about me my pain doesn’t even exist.  “You’re my friend who I can’t keep track of.  When I describe you to people I say I don’t know what country you’re in and that you’re off to change the world.  When I define you I don’t even think of your pain.”  This was a ground breaking thought, that the people in my life, the people who see me at my crumbling worst, don’t define me through my condition. 

This reassurance lasted me about a week until yesterday when I spent the whole day inside.  I had the opportunity to go volunteer at the refugee center again, but I turned it down to stay in my pajamas all day.  I had three papers to write and my hips were crying out.  Getting out of bed didn’t seem like a battle worth fighting.  As the hours passed in procrastination I started to beat myself for passing up something I loved to spend time with netflix.  I was mad at myself, my body, and my lacking motivation.  I began reiterating my concerns to my brother.  What if this condition becomes me?

Like my friend, my brother was unwilling to entertain this idea.  He said we’re still working on ways to deal with all of this and that he was proud of me for how little my pain controls me.  I once again tried to define myself through someone else’s eyes and suddenly my reflection didn’t look so bad.  Sometimes I think it is important to resume-check myself and remember all that I have accomplished in my life.  Ive worked with non-profits and organizations all over the world to pursue what I love.  I know what I want to do with my life.  I kind of have my shit together.  I should and need to be proud of myself, even if I cant get out of bed some days.  

Someone
once told me that if we had friends who treated us as badly as we treat
ourselves we would stop speaking to them, and I can certainly be a casualty of this
truism. Im learning to be a little bit nicer to myself and that living in chronic pain is not the same as being defined by it.  I am relentlessly thankful that I have these people in my life to hold up their mirrors and say “Look. Look at who you really are.  Look at how we see you and revel in that person.”

You Have How Many Presidents?

Due to a cross cultural fluke, instead of hotel rooms with two twin beds, we all ended up sharing king beds.  I didnt mind, it just meant getting to know my roommate extra quickly.  Besides the heavy and hanging smell of smoke the hotel we were staying in was extremely nice and right in old town square.  I am not sure if it was the travel or the general state of things lately, but my joints were being particularly bothersome.  I took out my TENS machine, which is a sort of electro shock treatment for joints.  It of course took a little explaining with my bedmate.  I didn’t want to go into a full explanation of my condition, but I just said I had a chronic joint condition.  There was a stretch of silence.  “its nice that you have that machine” she said.  More silence.  “I know a lot of people with chronic joint issues get addicted to pain meds.”  I quickly changed the subject and tried not to laugh, that was a new reaction I had not encountered yet. 

I woke up monday morning to a rusted and creaking body and we headed out for our first full day in Bosnia.  The first stop was American University (unrelated to AU in the US), where we met with the president of the university.  He started off his talk by showing us promotional tourism videos. We watched a bunch of them and collectively tried not to laugh, since the dozens of thirty second ads all took the same format.  It showed summery clips of people doing three to four different activities and it would say “Enjoy insert activity name”then it would finish by saying “Enjoy Bosnia!” I seriously recommend giving them a watch. 

After that cultural introduction the President went into an in-depth and impressively unbiased history of the conflict.  I was under the impression I knew a lot about the conflict but I was wrong.  he started by giving an overview of their university, which was founded in 2005 in cooperation with SUNY and has received american accreditation.  Classes are taught in english with a mix of american, bosnian, and EU professors.  They have a number of different undergraduate offerings, and in the summer they offer a peace and conflict program, which I would love to do.  

He then dived into the country and the conflict.  Ill give you a brie ooverview of his overview so you can understand my ramblings about the next couples of days.  Bosnia is 51 km2, which is about the size of west virginia and has a population of 3.8 million.There is a cultural meeting of east and west, which causes it in some ways to suffer from too much history.  There are three primary ethnic groups in the country Bosniaks (Muslims) who are 54%, Serbs (Orthodox) who are 32.5%, and Croats (Catholics) who are 11.5%, and then there is the ambiguous category of other which is 2%.  Theare three official languages of the country, Bosnian, Croatian, and Srbian.  The languages, we were told however are interchangeable dialects such as American, British, and Canadian English.  Bosnia has been inhabited since neolithic times and has a diverse cultural history, but relevant to our topic of discussion, Bosnis was part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia until they voted for independence in 1992. 

In the wake of independence, conflict broke out between the three major ethnic groups, the nuances of which will be discussed later.  The most recent estimates say that 100,000 people were killed, 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped, and 2.2 million people displaced.  The conflict was brought to an end in 1995 with the Dayton (as in Dayton Ohio) peace agreement.  

Perhaps the most complex aspect to understanding Bosnia is the current administrative and political structure.  There is one state and within the state there are two entities.  The Republic of Serbska (RS), which is 49% of the territory and the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina (FBiH) which is 51% of the territory.  Then there are 14 levels of executive authority.  Within FBiH there are 10 cantons, which are like counties.  Inside the 10 cantons there are 80 different municipalities.  Then in RS there are 63 municipalities. The government is broken down into legislative, judicial, and executive branches.  But the Office of High Representatives, which is the international monitoring body from after the war, still has final say on a lot of things.  The government is highly decentralized and the entities have a high level of autonomy. Then there are three presidents.  Yeah three.  One for each of the main ethnic groups.  All three presidents are acting at once and must make decisions collectively.  Also if you are part of the “other” you cannot be elected into office.  So you can vote, but not sit in office, so in some ways all the rights are allocated to the constitutional groups of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.  Got it? Super straightforward system, right? Well, thats just the beginning.  

After meeting with the President of AU, we had a lunch break and then headed to the american embassy.  In classic American fashion, when we tried to enter the security area a large man with a large gun came outside and asked all thirty of us to line up in three rows.  We then had to keep rank and take out our passports.  We were ushered in the office two at a time, and then had to hand over our passports and all of the possessions we had with us.  We went through an X-ray machine and were handed a visitor badge.  

Like herding cats in the rain, its take an hour to get all of us through security and to the conference room.  We met with someone who works in the economic office, who never offered his name or his title.  The only way to describe his is very D.C.  He had the capitol hill parted hair, dress pants, a slightly too large button down, and a tie that was a bit too wide.  He talked to us a little but about going into the foreign service, and then dove in the Bosnian political economy.  Since the embassy took my purse and my laptop, I was unable to take notes and due to information overload, the details from this one are a bit fuzzy.  We discussed Bosnias desire to join the EU and NATO and the things that are standing in their way.  We also learned that 60% of the GDP come from government jobs, which hails to the earlier description of their administration.  Finally he discussed US interest in the country and told us that this is one of the largest American embassies in the world.  I asked if the ethnic discrimination, continued through to the private sectors as well, and he said that it was mostly relegated to the government, since n the private sector the desire for financial success supersedes ethnicity. 

I left his office feeling even further confused.  Here I was, in a country I thought I understood, learning how in there three president, ethnically motivated political climate, economics are the one area free from discrimination.  I had so many more questions I needed to ask so I could start understanding what was going on.  We walked out of the embassy, and I retrieved my belongings from the security guy, I asked him if I could keep my visitor badge as a souvenir.  He was not amused.

Arrival in Bosnia

I am back in Denmark.  The sun is shining.  Spring has arrived.  And I am ready to write.

As our plane descended into Bosnia on a Sunday afternoon, the first thing I noticed from a birdseye view was seas of graves.  Large plots of land, stretching the length of football fields, dotted by fresh white marble headstones.  I was seated next to my professor on the flight and I turned to him in shock and said are those what I think they are? He nodded.

We landed in the tiny airport, grabbed our bags and headed out to the parking lot.  We were swarmed by men offering us the cheapest rides into town and the like, but eventually we found our guide and our bus, both of whom looked like they were from the 80s.  We were going on “The Tour of Misfortune.”  It was a three hour bus tour and we got off at four different locations for more in-depth explanations.  

Our guide was an energetic guy in his mid twenties, who came from a mixed ethnic marriage.  He was comfortable talking about his own experiences and that of his family, living under the siege of Sarajevo in the 90s.  

The town of Sarajevo was sieged by Serbian forces in 1992 and lasted until 1995, when the war ended.  It is the longest siege in modern warfare.  During this time the civilians living in the city were annexed from the free Bosnian territory.  The Serbian forces gave the UN control of the airport and airspace, but under the condition that they would not give the citizens of sarajevo access to the Bosnian free territory. 

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The first stop was the Tunnel of Hope, which was dug by citizens of Sarajevo to reach the free territory and the Bosnian army.  The tunnel was 0.2 miles long and about four feet high.  It was completely dug by hand and then reinforced with steel piping.  after its construction it was used to funnel supplies, weapons, and refugees between the occupied territory, unbeknownst to the UN or the Serbian forces.

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While walking around the museum for the Tunnel of Hope, I saw my first Sarajevo Rose.  As I mentioned in a earlier post, they are scars in the cement where land mines exploded or there was shelling.  They are painted red, if someone was killed.  

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We continued on our tour through the winding hills of sarajevo and I started to visualize the war.  All of the buildings are still marked with bullet holes or lying in decay.  The city itself is in a valley, surrounded by forested mountains.  I have always loved living surrounded by nature, but in this case living in a valley was deadly, it gave the serbian forces the perfect tactical advantage to overthrow the city.  

That afternoon we visited the Olympic Soccer fields where people were held before being killed.  Then we drove up to snipers alley which was one of the main outpost during the shelling of the city.  

I was feeling overwhelmed from out flight and the immediate onslalught of information.  A lot of what our tour guide said washed over me as an introduction to the city.  Two things however stood out.  He was talking about his childhood in during the war.  He told us how his education was stopped, playing stopped, food was scarce, and all they could do was wait.  Then he said something, in a light hearted manner, that hung in my head.  “Finding a piece of chocolate, during the war,” he said “was the closest you could come to god.” 

I don’t think we have a word for this experience in english, when a little moment puts a situation in perspective.  Its like an epiphany, but smaller and more subtle.  But in that moment I really started to consider the reality of having your formative years occur during war, and conversely the immense privilege I experienced growing up.  

The second thing, was that the most noticeable feature of Sarajevo were the graveyards.  Each ethnic group has a different style of grave and it is quite easy to tell which came from the war and which were natural.  Mostly the graves are from the war.  They have consumed local parks and plots of land, and it seemed the presence of the dead dominate the city.

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Spent the past week with one of my classes exploring Bosnia. During our time there we focused on the war, the genocide, and the current political situation in the country. It was an emotionally exhausting and eye opening week. From there I headed to Norway, where I currently am, for a bit of vacation. Since Saturday I have been hiking the fjords in flåm. I am now on what is rated as the most beautiful train in the world en route to Oslo. I don’t have my computer with me but I am furiously taking notes. I will have lots of stories to tell once I am back at my desk. For now here is a picture of me suited up on a fjord boat!

Lessons in Understanding

Compassion is a complex emotion, that is often difficult tofind in a natural and sincere capacity.
Last week my refugee law class had an event with a guest speaker.  The man works as the secretary general for a
major international torture prevention organization.  He spent an hour and a half having a round
table discussion with us where he treated us as equals.  He answered each of our questions with the
utmost respect and detail.  I got the
impression that he not only cared about his work, but also cared about our
experience with him.  He was careful not
to victimize or exploit the experiences of those he knows who have been
tortured.  He was picture of
compassionate professionalism.  

During
the evening we covered many subjects such as the definition of torture, when it
is applicable, who is responsible, and what is the purview of the law.  Towards the end we were talking about what
happens when a state is found guilty of torture and they must redress.  This is a multi step process that begins with
cessation, compensation, measures of satisfaction, non-repetition, and
rehabilitation.  I thought that measures
of satisfaction was perhaps the most interesting.  It is where the state must apologize,
acknowledge, or create acts of commemoration.
Our speaker then gave the example of man who had been physical tortured
for years, and further mentally tortured when his captors insisted that he was
not being tortured and no one would recognize his experience.  As part of the states redress in this case
they simply had to admit that they had in fact tortured him, and give him the
mental peace of validation.  

On my walk home and the whole week our conversation hung in my
mind. Then the following weekend I visited Hamburg Germany with my Genocide Class.  We visited a number of site over the weekend, but the three most notable were a school where young Jewish Children were experimented upon, one of the main sites of the allied firebombing mission, and then finally Neuengamme concentration camp.  Ill make separate posts about the first two visits, but going to the camp I found myself angry in a way I hadn’t felt in years

 It had been almost five years now since I
visited seven concentration camps on a Jewish youth program called the March of
the Living.  In April of 2010, I visited
these camps with ten thousands other students from around the world.  We were broken up into regional groups of
roughly one hundred and each section had a holocaust survivor traveling with
us.  It was an emotionally visceral experience
which changed my life and helped me better figure out what I want to do with my
life.  I think about my experiences in
Poland almost everyday and they have
become integral to my understanding of genocide and the Holocaust.  

Going to Neuengamme was the first time I had been back to a camp since
then.  I knew going to a smaller camp
with a group of college students would be a drastically different experience
but I was still very surprised by my experience.

Neungamme was a concentration camp with roughly 103,000
inmates, fifty percent of whom died.  In
contrast the average death rate at other concentration camps was thirty
percent.  This camp was used as a brick
making facility and the work was tireless.
The deaths in this camp were not due to gassings or shootings, but
instead the harsh conditions and strenuous work.  One particular work detail had a life
expectancy of six weeks.   The camp still
has a majority of structures in tact.
Following the war however the German government converted the grounds
into a prison, so that it was restricted from public access.  During this time they destroyed the
crematorium and the wooden barracks where the prisoners lived.  The other structures were simply converted to
serve the needs of the prison.  Then
under pressure from survivors and the international community the prison was
moved and the camp was converted into a museum.

I was surprised when the camp did not have
an enormous emotional impact.  Perhaps
since many of the memorialization camps felt familiar to the styles I have seen
used in other camps.  The barracks were
represented by squares of rubble organized in the shape of the foundation of
each building, the crematorium by a singular stone slab.  There is also a restored box car where the
railroad track used to sit.  We were also
able to go into the old brick making facilities which are fully intact.  It was extremely powerful to have out
professors, who is a prolific orator explain and humanize each space in the
camp.  On my trip back in 2010 I did not
have anyone who was an experienced educator such as himself on my program. 

More to the point of why I was seething.  We were given free time to explore the museum,
which is in one of the main buildings.
Since the building were used in the interim years for the prison, they
are new and sterile.  They do not
represent the camps or the lives that ended in them.  The museum had a similar stiff approach.  It was a series of factual exhibits,
primarily in german and mostly consisting of text.  It was none of the emotional manipulation I
had grown accustom to in the other camps I had visited.  The other camps work to illicit a reaction,
where as this one presented a collection of information.  I did not feel the same human connection.

Walking through the museum I saw a young woman, who was not
in our group who was going around with a selfie stick and taking pitures with
different parts of the exhibits.  This is
when I started to get angry.  Usually I
am not one to dictate other peoples experiences.  People process and understand situations in
different ways and they should be entitled to do so.  At the same time I firmly believe that
certain spaces demand a degree of respect, which everyone should abide by.  We were standing in rooms where people were
murdered and I do not think taking selfies is an appropriate thing to do in the
space.  I felt thankful that at least she
was not a part of our class.  

As I continued through the museum I started to feel slightly
disturbed that I was no reacting to what was before me.  There were no chills down my spine, no water
in my eyes, and no tightness in my chest.
I walked through the remainder of the exhibit to our classes meeting
point, reprimanding myself for a lack of feeling.  

Then towards the exit there were a group of
girls from my class circled around a vending machine trying to select a
snack.  It seemed normal enough, then
as we gathered outside where the barracks used to be they began giggling and
trading pieces of candy.  I felt the
anger return in force and I searched for empathy.  Thinking perhaps this is how different people
process.  But I could not imagine it was
acceptable to laugh and talk in such a place.  Our professor returned and walked to the
bus.  We walked across the place where
roll calls were held on our way to the bus.
During roll calls prisoners were forced to stand for up to thirty hours
at the SS’s mercy, in perfect form, at times collapsing, which meant certain
death and a recount.  At this point the
girls from by class started shouting to one another across the space.  They were laughing at full volume shouting about
the drunken escapades of a mutual friend with no regard for the space.  My eyes filled with water and suddenly in
their disrespect I felt the full impact of the space.  Walking to the exit I thought of the lives
lost in the camp, the sadistic pleasure men took in inhumane cruelty.  I thought about the families that were broken,
and how hard survivors and community members have worked to make this
concentration camp turned prison into a space of remembrance.  

I don’t want to pretend I am on any sort of
moral high ground and I understand that I have a different experience and connection to these sites.  I have to keep reminding myself that the only thing I truly have control over is my reactions and my behavior.  When I see something I don’t understand the best initial reaction is not anger, but compassion.  Then work from that place.  In their disconnect, I was also able to rediscover what these places mean to me.  They represent pain and suffering, but they also stand for the human capacity of strength and resilience.  To survive Neuengamme took unimaginable will.