This week marks one year since I visited Auschwitz. Since then, I have told scores of people what I saw and how it impacted me. I found that the more people I shared my story with, the more people I meet who have had similar experiences. While we all saw different things, we all agreed that it was a trip that changed our lives.
The passage of time has a way of turning fact into fiction. Time seems to erode the legitimacy of history, either by inflating it to incomprehensible sizes or by dumbing it down so that it is impossible to relate to. This can be said for any part of our world's history, from minor political squabbles to major world changing events. As the years pass, people rely more and more on these stories to piece together the world that once was. Auschwitz, and the legitimacy of what happened here, is one of these victims.
My flight to Europe last year had been delayed. There was an issue on the plane coming from Warsaw to Toronto and the plane had to turn around. While I was trying to get my flights figured out, I started chatting with an older woman beside me. She was heading home to see her family in Ukraine for Orthodox Easter. As we talked about our upcoming trips, I told her my plans to visit Auschwitz. When I mentioned it, the lady waved her hand at me and told me not to expect too much. Over the years, she said, they had cleaned it up so much that it isn't even worth visiting. She told me that when she went there in the 1960s, the smell of burnt flesh clung to the walls of the buildings. But now, many years later, it has become so desensitised that there was nothing there worth seeing.
Days passed, and I tried to brush off what she had said, but as I waited in the rain of Krakow for my tour bus to arrive, I couldn't. Auschwitz has such a strong historical persona associated with it that the idea of it being nothing more than a tourist trap bothered me. As somebody that travels the world, nothing upsets me more than seeing a historical location turned into an outdoor market.
For a moment, I wondered if my whole trip would be a waste.
My thoughts seemed to materialise when I got there. I expected a desolated, empty camp, but I instead saw throngs of tourists. I felt a crushing feeling inside me as if I had flown around the world to see nothing but a skeleton of something that once was. Our tour guide met up with another group and our two groups merged. Our guide then left and vanished into the crowd of people. As the rain continued to fall, we huddled under a canopy of a small shop near the entrance of the camp. There wasn't much in the shop, but they sold rain jackets, so I purchased one. If nothing else, I wanted to keep my camera dry.
After waiting outside for almost half an hour, our guide finally returned and explained what the delay was. Today was a special anniversary, and families of the victims, survivors and representives with wreaths were having a private tour. Soon it would be over and we could get inside, but because of the special day, the camp would be much busier than normal. She continued that there were hundreds of more people than usual at the camp today.
A few minutes later we walked over and joined the queue to enter the camp. When we finally got inside, we each received our own headphones and began our guided tour. At this point I did not know what to expect. Part of me wanted it to be the most heart wrenching experience of my life, but the other part expected it to be nothing more than a simple tour. I was already expecting disappointment.
As I entered the camp, I saw the words "Arbeit macht frei" – work will set you free. These three words were a physical testament to the lies the Nazi party told the people of Europe. These words mark the barrier between what is real, and what they want you to believe. Millions of people died believing these words, and here I stood, in a green plastic rain jacket and black, tacky headphones, wondering if I had been told yet another lie.
We entered Block 4 of the camp and then carried through to Block 5, 6 and 7. Each building were former barracks that had been converted into a museum. Block 4 started off with photographs, quotes and displays. Each of these tried to rationalise how people believed Nazi lies, and how easily they were willing to give up the basic human rights of others.
All the while I felt distant. I couldn't shake that I had held this place on such a high regard, only to have it shattered as an illusion. This was a historical place, yes, and horrible things happened here, but it just didn't have the feeling of dread I had expected.
As we continued through each of the Blocks, the photographs became more graphic. The photographs changed from people unboarding trains to children skipping on their way to gas chambers. From there, there were images of people running through forests naked, chased by dogs and guards, and images of starving people unpacking luggage in Canada I and Canada II.
After that, the images turned into physical relics. There was a display full of suitcases, each with the family's name written upon it. Then there was a hallway of shoes, a pile of over a thousand spectacles, a room full of cookware and a mountain of empty Zyklon B canisters. These all spoke volumes, but I had trouble relating to them. These were just a pile of old things – a reliquary – forgotten by time.
But then, everything changed.
Cameras were not allowed in the final room of the museum so I snapped a picture of the sign heading into it instead. The black sign had three white words engraved into it, and they are three words that changed my life forever. This room focused on "Exploiting the Corpses".
This room held the physical remains of what was left of the victims. After they arrived on the train, their possessions taken away and marched to the gas chambers, these poor souls were shaven and their bodies cremated by the tens of thousands. Their hair was the only part of them that remained, and it filled this room from one end to the other.
You can't walk away from a pile of human hair the same way. A year after I saw it, I still struggle for words to explain it. To see so much of something – something that was once living and what once defined the person who wore it – shaven, rotting and thrown into a pile is incomprehensible. Perhaps Auschwitz had been cleaned and desensitised since the 1960s, but this room holds all the proof needed that this was once hell on earth.
Thinking back a year later, I can see why movies and television dramatised and romanticised the Holocaust. The human mind can only comprehend so much, and the events that occurred here are far beyond that. By simplifying it down, they replace the dreadfulness of it with an inaccurate representation. These movies do what they can to capture the horrors of a place like this, but they only scratch the surface, and instead of educating the viewer, they create Auschwitz into something it wasn't. Auschwitz wasn't just a death camp; it was a place of pure evil. It was here that man forgot who they were and solved their problems with violence and blood.
The tour visited many other disturbing places after the room of human hair. I walked inside gas chambers, past the furnaces where the bodies were burned, past train cars, electric fences, prison cells, torture devices and execution sites. I saw where prisoners were forced to sleep by the masses and walked past wooden walls that seemed to still stench of fear and death.
I rode in silence on the way back to Krakow that day. My brain was both trying to process what I saw, and yet also trying to block it out. I could finally understand why veterans and victims chose not to speak of the Holocaust. I only saw what was left of the horror, and I still couldn't comprehend it.
If I could, I would want everybody to see what I saw. I want everybody to see the electric fences, the gas chambers, the rows of bunk beds, the suitcases, the railcars and the human hair. If everybody saw what I saw, the world wouldn't turn on itself so quickly. Mankind will never agree with itself and there will always be conflict, but there is a line, and I hope we never cross that line again.
Those who attended my Chernobyl lecture at the Queen City Collective earlier in May would have heard me singing praises about HBO's new miniseries Chernobyl, and for good reason. HBO did a fantastic job on the miniseries by immersing the audience into mid-1980s Soviet Ukraine and by peeling back the layers of the disaster.
With that said, there were some liberties HBO took while making the show. As somebody who spent two days in the Exclusion Zone in 2016, I know a thing or two about how the events unfolded, and a few parts of the miniseries weren't accurate.
Chernobyl began by tackling a nearly impossible task. The miniseries had to break down one of the largest cover-ups in human history. They had to show the devastation of the world's deadliest nuclear disaster and also highlight the many countless heroes who stepped up to make a difference. It's natural to expect HBO to simplify this – and they only had five episodes to do it. I don't blame them for some of these mistakes, but I felt they should be pointed out.
Last week Ford Canada flew my sister Krystal and I out to Prince Edward Island to take part in their Cross-Canada #FordEcoSport Tour. We were only the fifth of fifteen groups that will take part in the tour, so be sure to follow the hashtag to see what everybody is getting up to as well.
Our section of the tour was probably one of the longest in the program, as we had to drive from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island to Saint John, New Brunswick, then to Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec and ending in Quebec City. The whole distance is about 1,020 kilometres, which is about 10 hours of driving, assuming we didn't stop to see anything along the way.
Nestled between the impressive Mount Royal and the majestic St. Lawrence River is Montreal, a city known for its festivals, abstract art, history and mosaic of countless cultures. Montreal is the second largest city in Canada, with a population floating around four million people. While the city is a dynamic mix of Canada's two primary cultures – French and English – there are areas of the city that are culturally specific, such as Little Italy, Greektown and Chinatown. Known for its artistic and liberal mindedness, Montreal also boasts the largest community of homosexuals in North America in their very own "Gay Village".
Being nearly 375 years old, Montreal was pivotal to the creation of New France and Canada and at a time held control over every waterway from the St. Lawrence down to the Gulf of Mexico. Having such incredible influence over the western part of the New World, Montreal hosted the "Great Peace of Montreal" in 1701, which started sixteen years of peace between the French and over 40 different First Nation tribes in North America.
Since its early days, Montreal has been one of the most influential cities in Canada. Montreal housed "internment camps" during World War I, became an ideal location for Americans looking for alcohol during Prohibition, and was the official residence of the Luxembourg royal family during World War II. Montreal held host to the incredible Expo 67, showcasing some of the most incredible architecture of that decade. The seventies saw serious political reformation in Montreal, with many Americans arriving, fleeing the Vietnam Draft. The late seventies paralyzed the city as a terrorist organization, the Front de libération du Québec, detonated explosives throughout the city and kidnapped and killed political figures. These actions forced the Prime Minster to enact the "War Measures Act" and deploy the military into the city to apprehend the terrorists. The eighties and nineties saw two referendums in the province of Quebec to separate from Canada, with Montreal playing a major role in both decisions. The last referendum in 1995 ended with 51% percent of Quebecers wanting to remain part of Canada and 49% wanting to separate.