I am standing in the middle of a vast rural expanse in Oświęcim, Poland. I’d travelled by way of a rickety cab from Katowice, where I was staying. You may know Oświęcim as Auschwitz. You may not know that it looks like the edge of the world, with skies like white canvases hanging behind trees and mountains, framing a landscape that looks as if there is nothing at all beyond it.
I am standing in a vast rural expanse in Oświęcim, Poland, staring at the ground before me as I listen to the guide conclude our tour.
It’s undeniable the heaviness of what we had just seen. A weight, like an anvil, sits on my chest. The guide, a Polish lady, discards the idea of celebrating the end of the war.
‘Celebrate what? The liquidation of our people and the devastation left behind? No money, no home, no family? No. We celebrate our freedom everyday, and when we are meant to celebrate we mourn the loss of compassion that led to everything you have just seen. We will not waste our freedom with hatred. You are free people so remember this place and remember the people that weren’t. I wish you good luck from the bottom of my heart.’
She ends with the famed quote from George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
‘Goodbye, and thank you for coming,’ she says as she walks away.
Here I am, some 74 years after it all began, under the very same indifferent sky. All of a sudden I feel like the wealthiest person on earth. We are here in the world and we bear witness: I will no longer accept that a person comprehends freedom if they use theirs to deny the freedom of others.
I cannot consider visiting Auschwitz an enjoyable experience, but because of it the unconscious and apathetic attitude I had previously held about the concept of freedom quickly dissipated.
I have my freedom. I have my free will. I, alone, am responsible for it. I am left with a lingering thought: I am gifted to be able to choose how to use my freedom. How bright the possibilities of the world became in that very moment.
Kate Bailey is an Australian writer based in Berlin, Germany. There she runs Little Joy, an independent publisher with a storytelling focus. For more of Kate’s work and other work from emerging writers, follow Little Joy on Facebook and Twitter.
Mitch Gee is a Brisbane-based freelance illustrator. Find more of his work on his website.