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December 15, 2012

This post is the first in a series on my attempt to use my trip around Europe as a way to make sense of what happened during World War II, especially the atrocities of the Holocaust. The title line, “How Arrogant of Me,” reflects my embarrassing level of naivety in this quest, as I had long considered myself well-read and knowledgeable about the goings on of WWII. During my travels and visits to these places from my history books, I realized how little I knew and how little I could ever know. Or understand. The totality of my experiences marked a definitive shift in how I not only view myself as a human being but also as a teacher of history, and the responsibility that comes with that profession; I was/am humbled.

The following is taken from my journal, written while at Westerbork Concentration Camp just outside of Westerbork, The Netherlands. We had previously been to visit Anne Frank’s secret annex in Amsterdam; she and her family had been sent to Westerbork prior to being shipped (in the final days of Kamp Westerbork’s operation) to their respective death camps, where all but Otto Frank were killed.

September 8, 2012

At Kamp Westerbork. How arrogant of me to think that I might be able to empathize, to understand. I laid down in the skeleton of the punishment barracks to attempt to visualize what life was like for Anne Frank when she, too, lay in these barracks, on narrow bunks stacked high to the ceiling. I closed my eyes, and opened them, closed and open. A shallow montage of images flashed through my mind [of feeble-bodied prisoners, dead bodies, suffering, etc.]. I closed my eyes again and heard a familiar buzzing sound. What I thought was a fly landed on my face, in the gap between soft chin and soft lips. I made to brush it away. The sharp sting told me that I had been wrong in my assumption. My torso swung forward and my face turned toward the ground, grimacing in pain. I sat, one hand in the grass, the other on my face, for a long time, staring down at the soft patch of green between my legs. “How arrogant of you, Callie. There is no way for you to understand.” Perhaps this confession, my capitulation – the Great Capitulation, that I must make very day – is the best that I can offer in this moment: I can never understand. You want to know why? Because whenever I start to get that swell in my throat, or tear on the rim of my eyelid, I can always walk away. I can always remove myself from that source of pain or horror or disgust or inhumanity. The sting will go away. And I cannot understand.

In re-reading this entry, I find something new every time that is perhaps non-translatable; I don’t know if I could ever articulate what was/is going on in my mind, my heart, my soul at that time. Retrospectively, after also going to Berlin and Auschwitz and countless other places, I recall an acute sense of bewilderment: I honestly thought that going to these places would make it ‘more real’ in my mind and. In this moment – with a poetic bee sting to my face – I woke up to the harsh reality of my privilege. I kept repeating the same line over and over in my mind: “I can always walk away from this.” I knew that I was so wrong in my expectation, my assumption, my sense of entitlement. So, so wrong.

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