Thanks to the recommendation of my dear friend and marvellous coach, Yolanda López (over Chinese takeaway, cava and Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough) this weekend, I decided to go and visit the Auschwitz exhibition in Madrid.
I have always had mixed feelings about spending time lingering over other people’s pain. However, from a historical and human point of view, the Nazi period has always horrified and fascinated me (Thanks, Mr. Kilroy). I also recognize that, only through intuitively feeling others’ suffering, can we get the emotional fuel to learn from our mistakes.
Visiting the Auschwitz exhibition came one day after attending a human rights conference that another dear friend, Simona Perfetti, invited me to at the Buddhist organization SGI. As I walked into the dark exhibition, listening to the sombre music on the audio-guide and feeling my stomach lower itself to the ground at what I was about to see and hear, I knew that the conference and the exhibition were linked.
Here are 7 of the lessons I took away from both experiences:
1) We must all accept responsibility for the abuse, murder and inhumane treatment of our fellow human beings. While The Nazis tried to eradicate the Jews, the Allies killed countless number of civilians in World War II and did not take significant measures to thwart the genocide. We do the same now, allowing people to die on the streets and at sea.
2) Oh the parallels with the language Hitler used and some of the language used to describe refugees and immigrants today…
3) Extreme rationality is sinister. Be careful when you justify extremely efficient means to an end that makes you feel safer and successful. That’s what the SS did with their mass shootings and gas chambers.
4) If someone criticises another to you, be sure that they will criticise you behind your back too. You are not safe following a bully. If you don’t speak out you will end up as a victim to the bully. And as another silent collaborator in a diseased society. As this quote by Martin Niemöller shows:
“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Social-Democrats, and I did not speak out because I was not a Social-Democrat. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade-Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
5) Any intolerance of ourselves and other people is the first seed of genocide. We must learn to accept and love ourselves with all our light and dark sides because only that way can we work together to ensure a more enriching, safer and fairer world. That’s enough of trying to feel superior to some other person or race just to control our own personal angst.
6) Human beings are capable of incredible acts of kindness, generosity and bravery that our morbid curiosity overlooks sometimes. Loving ourselves and each other with all our strangeness is the only sane way to look at Auschwitz, to recognise ourselves in the whole story, and thus to commit to keeping each other safe from such atrocities.
7) We can start now by giving up destructive criticism of ourselves and others, and by keeping our hearts, eyes and ears open for people to help and encourage. Our differences are what keep it all interesting. Catch yourself when you start to negative self-talk or to tutt at someone who bumps into you by mistake on the street. Or who annoys you at the office. Look out for the potential in everyone. Above all, those that seem alien to you.
Yes, I recommend you to go the exhibition if you are in Madrid and you have not been yet. Yes, you will feel awful. And yes, you will feel inspired. Don’t get too weighed down by the “the historical truth” because history deals with competing stories that claim to be the truth. Your truth is the only real guide you have. It is immensely powerful.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)