It took years after visiting concentration camps to learn about the relationship between writing and empathy, and the long gestation period required to evolve from one to the other.
We had been touring Auschwitz for nearly 12 hours when we approached the exit. It was January in Poland, well below freezing, and even our puffer coats had begun to take on the bleak and desaturated hues of our surroundings, all gray skies and rusted wood.
For the 30 or so of us Jewish college students and the handful of rabbis supervising us, it was our fifth visit to a concentration camp in five days, which we’d mostly spent listening, our hands nestled in the warmth of our pockets, and discussing what we’d seen and heard.
It was 2015, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and arrangements were underway for a commemorative event there just a few weeks later. There was a tent, half-built, and construction workers loading up their vehicles after a long day of preparation.
Accordingly, we made our way toward the gates and our coach bus, but after a few rattles we realized the gates were bolted shut. We were a few dozen Jews, hailing from all over the United States, trapped inside Auschwitz after dark.
About a week after I returned from Poland, I sat down to write about the trip. Because I wanted to be a writer, and the act of writing seemed to entail some vague and imperceptible journey from experience to enlightenment, I felt a sense of duty to tell the story of my trip, whereby I’d extract from it important conclusions about evil and morality and remembrance and Jewishness.
I sat in a coffee shop in Lower Manhattan and typed furiously, looking to convey the immensity of my visit.
As I thought, for the purposes of writing this essay, about journeys both literal and figurative, I reread my essay from five years ago and was struck, first and most superficially, by its flagrant verbosity — but then even more by the fool’s errand that was trying to make meaning of the trip in such short order.
It was a natural impulse, of course; on our flight over, we’d been handed pocket-size copies of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” His reflections on humanity’s natural resolve in the face of suffering served as a kind of preface to our trip, encouraging us to situate our experiences in Poland within the context of our relationships to Judaism and the Holocaust.
Instead, what the book brought into sharp focus was a sense of disconnect — many of us had attended Jewish day schools and were well versed in the history of the Third Reich and the plight of the Jewish people. We’d heard, with a repetition that diluted the actual imperative, the phrase “Never Forget.”
But we had no real sense of the stakes, of what separated our present reality from that of our forebears.
When I first reflected on the trip to Poland, the smell of Zubrowka vodka still fresh on my breath, I wrote about standing in the spot where Josef Mengele selected victims for his sadistic experiments; and seeing the inside of a gas chamber, where I tried to reconcile the dreadful vastness of its interior and the cruel pretenses under which prisoners were lured inside.
Seeing these sights we could begin to understand, just barely, what it must have been like to endure those same journeys naked, or in just a pair of thin striped pajamas. Though I didn’t realize it, I was learning about the relationship between writing and empathy, reporting and understanding, and the long gestation period required to evolve from one to the other.
Now, five years later, it is somewhat easier to reflect on my week in Poland having accepted that meaning, in any definitive sense, is elusive. A week after returning, I could no more reach a conclusion about what the trip meant than I could go back in time and erase the past.
What I could do, however, was sidestep this impulse and understand the trip as part of my own journey, as a young writer, as a Jew.
In that light, or darkness, I remember the 15 minutes we spent trapped inside Auschwitz, waiting for someone with keys to open the gates so we could return to our bus, where our supervisors had liquor awaiting us. We linked arms and danced in circles and sang classic Hebrew jingles, opting after a long week of emotionally taxing experiences to celebrate the freedom we enjoyed, even in those few minutes of artificial detention.
Jake Nevins has been The New York Times Magazine’s fellow. He wrote an essay on lip reading for the magazine’s Letter of Recommendation column earlier this year. He writes often for The Times’s At War vertical, interviewing World War II veterans. For The New York Times Book Review, he wrote an essay on gay fiction. He has also contributed to special issues of the magazine such as the 1619 Project. Before, he was an arts and culture writer at The Guardian.