"I returned to the town
where I was a child
and a teenager and an old man of thirty.
The town greeted me indifferently
but the streets' loudspeakers whispered:
don't you see the fire is still burning,
don't you hear the flame's roar?
Find another place.
Search for it.
Search for your true homeland."
So goes the amazing poem by Adam Zagajewski, "Search." I am reading it on the airplane on my way home from Oswiecim – or, as it is better known throughout the world, Auschwitz: the City of Death. It is unfair to Oswiecim, of course: the town remains vibrant with people – over 50,000 to be exact – and the concentration camp is only one small part of it.But so it is now, and fifty six years since its liberation, in January 1945, the city is suffering for it.I saw them both: the desolate city still willing and able to go on living, and the silent camp that indelibly colors its existence.They are both etched in my mind, and my heart.
As I read the poem, my heart skips a beat: my God, this is what it must be like to return, after the Holocaust. If I were a Pole coming home, this is how I would feel: old beyond years; unwelcome because I had survived; and unable not to hear the flame's roar. Because the roar is unbearably loud – and the fire is still burning. Everyone can hear it; as you walk through the camps, you can feel the fire burning inside your skull, till you cannot bear to look any more. You walk inside the crematoria, you touch the Wall of Death, and the fire licks you numb. The ground underneath your feet burns with pain, and you feel helpless with incomprehension.
But I am going back to Washington, which I now call home. Where is a returning Pole, a mere native, to find refuge? How can he find "another place" that he can call home? How can he search for his "true" homeland? Isn't this it? Wasn't this where he was born and raised? Yes, and yet… of course this is not his true homeland. That homeland no longer exists. It no longer exists for him, or for anyone else. All he has left is the search.
But if there is any consolation, the Pole is not alone in having lost his homeland. As you walk on the ground of Auschwitz you know that Europe can never "go home" again. But why just Europe? The world… The flames continue to burn; the search is on.
I close my eyes, as I think about Zagajewski's poem, and listen to the airplane's quiet buzz, piercing the heavens. The music of that improbable journey thousands of miles aboveour dissonant planet is soothing, as I try to comprehend what I have just seen. As I remember walking into the gas chamber; and touching the ovens; and the tray that carried the corpses; and the scream I heard inside of me, that would not end. And suddenly it becomes very clear that there is no reason to search very far: home is exactly where it has always been. Oswiecim is home – to every Pole, to me, to all of us. It is not the same as it was seventy years ago, and it will never be again. That is what we must all understand and yes, accept. Such is home: the place where we were born, and where horror has taken place, and where we must go back and go on living because life is to be lived, and celebrated even as we say Kaddish to those who were taken away in flames of hell. And in an important sense Oswiecim is more truly home than anywhere else we happen to come from.
Because that is where we can never forget that innocent people were sacrificed on the altar of evil, for no purpose except perhaps to remind us that we have no right to forget their sacrifice – not ever.
The search for home has to be inside our hearts. And what we'll find will be no comfort, really, but an endless dirge, the final realization that there is no other place for us ever again.
Home is here, inside of us, inside every one of us. There is no running away; there is nowhere else. This is our true homeland, and we must learn how to burn yet go on living, praising the gift that is alone capable of bringing us any hope of salvation. It is the gift of love: not for every man, for surely some are undeserving. And there is no doubt that those who have murdered innocents – whether in Auschwitz, Sarajevo, the World Trade Center, in some many other places throughout the world – should be punished, with no mercy.
But love, yes, it must be: love for that which is beautiful, for that which is tender and strong and generous. And we all must be able to go on, even as we can never forget.