Many times, as a group, we were just silent.
We were not tongue-tied, or reticent, these moments were choices. It was a strange thing, this quiet, in a trip defined by relationships. At times, seemingly, the conversation never ended. The longest bus rides of my life always had new person to get to know. Every meal had a new topic to tackle. Every walk in between so many sites possessed a new companion for a period of reflection. The conversation scarcely ever died. And so, the times when it did - I seem to remember best.
You could predict when these moments would arise after awhile, as if there was a pattern, as if each day were progressing to silence.
The moment in my life I felt closest to someone was a moment with no words. I only know this now. I thought intimacy was on hold. But in rest, in giving up words, I was closer then I had ever been. Real silence is that when you are permitted to speak but chose not to, the other kind is oppression. In our group’s silences, I thought perhaps we had been subdued by our emotions, the weight of a dark history with which we were attempting to grapple. But in Treblinka, in the middle of a forest, where we had been silent throughout most of the day, I saw the choice.
Like all the camps, it was an eerie place. Still, there was something about it’s proximity to nature that made silence seem as if it was everywhere, mobile, like the world outside too was largely quiet. And in that void there were no barriers to prevent us from saying anything, yet we spoke very little. Here, silence was a bond, more still, it was an indication of something we all knew: that words can only do so much.
Because of this, it took me a long time to write this piece. I considered its central function as trying to convince you to take this march. And I still want that to be the case. But I fear what these words can and cannot do.
Faced with the prospect of explaining the trip to my expectant brother, I chose to cry in the washroom instead. It was not a cry of sorrow or some form of complaint, just tears that follow change. In this initial attempt to give him some impression of the two weeks I considered how best to synthesize my experience. But what could possibly be left to summary? What could possibly be left to gloss over? By these decisions, I was overwhelmed that day, and still am. But despite the shortcoming of these words, I rest to say you should take this journey. Because, after a time, the shock from this trip wears off, and I’m left wondering why. How could the memory of such a thing suddenly lose its hold? But it does. The emotions are gone, they fade like most things do, and you are just left with questions: Why do people do wrong to one another? Why evil? Why good? I had never asked such questions on a such an elemental level before. I was as if I were a child, struck by their equal consequence and simplicity. The best questions now seem those that I never knew existed before, ones you cannot keep asking yourself, that you cannot live without. Like this one: From Majdanek, I took a pebble. People do this sort of thing. I did too. Why?
Breen is a MRH 2016 alum, and is a graduate student studying English at McGill.