The Captain of my Soul

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In times of the greatest adversity, rises hope. In times of the biggest challenges, rises opportunity. And in times of immense misfortune, rises strength. One of the first things I noticed as I stepped onto the grounds of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland were flowers rising from the ground– the same ground that held a citadel of doom and destruction, a complete fortification of death. It was as if the entirety of the camp was calling out to me, trying to tell me that there is still some life left in this chateau of massacre. It was as if every rubble and speck of dirt in the realm on which I stood was screaming for growth and a second chance to live, a chance to prove that nothing can terminate a conviction to survive and live a life where you alone have the power to ordain your own fate.

I had never stepped onto such a place before. After traveling across the globe, visiting countless numbers of famous landmarks in big cities and countries, I came to the end of my travels for the season with an unusual twist in venture. This enclave was no ordinary tourist spot. The life of this place came only after a multitude of death, about 1.3 million to be exact. Auschwitz brings to us a real-life story of the menacing years of Nazi Germany, inflicting its domination upon millions of innocent lives, among them being Jews, gays, people with disabilities, and many other groups . It is seen as a place where power ignited doom, where domination instigated slaughter. As we started the tour, we followed a guide who led us past a familiar German sign I had seen in books: “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which translates into “Work sets you free”. Marking the beginning of what would be one of the most daunting tours I have ever taken, this sign made me realize the magnitude of hope with which so many people had once crossed under it, their hearts and minds full of dreams and determination to one day see their loved ones again and return home, and that work will truly set them back to the life they once led. And as we all walked along the jaw-dropping images of the remnants of the millions that had once died, I came to comprehend more and more of what life must have been like there, within the walls of death.

Inside several brick-walled barracks that still stand tall, chattels of clothes and shoes lay on the premises of what is now a museum, and piles and piles of suitcases, everyday supplies, and valuables such as jewelry, assembled in a heap that touched the ceilings. Anything and everything that could possibly be possessed by a human being– from hair and clothes, to children’s toys– were snatched and stolen from the inmates by the Nazis, and we could now see them piled up behind closed glass windows. We passed deep, dark hallways with rooms on either side in which multiple rows of hundreds of beds could be seen, confined in the smallest of spaces, stacked on top of each other. These beds held thin stacks of hay on which the inmates slept, through the sweltering hot summers and blistering cold winters. We passed several different gas chambers, the dismal walls of which still looked like they held the ashes of their victims, ashes that stuck to the blackened brick surfaces. These walls looked so damp and dark, as if they were being haunted ominously by the ghosts of the men, women, and children that had died within them. It is through these windows and hallways that we saw the horrifying reality of what our history holds. It is through these walls that I imagined the helplessness of these human beings, having lost their privilege to live and their liberty to choose the path to their own destination. One ultimatum was given to them, and they forfeited their entitlement of existence. We came out of the damp, dark domicile and stood outside looking into the chipped glass windows, where had I looked about seventy years ago, I would have seen so many longing faces gazing at me, like birds yearning to be set free from their murky cages.


As we started to exit from what seemed like a nightmare, I walked back outside on the grounds and stood on top of the railway tracks that had once brought so many here to die. I couldn’t help but notice the people in the distance, holding hands and walking towards the exit. I was pleased at their smiles while they exited through the same gates that once brought tears to so many before us. The irony of the situation placed before me made me realise that we all have the predisposed inclination to follow our own mandates and commands that will one day lead us to our eventual goal- happiness.

Whether or not we embrace life, it will flourish around us and propagate like flowers in a field of fatality, reminding us of the immense power of the birthright of happiness. Life goes on even after such tragedy, and every day brings a new dawn. The Earth spins without us twirling it, and every year, spring comes  and goes. I saw life come back to a place that was once nothing but a trap door, beyond which there was neither any hope nor any prerogative to return to the life that was once led and to the existence that was once enjoyed. But life is more paramount than death; even after such a daunting period of time in our human history, we find ourselves in a field of flowers, surrounded by happy faces. We find ourselves engulfed within the thoughts and prayers of others, wishing and praying for all those who fell victim to these crimes to rest in peace. With signs of so much affection and love around me, the background of mortality and destruction seemed to fade away, as I too followed the railroad tracks towards the exit. It was now that I realized the magnitude of the power of one’s right to decide their own fate, and the opportunity to live your life they way you want to– a power that was snatched away from the millions who died gruesomely within the walls of Auschwitz. And it is after I visited Auschwitz that a certain poem of William Ernest Henley, “Invictus”, held a particularly special place in my heart, and always will have a different meaning for me for the rest of my life:

“…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

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Photography by Nupur Basu


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6 comments

  1. Munmun Basu says:

    Sep 3, 2012

    Reply

    Very well written !
    Brings tears to your eyes but also makes you realize that there is still hope inspite of so much destruction.

  2. Siba Banerjee says:

    Sep 7, 2012

    Reply

    Your understanding is very humane. History behind is not very bright. Such past only brings gloom. Personally, leave the past behind, rejoice the present and hope that a brighter future finds a place in History.

  3. Prantik Biswas says:

    Sep 11, 2012

    Reply

    Heartrending! Very well written…look forward to more such pieces

  4. Prakash Morolia says:

    Sep 14, 2012

    Reply

    Excellent blog – good piece of storytelling and travel log.

    It is a candid and effective description of the camp. The pictures are worth a thousand words.

    • It takes one to the site and back in history (past).
    • Wondering – what was going through the minds of the people who ran the place and those who were residing there.

    Best wishes and luck – should continue to write.

  5. Rahul D says:

    Jan 7, 2015

    Reply

    What a beautiful piece. Reads like the work of a proffessional journo..

    Kudos.

  6. Nupur Basu says:

    Dec 11, 2015

    Reply

    Thank you all so much for your wonderful comments and feedback.

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