An Agoraphobic in Europe: Visiting Auschwitz

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Once upon a time, I couldn’t walk around the block.

I could barely step out onto my front porch; had troubles going to Walmart; couldn’t set foot in the public library. Heck, I barely felt comfortable in my own skin in my living room. So forget traveling or meeting new people. Every night for 10 or so years, I slept in my own bed. As a teenager, my home had become my prison.

Auschwitz-Birkenau as it appears today. Photo by Veronica Leigh
Auschwitz-Birkenau as it appears today. Photo by Veronica Leigh

Dealing with Agoraphobia 

What had begun as anxiety attacks and depression spiraled into full-blown agoraphobia. Of course, as a teenager, I had no idea what was wrong with me.

By the time I did figure it out, I was in so deep I didn’t know what to do to climb out. My dream was to be a novelist and see the world. Agoraphobia is very inconvenient for a dreamer like me.

My grandmother used to say, “This too shall pass.” And it did. Some years were better than others, and I was improving when my Dad suddenly died. That sent me into a tailspin.

After his death, I realized I couldn’t continue on the path that I was on. It wasn’t fair to my loved ones or to me. Once I got on a good medication, something clicked into place. The shroud of anxiety and depression began to lift. I got a part-time job, started to learn how to drive and had interests outside of the home.

A traveler overcomes her own paralyzing fears when confronted with the bravery of those who survived Auschwitz in Poland.

How I Sign Up for the Tour 

Over the years, I had heard about Eva Mozes Kor and her tours in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakow.

The Holocaust had always interested me, to the point where I wrote a novel about it. As a girl, Eva Mozes Kor and twin sister Miriam were the subjects of several horrifying experiments by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.

Despite that, the girls survived and thrived. After her sister’s death, Eva made the conscious choice to forgive Mengele and the Nazis for what they had done to her and her family. Only through forgiveness did she find healing. So I signed up to join her tour in June of 2015.

How My Family Reacts 

I wanted to do something extraordinary. I wanted to be brave.

“This is meant to be,” my mom would often tell me. “Your dad would be so proud of you.”

He was one of the reasons I dreamt of seeing Europe. When he was in his twenties, he visited England, Scotland and Ireland. And then when my grandfather was in his twenties, he too was in Europe… although he probably didn’t enjoy it. He was fighting in WWII, after all.

My sister and aunts contributed much moral and some financial support. Everywhere I turned, people were excited for me. Considering where I had been before, trapped between four walls, this was to be a great leap. An adventure of a lifetime.

Starting the Tour 

The plane rides went smoothly. Setting foot in Krakow was like passing through the wardrobe and into the magical land of Narnia.

Horse-drawn carriages majestically rolled down the streets; in the Main Market Square there were performers, singers, contortionists and people in folk costumes. Periodically throughout the day, a trumpet could be heard from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica. Everyone would stop what they were doing and wave.

Exploring Auschwitz-Birkenau

We spent three days during that week-long tour in Auschwitz-Birkenau, exploring every inch of it. As I walked the grounds of the infamous death camp, I was numb. Some had more emotional reactions, but as for me, I was shut off from my feelings.

For the greater part of that first day, it was cold, damp and cloudy. Off and on, Eva would talk to God and ask Him to send us a little sun. I was a little surprised since some Holocaust survivors are atheists.

One cannot be in Auschwitz and not think about God. As a Christian, he had been on my mind a lot during this journey. Since we were welcome to ask Eva questions, I thought I’d pose one.

The entrance sign. Photo by Flickr/jechstra
The entrance sign. Photo by Flickr/jechstra

“Eva, what are your thoughts on God?” I asked.

“Well,” Eva said. “I don’t believe that God was there in Auschwitz with us. With all that happened, I can’t believe it.” She turned to the rabbi and the minister for their thoughts and they gave the usual explanations.

I didn’t mind what she said; she had a right to her beliefs and I would have rather heard more about her opinions. As the day wore on, Eva’s prayers were answered and the weather did improve. The clouds parted and the sun began to shine.

I don’t know what the others on the tour felt, but for me that was a sign, that in the midst of the darkness of that place, there was a ray of hope. Just as there was for me. The girl who could barely walk around the block was able to walk eight miles on our first day at Auschwitz.

On Friday morning, we gathered at the Auschwitz memorial to light candles in respect. We were invited to say a few words.

When it was my turn, I laid my candle on one of the steps and said, “This is in memory of all who perished here; for my grandfather who fought in WWII and for my dad who died three years ago.” We bid Auschwitz-Birkenau farewell and returned to the hotel.

A horse drawn carriage. Photo by Veronica Leigh
A horse drawn carriage. Photo by Veronica Leigh

Visiting Oskar Schindler’s Factory

Saturday was a free day. I went to Oskar Schindler’s factory, saw the last remaining walls of the Krakow Ghetto and then spent the afternoon in the Main Market Square with two lovely ladies.

I listened to a man play the water glasses and asked him to play “La Vie En Rose.” Long after walking away, the tune serenaded me throughout the square. I went wild in buying souvenirs, selecting things that my family and friends would love and I would cherish.

My friends and I paid for one of those horse-drawn carriage rides and I felt like a queen for twenty minutes as we toured the city.

That night, I soaked in the bathtub, thinking how far I had come and how far I could still go. No matter what my past held, the prison I had put myself in, that didn’t have to be my future.

Eva Mozes Kor and countless other Holocaust survivors made lives for themselves after the war. They healed. If someone who could survive such darkness, then so could I, in my own small way.

Where there is life, there is hope.