Have you ever suppressed a memory? Or perhaps a part of your identity? Kept a secret locked away, hoping it would never see the light of day? How long could you do it? At what cost?
What if “you” were the Polish nation and that memory was all that had happened in your country and to your countrymen – Poles and Jews – between 1939 and 1946? What if the piece of your identity was that you, and now your children or even grandchildren as well, were Jews? What if you kept it hid – either by choice or by governmental threat or fear of death – for 40 years? What would it take to finally open the door on that secret, unearth – quite literally – those memories and talk about both the crimes done to, and by, your countrymen?
Prior to my planning to travel to Poland with Centropa this summer, and despite my considerable Holocaust education, I had no idea that under the Soviet regime the events of ’39-’46 had not been discussed. To imagine the trauma endured on Polish lands during those years – by its Jewish inhabitants, but also by its Polish non-Jewish ones as well – and then to imagine the ongoing psychological trauma of just pretending it never happened is, quite frankly, mind blowing. To think that in the country where the Nazis placed all of their death camps, no one was talking, learning, or openly confronting this horrific past is hard to imagine. And that doesn’t even begin to address the lack of accounting for actions perpetrated by Poles during this time. Those who were caught up in the zeitgeist and acted on age old hatreds, those who began as rescuers and became, for a whole variety of reasons, murders, those who after the Nazis were defeated were not happy to see surviving Jews return to perhaps try to reclaim their rightful property and made sure they knew they were not welcome. Millions of Ethnic Poles were also murdered, by the Soviets and by the Nazis. They were also declared untermenschen and slated for complete extermination when the Jews were dealt with. Their country split up, invaded and then invaded again, occupied, used as a location for the murder of Jews that was not fit to happen in a civilized nation such as Germany itself, and after the war handed over to Stalin. That is a lot of national trauma to sweep under the proverbial carpet and try to keep there for 40 years.
While we were in Poland we marked, on July 10th the anniversary of the murder of the Jews of Jedbawne by their Polish neighbors. Not the Nazis, but Poles who brutally beat and then burnt alive their fellow townspeople of the Jewish faith. This crime lay forgotten, despite a trial after the war. And this was not the only village where this happened. There is evidence of a month long rampage through the Bialystock district in July 1941. Germany had replaced the Soviets as occupiers and the Poles, foolishly they would learn, welcomed them. Jews were viewed as collaborators with the Soviets and this was used as one reason for their murder. Greed was clearly another as their bodies were still warm when their houses were looted. Jan Gross’s book Neighbors blew the lid off of this ugly secret and really opened the national conversation when it was published in 2000. Gross’s book Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz continues to pry at scarred over memories of post-war pogroms and, despite the idea Jews were favored by the Soviets, institutional anti-Jewish policies. To stay in Poland after the war, for that minuscule number of the 3.3 million Polish Jews who had survived, meant giving up your Jewish identity. Those few who tried to hold on to it, were run out of the country in 1967-8 after the Six Day War in Israel as the USSR was an Arab ally.
So how did this all play out during my visit? In Kraków we met a woman, about my age, part of “The Unexpected Generation” – Poles who learned in their teens or twenties that they are Jews during deathbed confessions or other opportunities to reveal the long buried family secret. Jewish life is on the upswing in Poland. Jewish festivals abound and cemeteries, synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods being revived and rebuilt. We visited the Polin Museum in Warsaw, a joint public/private venture that documents the 1000 year history of Jews in Poland. Poles have realized that the Jewish story is their story. Even with so few Jews left in Poland, Jewish culture is again valued as part of Polish culture.
Outside the Polin, our group was approached by an elderly man. He was curious about the nature of our group. He began to tell his story, in Polish. I called over a colleague from Poland who translated for me. This man was Polish. He had been sent by the Nazis to Germany to a work camp for two years. It was awful, but, he admitted twice, saved his life. “I would have died of starvation here.” And then there was the two guns he and his brother found that had them thinking about running off to join the Partisans – the second way his life was saved by being sent away. Just as a part of his story he mentions “My mother hid three Jews until it was too dangerous and she had to tell them to leave.” How I wished I spoke Polish! “Leave? Where did they go? Did they survive?” My mind reeled with questions I could not ask. He also told us about the creation of the ghetto in Warsaw. How early on you could go in and out, later for a bribe and finally not at all. He spoke of the brutality of Nazi guards who would klop you with their club at the slightest provocation. Here was history standing there in front of me sharing a piece of the story. Imagine his need to tell his story, imagine suppressing it for 40 years? Were we the first group he had approached?
Teaching this history – teaching the importance of not allowing these events to repeat – the need for Civil Society and our role in this undertaking is still a fraught undertaking for many of my colleagues in this area of the world. A Polish teacher I worked with deals with colleagues who long for a return to communism and don’t see the benefits of freedom. His students are concerned with bettering their own lives and can’t be bothered with working for the common good. How to teach a unit on the Solidarity Movement and the fall of Communism and the need for building a Civil Society? My Ukrainian colleague lives in a country under attack and at risk. We were privileged to have a speaker from the front lines of the protests in Maidan, Ukraine during the Academy. A teacher from Greece said he has students who support the Fascists in Greece who have support from a major chunk of the population. How to teach these ideas there? My friends from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatian are still struggling with their own recent troubles and tensions reached new heights while we were in Poland with the UN and EU opposite rulings about Srebrenica during the annual marking of that genocide.
What a complex and troubled mess we have made on this “nice planet” as our guide at Auschwitz refers to our world. Tomasz said this phrase – this nice planet – at least 20 times during his pre-visit lecture and our tour. It is said with a serious dose of cynicism and disdain. Our planet isn’t nice at all. Well, at least many of the humans who inhabit it. Tomasz – or Dr. Cebulski, as he is more correctly known – just finished his PhD on Auschwitz. In his view the murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis was an industry – the main industry of Germany during the war. He refers to Auschwitz as a “technologically advanced, constantly updated, meticulous and perfected death machine.” Wow. This is what we do to each other on this nice planet. I am not sure if this intellectualization of genocide makes it easier or harder to stomach. As we walked through Auschwitz I, the work camp and center of the sprawling 48 camp Auschwitz system, with Tomasz’s narration in my ear, I was wrapped in this insulating layer; it provided distance from the horrors that had happened there. But it was not to fully protect me from being gut punched by the reality of Auschwitz.
In one of the barracks there are the well-known displays of the shoes – thousands of them – the hair – blackened and decaying, barely recognizable – the pots and pans, hair brushes and shoe polish containers. But before any of these, there is a display of tallisim – prayer shawls – white with black stripes, barely touched by age – just a few of them, draped over a long box. They appear to have been just left there. Perhaps taken off by their owners at the end of services and draped there while they went to enjoy lunch. I wear a tallis. It is a distinctly Jewish item. Shoes, brushes, hair – these are universal. They need not have been left by “my” people. I know people who own prayer shawls identical to these. They are the quintessential Ashkenazi tallis. I can picture the men – they would have been men here – who left them. All of this registers in nanoseconds and I am overcome with emotion. I stand in front of this display and weep openly. In my ear I hear Tomasz continue on about the reliance of Germany, especially late in the war, on the items taken from the Jews as they arrived at Auschwitz. The needs of Germans for household items, clothing, shoes, were met by the looted belongings of murdered Jews – primarily Hungarian at this point. The hair was made into fabric. And these prayer shawls – valued for their high quality woolen fabric – were destined to become undergarments for Nazi officers. Clearly this all registered despite my emotional state, I just typed it here, but all I could think about was the religious Jews who once wore these while praying. After this, shoes, suitcases, brushes, and even the controversial display of hair, did not faze me. Too many, too aged and unreal, too universal. I will admit I did not look at the display of baby clothes. That would have surely been too much.
My overall impression of Auschwitz I was that it was so small. The displays are mostly very clinical and make emotional connection hard. The Yad Vashem display is excellent and an exception to this. The reproductions of children’s drawings from the walls of camps were heartbreaking – first in their innocence and later in how they show that children were not protected or ignorant of what was going on. The one real crack in Tomasz’s emotional remove was in the last room of this barrack. This room holds the Book of Names. Tomasz said “If Auschwitz is the largest cemetery or mass grave, albeit without bodies, on “this nice planet”, this book is the marker.” On this tombstone I was able to find the name of my husband’s grandfather.
We then went to Birkenau – the main sub-camp of Auschwitz. It is at the “back of Birkenau” (another of Tomasz’s turns of phrase) that the two main crematoria of Auschwitz were located. There had been a major wind storm the night before and we were not able to tour all of Birkenau but walked down the center strip where the train tracks run. That was enough to be overcome by how endless and sprawling this camp was. Seeing row after row of ruins of barracks, primarily the brick chimneys, running off into the distance was overwhelming. We walked to the end, the liminal space between Birkenau – the labor camp – and Auschwitz the death camp. It is this combining of the two that was a “tactical error” on the part of the Nazis according to Tomasz. The other death camps left few survivors, few witnesses – less than 100 between the four – and were almost entirely demolished and hidden before the end of the war. The fact that Auschwitz was primarily a labor/concentration camp and a death camp only towards the end of the war is why we have survivors, witnesses to what the Nazis did there. Thank God for this tactical error on the part of the Nazis or the deniers would have an easier time.
I am writing this while flying to Washington DC for the second half of my Fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of our topics will be how to use sites like Auschwitz in our teaching. I am looking forward to this as I am not sure what to do with this experience. How to process the emotions, the learning, the sheer unrealness of the depths of evil we are capable of on this nice planet. How do I use my experience of this to create a world where that phrase can be said with honesty and pride rather than cynicism?