Better for Being in Poland

Krakow was cold, cold, cold.  It’s so hard to remember what cold really feels like until you’re in it again and then it comes back to you.  You have to cover every patch of exposed skin.  You must stay completely dry.  Much as I encouraged my sons to consider proper winter footwear before meeting us here, one of them showed up with simple canvas shoes.  Just a few hours of walking on the cobblestone streets in slushy snow and he was suffering.  We rescued him with some emergency boots and wool socks, but we all began to appreciate the harsh conditions of a Polish winter.
We entered the Birkenau concentration camp this morning in a thick fog and couldn’t see where we were until the arched brick wall with the train track leading in was right in front of us.  We were the only ones there at 8:00 AM and made the first tracks in the snow, tromping from barrack to barrack.  Still the fog was so heavy we could only see a step at a time and  we heard dogs barking and gunshots in the distance as if a soundtrack was being played to unnecessarily add to the atmosphere.   Following those long train tracks to their terminus, we stood at the well-documented spot where they were unloaded and the fates of millions of lives were decided with a hand motion.
I never knew if I was capable of visiting Auschwitz.  At least 20 years ago, I stopped watching Holocaust movies and reading books on the topic because I just couldn’t bear the inevitable any more.  There would be the dear elderly character with wire-rimmed glasses who you adored, but knew terrible things were in store for.  The middle of the story would be filled with the chaos and fear of the train loading and unloading, followed by the separation of families.  Finally, there would be the gradual deaths of everyone you were pulling for and the hopeless feeling of loss at the end.  I knew the plot and I just couldn’t watch it reenacted one more time.
Twisted mound of wire-rimmed glasses
I walked into these infamous sites today and as I suspected,  I did cry when I saw the case of gnarled wire-rimmed glasses and the room of baby clothes and shoes.  I saw photos of the very real victims, Jews from Poland, but also Hungary and almost every other part of Europe.  Additionally,  there were also thousands of non-Jewish Poles, and Gypsies, and Russians.  There were a lot more people than I realized who were considered undesirable and were murdered there by the thousands.   I listened, spellbound, to our tour guide, Symon, who had also needlessly lost an uncle in that camp.  He led us through the story of Auschwitz, helping us connect with the humans, but also working on some answers to the enormous question, why?  He actually answered that question in a basic way right at the beginning.  They were Jews and Hitler was obsessed with hatred for them.  He also needed a scapegoat on whom to blame the dire economic state in Germany.  There actually wasn’t one grand beaurocratic plan for the mass extermination of Jews except to gradually eliminate their rights in Nazi-occupied cities throughout Europe and then transport them to labor camps in several locations.  They were just truly work camps for the first two years, but then the extermination steam-rolled and in just over a year, over a million Jews were killed.  Again, you play the why game.  Why didn’t Polish villagers try to do something?  Answer:  they had all been relocated and it was SS soldiers and their families living in the nearby villages.  Why did the Jews go along?  Why didn’t they resist?  Answer:  Their choices were narrowed further and further until their only chance of survival was to cooperate and make the best possible conditions for themselves within the camps.  Why didn’t more of them escape?  Answer:  The SS were ruthless.  If you resisted you were punished through the torture or death of those you most loved.
The SS made a game of systematic dehumanization, humiliation, and terrorization.   The Nazis had effectively sealed all levels of society in the region in terror.  It was effective and pervasive.  These were simple people and they all had to make the best choices they could given their own circumstances and information.
By the end of the tour, I had a much better mental structure to which I could attach my emotions.  I feel now like I can take another look at some of the films  and literature and rather than wait for the foregone ending, I can study them for what they say along the themes of power and choice.

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