Day 11- Auschwitz & Birkenau
The day started off appropriately enough by raining throughout the morning. Since the previous day I'd had such good navigation luck, I decided to chart us a route through the town surface roads again as opposed to the highway. What I hadn't considered was that though both roads were the same distance, cars can drive about twice as fast on the highway. We finally got into Oswiecim around noon.
Polish signage is generally pretty bad as a rule, but something about the lack of signs for the camp seemed particularly strange. I understood why the town may have preferred visitors to come and visit things besides just the camp (there is a synagogue and Jewish museum, for instance, as well as some other interesting historical sights), but who were they kidding? The camp gets 1 million visitors a year. I'm sorry if you'd rather be known for your antiques or the awesomely-named Mieszko Tanglefoot, but let's face some reality, please.
When we finally did find the museum, it was jarring at how sudden the transition was (though we had been fairly creeped out at seeing stone highway barriers with an all-too-familiar curve on the top, complete with barbed wire attached). It wasn't like the town ended and then the camp was off to the left, standing dramatically by itself. The busy road took you right past the camp and if you weren't looking for the wooden guard towers peeking over the walls, you could actually miss it.
The parking lots were absolutely packed, despite it being a Monday and raining. There was a large row of strip-mall-like stres on the outer edge. The visitor enter was in a small mall. There weren't any brochures in English (really, Auschwitz museum? really?) but my parents were hungry so we stopped for a snack at the only restaurant in the building, a bizarre hodge-podge of Polish buffet and half-hearted attempts at American and Italian-American food: Abbot Yid got french fries and Mama Yid got a crepe bolognese. We sat across from a carved wooden pizza chef. On the wall there was a sign informing us that "It is forbidden to bring and consume your own food and drinks." There was something about seeing orders posted on a wall that was a little off-putting here, even over something as banal as outside food. The radio alternated between Polish and American pop music. While my parents were eating I identified two songs: one by the reggae group that was famous for writing "Bad Boys," and that Katy Perry song about having romantic liaisons with an alien.
I wasn't sure what I had been expecting at Auschwitz, but this wasn't it. Instead of experiencing Arendt's banality of evil, so far this was the evil of banality.
We wound up spending almost five hours at Auschwitz and Birkenau altogether. Once we got into the museum proper things started getting surreal. The entrance hall and the busses were absolutely packed with giant, crushing crowds-- to the point of bringing up uncomfortable mental parallels. (We weren't the only ones commenting on this; we heard multiple groups of people discussing the "irony" of packing us in like sardines. One guy wondered if this was intentionally designed as "part of the experience.")
It was hard to connect the physical site of Auschwitz with the cultural image I had approached it with. Auschwitz has been built up in the Western imagination as the archetype of evil, but how can anything live up to that? Compared with its image, Auschwitz seemed not foreign, not evil, enough. Here was a prime example of the banality of evil. On first blush, the place did not read as specifically terrible. It had grass, flowers and birds flying overhead. The bad weather and pervasive gray skies certainly added to the moroseness but it didn't feel different from any other spot.
Areas that did have an emotional impact were ones that emphasized the massive scale of the extermination and destruction that happened there: the piles of hair, glasses, and shoes. A room full of suitcases, covered with carefully printed names and addresses of unsuspecting victims long dead. Standing at one end of Birkenau and not being able to see the other side because of how massive the camp was. These were the things that showed the planning side, the inhuman coldness that allowed people to separate out their immediate tasks from the reality that they were building factories of death.
Being inside the Auschwitz barracks was surreal-- the stone stairs were worn down from so many visitors that they had become curved in the middle and were hard to walk on. It added to the experience of feeling off-balance and that things weren't quite right.
We saw the basements of Block 11-- claustrophobic hallways, tiny cells designed for starvation and sadism. Particularly disturbing were the closet-sized punishment cells, where men were forced to stand for hours at a time without being able to sit. The sheer amount of thought put into being evil for evil's sake felt outrageous and obscene.
There were also some bizarre moments involving other people we were there with. A Portugese man with his family took dozens of flash pictures inside the buildings, oblivious to the signs telling him not to and the UV-protection film over the windows. Every picture he was taking was destroying historical evidence of Nazi atrocities, and helping the case of jackasses the world over who claim that Auschwitz is a manufactured fraud. I could have strangled him. There was also a family from Singapore who kept mugging for each other's snapshots, smiling in front of the train tracks, the execution wall and the iconic sign. It made me feel ill. Yes, I was glad that people from around the world visit this place, but going to Auschwitz is not like seeing the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower. I hope to God that if I ever visit Tuol Seng, someone will stop me if I start grinning like an idiot and taking pictures of myself in front of torture cells. The irony was that the family told us that they had come to see Auschwitz because "we've always heard about it and needed to see it with our own eyes." The impulse was admirable, but it was hard to square that away with how they were acting.
One thing people don't tell you about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is how much physical activity is involved: there is a lot of walking around, particularly at Birkenau. The road was composed of dirt and pebbles and was tough to walk on. The final stop is at the Birkenau memorial, surrounded by the ruins of the destroyed crematoria. It was pretty emotional. Abbot Yid cried, and I said Kaddish in memory of the 15 relatives of my mother killed there, the 45 others killed at Treblinka, Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen and others, and the 150 whose fates remain unknown.
We walked back to the gate with our Polish guide, a young woman named Maria. She was from Oswiecim, had gone to University, and then came back. She had been working as a docent at the museum for several years. She seemed proud of her home and mentioned that it dated from the 12th century and had been a large town before the war. We said it must be hard to live so close to the camp and its history.
"Someone has to tell the story," she said. "It's important."
Hearing such a sense of stewardship to a place and its history from a twenty-something was inspiring.
The experience was emotionally and physically draining, though I was glad we had done it-- particularly since we had come not just to experience something in the abstract, but to also see it through personal and specific eyes: this was the place where my mother's cousins had been murdered. We had their names, in some cases we even had their dates and tattoo numbers. This wasn't just about "The Holocaust." It was the grave of these relatives, who had been denied their identities. It felt like going there, saying their names, acknowledging them as individuals, if only in a small way, was a sort of tikkun. A healing.
That night we went back to Kazimierz and the restaurant. I had duck with apples (ok, but not as good as Polish cholent). Mama Yid had tzimmes, which she said reminded her of her grandmother's cooking.
The really interesting part came after the meal, when Mama Yid chatted up two English-speaking women at the table next to us. They were New Yorkers (of course!) and had also visited Auschwitz that day, but with a private guide. The older woman was in her sixties and had taken her 40s-ish daughter to Poland to look for their roots in Northern Poland. They had also had some powerful personal moments, including finding archival records and seeing places in the Old Country their relatives had spoken about for years.
We chatted for a while and then the question of Israel came up. "It's surprising to hear you've been here and not to Israel," the daughter remarked. Her mother started giving her impressions of Auschwitz:
"Our guide was very informative. One of the things that bothered me about the museum, though, is that the point of view is very Polish, everything is about the Poles and not so much about the Jews who died there. Like, they have that cell with the flowers for that Polish Pope who died," she said, referring to a priest, Maximillian Kolbe, who voluntarily submitted to starvation torture to spare a fellow inmate the same fate. "Why do they have a memorial for that Pope and not the Jews?" she asked.
I thought of the plaques and flowers inside the Auschwitz crematorium and the memorial statue at Birkenau. I saw the woman's point; it would be nice to have a personalized experience of some Jewish prisoners with names and faces that visitors could connect with, but at the same time the museum seemed stuck. Anything the museum did would be criticized. There was also the tricky point that most Jews at Auschwitz were killed within hours; the vast majority of the prisoners who were incarcerated there were Poles. I didn't think the Jewish piece should be minimized, but it was challenging to tell both of those stories simultaneously.
"In Israel, at Yad Vashem, the information is much more truthful. At Auschwitz everything is about all the prisoners experienced, but Yad Vashem talks about how little the rest of the world did. How few people helped the Jews. The Holocaust museum in DC is even worse. So politically correct!"
I held back a smirk. Yes, Yad Vashem was probably more unflinching with the details, but the idea that it didn't have a political agenda was either silly or naive. The Israelis had a Holocaust narrative just as firmly as the Americans or the Poles.
The woman continued. "Our guide told us there's still antisemitism around here, too. Like those dolls. Have you seen them?"
We nodded. While they were strange and stereotypical, on average the ones we had seen had tended more towards cute-sy than outrageous. The women shook their heads. "It's terrible," said the daughter. "All the Jewish dolls do is count money. The Poles buy them and give them to their children before they get married as a good luck charm, to help them be successful."
As bizarre and perhaps even cringe-worthy as that may have been, I found it hard to relate to their outrage. In the grand scheme of things I'd much rather see Jewdolls with money than bloody matzah, for example. It wasn't that I didn't think there was zero antisemitism in Poland. Hatred didn't seem to be as big an issue as ignorance and a lack of contact. In order to know about and understand Jews, Poles needed to meet more Jews! Which also meant Jews needed to spend part of their time in Poland meeting with and trying to learn more about Poles, not only focusing on Jewish sites or on things relating to the Holocaust. Two-way streets and all that.
As a counterpoint I told the women about my friend Pavel and his family and our guide Maria and suggested that the younger generation seemed interested in knowing more about and honoring Poland's Jewish heritage. The women nodded politely, as if they weren't sure how to bridge the gap of our very different views of the country and its people.
Walking back to our apartment, I was troubled. I was happy to meet more Jews in Poland but also sad that for so many people, it seemed that their minds were already made up before they got there and that they tended to look for proof to substantiate negative preconceptions. I also realized that for most "connected" American Jews Israel was "advertised" much more than Europe. As the US-Israel relationship has developed and most American Jewish movements have become more Zionist, Israel has been pushed as American Jews' second home, a place that feels familiar and culturally (if not always physically) safe. The irony, of course, was that our immediate ancestors and family had spent far more time in Europe, especially Poland and neighboring countries, than Israel.
Of course Israel had history and tradition and certainly a valuable connection that needed to at least be considered (if not taken) seriously. But at the end of the day a major connector for me was family, personal family history. While we had plenty of cousins in Israel (with interesting stories and history of their own, to be sure), it still felt like a bit of a stretch to claim that Israel was more my ancestors' home than Poland. Yes, our forefathers may have lived in the hills of Judea, but I had found my ancestor's tombstone and touched it with my own hand. That was far more tangible to me than semi-hypothetical connections to Biblical characters.
At some point I am sure I will visit Israel, probably with Mrs. Yid (and perhaps even with my parents). I am sure it will also be a moving and personal experience. But it was frustrating to feel that Poland's Jewish past or direct connection with descendants of Polish Jews had been minimized by a narrative that championed Israel and Zionism as a primary pillar of Jewish identity.