Wednesday, August 17, 2011

(Trying to) Honor the Past

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.


Alice said...

It's interesting to compare your experience at Auschwitz with the one I had a Dachau when I was sixteen. Dachau, I think, is much less of a tourist destination, at least partially because most of the prisoner blocks are gone and there's less to see. But there were still gas chambers and the gate that said "Arbeit Macht Frei" and everything. My primary impression of that experience was quiet, and everyone (I was with a secular school group) not really knowing what to say. I think mostly people were absorbing it and not ready to really talk about it, but feeling like it was important to express outrage out loud. This seems very different from what you experienced, and I wonder why.

I also have to contrast this with going to Manzanar, which is more or less abandoned. There was very little left to see - it was all stripped down to nothing after the end of the war. And of course what happened there didn't involve straight up torture and death, but it was still pretty grim. So many Americans are only dimly aware of the existence of our internment camps - no one is telling that story.

Stewardship of these places - hard places, with difficult and terrible stories, isn't a simple thing.

Friar Yid said...

The Dachau comparison is interesting. One of the things I think sometimes gets overlooked by people who are disappointed or angry with how the camps have been maintained or memorialized is that you also have different governments in control of different sites, so while they're comparable in a certain sense there's also a lot of nitty-gritty details in which they've had different history for the last 60-plus years, all the way down to different political parties or governments being in charge, what gets funded and what doesn't, what and who gets memorialized there, etc.

I think there's also the issue of demographics and identification. Since most of the prisoners at Dachau weren't German, local Germans may approach the site with more feelings of guilt at the German involvement with the camp than with identification with its victims. Since Poles (Jewish and Christian) were one of the biggest groups who were at Auschwitz, it's been framed as, in part, a national memorial to Polish war victims. I think this is legitimate but it's also controversial for some as this approach potentially minimizes the role that Poles played in cooperating with the Nazis/not helping the Jews. And of course there are issues of narrative as far as who should "own" Auschwitz-- while the majority of people killed there were Jews most of the actual prisoners who lived there were Poles, and it doesn't seem right to ignore that fact, either. People who feel strongly about this quickly start getting into the question of whose suffering is "more important," etc. Aside from being incredibly depressing, there's really no way to settle the issue, since it isn't a debate that anyone can really "win."

Ah yes, Manzanar. As a Native Californian whose exposure to state history as a child was incredibly minimal, one of the things I'm continually amazed by is the sheer lack of attention given to sites like Manzanar or Tanforan-- which I spent years associating with a race track and shopping mall before I learned it had also been an internment camp. The only memorial there is a plaque near the food court.

Antigonos said...

In a way, your feelings of connection with Poland, and your lack of such feelings for Israel, surprise me. My mother's family did not lose anyone in WWII; her parents left Russia in 1905, as did most of her family, and the only remaining relatives died around 1920 in the Civil War following the Revolution.

What initially tied me to Israel was the way the Sages of Yavneh connected so much of Jewish observance to Israel, following the destruction of the Second Temple. There was already a sizeable Diaspora, and it would only grow. Israel had to remain the focal point. Sukkot, for example, makes no sense unless you are here, where so many of the observances make perfect sense. During the summer one sees temporary structures by most fields, where the workers can rest or eat, which are really succahs; the waving of the lulav just prior to the arrival of the much needed rains may hark back to sympathetic magic [imitate wind, and Someone Up There might get the idea you want a storm] but I find it extremely moving: all Jews in the world are doing it when I wave the lulav right and left, all the Jews who ever were [including your relatives in Poland] are with me when I wave it over my shoulder in back of me, all future Jews will observe the custom, which is centered on Israel which is where one wants the rain to fall, when I shake the lulav in front of me. And so on.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Thanks for the comment Antigonos! It's always interesting to hear about people's spiritual approaches.

I don't feel like I have a specific lack of connection to Israel as much as I have other connections in addition to it. It's on my radar, particularly during some holidays, but it's not really my focal point, and I think in a lot of ways that's very unusual in this age where a huge amount of attention of Diaspora Judaism (sometimes too much, IMO) is centered there. It's part of my heritage but I don't see it as the "center".

To a large degree, this is because neither of my parents were involved in Jewish communal life in the last 40 years-- so none of us have much background of being raised with Israel being a focus, much less anything like a "homeland." The implication was always that it was just sort of there, a given, like the fact that we have turkey at Thanksgiving. For my perspective, Israel, Zionism and related issues being at the center of a lot of Jews' identity has been a challenge to adjust my thinking to, because it was never something that was in my consciousness until I was in high school (in the same way that I was convinced the concept of a Messiah was a "Christian thing" until I actually started reading books on Judaism.)

Ironically it was only after this trip that either of my parents expressed the slightest interest in going to Israel, and I think it's for the same reason that they eventually agreed to go to Auschwitz: there was personal context to hang it on. My parents are very, very sensitive to feeling like they're being told what to do or how to feel, especially on such loaded issues like identity or religion.

From an intellectual, historical and cultural perspective I'm interested in Israel, but I don't feel as close or immediate a personal connection with it as I do with my family's towns in Eastern Europe-- precisely because I've spent 15 years learning about those places, and because no one has been telling me I'm supposed to feel a certain way about Warsaw or Krakow (as opposed to Jerusalem or Hebron).

Anonymous said...

One way I try to understand Polish attitudes about Jews is to do a thought experiment. Imagine a situation where, for some reason, we committed a genocide against the blacks, and afterward nearly all the blacks who survived left the USA and went to Africa. Now consider that blacks account for at least 10% of our population, and in many of the larger cities (and some rural areas, like the Mississippi delta(, they are a majority of the population.

Now consider how the people of this now all-white USA would feel about black people. First, it's not monolithic, even in the real world, there's a lot fo racism against blacks, but there are also a lot of whites who are allies, and most whites are neutral about blacks. Some time after this hypotehtical genocide, if blacks came back to see where their ancestors lived, there might be all kinds of reactions and attitudes, some guilt feeling, some defensiveness, and probably a lot of ignorance. And it might be weird, we don't realize how much of our culture we share with black people, so these African descendants who return might be amazed to see whites enjoying hip-hop, RB, jazz, and eating lots of the same kinds of African-American food that the African descendants of the hypothetical genocide survivors like to eat. I think it would be weird all around.

Actually, I have felt this a little bit even in the USA when I've gone out to eat at a German restaurant. A number of the items on the menu (Schnitzel, the cucumber salad, the potato pancakes) I associate with being "Jewish food." If I were a yekke, it might even be worse. Of course, authentic Jewish cuisine in the USA (if the menu at our local kosher restaurant is a guide) includes hamburgers, hot dogs, and tacos.

Frankly, I'm all for cutting the Poles a certain amount of slack, I don't think we'd be any different under similar circumstances.

Conservative Apikoris