I’m usually pretty quick to share my opinions about things… it’s probably one of my worst qualities. But coming home from Poland on Sunday, I can honestly tell you that I was at a loss of words for how I felt. I was confused, hurt, and honestly ashamed of so many things. It has taken me a few days to sort through the ruins of my thoughts the hurricane of last week left inside of me. But, as I’m sure you all know, a city can’t recover from a hurricane in a matter of days. In fact, cities are forever changed by hurricanes and other natural disasters… so I feel like that was a great coincidental analogy. Anyways.
I’ll start with the Warsaw Uprising Museum. What is that? If you don’t know, don’t feel stupid like I did when I asked in the lobby as my class bought tickets. I didn’t have a clue either. Just to give you an idea: (so that this blog post isn’t unbearably long… feel free to check out this youtube clip some Polish teens showed us )
So Poland. We hear about it in school, but not too too much. When I heard where other classes were going for their long study tour, I was confused and kind of irritated that we were spending a week in Poland. I mean Poland. What is there to do in Poland? You never hear people say “I’m leaving for Europe next week, going to Paris, London, and oh yeah, Poland!” No. That’s just not how it happens. But it should be.
I have to interrupt myself here for just a quick second. This playlist: http://8tracks.com/lokirka/death-and-all-her-friends comes highly recommended with this blog post. If you’re listening to something else, carry on.
As we were… So Poland. For the main part of the trip, we stayed in Warsaw. If you watched the video above, hopefully you got the sense that Warsaw was pretty much destroyed fighting the Germans in World War II. In fact, Warsaw was being “punished” for the uprising when the Germans started dropping bombs like they were nothing. But the people kept fighting. They were living in holes in the ground, under car doors, in between buildings, in anything and everything they could find to turn into a shelter. When I searched important WWII dates after our trip, nothing came up about Poland. You know what did come up? Important dates for Germany and important dates for the US. I think one or two timeline events mentioned Poland. One being the liberation of Auschwitz, and the other being the allies deciding what to do with Poland and the other countries Hitler left in ruins.
So the light stuff. We visited schools and talked with the Polish youth- competitive, driven, and outgoing offspring of the broken Poland. A lot of students asked the Polish students about religion (naturally the first thing we want to talk about as human beings for some reason) and all of them said the same thing. I’m Catholic. According to one of our guides, Poland is one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. As a result, almost all Polish citizens identify as Catholic. Why? I’d like to go back to the Uprising once more. Imagine you’re in a city center, let’s call this city Warsaw. You’re walking down the street on a sunny day, walking and walking and walking until suddenly, right smack dab in the center of the city, you run into a wall. A tall red-brown brick wall. It kind of looks like the type of wall you might have around a castle, or some sort of valuable building that you don’t want anyone to harm because it is so valuable to you. You stand and look up at this wall, and you are free. You can walk away from it. You can go anywhere from here. You may never see this wall again if you really don’t want to see it.
Now. Imagine you’re a Jew and you’re on the other side of the wall. Same city. Same sun light shining down on your face. Same air. Same everything. You’re inside of this wall that an outsider may think is guarding something valuable. From the inside, you don’t feel valuable though. You feel like an animal. Locked behind walls so high, you have forgotten what lies on the other side. You don’t know how long you’ve been here, or how much longer you’ll be here for, but this ghetto has become your curse and your blessing. Curse because you are anything but free. Blessing because, let’s be honest, it isn’t Auschwitz.
I’ve touched this wall. This random chunk of painful history in the middle of Warsaw’s newly built city center. The bricks were a beautiful red-brown, and as the sun set, the lit up in such a stunning way. And somehow, looking at this wall, it was impossible to imagine that at one point, it was a sign of defeat for so many.
So why are people here Catholic. Of all things. The theory I heard most on the trip that I would like to share with you goes something like this… When your whole world is crumbling around you, when every street has a roughly-assembled wooden cross sitting atop a shallow grave, when you have lost your way of living, when you are starving, when you are cold, when you don’t know if today will be your last… you find comfort in praying that it will be OK. I read somewhere, that, while we may think churches are the places where we pray the most, this is in fact not true. Yes, people go to worship in houses of worship, no matter what religion they are. But people go to hospitals and, in the too short moments before they lose a loved one, they pray. Whatever the reason people are praying, they pray. They pray because an end is coming. A painful, life altering, uncontrollable end. So people pray.
You could ask anyone in Poland if they are religious. The young people might be a little iffy. Yes when my parents ask. No when my friends ask. I don’t really know how I feel. Whatever. But the elderly. The people who lived to see a city of rubble, with blood running down the cracks in the sidewalks, who witnessed their friends and neighbors leaving Auschwitz as just skin and bone… these are the people who will tell you they are religious. They are, because they were surrounded by death and destruction.
How do you think people survived in Auschwitz? How do you think you make it through something like that? I want to talk about Auschwitz a bit later on. But here, I wanted to add one thing. Our guide mentioned as we huddled together in Auschwitz-II that the Jews walked down that same road, huddled together, not knowing what would come next as they headed towards the gas chambers. “They had heard stories of Auschwitz. They heard stories of the gas chambers. And yet, walking down this road as we are doing now, they believed in their hearts that it would be ok. They had faith.”
How do you have faith in your heart when you’re walking to your death? More importantly, if you’re God, how do you look down on these people walking to their deaths and do nothing?
I’m not trying to be preachy, I promise! And if you’ve made it to this point, well done. Really. I’m struggling, even at this point, to find real words to convey the way I really feel after Poland. I don’t know if there are words or phrases that explain what it feels like to walk down a gravel road, with shoes on my feet, clothes on my back, and meat on my bones, admiring the sunny day and the green grass, and suddenly remembering that not that many years ago, people were dying by the thousands all around the ground I’m walking on. People were walking this same path to their deaths. And I am walking it as part of a guided tour. Find a word for that one.
Let me rewind for a minute here. So Auschwitz. Auschwitz has three camps. Did you know that? I didn’t. Auschwitz was originally built to exterminate the Poles. Did you know that? If you did, good job. I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know that Hitler wanted to end the Polish race. I didn’t know that all of that fertility testing going on in the camps was in order to find a way to make the Poles infertile. I knew Hitler wanted the smart people gone. The people who could speak up against him. The religious people. The thinkers and feelers of the time. I didn’t know how or where they were starved and beaten down and tortured. Did you know, the dude who was running the first Auschwitz camp lived in a giant mansion just behind the camp. His wife and two children breathed the same air the skeletons of former thinkers were breathing. This guy was so sick. I mean they had this thing called the Canada rooms. The famous rooms where they took everyone’s belongings. All the things they had brought with them to start better lives… they left it all behind in these rooms that this man and his family went through to furnish their house. All of their belongings were formerly the clothes on the backs of the people that were being gassed to death feet from their front door.
And the gas chambers. If you want to skip this part, fine. I get it. I recommend you don’t.
The gas chambers. I think we all heard the stories in school. The prisoners, Jews, Poles, Roma, Thinkers, Religious figures, all of them were told to strip. Stand in those stupid lines with their tattoos exposed and their dignity nonexistent, and pushed into a stone room. A shower. They thought they were getting a shower in most cases. The shower heads above and the cubby holders outside. All elaborate tricks. We walked into the chambers and I instantly felt so empty. One room felt so small. So so small. And dark. And cold. “Around a thousand would be in here at once.” I could hear our guide in the background, but the thudding of blood rushing through my ears was too loud. The silence of this room was all around our small tour group and for some reason, the room felt so loud. “Over here, we have the holes in the ceiling where the gas was dropped in.” And sure enough, above us, the little beams of light that were trickling in snuck in through the same holes that ended so many lives. Our group began to move into the furnace room and I stopped. My legs, my strong Irish dancer legs didn’t move.
The walls, that appeared to be a cream color in the little light that shown into this death hall, were pretty uniform all around. Same color, same texture. And then.. suddenly, they weren’t all the same. A little above my head, nail marks. Or scratch marks. Whatever you’d like to refer to them as. Last minute desperate attempts to somehow escape. Nail marks. In the cream colored concrete walls. Nails that chipped away at concrete.
The rest of Auschwitz-I was just as painful. The rooms full of hair. The rooms with piles on piles of suitcases that once held peoples most prized possessions. The room of children’s shoes. The room with a case filled with glasses. The hallways lined with photos of prisoners that were taken before the SS decided that taking photos only slowed down their extermination process. The walls with photos of children that were used in tests all over the camp grounds. (Let me tell you friends, I’m sparing you my descriptions. I can skip over this and that, saying I saw this and saying I saw that, but trust me, in my mind I can see it all. The outlines of the suitcases, the empty stares of the people on the walls. I can still see all of it. Trust me, you don’t want all of my descriptions.)
Later on, towards the end of our tour of the first camp, we were taking to view some of the torture chambers. As if everything else wasn’t torture. As if they needed other sick ways to terrorize these people. There were walls were prisoners’ arms were pulled behind them and tied to a pole. They were pushed forward and forced to hang there all night long. In the mornings, their arms would be broken or distorted from the weight of their own bodies pulling in ways the body was never meant to endure. There were stalls where prisoners were forced to stand all night long, go out to a full day of work, then return to stand all night with five or six other prisoners. And after enduring any of these punishments, if prisoners couldn’t return to work, they were killed.
Auschwitz-II, the more famous of the camps, where Jews were taken to die in the most unthinkable ways. This was what I saw Auschwitz being. This was the Auschwitz I had seen in history books and in movies. This was what I thought I was ready for. Naturally I wasn’t prepared at all.
I took a photo here, at Auschwitz-II of the train tracks. These tracks that were built through the camp specifically for the purposes of speeding up the killing process. It wasn’t time efficient to make the prisoners walk the whole way to their deaths so they had a train take them half way. Anyways this photo. Here it is. And here is the caption I tacked on.
The query: “At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?”
The answer: “Where was man?”
As we left Auschwitz, this was how I felt. Where was the rest of the world while this was happening? I understand this whole God conversation around these camps. Where was he or she? This God figure. How did these years pass where insanely malnourished skeletons of human beings were sleeping eight to a wooden bunk bed, three high, with bodily fluids flooding through the spaces between the boards? Where was God when people were being gassed to death squeezed into a room, their broken naked bodies pressed against one another?
I feel like it’s usually moments like these when people say something along the lines of “this is why I’m not religious. This is why I only believe in science.” That’s cool. But here’s my problem. Let’s leave religion out of this (even though it plays a starring role). There is no God. No religion. No nothing. Just people. Where was everyone when the SS was torturing these people? There are arial photos taken by the allies over Auschwitz where you can clearly see the smoke from the crematory running day and night. Night and day. Day and night. For years. Rumors were spreading like the smell of dead bodies to the surrounding areas about what was really happening in these camps. Where was everyone?
Did you know… Red Cross did an investigation of the camps at one point. Yeah. Red Cross. And you know what they found? They were showed a temporary building that was all done up by the SS to be “family” housing. Well. They were keeping women with their children. They had a specific family building. Ok all clear. Gold star Auschwitz. You passed the test.
Yeah. They left. Probably drove off into the distance as the smoke started back up again in their rear view mirror.
This is what kills me about this whole thing. This is what really hit me so hard. We were rationing in the US. Our women were out doing manly jobs in factories, being the bad ass women our country needed while their honeys were away. America saved the day. But only after Pearl Harbor. I’m not trying to discredit the US. I mean I’m an American. I am so thankful to be an American. I am thankful for the time period I am growing up in. But at the same time. I am ashamed. I am broken hearted that there is so much about Poland and this war that I had no clue about. I think of that iconic photo of the couple kissing in the street when I think about WWII.
Also. What evidence of this war is in our backyard? How many of you can walk down the street and run into the decaying wall of a ghetto? How many of you (and I know some of you reading can say yes to this and for that, I wish I could hug you) but how many of you could walk into Auschwitz right now and walk into the hair room, and look at the hair of one of your relatives, and never know that some of your DNA was sitting on the other side of that protective glass?
We don’t live with the physical evidence of the war everyday. It doesn’t really influence our everyday life. But in Poland, it does. In Poland, the people went from this Uprising movement and this time of mass killings and genocide, to this period under Soviet control where they were forced into communism. On one of our trips, one of the students, who was about 15 mind you, said one of the most important things I heard on our trip. “Polish people will always have a reason to fight.” These people know nothing else. Think about it. When do you ever hear about Poland bopping around making their own history? You don’t because they didn’t. Their history is rooted in fighting and struggle. It is rooted in them always being the victim to others. You could argue once again, no wonder why so many of these people identify as religious.
To close, I just want to first thank you for making it to the end of this painfully long, painfully honest document. And second, I want to add one more personal tidbit. I really don’t have a clue. About anything. My whole life, thinking I am so down to earth, so informed. It makes me so embarrassed to realize that I don’t have a clue. Poland opened my eyes to so much that I otherwise would never have experienced. A week spent in Poland and I was able to do so much self-reflection between buildings old and new, walking down cobblestoned streets that have carried so much history. I really still don’t have the right words to explain this trip. 5 word document pages later and I still haven’t figured it out. I still don’t know where man was. I still don’t know where God was. I still don’t know how things got so out of hand. What I do know is that this now tranquil- once blazing torture camp has impacted my life. Poland certainly didn’t change me as a person. I came back to Denmark and my life here went on as normal. I had a paper due and a friend’s birthday to celebrate. But until now, I was unable to talk about Poland. Because until now, I hadn’t realized it’s ok to not know. It’s ok to keep figuring and discovering and learning. This is the only way we can grow into the type of mankind that will never let this happen again.