Unsurprisingly, I imagine the Holocaust would be a popular response. After all, 3 million of the 3.5 million Jews living in Poland died from 1939-1945: 1,100,000 in Auschwitz-Birkenau and 800,000 in Treblinka alone. So maybe it’s no wonder that I imagine the country covered in a heavy bleak shroud of gray, haunted by its past. There is blood and death on “its” hands.
Without invalidating my initial feelings towards Poland, one of the greatest takeaways was realizing the importance of defining the “its” … is it Poland? Is it the Nazis? Is it the Polish people? The government? Is it fair that this beautiful country with an unfortunate history be forever branded with a negative connotation? I believe the key here is being able to differentiate between the two sides: the perpetrator and the victim. And if you choose to ponder it, you’ll too realize that it’s quite a gray area.
Hundreds of thousands of Polish people, non-Jews, were also slaughtered by the Third Reich. Yes Jews are associated as victims. Nazis are associated as perpetrators. But, the Nazis are German and most of the SS were Austrian. Where does Poland even fit into the picture?
You cannot prepare yourself or predict your body and mind’s response when you walk above the layers of ashes of your people. For me, the spectrum ranged from extreme sadness and sympathy to depression and hopelessness, apathy and feeling nothing because it’s easier not to care to light-heartedness as a coping mechanism and comic relief for the heaviness, only to repeat the cycle the next moment something else took my breath away.
It wasn’t that the sights were too horrific (although at times they most certainly were), nor was it the fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Lupochowo looked like museums (because at times they definitely didn’t). Walking into Auschwitz, I didn’t really know what to expect and there was no clear mental image. The only physical pictures from the Holocaust that we have are in black and white. So, coming to these green fields, red brick barracks, and seeing the beauty of the sunset across the horizon contradicted the existing, perhaps outdated, picture in my mind.
The grass. It was that bright green grass that really got to me. The green grass growing fertilized by human ash and flesh. The illusion of the red brick barrack facades, the empty watch towers which seemed an empty threat but still sent chills down my spine. And yet, the emotional journey is purely psychological and self-inflicted. If you didn’t know you were in Auschwitz, you could be on a college campus, or even a Jewish sleepaway camp. Maybe the smell of death and gray soil underneath the mocking green grass was just in my head.
Thus, my emotional fluctuations flip-flopped from hey, this isn’t so bad to feeling infinitely guilty for having these thoughts, to trying to put myself in their shoes. Would I fight for survival? Would I betray another and sacrifice his life for my personal gain? Would I just wash away into the millions of others who died without a second thought? There was no talking around me, no eye contact. It was just me, my audio guide, and the visuals in front of me. And even that was sensory overload. After 2 hours of listening, hearing, smelling seeing, and feeling this place, I defaulted to numbness (which could also be partially attributed to the freezing weather) for the remaining 6.
I couldn’t even handle one day of emotional stress and physical cold, gnawing hunger, and exhaustion. And this plunged me into another wave of despondency and invalidation. Who am I to be feeling this way? Whereas I couldn’t, there were those who could, and they were the survivors.
After my day at Auschwitz and Birkenau, only one question came to mind: How? How did the world come to this? Why didn’t the Jewish people stop the Nazi movement in its tracks when it began as discrimination? Succinctly put, antebellum Polish-born Abraham Joshua Heschel eludes to the fact that it’s not a question of “Where was G-d?” but rather “Where was humanity?” If you were not the victim, were you the perpetrator? What about the people who were not Jews and not Nazis? Is a bystander unwilling to risk their entire family’s lives to save a Jew automatically labeled as a perpetrator?
In expressing my frustrations with the Jewish vulnerability in the years leading up to WWII, my tour guide raised the concept of time perspective. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 and looking back it’s easy to be critical of the victims who did nothing. As discrimination laws were passed, as they were stripped of their belongings, as they entered ghettos, as they were deported (to them) an unknown location (which we know to be concentration and death camps), as they were being slaughtered. Why didn’t you resist?
In truth, it’s an unrealistic burden to place on these people and an unfair expectation for rebellious action. Never in their wildest dreams could they fathom their fate. Visiting the Krakow ghetto, which housed only 40,000 Jews (compared to the 450,000 of Warsaw), it’s easy to be judgmental. Get out! Leave you idiots. But it was their home.
The MASA Poland Delegation seamlessly wove together glimpses of current Polish Jewry with the scars of Krakow and Warsaw’s history, providing direct contrast to the remnants of the Holocaust we witnessed. My gray- and Holocaust-ridden mental image of Poland was completely defied by the historic and quaint Krakow and thriving Warsaw.
Yes, my perspective of the city was shaped by Jewish context, but I nonetheless believe that the true resilience of the Jewish people can be seen in these communities today. Old and new, I saw the ghettos of the 1940’s and the JCCs (Jewish Community Center) of today. I met with Holocaust survivors who told the story of WWII Poland and with Jewish young adults living in the Poland of the 21st century. Museums hold memories of the past, but the fact that they even exist proves current efforts to keep the matter relevant in the future.
And so we stood as a solemn group of Jews, free but in mourning. As we circled to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, four people approached the clearing in the forest where we were standing, next to the memorial. One of them was wearing a banner of the Israeli flag draped along her back. I turned to my friend who lives in PTK with me, and wondered where they were from. I can’t explain but I truly had a feeling that I was in some way connected to these people.
They joined us for the prayer and afterwards, my friend and I approached them. In Hebrew, she asked where they were from and it turns out they were in fact from PTK. As I was reveling in the “I knew it” moment, I proceeded to tell them that we were both English teachers there. The eldest woman of the four asked me if I knew of the Yeshurun school. Without thinking I blurted out in English that I teach there! At that moment, she asked me if my name was Allison. I stopped breathing as she told me her granddaughter is in the 7th grade and that she is one of my students.
And the rest of the trip to Poland only echoed this overarching message of hope. I think the most we can do is acknowledge and empathize with the past, in order to understand the present and future. Yet already our generation is failing to uphold this responsibility— communities today continue to turn a blind eye to genocides, discrimination, and religious persecution.
I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity I had to challenge my perception of the Holocaust and of Poland. I connected to the past and made new connections and friends for the future. I feel that I got a comprehensible piece of Polish history and interacted with the Jewish present. Just as we never forget the Shoah, I will never forget this trip,