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Poland in Black and White

Monday, June 25, 2018 | 0 Comment(s)

Somehow my parents convinced me that visiting Poland before going to Israel was, like, the Harvard of summer trips. My warped, dorky, overachieving mind was easily tricked into writing the EXTRA ESSAY portion of the application to this particular Jewish teen tour, all to be part of the most esteemed of summer trips. What a deluded little pissant I was. I don't think I ever considered that the preverbal ring I was reaching for included tours of five concentration camps and countless gravesite, the most powerful of which would have no gravestones at all.

The normal kids, and I say normal as opposed to my abnormal in this case, went straight to Israel to get down (teen-tour style) in the promised land for a full month and a half. In retrospect, that was the move. Somehow these other kids all realized right away that doing extra work to get the opportunity to see some of the grimmest shit in modern human history was about as appealing as . . . I don't know . . . going on a trip to visit concentration camps!!! I can't actually think of anything grimmer than the actual thing in this particular case.

I still remember my first impression of Poland from back in 1995. As our bus rolled away from the cement structures of the airport, I couldn't get over how beautiful the vistas were. Fields of wildflowers lit up the green hills that rolled like waves up to and over the horizon. How could this be Poland, I remember asking myself. Every image I'd seen of Poland was black and white. The photos of prisoners. The old grainy video of living skeletons being ushered into a building or across a yard. All black and white. Even the Hollywood depiction, Schindler's List, was in black and white. You'll forgive me if my mental image of this country was drawn in shades of grey.

But Poland in the summer is not grey. It is lush and full and technicolor. My reaction to the abundance of beauty and color confused me. I was here to bare witness. To not forget. But how could my people's hell look this normal. This beautiful.

That beauty never reached inside the camps. They were only accessed by railways, and now, the newly built parking lots which sit alongside small visitors centers, like at Auschwitz. (Fun fact, the bathroom in said visitors' center is still the nicest public restroom I have ever been in.)

During my time in Poland I learned that now, or at least back in the 1990's, there were two "types" of concentration camp. The first type, were turned into museums. Auschwitz is an example of this approach to preserving history. The buildings, by in large, are still standing. Their red brick edifices lined by trees, which were green. The visual effect, at least for me, was similar to visiting an old Shaker village or colonial Williamsburg, except that the tone was somber, the gallows more central, and people broke down crying about every 20 yards or so.  Explanations and descriptions accompanied each building, room, and barrack. Additionally, some barracks had been emptied out and converted into memorials to the victims. One barrack is filled with prisoners glasses. Another is filled with hair. Another with shoes. Just victims shoes. It wasn't hard to find tiny little shoes in that room. Shoes the same size as my six-year-old niece and one-year-old nephew.

"Auschwitz gallows"
Not far down the road, and essentially a secondary part of Auschwitz, is Birkenau. Now the structure of the camp, the gate, the walls, the railroad tracks, are all in tact, as are many of the old barracks. But many of the buildings lie in ruins. With less modern infrastructure added, Birkenau felt more like a snapshot of history.

Birkenau entrance
The second type of concentration camp you can visit are memorials.

As the bus pulled into a forrest parking lot outside a concentration camp named Sobibor, this bus full of teenagers realized that this visit would be unlike the previous few. There was, to put it simply, nothing to see. Strong pine trees filled our vision as we walked, as a group, up a forrest path leading to some unseen destination.

One of our counselors had given us some background and history before our arrival. He told us how the Nazis did their absolute best to destroy evidence of their atrocities. There was a enormous premeditated cover-up that began far before the war ended. The Nazi's destroyed the documents, and then the buildings. Sobibor, while one of the smallest concentration camps, was built solely for killing, not labor. After a large revolt led to inmates escaping, the Germans not only completely demolished Sobibor, but they then planted trees over the site. Our counselor told us to look at the trees around us, notice how they were all exactly the same height. A flat-top tree line unnatural in its uniformity, grown as a facade to cover up the murderous reality.

At the end of that forrest path was a huge, stout, clear cylinder domed with a white convex top. The size of a large swimming pool this low, spaceship shaped container held the ashes of countless humans who perished there. A grave. A memorial. An interruption of the manufactured natural beauty.

The evil forethought to have such an extensive plan for erasing one's own work, shows the darkness and purposeful malice of the minds at work. I found these missing concentration camps almost more terrifying than the ones still left standing. Almost.

There is something about standing in the gas chamber at Auschwitz that will never leave me. I knew the stories all too well. Newly arrived women and children, those not deemed fit enough for work, were ushered off to shower and delouse before being moved to their barracks. As the Jews were packed into the grey cement shower room, they looked expectantly at the nozzles which lined the walls. Of course, the water never came. Instead Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide washed the room clean of human life. People left human claw marks, still visible, on the door until their was no breath left to cling to.

I couldn't stand in that room and not feel a moment of their panic. Their disillusionment. Their terror. Their helplessness. Their slaughter.

Which brings me to this regarding the current immigration atrocities in the US, from thecut.com (part of NYMag.com):

In an interview with Texas Monthly, Anne Chandler, the executive director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, said that she’s heard accounts of agents taking children away from their parents, ostensibly to give them baths, and never returning.
“The officers say, ‘I’m going to take your child to get bathed.’ That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath,’” Chandler said. “The child goes off, and in a half an hour, 20 minutes, the parent inquires, ‘Where is my 5-year-old?’ ‘Where’s my 7-year-old?’ ‘This is a long bath.’ And they say, ‘You won’t be seeing your child again.’”
Kids get scarred the first time they get lost in the supermarket. Ask any adult, and they will distinctly remember an occasion where they were "lost" for some period of time. The panic of feeling detached from one's parent(s) or guardians, even for a few moments, is torturous enough to burn that warning into a kid's consciousness. The negativity of the experience serves as an inoculation, a survival mechanism, and a lasting reminder of how horrible it is to be lost. Those lessons stay with people. Terror stays with people.

America has terrorized these children in a way that will never leave them. They will never forget this. As they see the 45's propaganda painted on the walls of their child prisons, we have given all of these people a true reason to hate America.

"Arbeit macht frei"
It reminds me of a scene in Kill Bill part 1, where Vernita Green aka Copperhead's (played  by Vivica Fox) daughter witnesses Beatrix Kiddo kill her mother, who Kiddo points out, "had it coming."

Still, Kiddo realizes that there is no rational mind when it comes to trauma. No explanation, no amount of "had it coming," can take away the rage and anger of watching a loved one hurt. Which is why she tells the daughter:

"It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that, I'm sorry. But you can take my word for it, your mother had it coming. (Pause) When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I'll be waiting."

It's not worth reiterating what has become a groundswell reaction from this country. Separating families is a human rights violation. It is immoral and evil. I'm glad the policy has finally been ended, but there are thousands of families still looking for their children, and, like any evil political action, the "solution" is still a horrific process extended over a slightly longer period of time. The fight is far from over.

What I want to point out is that 45 is not the actual person doing these separations. Don't get me wrong, he is the human excrement that enacted this law, but people, "regular people," are doing the separating.  I don't see mass resignations at these detention centers (though I've seen a few). I see the boarder patrol "just following orders" as they tear apart families and that terrifies me.

I see an American people who have been beaten down by the constant barrage of fear and terror and environmental disasters and foreign embarrassments and racism and racism and constant racism, that they dance in the drizzle of halting the very worst of these attacks, while so many others go unchecked.

This is how a country gets taken over by a dictator. Trump can't enact his immoral agenda without a public that allows him to do so. He is angling for people to lose hope and energy so they become apathetic. Because Trump can rule an apathetic United States. And he'll succeed or fail based on the America people's ability to stay engaged.

It is surreal to me that 23 years after that summer trip, I'm siting here writing yet another Holocaust essay. It's even more surreal that writing about the Holocaust isn't about hyperbole and hysteria anymore. The true reason my parents brainwashed me into wanting to go to Poland was because it was only their parents' generation they lived through these atrocities. Not their great great great anything. Their parents. I went to Poland to learn the importance of never forgetting. I came back having witnessed the enormous potential of human cruelty, masterminded by few, but enacted by many. The German people were transformed by a leader who preyed on fear and divisiveness.

I never thought these lessons would be useful during my lifetime.
I figured I'd pass them on to my kids.
And yet, here we are.

It is time to remember.

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