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Thursday, August 28, 2008

I am still here!

In cyberspace, that is. Geographically, I am now in Prague, after nearly a week in Poland.I hope people haven't given up on checking back, there has just been so much happening, and it hasn't been easy to locate internet cafes, at least not in Krakov. Here, in Prague, there is one conveniently down the street from our apartment, and I hopefully will have time to write at least once more before we head home on the 1st of September. If you are reading this, let me know, it's nice to get the feedback!

This is our second day in Prague. Iwas prepared to be disappointed by the city, I had been told by quite a few, mostly folks in my volunteer group, how over touristed it is. And it is. So perhaps being forwarned was an advantage. I have to say that I feel about Prague the way I do about Machu Picchu, it is overtouristed, yes, but so spectacularly beautiful that it is worth bearing with the crowds. I suppose, though, if I had known Prague at an earlier time, I would feel much more negatively now.

We arrived here very early yesterday morning, so early that we couldn't get into our apt. for several hours. So we sat in a cafe up the street, in a scenic spot, had some breakfast, and it was early enough that the first tour group didn't appear until shortly before we were able to get the key.

Yesterday we just wandered the city. Amazing architecture everywhere. Today we walked through the castle gardens, and then over the river to the Jewish quarter. The Jewish museum consists of several former synagogues, all in a very small area, plus the old Jewish cemetery. The newest graves in this cemetery are older than the oldest ones in Czernowtitz. They are crammed close together, and, according to the guidebook, are stacked about 15 deep. We had trouble comprehending how they would have done that. Each synagogue is beautiful, each has exhibits relating to some part of Jewish history. One concerned the burial society and burial practices, and had paintings, very endearing in a primitive style, of each part of the burial process, ritual bathing, etc. One was of the burial society members having their annual dinner! Part of the exhibit was a collection of ornate silver combs and nail cleaners. I gather that was all part of the ritual preparation of the body. I don't think I have ever seen a silver nail cleaner before.

The most touching section of the museum was an exhibit of drawings by children at the Terezin concentration camp, which is about an hour away from here. There was one woman, a prisoner, who somehow arranged to obtain art materials for children and encouraged them to draw, make collages, etc. to help deal with their situation. She was eventually shipped to Auschwitz, as were most of the children, but left two suitcases and hundreds of pieces of artwork behind. Some of the pieces depicted life at the camp, some life before they were interred, others did pictures depicting crossroads, some had people flying away.

Auschwitz. The word most associated with the terror of the Holocaust. I had both yearned to and dreaded going there. The dread is easy to understand. The yearning is something I have brooded over. I have wanted to go for a long time, and the desire intensified after I was in Nurnberg, Munich, and Dachau several years ago. It is certainly the reason I arranged for us to fly into and visit Krakov. Once I decided to go to Czernowtitz I knew this was also the time to visit Auschwitz.

It is difficult to decide what to write about it. I believe the reason I wanted to visit is to try to come to terms with what had happened in the Holocaust, to try to understand both what happened the victims had to endure, and how the survivors managed to do so, and, most importantly, to try to fathom how people could be driven to commit the awful crimes they did. I fear that if we can't understand it, we can't prevent it from happening again. To me, the worst part is not the murder, but the systematic nature of treatment, torture, and eventual killing of those millions of people. This was carefully thought out, developed, and carried out for years. And that is what I have the hardest time understanding. I have read a number of accounts and memoirs of the Holocaust, but don't feel any closer to understanding what happened than I did when I was thirteen or fourteen and read Ann Frank's Diary, and, a few years later, visited her house in Amsterdam. The more I read, the more I want to read.I brought two Holocaust books with me, and bought two more at Auschwitz. When will I be able to stop? I felt somewhat heartened when I read Eli Wiesel quoted as saying he thought he had read every memoir written on the subject, and the more he read, the less he understood.

The place was, of course, chilling. How could it be otherwise? Max and Carolina seemed equally fascinated, in fact in some places we had to urge them along, because I was afraid we would run out of time to visit Birkenau, a couple of kilometers away. That camp was built when they ran out of room at Auschwitz, and is where the gas chambers and crematoria were, as well as the infamous train tracks where the people were unloaded from the freight cars, and sent either to the barracks or to the gas chambers. About 75 percent went directly to the gas. I can't help but feel they might have been the lucky ones, never to endure the horrors, and in most cases, death, in the camp.

The exhibits at Auschwitz that made the strongest impression on me, and I expect, most, were the collections of items taken from the prisoners. There was a room full of skeins of human hair, one of hair and toothbrushes, one of suitcases. The suitcases were especially poignant because they were nearly all labelled with their owners' names and addresses. These people who believed, or wanted to believe, that they were being shipped east to camps where they would work, but live in decent conditions, and hence took their best possesssions. The hair was made into cloth, and there were samples of the cloth there. I wondered what the cloth was made into, how many people if any knew what they were wearing. I noticed that all the hair in the display was light brown to blond. I am guessing that the Nazis, or the prisoners, for it was they who did all the sorting of the possessions of those who had just been murdered, sorted the hair by color and then made cloth of different colors.

But, and I can't say why, the section of the exhibit that got to me the most was the huge collection of shoes, and I am sure that what was exhibited was only a small part of what was collected. Perhaps it was just the variety of shoes that spoke to the lives of the victims. There were men's shoes, women's shoes, children's shoes, stylish ones, practical ones, well worn ones, new ones. I couldn't tear my eyes away.

The barracks were lined up evenly across the grass. They were so evenly lined up, in fact, that one could look through the windows of one through the next and the next, seemingly infinitely, like looking through facing mirrors. There was almost a kind of beauty in the quiet line up of beds, of toilets, of sinks. I felt a pang of guilt at even thinking there could be beauty in a place where such terrible things had happened. But it was hard to even conceive of what had happened there. I had to make my mind envision the scenes I knew had occurred. Or maybe that was the point, that I didn't want to let myself think that this had really happened.

At Birkenau there are the remains of the gas chambers and ovens. They were bombed by the Germans as the end of the war neared, to cover up their deeds. And, most strikingly, the famous railroad tracks and platform where the passengers disembarked from their horrible journey, were sent either to the right or to the left, and went off to horrors worse than they had already endured or could imagine. We walked along the railroad tracks on our way back to the entrance gate, with the famous, and cruelly ironic, slogan, arbeit mach frei, work makes you free. I later felt like it was a desecration to walk along the tracks, although many visitors did.

I can understand the appeal that a charismatic leader can have over young, like the Hitler youth, and the older as well. I can understand, to a degree, blind rage leading to murder. I can understand, to an extent, not being able to break away from following orders. What I cannot understand is how people can continue to torture, degrade, and murder people over a period of years, the continous cruelty and debased behavior. I know there are Holocaust study programs, I know there must be people who have studied this at length and written about the pschology of mass murder. CAn anyone suggest some readings to help me understand<

I know that visiting Auschwitz, and Dachau as well, is an experience that will never leave me. I hope it is something my children will also never forget.

1 comment:

herrmann said...

Hi Joanna,

good that you are still there, I was afraid something happened during your trip.

Your question was once asked by nobel prize winner Imre Kertesz who was a prisoner in Auschwitz himself from the opposite direction: I can easily understand where the evil comes from. But what makes the saints?

I would recommend the works of Imre Kertesz as well as Tadeusz Borowski. Will you understand more? Probably not. Or let's say, I did not.

In the end we all walk over a very thin ice of culture. Below is an abyss of barbarism. What you have done in Czernowitz is making the ice a little bit thicker.

Best wishes
Christian