No, God will not save them. Nor you, friend, nor I.
But let us not flinch, as they march on, to die.
-Wladyslaw Szlengel, Polish Jewish Poet of the Ghetto
Auschwitz famous gate
Why I Came to Poland
For many years I have wanted to come to Poland. My first realization of that desire was when I saw the movie Sophie’s Choice. My god. That movie changed me. I was only twenty-two years old I think. Very naive.
“Is it best to know about a child’s death, even one so horrible, or to know that the child lives but that you will never, never see him again?”
― Sophie’s Choice
I don’t remember learning much about World War II or the Holocaust in high school. Was I absent that day? I remember Anne Frank however. We read that in junior high. We discussed it in class, but my memory of it being a bit edited as perhaps they thought we were too young. They were trying to protect us. But who protected Anne? No one.
What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again. – Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Shoes of the Auschwitz victims
I don’t think you can be too young to hear these stories. How else can the facts sink in, in a way that it becomes a part of our daily conscious where we naturally abhor intolerance and speak out against it? How else can our youth be fully informed, aware and not jaded – as the horrors of that time in history slip farther into the past?
WWII had only been over for 15 years when I was born. It’s been longer than that since September 11th happened (17 years). Time is a convenient blanket, smothering the memories and protecting complacency.
Jewish families being herded out of Krakow
Complacency is the world’s evil and our world is full of it today, yesterday and always.
I am by no means a WWII or Shoah expert. But I have a place in my heart that aches for what happened here in this beautiful country of Poland that I have fallen in love with these past two weeks. I want to think of what happened here in human faces and real lives, but the numbers haunt me and I need to share;
- Three MILLION Jews exterminated in Poland, half of the six million killed in total
- Only 10% of Polish Jews survived
- Another estimated but undocumented 1.5 million ethnic Poles killed – many for helping, aiding or hiding Jews
Suitcases of victims
Human beings like you and me. People with names. Birthdays. Lives. Goals and dreams. Doctors and lawyers. Teachers and housewives. Students. Rabbis. Men, women, children and entire families. Grandmothers. Beautiful young women. Little boys. For no reason other than hate.
“You kill yourself when you hate. It’s the worst disease in the world.”
After I saw the movie Sophie’s Choice in 1982 I began to search out books and movies about the topic. Not just about Poland but about the war, and the death camps. As you are aware I read a lot. I have been deeply touched by many books – in fact many recently, that have come out about this topic. Although some of these books and movies are fictional, many are not. And there is so much to learn from both the non-fiction and fiction stories.
Jewish Cemetery Kazimierz (Krakow)
The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. That first year they stripped Jews of their possessions and their jobs and herded them into walled off ghettos. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest and contained more Jews than in all of France. More than 100,000 people starved to death in the Warsaw ghetto. Many more died of horrible disease such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery because medical care was unavailable. If you haven’t seen the movie The Pianist it’s a must. Haunting story of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Humanity seems doomed to do more evil than good. The greatest ideal on earth is human love.”
― The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45
By 1941 Hitler’s right hand man Himmler began his calculated plan to
Bullet riddled ghetto wall Warsaw
annihilate the Jews of Europe through genocide. Within two years 800,000 people had been shot to death and buried in mass graves.
But it had only started. The 1943 Wannsee Conference launched the final solution of the “Jewish question”. Six death camps began the mass extermination through gas chambers using Zyklon B. Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of these.
From the ghettos in Krakow, Warsaw and around Europe the Jews were loaded on trains – told to take minimum belongings and their valuables for their new life in the East. Thousands would die on the trains, suffocated and
The selection process at Auschwitz on arrival by cattle car
starved. Their valuables? Pilfered and to this day most unaccounted for.
Have you seen the movie The Women in Gold? It addresses the issue of the things the Nazi’s stole from their Jewish victims, particular a painting in this case by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.
They’ll never admit to what they did, because if they admit to one thing, they’ll have to admit to it all.
– The Women in Gold
Cattle Car that brought victims to Auschwitz
Those who arrived at the death camps were quickly processed through selection. Most were dead within their first few hours at the camp, stripped and taken to the “showers” which of course were not showers. Anyone lame or old or young or unable to work was exterminated immediately. The rest would work to death.
The Paradise of Death
It was like an old religion
Dividing the saved from the damned.
Only that the saved went to hell.
The damned- to the paradise of death – Raquel Angel Nagler
Auschwitz was also home to the notorious Doctor Mengele who did unspeakable things to children, twins and other unusual “specimens” who he used as human guinea pigs for his “research”. Have you read the book Mischling? One of the most astonishing stories I have ever read. Astonishing and sickening.
“The whole world will never look back. And if they do, they’ll probably say that it never really happened.”
It’s disgusting to me there are still those who believe it never happened. Same people who think we didn’t land on the moon? Same people who don’t believe in Global Warming?
Idiots. This is fact;
1.5 million Jewish PEOPLE died at Auschwitz; 200,000 of them children
Memorial in Krakow for 65,000 Jews killed from that city
3 million Jewish PEOPLE exterminated in Poland
6 million Jewish PEOPLE murdered in WWII
150,000 Non Jewish Polish PEOPLE died
23,000 Roma Gypsy PEOPLE killed
15,000 Soviet POW PEOPLE killed
25,000 others GONE
Where the death camps were
Before the war began Poland had the largest Jewish Population in Europe. More than 3 million citizens whose ancestors had been in Poland for more than a thousand years. Only 10% of the Polish Jewish population survived WWII and the genocide.
Many ethnic Poles died trying to help the Jews. But others turned against them. It was similar in other countries. While there are many stories of resistance fighters in France and Poland there were other citizens who helped the Nazis. Recently I read the book Sarah’s Key and learned about the French Jewish Roundup in Paris in July 1942. I had never heard of this horrible thing before. Shame on all those whose smugness, prejudice and hate killed so many.
“The truth is harder than ignorance.” – Sarah’s Key
Where they burned the bodies
The thing I keep asking myself is why did we not help them? Where was the United States? Where was the League of Nations? Where was the Catholic Church? As early as 1941 it was common knowledge in the world leaders what was happening. People and governments looked away. Partly because they were afraid, or busy fighting other battles, but this was genocide. Pure and simple. And no one came.
The remains of the incinerators the Nazi’s destroyed at the end of the war
My time in Poland has been both lovely and gut-wrenching. The Poland I see as a visitor is beautiful. But I know, like all nations, there are underlying problems and anti-Semitism is here. As an American I am painfully aware of how ignorance begets hate and intolerance – rampant in my country. In the past, in the present and more likely than not in the future – there will be hate. People who can’t or WON’T tolerate anyone who is different from them.
I don’t believe hate is something you are born with. It is learned. Hate and prejudice is learned. Just like empathy and tolerance is also learned.
It brings me back to two things I promote on this blog;
- TRAVEL – My message through this blog has always been one of inspiration. And inspiring anyone to pack a bag and go to an unknown place is my greatest goal. You will be changed. You will be full. You will be amazed, what travel can do to your life, your prejudice, your tolerance and your happiness. Just go.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Those who didn’t die on arrival lived in hell
2. READ – My other message on this blog is to read, read, read. And if you can, learn to read outside your comfort zone. Read history, and fiction and non fiction and more. There is nothing so simple as reading a book that can open your mind to the world outside your door. Just read.
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” —Malorie Blackman
Poland and Auschwitz are sacrosanct now. Everyone should come here to feel and remember the human lives. The very real human beings who became ashes.
But of course it’s not possible for everyone. So read. Watch films. Learn. And most importantly, remember. Remember a little girl. An old man. A family. Most importantly remember what we humans have allowed to happen in our recent past. Think about the Holocaust in names and people’s lives rather than numbers and dates. Don’t let that die. Otherwise, nothing was gained and we all are lost.
(This is nowhere near all that is out there. Just some suggestions)
- The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas by John Boyne
- Mischling by Affinity Konar
- Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
- Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
- Ireana’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo
- The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
- The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
- We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
- Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
- Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Where victims were sent
- Schindler’s List
- Sophie’s Choice
- The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas
- The Hiding Place
- The Diary of Anne Frank
- The Pianist
- Life is Beaiutiful
- Son of Saul
- Immortal Bastards
- Europa Europa
- Au revoir les enfants
- The Women in Gold
- Fiddler on the Roof (not WWII but spectacular anyway)