Tuesday, January 27, 2015

No hope?

I know my way around Auschwitz. I have visited the camps many times. And every time I walked out of there, I thanked my lucky stars that I was there as a tourist, a guest, an historian.

I know my way around Auschwitz. I know it so well that once while visiting the camps with my parents, I was asked how much my tour cost and when the next tour began. I did not know as much as one gentleman walking with his wife who stopped, pointed, and said to her in Polish, “When I was here, there was a platform right there where the band played for all the new prisoners.”

For people who plan to visit Poland probably just the once, Auschwitz is usually at the top of their list of places to visit. I’ve been so many times because I don’t want to deny any friends or family their opportunity to visit such a monumental location in our recent history. I’ve been in the summer when it has been packed. I’ve been in the winter when it was just us and a few other souls knocking about. I’ve been there mixed in with tours of Jewish visitors from Israel and with school trips from Germany. I’ve been there with my husband, with my parents, with my friends.

Once I even witnessed an argument break out. I do not speak German at all. OK that is not exactly true, but all the German I do know comes from war movies. It is pretty hard to make casual conversation out of halt, achtung, kaputt, hände hoch, arbeit macht frei and zwei Bier bitte. Anyhow, back to the argument…It was during a summer visit and the place was very crowded. We all were patiently waiting in line at the “Death House” in the first camp. Part of the exhibition is in the basement and includes a kind of chamber for torturing people. It was like a very small walled-in place that could only be accessed from a hole in the wall near the floor. Basically if you were forced to crawl in there, you’d have just enough room to stand up. It’s like an upright casket. I don’t know what happened when somebody collapsed from exhaustion in there because there was no door and not enough room to kneel, rest, or even lean. Anyhow, we were waiting patiently for our turn to see the exhibition. We were behind a group from Germany led by a very large tour guide. He made some kind of joke, patting his stomach, and the whole group laughed. I do not know what he said, but I speculate it had something to do with his not being able to fit in that chamber. Well, a Polish gentleman near us let him have it. It was the one time in my life I was sorry I couldn’t understand what people were saying.

World War 2 and Auschwitz are just as much a part of the German identity as it is the Jewish identity and the Polish identity. I don’t blame that German tour group for what happened 70 years ago, but shame on them for making jokes in a place like that.

Another time in the second camp a group of teens from Israel criticized us for walking near them as they were praying. They were marching in a column. We did not block them or disturb them in any way. They were quite rude actually saying something like they had more right to be there or something like that. It was very unpleasant.

Additionally, the parking attendant at the first camp criticized our parking skills (parking in a field). She wanted us to park closer to the tree near our car. We explained (I don’t know why we even tried) that the driver would not be able to get out of the car and that the 20 centimeters she hoped to save no longer made any difference as 10 other cars had already parked in our row. She was adamant. My father didn’t understand anything but figured this lady was having a bad day. He went and bought her an ice cream cone.

That just made me think that if we cannot even be nice to each other at Auschwitz, is there no hope for us at all?

12 comments:

czarownica said...

Read about Jewish teenagers in Poland. The guides say the tours are too packed with places reminding them of cruelty of the war, their loss, etc. hence the noisy, sometimes rude behaviour.
Never been to Auschwitz and don't think I would ever go there, have a good imagination after all these school lectures and movies about Holocaust and don't realy need the "hands on" experience.

One thin makes my blood boil though - calling it "the Polish concentration camp" by some of Western media, especially British and American. Do you think it's simple ignorance or do they do it on purpose?

Iwona A. said...

Czarownica, masz bardzo przestarzale dane. Od dawna uzywa sie w Wielkiej Brytanii nazwy "Nazi concentration camps", nie Polish camps. Za moich czasow mlodzienczych oboz sie nazywal Obozem Oswiecim-Brzezinka, dobrze ze przemianowali go na Auschwitz i tak jest znany w swiecie. Sorry for commenting in Polish, Czarownica, what you see in Auschwitz is far beyond your imagination... No books or movies can described it...

Chris said...

I must admit that I use Polish camp on occasion. I use it when I am referring to the geographic location of the camps. For example Polish camps (camps located in Poland), Italian camps (camps located in Italy). That is when it is clear that we are talking about Nazi camps operated throughout Europe.

In a conversation with an acquaintance about terrorism, we referred to terrorist attacks in the US as American attacks and in England as English attacks. The context of the usage is important.

Having said that, you can occasionally find the use of "Polish camps" in the Western media with no context, thus, signalling ownership, not geographic location. Thankfully it is happening less and less due to the vigilance of the Polish people. The fear of Polish people and some historians is that usage of "Polish camps" will convey ownership for those people who are unaware of the history. It sounds absurd that someone wouldn't know who established the camps, but as a former history teacher in the US, I can say the worry in warranted.

Eventually all the survivors will pass on. It'll be up to all of us to keep the memory alive. We can each be responsible for our part. The Polish people can be responsible for reminding the world that although many camps were located in Poland, Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany at the time and the Nazi government was responsible for setting up the camps.

czarownica said...

Iwona A. - are data from 2010-12 really "przestarzale"? And that were only the world recognised events, i.e. Obama's speech.
Locally, in the UK, I signed the petition either in 2013 or 2014 myself, relating to one of local portals, not BBC. It's slowly changing, which brings the hope in.
Regarding my imagination - thank you, but you can't know what's beyond it and what's not.

Chris - thank's for your explanation, hopefully all this hard work won't be wasted. You're right on our obligations to keep the memory alive - you may look at this website, which is a virtual museum, storing interviews with survivors too:
http://kresy-siberia.org/muzeum/?lang=en
Some of the interviewees attend our Polish school for "live history lessons", which the pupils really value and like.

Iwona A. said...

Excuse me Czarownica, but there is a difference between deportation camps and mass extermination camps. It's not that about Poland and prisoners, it's about all those "lower race" innocent people who didn't even have a privilege to become a prisoner because they were going straight to the gas chamber.
I hope you watched all the recent documentaries on BBC and Channel 4...

czarownica said...

Iwona A. - sorry, but don't understand what you're talking about regarding the difference between deportation and extermination. Could you elaborate, please?
And sorry to disappoint you, but I didn't watch ALL the recent documetaries. Does it make me the worse person immediately?

Chris said...

I do remember as part of one of my exams at university, we had to categorize camps according to their geographic location, size, intended purpose, who got sent there, and then by the death rate in those camps. Using death rate, you could not distinguish between the intended purpose of the camp because, let's face it, the underlying purpose was to kill the people. Yes, some camps operated work details. Other camps sent people straight to their death and also had work details. Some camps were said to be for deportation. The common denominator was death.

I don't think that we should have to go to Auschwitz for example if we do not want to. I can only tell you why I decided to go and why I will go with anyone who visits me and wants to go. I decided to study history after visiting my father in Amsterdam as a teenager. My parents hadn't seen each other for awhile, so that afforded me some freedom to explore the city on my own. It wasn't exactly high tourist season and anyhow the Berlin wall was about to come down. All the action was in Berlin. I thoroughly enjoyed my explorations of Amsterdam, the museums, the coffee shops, the historic buildings, the red light district, everything.

Upon returning I was asked to say a few a words about my trip in my history class. With excitement, I told my class about our visit to the Anne Frank house and adjoining museum. My classmates were excited to hear my story, most of them hearing about Anne Frank for the first time. I was surprised and saddened by that fact, but pleased that I had passed on some historical information to my class. I will continue to visit Auschwitz and share the history with my friends if that is what they want. They will hopefully share it with their friends, who will not visit but will maybe read a book or watch a film or pay attention a little better in history class. The story will stay out there.

czarownica said...

"Daily Mirror" - UK-wide paper & portal, just 2 days ago, after protests they corrected and apologised:

- In an online report on Tuesday, January 27, headlined “Holocaust memorial to be built in Britain to remember the six million Jews murdered in death camps”, we referred to Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp”. We should have referred to a “Nazi death camp in occupied Poland”, and have amended the online article to reflect this. We apologise for any offence caused.

Me said...

As I see it, there are and will be more and more attempts to relativize the history. It was Nazis not Germans attacking and killing milions. People are lazy and undereducated often... some Nazis, noone knows where from, won't be associated with Germans. On the other hand polish camps suggest that they were build and run by Poles. Some "polish camps" are made by laziness, stupidity and thinking shortcut but some are not. There are more and more people saying that Holocaust is a lie invented by Jews themselves, that number of killed is just ridiculously overstated, that Jews deserved their fate and so on. And there is an old stereotipe that Poles were and are antisemites (which is partially true unfortunatelly but this antisemitism is no other than this in other civilized countries) and not only did nothing to help Jews but also helped Germans, ups... sorry... Nazis to kill them. It's lively especially in USA. Polish counteractions are like other polish acts, at least mediocre. I doubt we will defend our good name. Other countries though more and more will shift some guilt to us just like they try to justify their actions. Some Germans justify their 1939 attack on Poland by "murdered german minority in interwar Poland" just like Russians justify their attack by defending Ukrainians and Belorussians. If I remember correctly not so long ago Putin justified partitions of the Commonwealth.
Soon there won't be any witnesses to defend the truth. Many people don't accept already that this cruelty happend, and if it did, that Poles didn't participate. So I cannot agree to "polish camps".

Chris said...

I just read this a minute ago-

http://natemat.pl/131743,austriackie-media-polska-jest-wspolodpowiedzialna-za-holocaust

I take it upon myself to call attention to the "Polish camps" issue whenever I come across it. That's my little declaration and it is the least I can do to honor the memory of those who died in those camps.

I have already tried to convince the "Jewish conspiracy" folks that they are full of shit, but to no success. I don't have the skills to talk to such people.

Me said...

Chris, those people can't be persuaded and convinced. A have tried also. Conspiracy theories are just like faith - try convince beliving person that there is no god. And there are and will be circumstances that support those theories which is the permanent fuel. Recently I tried to persuade Russian people that Red Army didn't liberate our country (especially Warsaw). That is they liberated Poland from Germans, but that's it. It was only side effect of defeating Germans, occupied Poland was on their way to victory and to Berlin. But there are always trolls and unconvincable people who throw at you insults and death threats torwards you and your nation. And stupid acts from polish side like recent statement of Schetyna (about Ukrainians liberaling Auschwitz) just make my attempts more difficult.

Chris said...

Me - But it is surprising when an otherwise normal person comes out with such hatred and bullshit. And you are right that there is nothing we can do about it. I remember when I wrote here about the book Sołdat that I had read and all the hate I got for it. New year, new me, I guess.