A President's Reflections
People and Places

Krakow–part II

Posted on January 15, 2011

The ghost that haunts all of central Europe is the Holocaust.

Half the Jews in the world lived in Poland by 1935.  We were told that no more than 200 live in Kazimierz today and despite its rediscovery, it still looks neglected and tattered.  The Hungarians initially resisted deportation of its Jews, but the Nazis put the ArrowCross, their Hungarian counterparts, in charge and 440,000 Hungarian Jews were sent off to death camps.  Thousands more were executed closer to home.  Austria seems to blame their 1935 annexation by the Germans and shrug off their complicity, but tens of thousands of Austrian Jews perished and the Austrians have a long history of periodic attacks on its Jewish community.

I have struggled with what to make of all this during our visit.  It is hard not to fall for these cities and these cultures, grand and important and historically fascinating, but there is always a lurking “Oh, but…” moment.  Of course, virtually no one we meet was alive at the time of the Holocaust. Hell, more and more young people don’t have any memory of the more recent Communist reign and for them the Holocaust seems like ancient history, even if almost every city has erected a Holocaust memorial or museum and there at least seems to be some degree of awareness or willingness to confront the almost unspeakable horror of what happened.

But that’s a complicated act.  I posted our reactions to the House of Terror in Budapest, a cynical attempt to find political leverage in the old horrors and shedding no light on the time and the context.  It was all about those bad “others” — Nazis or Communists, but not good Hungarians.  In contrast, the new museum at the Schindler factory in Krakow was both heartbreaking in the way it personalized the victims (one sees their photos, letters, and in the case of the survivors, their oral histories) and the way it complicated the too easy “good guys-bad guys” narrative we often bring to the discussion.  It is nice to think any of us would have made the “right” choices, but the museum masterfully reminds us that it was not always so starkly clear, that hindsight is 20-20, and even when one knows what is underway, the calculus of survival, care of loved ones, courage, and rationalization is complex.

At one point in the museum, one moves over a thickly padded, even squishy, floor.  The symbolic lack of sure footedness passage leads to a round room covered in written testimonials in multiple languages covering the walls.  Many describe heroic or humane or generous acts — hiding someone, giving them food, going to the camp in someone’s stead — and others describe acts of betrayal or choosing to look the other way.  These later rotate around a set of scrolls suggestive of the Torah. They are heartbreakingly painful to read, especially the ones where people were describing their own failures.  These are not the memories of evil minded people.  They are the memories of action — or often inaction — that are uncomfortably….I don’t know, possible maybe.  It makes them uncomfortable because with distance, we can all imagine ourselves doing the right thing, but the exhibit puts us enough into the  cloudy past to at least make us wonder if we might not have also been capable of doing nothing.  If speaking up would genuinely put Pat, Emma, or Hannah’s life at stake, would I take the risk?

Schindler himself was a complicated guy, a bad guy in many ways, who came to do the “right” and brave thing.  The things people did for others, risking their lives, and things they did not do for neighbors and even friends was profound.  It was for me one of the most moving moments in this trip.

We had a lot of discussion about whether to visit nearby Auschwitz and finally decided not to do so.  We feel like we have know that story and I am not sure we (or at least I) was prepared for the emotional experience.  We decided to instead spend the time in the former ghetto, in the Jewish graveyard, the synagogues, and the streets that once saw so much unthinkable pain. We knew how the story ends, but wanted to know and understand more about how things got there.  Somehow, we expected a greater celebration of the Jewish culture that once thrived in Krakow or at least a respectful reconstruction of what once was.  There was none of that.  While the old Jewish Quarter has been “rediscovered,” it still feels sad and neglected and tragic.

We sat in a synagogue and watched as a group of German schoolgirls learned about Jewish religious tradition.  Every Polish school kid visits Auschwitz.  There seems to be a very conscious and even collective desire to make sure future generations don’t repeat the sins of their grandparents, though  was troubled to hear from one Pole that anti-Semitism is still common.

I have Jewish friends who will not visit these countries — perhaps too much pain, too much history in their own families, too much a sense that there can ever be reconciliation — and I respect that decision.  I wrestle with what we are to make of any country or culture and its collective sins when those sins are increasingly behind us.  It pains some of my Jewish friends to hear my criticism of present day Jewish policies around Gaza, West Bank settlements, and the new wall, but one of the things that this trip confirmed for me is that we all need to speak up in the face of injustice and persecution of any people.  There was some irony in visiting a place where Jews were once walled in, demonized as subhuman, and discriminated against and to know Israel’s radical right (and current government) is doing the same thing today to another people.  Our visit makes me admire more those brave voices of the Israeli left, such as Haaretz (www.haaretz.com) and writer David Grossman.

The Holocaust was unprecedented because of Germany’s systematic efficiency, technology, and capability, but it was not fundamentally different in its ruthlessness, viciousness, demonization of others, ideology of superiority, and evilness — sadly, those qualities were no less amply demonstrated in the other horrors of the 20th C, whether in Cambodia, the Soviet Union, or Rwanda.  In our own country we still skate far too easily over our extermination of American Indians and the depravity of slavery.   That is not a way of letting any of these countries off the hook, but the Schindler museum helped me recognize that it is easy to point the figure at the “bad guy” and fool ourselves into thinking we might not be that guy in the wrong time and place.

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