In June of 1985, Linda and I got married, and spent our honeymoon in Italy. If you had told me it would 29+ years later before I would set foot in Europe again and the next visit there would be to Poland, well….I don’t know what I would have said to that. But last month, that is exactly where we found ourselves.
Our trip to Poland was wonderful. The people were friendly, the food was much better than expected, loved the history of the country, would love to go back someday. Unfortunately, no trip to that part of the world is totally complete without visiting one of the concentration camps. On Saturday of our trip we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For a little bit of family perspective, I’m half Polish. My mother’s parents were both Polish. My grandfather Irving, who I’m named after, had 12 siblings and lived in Warsaw. Only he and his brother Phillip made it to America. What happened to my other 11 great aunts and uncles? No one really knows but after our trip to Auschwitz and learning the history of what happened to Poland and it’s people in WW II, it’s not hard to imagine.
The day was cold, outside and inside. I don’t think there are any words to describe what it is like to walk through this place where so much misery and death occurred.
Prior to being a concentration camp, Auschwitz was a Polish army barrack. From the outside, that’s a pretty good description. Walking through the first few buildings of our tour, I didn’t really feel much. It wasn’t until we walked into a room with a 40 to 50 foot glass enclosed area where there was hair, actually human hair, that I got that feeling of dread. Human hair that was taken from the corpses and sold for multiple uses. Than there are displays of clothes, luggage with names on them, pans and utensils, personal hygiene items, and more.
I could go on but the thought of that place still sends chills down to the bottom of my soul. A chill that I felt so deep that when I went to sleep that night, my feet were still cold. This was several hours later, after a hot shower, dinner and lots of walking around Krakow. It was as if my body were holding onto the ghosts of all the lives lost at Auschwitz and throughout Europe. I felt as though my family, my lost family, was somehow taking my body’s warmth from me. Warmth that I gladly gave them so that I could feel the utter coldness of their lives.
I’m going to admit something I haven’t told anyone about that day…not even Linda. The last building you go into before departing Auschwitz is the gas chamber where so many lives were ended. As I stood there silently, imagining the possibility that a member of my own family could have been one of the thousands of lives that were lost in this very place, I closed my eyes and whispered the words of Kaddish – the Jewish prayer of mourning. I will also admit that I did a better job of holding back the tears there than I am right now sitting in my nice warm office in NJ.
I titled this post “The Poland Imperative” because I believe that every person who lives in a free society has a moral obligation to visit a concentration camp. To learn about the crimes against all humanity that were committed. Not just to Poles, not just to Jews but to scholars who were considered a threat, religious leaders of all denominations, other minorities, the sick and those unable to work who were considered expendable, to any person who did not fit the Nazi ideal. We all must go so that this type of genocide can never occur again. That the millions who died will never be forgotten. That their memories will forever be a blessing to all who mourn them now and forever.