Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it

Trip Start Mar 07, 2006
Trip End Jun 30, 2006

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Tuesday, June 6, 2006

This is a difficult entry for me to write, for a few reasons. In fact, this is the third time I'm restarting it.

Yesterday, we visited the site of Auschwitz concentration camp. It was difficult, but after all the reading and stories and years of learning about it and hearing the experiences of survivors or people who have visited since, I oddly felt like everything I saw was expected, in a way. It's hard to explain, but when I visited Mauthausen four years ago, I found that much more gut-wrenching somehow. Maybe because a lot of that camp was intact from the time of the Holocaust. In contrast, very little of Auschwitz was preserved; the main site is now a museum that has a more factual than emotional feel to it. It's surreal, almost; walking through, it's hard to imagine you're standing on the actual site. Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, where the majority of Jews were put to death, is haunting just in its sheer scope; most of it too has been destroyed, but looking around the site and seeing barbed wire stretching for miles gives an idea of the magnitude of the atrocities of the Nazis. The guard tower and entry gate where the "selection" took place have been reconstructed, as have some of the barracks. The railway tracks leading to the camp are also still there, and many memorials have taken place at that site.

Walking around the camp, I felt numb, for the most part. One image will stay with me forever, though: On the way to the site, about five or ten minutes out, our coach stopped at a rail crossing to let a train pass through. It was a freight train, and the boxcars looked almost exactly like the cattle cars that you see in all the movies and at the museums that were used to transport the Jews to Auschwitz. As I watched the train go by out of the window, I had to blink a few times and rub my eyes to convince myself that we were in 2006 and not 1943.

Last night, we got into Warsaw around dinnertime, but I wasn't feeling too hot and I didn't have much appetite, so I pretty much just went to sleep. It wasn't just the visit to Auschwitz; I also had the beginnings of a cold that I was trying to ward off. I'm feeling better today, so it must have worked.

Walking through Warsaw is eerie. Today is the first nice day of the trip so far, and the sunshine contrasts sharply with the grey concrete buildings. Over 85% of Warsaw was destroyed during WWII by the Nazis, and most of the reconstruction took place during the Soviet era. The Old Town and Marketplace and a number of other buildings were reconstructed to resemble the originals, but much of the rest of the city is entirely new.

After a guided tour this morning, I walked around the area of the former Jewish ghetto. Nothing is left, of course, but there are monuments and memorials in a few key places. A large memorial to the Uprising leads off a pathway full of stones every few feet commemorating a leader or prominent person who perished. At the site of Mila 18, the former headquarters of the Jewish resistance, there is a monument as well. And there is a haunting memorial just a few streets away at Umschlagplatz, the main square of the ghetto where the Germans rounded up Jews to take them away to Treblinka. Now, it's surrounded by office buildings. I walked up to the Jewish cemetary, and then to the orphanage that belonged to Janus Korczak, who famously chose to go with the children to their death instead of saving his own life. One stretch of the ghetto wall has been preserved, but not much else. Today, approximately 1,000 Jews live in Warsaw, but none within the confines of the former ghetto area, for obvious reasons: the entire ghetto was in effect a mass graveyard. Walking around the streets whose names are familiar to me from tons of reading, it was hard to imagine the ghetto existing where today there are skyscrapers and modern office buildings and internet cafes.

I can't say I've particularly enjoyed my stay in Poland. Strangely enough, I felt more comfortable as a Jewish person in Germany than here. But it has certainly been informative, and I think it was very important for me to come here.

Tomorrow, back to Berlin.
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