Friday, June 3, 2016

An Honorary Jew Goes to Auschwitz

I can only begin the telling of my journey to Krakow by starting at the end.

I spent my last day in Krakow at Auschwitz.

This pilgrimage takes its first step at a crossroads, at the intersection between two parts of myself, one known and one unknown.

I have, my whole adult life, been called and decreed an honorary Jew. I exclusively lived in pre-dominantly Jewish communities. I’ve been to more Seder dinners than I have baptisms. I’ve never thought twice about words like kvetch, bubala, shvitzing, etc. Over and over again, I have found myself embraced and enfolded into one Jewish family or another. However, my honorary title is secular--- I am at best an honorary cultural Jew.

Religiously, I do not consider myself to be Jewish. In fact, in terms of religious identification, I am simply a freshman undergraduate in the school of life trying to choose a major: thoroughly undecided. I don’t know who I am religiously because I find so much of it compelling and so much of it abhorrent. I identify with atheism as much as identify with Catholicism, with Judaism as much as Hellenism, with witchcraft and Unitarianism. I think concepts of belief and faith are endlessly intriguing. But none of them have ever felt exclusively mine or, rather, that I belonged exclusively to them. I’m a polyamorous philosopher of religiosity but not an actual practitioner.

Despite being baptized (call it a last minute act of hedging their bets on the part of my parents) my family is devoutly un Catholic; both of my parents have their own separate reasons for falling out of faith with the Church. My relationship to the Catholic Church is not so strained but I’ve never chosen to rebuild the bridges my parents incinerated. My father firmly left organized religion behind in the dust. But, ever since the day she was a young kid kicked out of a church for being just a young kid, my mother’s been on a quest to find a place that won’t shove her away just for being herself. The greatest will they or won’t they of my life isn’t Ross and Rachel on Friends, or Carrie and Big from Sex and the City, it’s my mother’s relationship with Judaism.

For as long as I can remember my mother has been ‘seeing’ Judaism. Our house is filled with books about Jewish philosophy, she’s taken me to synagogue more times then I can count. And she never forgets to wish me a happy Passover, no matter where I am in the world. For God sake’s, the woman is a substitute teacher at a Hebrew school. Part of this stems from my mother’s insatiable curiosity and it is in Judaism and the Jewish community that she has felt that her questioning mind has always been welcomed and encouraged. But there’s another reason my mother has so long been entwined with Judaism but never taken the plunge: she might already be Jewish. One of the great Sayko family debates has been the question of whether or not we are. There is a history before the War that, for all intensive purposes, has been lost, purposefully or otherwise. For so long, it was a question that simply wasn’t asked, and those who might have answered have passed away with their secrets. We just don’t know.

So it seems I am an honorary member of a culture I may be innate member of. It’d be like growing up knowing you’re adopted and the one day your realize you weren’t. Nothing and everything is different. During my visit to Auschwitz I found myself in a strange suspension---caught between experiencing it as a person who loves and respects Jewish culture but is not intrinsically a part of it and as a person who might be connected to this in a far more personal way than she knows. It felt both like my history and as if I had no right to it. I can only say that I cannot imagine what it is like for someone who, secular or not, who has been raised in the faith, in the culture, to go to that place. The immensity and burden of that connection is something I can make no claim to. But nor can I categorize my experience at the camp as something devoid of a deep, personal relationship to Jewish life. So suffice it to say that the following is not the viewpoint of a Jew or a non Jew or even an honorary one but of a person who honors the role of Judaism and Jewish culture in her own life and the lives of the many, many wonderful Jewish peoples she loves and without whom the world would be a lesser place. 

It is a strange thing to go to Auschwitz. The idea of being a tourist in a former death camp—those two concepts definitively feel as if they should be mutually exclusive. I arrive at Auschwitz early in the morning, a grey fog creeping from the forest. I cannot imagine this place in the sunshine. Nor can I fathom what it’s like to live here, in the neighboring village, to have the main reason people visit your hometown be to witness and pay their respects to the largest Nazi extermination camp of the War.

Everything I do at Auschwitz makes me feel an unending sense of guilt. Waiting for the tour to begin, eating an over priced muffin and coffee, I feel as if I am committing an act of desecration, indulging in a materialism and consumption in a place where people withered from starvation. I should be fasting. I should be performing some kind of ceremony to mark this place. If we can fast for our own sins, surely we can do it for the masses of humans that suffered here?

As the tour begins, I pass under gates and the wrought iron inscription: “Work Sets You Free.” It feels strange to willingly pass through gates so many people would have done anything to exit from. Many entered Auschwitz thinking it would only be a temporary circumstance, that they were simply being relocated. Taking the train into Birkenau (also referred to as Auschwitz II) they came loaded with their whole lives: suitcases, money, jewelry, family mementos, kitchen supplies.

The men were separated from the women and children. Those deemed unfit to work were directed towards the gas chambers. They were told they were being sent to the showers. What that second must have been, to smell and taste gas coming into a room as you waited patiently for the cleansing effect of water, to feel that sudden shift in your mind, to suddenly become aware of what is happening to you---it is apocalyptic.

I was so angry at that thought—how dare you not tell these people what you’re going to do them. That kind of false hope, that kind of cowardice—if possible it makes the crimes all the worse, worse because deception like that is born of people who know, somewhere buried in the last chamber of their humanity, they know that they are doing a grand and terrible thing. Later on in the day, I will find myself inside the old guard tower staring across the wide, elephantine skeleton of Birkenau. Groups of tourists walk along the old platform; they look eerily like marching prisoners. Birkenau is huge. It stretches on for an age until it disappears into the mists of the surrounding pines. I wondered what atrocities had been witnessed by those trees and if this fog wasn’t somehow their offering, a blanket of solemnity put forth by nature, wishing it could have done more to stop the unnatural events that took place at their roots.  The camps are disturbing, abnormal down to their very bricks and mortar. They are made all the more haunting and disturbing for the innocuous look of the buildings.

Ahead of me on the tour was a group of young Israeli girls; I know they were Israeli because they looked like a troupe of superheroes with the Israeli flag tied around their necks, flapping behind them like Superman’s cape. For a while, I held my composure: the facts and figures were terrible but they were just numbers and these were just empty buildings; decaying ash after the hellfire. I felt at a safe distance from it all until suddenly I drowning in the tangible nearness of what had happened there.

Emerging from a room I was about to enter, I saw my herd of superheroes, tears streaming down, friends clutching each other, wiping salt and snot off of one another’s faces. And I knew that I was about to bear witness to horror. What I saw when I walked in I will never forget: hair, a massive pile of human hair. Two tons of human hair. I thought I was going to vomit. I felt as if I were staring at a pile of bodies, a mass grave behind a wall of glass. If I had, for one moment, forgotten what this place was, forgotten the scale of its brutality, then and there the magnitude of its evil regurgitated itself forth from the pit of my stomach. I cannot write about that image, even at this moment, some few thousand miles away, without tasting a mixture of salt and bile in my mouth.

There is room after room likes this, each one batters you in a different way, until you think you can’t move, that you cannot do anything but sit and be drowned by the despair of it all. You feel a sorrow you didn’t know you had for people you’ll never know. But that heap, that mountain of human hair, that is the one that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Because it made me remember that this was not some horror story, some legend from the past, this was a crime, this was a modern day attempt at annihilation, that this was real and not so long ago as we might like to think. That this happened to people at the hands of their fellow man. Something about it, about the fact that it was hair, it felt as if surely these people were still alive, that all that must be attached to someone. It broke me, this cruel disembodied trick to that made me believe in ghosts that were long gone.

In the next room there was a pile of spectacles, a dormant creature of wire and glass. There is something about a pair of empty glasses; you can always picture the face beneath them.  If I don’t wear my contacts or my glasses the world is just a blur to me. Even walking ten feet from my bedroom to the bathroom becomes a hazardous, treacherous journey.  This place was already so full of death, so full of fear, to walk through this valley of evil without even the ability to see is a nakedness and vulnerability of a different kind. It is it to be a child again, but instead of parents’ loving hands to guide you as you stumble, to fall here is to perish.
And then the suitcases: beautiful, sturdy, leather suitcases, the kind of suitcases passed down through a family, the kind of suitcase any traveler would want to own, the kind of suitcase George Bailey gets from Mr. Gower as a testament to their love and friendship. So many of them had family names etched on them, white lettered prints, the only monuments left to say we were here, we lived. It feels impossible. The whole Goddamn horror of it feels so impossible.

In another building, in another corridor, are the photographs of the first prisoners brought to the camp. At the start of the War, Auschwitz was a POW, not an extermination camp. Most were Polish political prisoners. When this first wave of prisoners was brought to the camps they had their ‘mug shots’ taken. This practice quickly fell out of habit as the population and daily arrivals of Auschwitz began to increase.

I stared at the photographs, row upon row, a catalogue of humanity’s last days. It’s overwhelming, all those faces that never grew older. Listed underneath their photos are their dates of incarceration and their dates of death. Almost none of them survived the camp. Then I saw a young woman, a woman like all the other women on the wall, only, for me, she punctured my bones: Wiktoria. My name. She had my name.

It’s a strange thing to encounter someone with the same name as you, there’s always something a little surreal about it. It doesn’t matter how I feel towards the person, it doesn’t matter how different we may be, there’s some small thread that will always attach us to each other simply by virtue of this one shared experience. And there in that frame, on the other end of time, was a lost member of my tribe. I know of nothing we have in common beyond a name but to see her name, my name, our name, listed there, to see those dates of death and imprisonment following such a familiar pattern of letters, I felt the tug of a thread from another version of this story, an iteration where it wasn’t this woman’s face in that photograph, that insufficient tombstone, but mine.

Wiktoria Kowalska. Prisoner number 32259. Born: May 2, 1910 Place of birth: Krak√≥w Profession: Clerk Arrived to Camp: January 29, 1943 Fate: Murdered Date of Death: April 13, 1943

She had my name. She did not survive the camps. She had my name.

The very last part of the tour takes you to the last existing crematorium, the only one of the four to survive relatively intact. Then you go inside. You stand in the gas chamber. You go to a place you should not go, inside a thing that should not be. The walls are covered in pale grooves, scratches. You see the ovens.

In that moment, through the tears that had begun without my notice, there was only one person, one word I could whisper: “Mom.” I wanted my mom. I wanted my mom to hold and shield me from this. 

When I was very young, an innocent accident caused second and third degree burns on one of my legs. I only remember snippets from the hospital: sharing tuna salad with my roommate, my parents on either side of me, holding my hands as I hopped on my good leg, learning how to walk all over again. But my sharpest, most vivid memory is of the showers. More than the pain, I remember the fear that gripped each day as they undid my bandage and tried to coax me inside. The water was so painful on my exposed, raw skin that I would scream and claw at the walls to avoid it. I would thrash and beg and howl and weep, anything, anything not to feel that pain again. The only way I would go in is if my mother went in with me. She stood there, pressing me to her, bracing me with all her might, letting me cling and tear into her, simultaneously working to comfort and restrain me, holding back any of her own pain and fear, while working tirelessly to abate mine. I survived those showers on her borrowed bravery. But I’m lucky. My mother could protect me, she could heal me, she could save me.  

Where I stood then, was a place where no amount of mother’s love could save her child, a place where, locked in each other’s arms, countless mothers and children, sisters, friends, would find themselves the casualties of an experiment in human extermination.  I wanted to turn and see her, to feel her warmth and her strength, for her to hold my hand and take me somewhere, anywhere else. Spilling out of that room, even the dim dusky light felt harsh and blazing.  I looked down at my boots and felt ashamed: the day before I had been to the Remuh Synagogue where I had visited the Old Jewish Cemetery.  During the German occupation of Poland, the Nazis destroyed the cemetery by smashing and carting away tombstones to be used as paving stones for the camps. After the War, the tombstones that could be found were returned to the cemetery but of the small portion that were located, few were to be found in their whole parts. So the broken and disparate pieces were used to form a mosaic, a wailing wall. Shattered lives, shattered worlds, shattered graves brought together to for something stronger, more magnificent then before. If that isn’t a testament to Jewish endurance I don’t know what is. As I stared down at my shoes I realized that I had brought the mud and the dirt from that sacred place of recovery to this place of utter despair: the mud from the cemetery mixed with the mud of Auschwitz on the soles of my feet. And I was ashamed at the cruel disservice I had unwittingly performed.

Auschwitz is a burden for which humankind has no ability to comprehend. I could know all the facts and figures, know every of inch of the ruins, and yet still my mind, my heart would always fail to understand. That is because what happened here is not something that can ever be understood: it is a deep unknowable horror.

And after the horror comes salt.

After Auschwitz, the tour takes you to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It seems like a strange, even inappropriate pairing. At first I regretted the decision---after the camps, I could think of nothing less I wanted to do then visit some cavernous pit in the Earth. It was, or course, anything but. The mine is a labyrinth of nine tunnels, about 300km in total, with the deepest level reaching 327 meters underground. The stonewalls are a dark, inky grey coated with varying degrees of pure, snow-white salt. What I expected to be foreboding and ominous was rich with mystery and art: all along the mine there were great, gorgeous sculptures carved and crated from salt. The further down we went, the more beautiful and intricate these statues and scenes became. For the first time in my life, I felt a certain identity with the race of dwarves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; I understood the majesty that lured them to delve too greedily and too deep. In the very heart of the mine lies St. Kinga’s Chapel, an underground church that radiates beauty. Light pours forth from the crystal chandeliers, setting aglow all the bas-reliefs along the chamber walls. In depths of the Earth, illuminated by pure light, I am in awe that this place was built by man and not something more divine.

I saw the best and the worst of humanity in Krakow. I met some of the loveliest people of my trip: two intelligent, beautiful Norwegian transplants took me under their wing for the duration of my stay and welcomed me into their lives as if we’d been friends for years. I touched the wall of a gas chamber, I held my hand against the Hebrew letters from a broken but enduring gravestone. I saw Auschwitz, a witness to the great evil that can be wrought by men. I saw St. Kinga’s Chapel, a sanctuary to the grace that can emanate from the hearts and minds of humankind.

Over and over in the camps I thought of my best friend, an incredibly intelligent, innovative woman, to whom I owe so many of the best parts of myself, and who happens to be Jewish. I thought of a not so far off world, a world in which she would have been taken from me because of what? Because of nothing. I felt the magnitude of that devastation, the thought of losing her, of losing her family that is my own---it felt like my ribs had been cracked, my chest pulled apart and my heart ripped from me. To even imagine that loss----she is so full of light and justice and passion and power. To fathom a world that hated her so, to imagine a history, my history, the present, my present, without her? It is unbearable. I am so very grateful that she is here. It seems only fitting to me that her name is Hope. I love her so very much.

At the very end of the tour, I had a few moments before I had to get back on the bus. I lingered in the gift shop, unsure of what souvenir I could possibly want or need from this place. But then, in a corner of the shop, I saw a pile books, on top of which lay Night by Elie Wiesel. Sometimes, books, like people, appear at the exact moment you need them to. I bought the book, not because I needed a reminder of Auschwitz; it is a place that will be seared onto the walls of my memory for the rest of my life. I bought the book because books are precious to me. If you took away my books, I don’t know who I would be. On the tour, there were many stories of people smuggling things into the camps, seemingly impractical things: jewelry, family heirlooms, photographs. They risked their lives to keep possession of these objects. Why? Because these are the totems, which remind us of our humanity when the rest of the word would take it away. That is what books are to me, the guardians of my selfhood, and so long as I have one, one page, one sentence, one word on a scrap of paper, I can keep my dignity, I can keep my humanity, and I can remain myself.

When you exit Auschwitz I, there is a photo series documenting the March of the Living, an annual march of silence between the two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, contrasting the brutal death marches at the end of the War. So, so many of the quotes on display are about love, about remembrance, about family, about not being induced to hate. I’m not sure how that’s possible---how a person can suffer the worst kind of brutality and say with all honesty that they do not hate their tormentors with the deepest parts of themselves. That people can possibly do anything but hate, that they can, in fact, love openly and fully---comforts me with the knowledge that whatever ills are committed by humankind, we must remember that, more than anything, people have an immeasurable capacity for immense and indestructible goodness.

Why do we go to places like Auschwitz? Because we must. Because we must always remember what we are capable of.

Why do we go to place likes the Salt mines? Because we must. Because we must always remember what we are capable of.

We have to cry, we have to weep, we have to hurt, we have to visit, we have to remember, we have to forgive, we have to love, we have to live.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.” ----Elie Wiesel, Night

(The international monument at Auschwitz in Hungarian, Hebrew, and English.)