By Harriet P. Gross
Remember that I promised more in this space about my recent travels in Poland? I’d like to put off dealing with the topic for as long as I managed to put off making the trip — something I really didn’t want to do. But I knew that as a Jew with a keen interest in Holocaust history, I had to go sometime. So now I also have to resume writing about what I experienced there.
Between Krakow and Warsaw, a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As with finally seeing any place anticipated with dread, I found when I got there that I no longer had any idea what I’d been expecting, except that I somehow imagined the Arbeit Macht Frei sign would be much larger.
The reality: Auschwitz today is a museum, with many untouchable exhibits — mountains of human hair behind glass; photo blow-ups of jumbled luggage labeled with family names. Most everything there is beyond human contact, just as the truth of what happened there is beyond human understanding.
One views the place; one does not experience it. Auschwitz is not “interactive.” Probably better for our sanity that it’s this way.
Guided tours are the norm here. Our guide was a young man, very knowledgeable, but very much hewing to his prepared bits of talk, filled with dates and facts and figures devoid of emotion.
I asked him if guides suffer “burnout” from having to deliver those horrific dates and facts and figures over and over. He said the staffers are only assigned to guide groups twice a week, not every day, to avoid that.
His own detachment was palpable. For him, Auschwitz is a job. I’m afraid that instead of paying attention to all his minutiae, I was struggling to understand this: He lives in the neighborhood, but how much does he really know? Is he proud of where he works?
I assumed that he was asked this question many times by visitors before me: “Is there a good place to say Kaddish here?” He knew what the word meant, but not its core importance. He asked me when I’d like to do that. I said, “Any time you think would be appropriate. Just tell me when.” But he never did. As he said goodbye after abandoning us to Birkenau, I thought briefly about reminding him, but thought better of it. What would be the point?
And what is Birkenau now? There’s nothing left to indicate the extent of the misery that lived here, the lives that died here. It’s a vast expanse of green, green grass and, above it, a blue, blue sky, under which my husband and I stood together to say our Kaddish.
The question I kept asking myself: What kind of mind could conceive of the things that once went on in these places we’d just seen? Before Auschwitz, there had been more than three million Jews in Poland. Now, there may be 20,000. Perhaps even less. Many, for many reasons, do not identify publicly with what they are. Even today.
A few short weeks ago, I read a New York Times article dealing with the resurgence of Judaism in Poland. Jonathan Ornstein, a New Yorker now in charge of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, was quoted: “In many ways, the idea of Judaism in Poland is frozen in 1939, because that was the last time there was a large visible presence,” he said. “There is this idea that Jews only listen to Klezmer music, they have long beards and speak Yiddish.”
The same article referenced Ruth Gruber, whose 2002 book, “Virtually Jewish,” talked of a sort of nostalgia for those beards, that language and music, for an idealized bygone culture like that of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Just a week from now, Krakow will begin the 2013 version of its annual Jewish Festival, a 10-day acting-out by today’s non-Jews of their frozen-in-time idea of Judaism. I see in Jewish organization magazines that tours to Poland now offer the option to attend it. I would not.
Art Spiegelman, artist son of survivors, told his parents’ Holocaust horror stories through “Maus,” in which Germans and Jews play a literal cat-and-mouse game. It was a rousing success that also angered some, like the German reporter who asked him, “Don’t you think that a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?” To which Spiegelman curtly replied, “No. I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” Today, for me at least, it is the same.
Warsaw coming up … soon.