Blog I | December 20th, 2018

As we drive into the Kampinos forest, I notice the trees deeper in the forest are stained a faded red. It is fitting, beyond the natural explanations there may be for this. Where the color appears on the trees, the bark seems barren. It’s as though someone scraped away at the tough exterior, leaving only the bottom half of all the trees protected. 

In this forest, the Nazi Germans tried to hide the graves of massacred Polish leaders by making the holes their bodies were thrown into appear as though they were part of the natural dips and rises in the ground. Then they planted trees on top of them. Perhaps the spirits of the murdered left the stains on the trees on their way out, ascending through the trees, leaving behind the pigment and the peril they experienced.

I remember when I was younger, I had a disturbing dream about my family. We were lined up, and being shot one by one, for no reason. I never knew who was doing the shooting, but I recall desperately trying to reach ahead of my sister in line to be shot. I don’t remember if she died first or if I did. I just felt despair. I thought about it today. Juliusz Dabrowski surrendered himself to gestapo in 1950 to save his arrested family. He was murdered with them in the Kampinos forest. The forest has a museum that capture’s the forest’s history. I noticed a theme in the too-overwhelming-to-process amount of Polish people murdered there. Over and over, if it wasn’t an entire family dying together, it’s men and their sons. Mothers and their daughters. The sanctity of family, degraded. I think of my own family and cannot imagine such a fate.

In terms of the people murdered, Nazis selected anyone with a secondary education, or with a grip on any important realm of Polish society and culture. I thought to myself—if hope was not a thing worth having, why did the Nazis murder inspirational Polish figures? Like a famous athlete with no political stakes? And if education were not so valuable, why did Nazis execute teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers, in that spring of 1940?

The forest was once something else to the Polish, though. In 1863, Kampinos forest was a gathering place for insurgents—the Polish wanting to get Poland back her original borders from Russia, Prussia, and Austria. An anonymous poet wrote:

“Hey, countrymen, whoever does not want to live with the enemy, whoever values precious freedom, should rush to the Kampinos forest.”

Those words stuck with me, as I contemplate words Dr.Halperin, our trip leader, repeated to us before as we first discussed how an atrocity like the Holocaust was made to exist: What will people be willing to do for the love of country? What side of good or evil, righteous or damned, free or imprisoned, does it drive us to?

Blog II | Hope

How did they navigate hope?
Of all the survivors of this
The one who shocks me the most
Is hope.

How did Hope think it when she first felt like an other?
Did she feel shame when people began to look at her differently?
When her neighbors stopped smiling her way?
When she first realized why, did it bring her shame?
Knowing she could not change, who she was that they came to hate?

When was Hope first banished from the home of a victim’s heart?
Left to the freezing streets, where her abuse first starts.
Would she walk away from this home, or did she beat at its the doors?Crying to her former possessor, to accept her just once more?
And if Hope found another way in, did she tuck herself into a corner?
Did she creep into the back of the mind of someone who’d already mourned her?
Did they come face to face with her and still turn her away?
If children were in the room, would they have asked Hope if she would stay?
And when Hope felt herself sick, how did she say goodbye?
Did her possessor hold onto her until the end? Until she or he had died?

And if they both survived, by the grace of Gods that may be…
Where did Hope go, when she found herself free?
Did Hope find her relatives waiting for her, in the warmth of a standing home?
Did they rush her in the doorway and tell her she would never again be alone?
And now that we say never again,
Instead of “imagine the horrors that could have been”,
I ask Hope to come out again,
So we might show her where to begin.

I pray we let her in
I pray we let her in
I pray we let her in
I pray we let her in  

Blog III | December 28th, 2018

The Holocaust has entered my everyday thoughts. We walk past a cute toddler as we stroll through beautiful Krakow streets. Her father swings her around, as if she’s a light toy, to check her shoes for mud. I chuckle to my friend and begin “he’s just flinging her—“ and close my mouth shut. I’m thrown into a death camp visit from a few days before. I remember a survivor account of mass graves. After the murder of hundreds, the bodies of adults were tossed in gigantic pits, and the holes filled with children and kids. The survivor recalled how babies were tossed into these by their legs. The Holocaust is seeping into my everyday thoughts. The other night in our hotel room, I jerked upright all of a sudden, out of my deep sleep. I looked in the direction of our curtains, and saw stripes and something else. I saw the denim uniform, the meager barrier between a prisoner and the freezing cold. Perhaps I saw the prisoner too. I rubbed my eyes hurriedly, fearful of what I thought I could be seeing. Eventually my vision returned to me, and I just saw curtains. But I have a feeling that’s not the last time it will happen. Things changing what they would usually mean to me…and the expectations I’d had in my mind certainly changed at Auschwitz.

This is the place I did not expect. Whatever preconceived notions I had about it were gone as I walked through the gate, under the words: “Work will make you free”. It resembles a small village, with its brick former-army barracks. We journeyed through it with a guide, who showed us through the eerie basements and holding cells, and other disturbing sights. It felt like the mother of evils, the poster child of Holocaust horror. Things that I cannot truly understand or explain. When I began to try to tell my family about the things I saw, the words coming out of my mouth felt unbelievable. I hadn’t realized all that I’d seen. But what’s important is to try, I guess. No attempt is futile, for the attempts were the last thing the Nazis wanted.

I’ll always think about how easy it is to mark someone an “Other”. The mentality that allowed for all of this to happen. I see it in how I’m treated and how I treat others. It’s scary how easy it is. But now when I think of it, I think of it as the first step of genocide so…I guess I will be in a better position to empathize with others after all of this. Tragedies on the news don’t seem far away anymore. Whether a Tsunami or police shooting into a crowd. I understand now that things seeming distant, or like they could not exist in my universe, are very much real.

A Later Moment | May 3rd, 2020

I remember Professor Halperin had warned us of something, when we first went on our trip. It was the holidays for most–we would be missing Christmas Eve, and Christmas. To be there in Poland and stare in history’s ugliest face. Rick kind of gave us a pat on the back for choosing to be there with him. But he told us this: Christmas from now on, wherever you are in the years to come–you may not be in Poland, but your head certainly will be.

Many times, we were told that processing what we were seeing might not happen until an unexpected moment. It may not hit you until you’re back home with your family, or in a classroom learning about genocide. It may not hit you for years.

So last night, as I watched Waco with my little sister, I was stunned when the women and children in the building during the stand-off, found themselves trapped in a vault with tear gas, their bodies slowly succumbing to it. I couldn’t help but think about how that happened thousands upon thousands of times in Nazi death camps. I’d never pictured what it might be like when the people in the chambers realized what was happening, and tried to escape. I didn’t know what to think, seeing something that has happened so so many times in history, wondering how it is that it had struck me so strongly, months after physically standing in the spaces where it happened to the masses. I just don’t know.

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