It is about 1:00 a.m. in Poland and I am flying back to the United States in the morning, but I wanted to get some things down here in my blog before I leave. Today I went with the group of students from Bloomsburg University and Dr. Polyuha, who was gracious enough to let me tag along, to see Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim). Oswiecim is the Polish name of this town and it is a town, that unfortunately became the location of the extermination of over 1.3 million people in barely four years. Birkenau has to do with the birch trees that were planted at the edges of the death camp to make such evil seem more serene, if you can imagine such a thing. There were four crematoriums at KL Auschwitz-BIrkenau II, but they could not keep up with the gassing of the thousands of people on a daily basis. In fact, they became to burn bodies in the woods surrounding the camp to try to keep up with the corpses, and in fact they were working on building a third unit to try to manage all the people who were coming to this Ungodly place (and I use that word intentionally). I have visited both Dachau and Buchenwald, and I was stunned by those places, but nothing could have prepared me for the massive scale of genocide that I learned about today in this place. Of the 1.5 million people who came through that gate claiming “Arbeit Macht Frei” at Auschwitz I or on the trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau II, we were told only 144 people escaped. Almost 90% were exterminated immediately. If you were old, infirmed, female or a child, your chances of living more than a day or two were minimal at best. I learned that of the 7,000 prisoners lived at the liberation of the camp, many of them died because they were given too much food in the first days following their liberation. We heard that for the first week one tablespoon of soup a day was all their bodies could manage. As we walked through the camps today, it snowed and the wind was quite bitter. It forced me to imagine working 12 hours a day with no shoes and merely the cotton covering of clothing they had. The inhumanity of this place is beyond words. There was a room where the length of an entire wall (behind glass and probably 15 foot deep 50 yards long and piled three or four feet high) was the hair shorn off of the woman who entered the camp. The hair was actually bagged up into bales and sold. This completely stunned and revolted me. Thousands (which is a mere fraction) of shoes or hairbrushes or cosmetic cases are on display to provide some sense of the horror and the complete dehumanization that occurred in this place. However, that, in spite of its unimaginable nature, is not what is the most staggering to me. The most mind boggling, shocking, astounding, or dastardly thing about this place is how the Nazis worked tirelessly to figure out how to be more efficient in their extermination of those people they deemed of no use or value.
Good morning (it is about 7:15 a.m. and I have been up for an hour getting organized to fly back the states latter this morning. I have been writing lists of things I need to do. It is a bit daunting, but discipline and work and it will get done. It has been good to be away and in another part of the world for a few days. As if often the case, five days in a place gives you a little taste of what it offers. I know that Poland is both a land of beauty, but also of a place where many struggle to get by. However, that is the world in which we live. I think the experience of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau yesterday merely reminded me of how we justify something to the extreme. Mr. Galan would call it failing to love the other, and I believe that is true, but I think it goes to something more fundamental (again he will argue love is fundamental and I agree, but I am not sure we agree how one expresses that love) for me love is demonstrated through respecting the other. I think respect is the ultimate expression of loving the other. When you fail to value or respect the other you disregard their right to exist or co-exist as a person. Certainly what happened to the Jews, or the Russians, or the Gypsies, or the infirmed, or the gay . . . in all cases, it is the other . . . was because they were deemed without value, they were disrespected. I know that he and I will have more conversations about this idea of love. I think he uses the word love, where I use the word respect or value. To love another, really love them for me means the other person has found their way into your heart and changed your life. That is actually for another blog I imagine.
I think what the lack of respect or value for the other does, when exercised in the extreme, is exactly what I saw yesterday. You can exterminate them and justify it because you do not see them as human. I am reminded of the article by Stephen Katz titled “The Ethics of Expediency.” It is an article I use at times in my Technical Writing course. I am not going to say much about it, but in this document, humans are referred to by terms like “load” or “cargo”. When we dehumanize the other, we can justify almost anything. Disrespect for me is always wrong . . . . and when pushed it becomes evil because it devalues one of the most important elements of creation. Trying to process that one culture (and an astounding culture at that) could systemically remove 6,000,000 people in less than four years, at least for me, cannot be done. It was again questioned that how could others not know, perhaps not the scope, but not know the action? What was offered yesterday was thought provoking. It was noted that other countries had different priorities. The priority was to end the war, not about saving people. For me, as I often do, I merely observed people yesterday. It was particularly interesting to observe Maria, who is Polish, and she has relatives who live in this city (Oswiecim). Her body language and the look on her face was particularly moving to me. Perhaps in was heightened because I know her. Perhaps it was heightened because I am here as a guest of her father. She has been through the camp before and noted that most Polish people say you should see it once, but that is enough. Perhaps that is part of her demeanor, but I know that even though I have been to other camps, I do not remember being as moved as I was yesterday. I will have to dig through the pictures. I do not think those pictures were scanned yet. I have pictures from Buchenwald. While the gate at Auschwitz claims “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free), Buchenwald’s gate reads “Jedem Das Sein” (Everyone gets what they deserve). I find this saying even more troubling. It implies that those brought to these camps deserved the inhumanity they had to suffer; that they deserved to be treated with such disrespect, and that somehow God would have said such action was okay. Remember that Germany was a “believing” nation. That was part of the reason that Bonhoeffer, my dissertation topic, chose to get involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He claimed that if the church was not going to be “the spoke in the wheel” that stopped things, other measures needed to be taken. One of my other former students and I chatted on the bus yesterday. He was in my class about 4 years ago this coming semester, and is actually going to graduate school in Israel I found out. He is a history major and it was great to speak with him. We talked about the idea of disrespect and how such actions can lead to such atrocity. He is a very thoughtful and intelligent person.
I have continued to try to wrap my head around the other significant change that I will be facing when I return. It is to begin to manage Lydia’s affairs. I am glad she was so organized and clear in what she wanted. While I have struggled with that change, being in Europe pushed some things off until I get back to Bloomsburg and begin to go through all the things I will have to do. I am not sure how it all works, honestly, and I am sure I will be speaking with Bridget at some point today, perhaps tomorrow. I have one entire day in Pennsylvania and then I leave for Salt Lake City. I need to still get some things arranged there too. I think I will probably be in my office most of tomorrow trying to get organized. While coming here did give me some great material for considering the novel, and contacts, amazing people who speak the language, there will need to be other trips. I think coming in the summer would be a good plan and something I might have to do some work on getting a professional travel grant for. I will be traveling some more before the end of the break and I am hoping that hiding away for a few days in one of my favorite places next weekend and beyond will allow me to get second semester organized and ready to go. I have a new prep this semester and I have done some reading and have some things at my disposal from the winter term class last year, but there is much more to do. It is almost 8:00 a.m. here in Krakow and it is important for me to get my ducks-in-a-row for what is immediately necessary, so I think I will sign off.
Understanding or processing evil, as I titled this blog, is something that is a present tense verb for me (in the Greek language sense of the present tense – and I am not trying to merely rhyme here), and certainly the events of Auschwitz-Birkenau are past tense (but, again, in the Greek language sense). Present tense verbs in Greek are much more about continuing action. While I am not sure I can ever understand the evil that prompted such despicable horror toward the other, it is something we as humans need to continue to process. We should never stop considering what evil we might do to another individual. Indeed, the gerund form of continuing to process or ponder is necessary if we are to stop committing such atrocities. It is precisely because we do not continue to do so that I believe such evil continues to occur. I believe that evil is in us and I will not merely blame it on “the devil”. The past tense in the Greek language is called the aorist tense and it means “completed action with continued significance.” There can be no doubt that what the Nazis did during the late 1930s and into the 1940s has significance for us as humans. Yet, we still rain evil down upon each other on a daily basis. Genocide has not stopped; it continues in various parts of our world on a daily basis, but somehow I am afraid we turn our heads and pretend it does not happen. Perhaps I still have too much idealism in me yet. I want to believe that people are predisposed for good. Yet, when I walk through such a place in the cold, wind, and snow as I did yesterday, it is impossible to be idealistic. It forces me to consider what happens when we as humans disrespect or fail to value the other. It has been a wonderful experience to be in Poland these last days and learn more about yet another culture. We are so diverse and yet some connected. Perhaps that is what I needed to be reminded of yet again. We are dependent on each other for survival, whether we want to consider that or not is a different question.
In a few hours I will be on a plane from Krakow to Berlin and from Berlin to NYC. Es hatte eine gute Reise gewesen. While I need to work on my Spanish and get my head back into that language again, I have now another one to learn.
Do Roberta i Katarzyny,
Dziękuję wszystkim za życzliwość; to było wspaniale spędzić czas z tobą tu i obiecuję, że wrócę.
To everyone else, thank you for reading.