By Terry Reis Kennedy
It was the year 1982, and Thanksgiving in the USA. But in Poland no one was feasting. It was the height of Martial Law there in 1982, and I had come to the country to witness and to write about the war atmosphere, the lack of basic food supplies, and to search for Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity Movement which was gaining worldwide recognition as a force that was usurping the Communist regime.
The sun was out. The leaves of the trees were gold and rust and umber. But the air was cold, as cold as a mortician’s storage vault. I didn’t like the feel of it.
As the car chugged closer and closer to Auschwitz, I felt queasier. I wished I hadn’t decided to visit the death camp. I wished I didn’t personally know people who insisted there was no such thing as the Holocaust. Long ago, though, I’d promised myself I would — because so many of my Polish relatives had died there — exterminated like mice in a laboratory. And I wanted to gather evidence to hand over to the non-believers — a baby skeleton, at least, something to open their minds just a fraction — to let the light of Truth seep in.
In my own way, I wanted to pay my respects, not just to my ancestors, but to those millions of other souls whose last human groans were uttered there. I wanted to give thanks, to acknowledge the sacrifice, to say that the degradation, the humiliation, the mutilation, the annihilation were not in vain. I’d pictured myself standing silently, alone, on the threshold of some anonymous cell, admitting that the world had learned its awful lesson. Never, no never again, would man’s inhumanity to man surface.
But how preposterous, I thought. Looking around me was proof enough that my private Thanksgiving would have to wait. As if synchronised by some overseer of the ominous, I began to feel trapped in images of World War II.
For there, as my car approached the outskirts of Auschwitz, increasing numbers of communist paramilitary police — called Zomo Squad troopers — began to appear. These were Polish men serving lengthy or life sentences in prisons, set free to arrest their own mothers, if need be, to keep the might of the communist regime intact. The idea was to let the Polish criminals do the nasty work of the regime.
The Zomo ranks grew thicker as I got closer. A new wave of bodies, seemingly exhumed from the celluloid cellars of Hollywood. Young. Rugged. They carried machine guns on their backs and billy clubs on their hips. I thought their grey, belted uniforms resembled those of Hitler’s SS.
I tried to distract myself with thoughts of the present. Today, back home in Bellows Falls, Vermont, a once thriving paper-mill town on the Connecticut River, but now an impoverished community struggling to stay solvent, I guessed my family was probably still asleep. But, in a few hours my mother’s table cloth with its scenes of Pilgrims and Native Americans would be blotched with gravy stains. Once more the fading Mayflower would hulk in a sea of cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie droppings, and discount store champagne.
For years my mother’s holiday cloths had underlined our happy, unhappy, pathetic, and sometimes apathetic gatherings. Now, 4500 miles across an ocean and light years behind an Iron Curtain, I was keenly aware of those cloths. They waved across my memory like a parade of 4th of July flags and majorettes and senior citizens in VFW hats. For the first time in my life I felt homesick.
Then, without warning, Auschwitz sprang up in front of me. The crow-black iron entrance gates spread like shadows across the baby-blue horizon. I stared up at the inscription over the archway. “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work Makes Free. I wondered how many of the millions who actually suffered, died, and endured here had entered through these gates. Had my relatives? Had the dry-cleaner worker in my New York neighbourhood, the one with the Auschwitz tattoo on her wrist? Had they seen the inscription and recognized the Hitler euphemism for the lie it was. Or had they lied to themselves as they shuffled under its shadows? Had they, like uncounted others, managed to deny the smokestacks of the crematoria spewing black smoke and the stench of burning flesh, even to their own nostrils?
Denial is such a powerful psychological tool. People who believe that the Holocaust never existed rely on denial, perhaps, because to believe that demonic forces are alive and operating on this earth would be too much for them to tolerate. Many have been spoon-fed anti-Semitism from childhood; it has been subtly mixed into their body of knowledge. The will say things like, “Some of my best friends are Jewish,” which actually translates to — all other Jews don’t deserve the special status of best friend. Not even the greatest gurus can wean them from this poisonous view.
I was horrified as I passed under the archway. The immensity of Auschwitz was no longer something to be imagined. Here it was spilling over the country side for miles and miles until it flowed into the adjacent death camp of Birkenau. The site was bigger than the whole town of Bellows Falls, Vermont. According to historians, when Hitler decided to build the death camps in the Polish Village of Oswiecim, he re-named the area Auschwitz. Some say Auschwitz means, “lights out”. Poles however, still refer to the area as “Oswiecim”. I got chills when I learned Oswiecim translates, “that which enlightens.”
And, indeed, viewing the remains of the original buildings instructed me in startling ways. It wasn’t just an awareness of my relatives’ presence. It was more like encountering my own ghost.
For four hours I walked up worn, stone steps and down blood-spattered corridors. Past stacks and stacks of shelves, wide as operating room tables, long as coffins, but each one used as a bed for eight. Past piles and piles of hair shaved from prisoners’ heads. Past piles and piles of blankets made from that hair. Blankets not to warm the prisoners, but to warm the bank accounts of those who marketed them.
Later, past piles and piles of crutches, canes, and wooden legs, all salvaged for re-sale, re-use. Heaps and heaps of shoes. Then, unexpectedly, in a mass of brown and back workers’ shoes I spotted on red velvet dancing slipper. I wondered what romantic heart had been slammed into a box car on her way to the last dance.
Beautiful long-ago cousin, Maria, was it you? My beloved Babcha Szysko told me a story once of how you’d heard about the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. How you admired her independence. How you envied her startling talent. How you yearned for just a pinch of her wealth. How you loved to get up mornings and dance in the dawn light of your kitchen before you lit the fires. Before you milked the cows. Before you walked to the well to fill the water buckets. Before you did the wash. Oh, Maria, how you would have cherished such a pair of dancing slippers. Red as the hummingbird’s throat. Smooth as the underbelly of the cat.
Yes, for each romantic heart extinguished, there were 20,000 dedicated others. Shoe by shoe, the future of the universe piled up like logs for the fire. How could I replant dreams? Rebuild whole visions? Just what is it possible to do in retrospect?
Is it accomplishing anything on this frail planet for me to look, really peer through the keyholes of the medical experiment chambers in cellblock 10 and see hundreds of solemn doctors who had taken hundreds of solemn oaths to uphold life, slicing it out of countless wombs? And if I picture myself amid the wailing women of cell block 10 who underwent this sterilisation without anesthesia, will it matter? I hope so. I am counting on it.
And I don’t want to forget how I felt when I saw the two-by-four brick confinement boxes where prisoners who tried to escape were entombed — alive. And I don’t want to stop imagining what each one’s last human thought might have been. Was it, “God forgive them?” I hope so. I am counting on it.
I am also counting on myself, to forgive myself for what I’ve done to the self of others because there is a bit of Hitler still alive in me, I’m ashamed to say. For I have seen myself interfering with another’s freedom to be and do whatever he chooses. So, until I recognise that when I even think of holding back one man’s freedom, any freedom, I am only holding back my own. Until I see, truly see, that other person as myself, I am getting nowhere.
Silently, alone on the threshold of some anonymous cell, as I promised myself, I gave thanks. What’s more, I told myself I’d work harder at being the kind of person someone descended from these martyrs ought to be. Before I can expect others to change, I must change myself.
As I retraced my steps under the archway to leave Auschwitz, perhaps forever, darkness crept invisibly over the horizon. My shadow stretched in front of me. Long and lean and Amazonian. The trip back to Krakow was swift. Once there, I was happy to see the lighted streets and windowed houses.
In the comfort of my cozy room I felt safe — almost free. Outside, as the temperature plummeted toward zero, I heard the muffled voices of the Zomo squad troopers. I lifted the shade and watched as they headed toward paramilitary headquarters. They didn’t look as frightening as they had earlier in spite of guns and billy clubs. In fact, they sounded like the young men they were. Laughing, joking, their breath making tiny puffs of steam in front of them. For a minute I thought the youngest in the group of six resembled my 19-year old bother. Or was it my son?
Surprisingly, I felt quite at home. What did it matter where I was celebrating Thanksgiving? Bellows Falls, Vermont or Krakow, Poland — this frail planet, after all, belongs to each and every one of us — wherever we may be.
Maybe years from now, some Tibetan is going to visit the prisons and gulags in Tibet with these same thoughts and feelings.
Maybe years from now, the west will see how they ignored the Tibetan’s horrific situation for many years, just like they did the situation of the Jews in Europe under Nazi Germany. How the west, in trying to “work with” China, is doing as they did then with Nazi Germany — it was called “appeasement”.
As Ms Kennedy points out, the Polish name for Auschwitz is Oswiecim, which translates: “that which enlightens.” As Buddhism says, the purpose of our suffering can be, to bring us enlightenment: “So, until I recognize that when I even think of holding back one man’s freedom, any freedom, I am only holding back my own. Until I see, truly see, that other person as myself, I am getting nowhere. ... This frail planet, after all, belongs to each and every one of us — wherever we may be.”
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