Learning about compassion in Poland

Teaching has provided me many opportunities–I pretty much have the best job ever–but one opportunity that I don’t think I ever really digested was going to Poland in 2005 to tour concentration camps with Holocaust survivors.  Last night, while digging through baby clothes in the basement, I came across my journal from that trip and felt inspired to write about it.  Here it is…

This place is a grave. This whole place is a grave. Yet, flowers, grass, and trees grow without the knowledge of what has happened here. Life must go on. Suffering exists, but life must go on. May, 25 2005.
I remember, for some reason, feeling like I was starving. And I felt guilty for feeling this way because of everything that I was learning and witnessing. We had scheduled meals provided for us and I even wrote in my journal, “I’m really beginning to enjoy Polish food.” But I couldn’t get eating out of my head. I sat on the bus with fellow teachers traveling from cemetery to monument to concentration camp and all I could think about was drinking a cold, frosty coke, which doesn’t exist in Poland. Europeans like their soda hot, I discovered. I looked around me and saw young and old teachers, Holocaust survivors, Holocaust experts and thought, do they wish they had a coke too?
But about three days into the trip as I scarfed down food at one of the scheduled buffet meals, I looked over to Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor traveling with us who lived in Kentucky for many years after the war, and who I was both in awe of and felt to be a kindred spirit. With a plate piled with food in front of me and plans already to help myself to seconds, I looked at Irving who sat quietly, almost religiously, sipping one small bowl of soup. I thought to myself, he knows truly what it means to starve and here I sit complaining while he sips silently and contentedly. Every time I thought of food, or coke, I’d picture Irving savoring each sip of his broth as if it were his last, and I’d try to remember to savor it more.

Me and Irving Roth

Me and Irving Roth

I walked in, not expecting to see it, so it startled me. It smelled like death. A pile of hair from the murdered corpses. May 26, 2005.
Fred Spiegel, another survivor with us in Poland, walked with us into the room piled with human hair, the stench of burning flesh and rotting hair hanging in the air, and he stood aghast at the sight of one long blonde braid on top of the pile, perfectly in view from where we stood. He told us, once he caught his breath (this was his first time back to the camp since the war), that the last time he saw his little sister was as he stood watching her blonde braid dance across her shoulders as she bounced away, unaware of her fate. I looked around at my fellow teachers, sensitive people with a desire to foster change in the world, and eyes were welling up with tears at the realization that this man felt true pain and hardship with which we could never understand or relate.
We attempted to understand Irving and Fred’s pain later when we sat for 12 minutes (the amount of time it took to die from the gas) in the gas chamber at Majdanek. I looked at the concrete walls and stared at the scratch marks on them where dying human beings sucked the last shred of air while desperately fighting for their lives. The scratches blurred through my wet eyes, dancing like a very sad and gray Van Gogh painting. Some of us cried softly, dripping privately in our anger and desperation and others of us left choking on our sobs. Some went to be alone, sitting and writing; others were hugging and talking through what they felt. I looked around at my colleagues’ and friends’ blotchy, somber faces and noticed, within walking distance, a house. A woman was on her balcony, hanging dull-colored clothes on a clothesline. Everything I felt from the images my imagination had created for me in the gas chamber disappeared as I thought, this woman hangs her clothes out to dry every day beside a massive human grave. My thoughts were interrupted when someone in my group decided to create a prayer circle. There was no pressure, just some people who quietly joined hands and before long everyone had joined hands in quiet prayer and contemplation. I looked around that circle and recognized that there were people with joined hands from all religions as well as atheists, but everyone came together for one purpose: to pay quiet tribute to those who were murdered.  I looked up to the balcony where the woman had been, her clothes flapping in the wind and wondered if she ever prayed for her neighbors whose graves were below my feet. I hoped that she did.

Gate to Auschwitz

Gate to Auschwitz

I keep telling myself that the war is over and this does not and will not ever happen again. But seeing all this makes my heart ache. I know inside that we’re closer than we could ever imagine. May 27, 2005.
Days later we went to a synagogue where a rabbi and Holocaust expert were to speak to us about both his experience and his knowledge of history. The rabbi was late and we became restless sitting in our cold hard pews waiting for him to show. Finally, as he became inexcusably late, a leader in our group called him on his cell phone to find out what delayed him. He was told, through exasperated breaths, that the rabbi had been harassed on his way to the synagogue. Two thugs confronted him on the street and began pushing him around, chanting Poland for the Poles! over and over again. Again, the teachers sat in silence when we heard this news. A hush fell over the synagogue. I suddenly felt hopeless. What am I doing here, I thought, one teacher can’t stop hatred and violence, no matter how much history I learn. The rabbi finally arrived and his demeanor encouraged me; he was happy to be there and brushed off the act of cruelty as something that could be stopped if we just kept trying. He told us a story about a dog that saved a man’s life during the Holocaust. The man was a Jew who fled through the woods and found a barn belonging to a Gentile man who kept his dog inside it. The winter was brutal. The Jew shivered in the back of the barn, nearing death from starvation and hypothermia. The dog growled aggressively at the Jew in the beginning, but was in the habit of leaving half of his food when his master would feed him in the bowl for the Jew. The dog spread out his hay, sharing it with the man through the days and at night would lie close beside him, warming him with his body. The Jew said later that he suspected that the dog’s master knew he was there, yet pretended not to. He hadn’t enough compassion to let him into his house, but enough to allow him to sleep and eat in secret with his dog. The dog, however, shared lovingly and completely. As this rabbi spoke, his hair messed from the ordeal he had just undergone and glistening with a tint of sweat, I looked in wonder. Here stood a man before me who faced hatred and violence with hope and patience telling a story about a compassionate animal who saved the life of a man when no one else was brave enough to do it. I thought, if a dog can have compassion, surely any human being can, if they let themselves. And I wondered could I ever be as brave as the rabbi had been that day?

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