If We Forget

by Daniel E. Tatar darthtatar@juno.com

Two summers ago, I was an active participant on a trip called Shorashim, translated into English as roots. A portion of this trip included a one-week investigation in to the history of Poland and the Holocaust, as well as the Polish culture today. This aspect involved a visit into Majdonek and Auschwitz, several of the concentration camps in which my Jewish predecessors suffered. Until this revealing trip, I was isolated from many real-world problems affecting society. The Holocausts horrors are being perpetuated in to the Polish youth as hate. After a genocide less than fifty years ago, this hate remains even more incomprehensible -- both emotionally and intellectually.

The second day in Poland, we visited the concentration camp of Majdonek. An enormous interpretative stone monument, which symbolized the burden and struggle of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, was defaced with the graffiti of a Jewish star being hung. And so, I and the other Jews were welcomed by the Polish citizens. I agonized through much of my stay in Majdonek, but hadn't even begun to live through what my ancestors did. For that day, the Holocaust -- the suffering, the grief, the pain, the sadness, the loss -- became real to me. Sights that once seemed historic, like in a museum, something unreal that only the imagination could create, now had musty smells and bare, empty sounds. It wasn't just pictures anymore. It was as much a reality as it could become without living through it myself. An entire chapter of history seemed to fill the barren magazyns, the crematorium, the fields, the gas chambers, and the displays of clothes, shoes, and hair.

As we huddled in the same dark room that our own people were gassed in, crowded, almost shoulder to shoulder, I looked at each young face around me, each having its own identity, its own bright, long future. It could easily have been us. It was only 50 years ago! Informative descriptions placed throughout the camps displays referred to Jews only as other Pols. We were denied of any individual identity! And throughout all this living hell, a place that made me nervously scared as if I myself were trying to stay alive in there, I noticed the Polish houses, as close as 50 feet and no farther than half a mile! I could see them clearly, and it was obvious they could see back, let alone smell and hear! So where was their help? Their protest to the wrongdoings? I grew to understand these villagers fears, for if they helped the Jews in any way and were caught, they would definitely be killed by the powerful Third Reich.

Still, there was so much blind denial by the current government about these blatant incidents. Only recently have they begun to admit the wrongdoings that occured in the concentration camps. My grandfather led Allied forces to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. These painful, unmentionable horrors he saw firsthand stayed with him forever -- hardly ever mentioned, but definitely never forgotten. From that time until his death one-and-one-half years ago, he wrote an annual letter to the Burgermeister of the city of Dachau asking why they denied the occurrence of such atrocities. Almost fifty letters consistently sent for half a century to the same government, and not one response.

Everywhere we went -- Lublin, Krakow, the Jewish Ghetto -- anti-Semitic graffiti fed the minds of Polish youth, who verbally threatened our group because one of us bore the Star of David on a necklace. For fear of our personal safety, we were instructed to keep our religious identity concealed. This had already been done across the country, with so few Jewish people living in Poland, let alone any buildings of Jewish culture.

We learned more about the Pols view toward Jews in a discussion we had with a 76-year-old who, according to himself, is the youngest Jewish resident in Poland. Without any family left in the country, it was his job to maintain one of the few synagogues left intact in Poland. Through an interpreter, we learned that several weeks earlier, he had been severely beaten by Polish adults as part of a string of antisemitic actions. Why would any Jew want to stay there?

The oddest incident during my visit occurred on the side of a desolate country road next to a thickly wooded forest -- no other cars, buildings, houses, or roads for miles! Randomly placed in the middle of this was an elaborate Jewish cemetery, complete with a large monumental statue in front. The more I viewed this cemetery, and the obscure little farm shack next to it where the groundskeeper lived, I realized that it wasn't randomly placed at all. Rather, it had been intentionally hidden in a densely forested area to avoid the vandalism we had seen in other parts of Poland.

We visited the Jewish Quarter in the heart of Warsaw, or rather the remains of this once Jewish populated area. There was very little presence of any Judaism there. Right near Cracow and Auschwitz, there was a small village called Czenstochowa. This was Poland's version of the old city within the Jewish Quarter. We walked around observantly as our guide pointed out what wasn't there. We searched several hours for a hint of a Jewish past, and found many Polish efforts to remove that part of history. Within this small village, there was a small movie theater. Upon comparison with a historical photograph, we noticed that it was once an Orthodox synagogue. A movie screen covered the ark's former presence, the balcony that once seated the Orthodox women now held the movie projector, and the Jewish murals in the windows were painted over and boarded up to keep out light.

Shalmi Balmour, the historical curator at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, noted that on his last visit five years ago, many homes had bare, unpainted wood where the mezuzot (the Jewish religious ornament containing the word of God) used to hang on the doorposts. Now, just several years later, every home had freshly painted door frames hiding their Jewish past. This village was very dilapidated and dirty. I described in my journal that the homes were all drab and gray, whose condition reminded me very much of the worst sections of Chicago's housing projects. So obviously the money used to repaint the door frame of a house was most precious. The Polish government spent time and money doing this, but not helping the social economy or the people begging in the town squares! The Jewish Historical Museum was anything but that. Located on a small street corner in the Jewish Quarter, I was completely unaware that we were visiting a Jewish Museum. It seemed more like a private collection of memorabilia, with drawings and many newspaper clippings. Centuries of rich Jewish history in Poland were condensed into a room only 10 x 15 feet! Even then, it contained only newspaper clippings and fairly recent art paintings symbolizing the plight of the Jews and the hate toward the Nazis. These paintings, however, were in a dimly lit area behind a black curtain. This was obviously being shown in secret. It is not only disgraceful but painful to know that the Jewish people must hide the little visible history still remaining before it is taken away! Next, we visited the concentration camp of Auschwitz and its neighboring death camp, Birkenau. Individuals, couples, and youth groups from all over the world funneled into a small gravel field in through an arched entrance. We entered in small but emotionally weak groups to prevent collapsing in disbelief. Once we entered this field, we were channeled between two two-story brick barracks, but soon found ourselves contained between frail, short brick walls connecting the two buildings. The surrounding brick walls, whose colors manipulated all hues of red clashed with the coal grey, drizzling sky. It was a somber, quiet area as the frigid wind hushed our speech and seemed to carry in the horrified voices from fifty years ago. With heavy steps, we walked toward a group of people standing in a clump at the other end of the field. They were taking pictures of a temporary, portable memorial established by the Polish Scouts.

On an unobstructed area of the ground laid several bouquets of various-colored flowers, surrounded by short, thick candles. The flames were forced to dodge the falling drops of cold, drizzling rain. The small memorial was set up in front of the stark, raven black shooting wall, which served as the backdrop for thousands of inhuman murders. Ten feet separated my huddling group from the temporary memorial, but four Polish Scouts prevented us from getting any closer. Several members of our group questioned one Polish Scout, who helped create the memorial. This Polish boy appeared no older than fifteen, but there was a lot more than just an age difference separating us:

"Who are you here for?" asked a member of my group. The boy remained ignorant to our presence.

"Do you speak English?"

The boy offered a hesitant, "Yes."

"Are you here for the people who were killed?"

Silence. My friend attempted again. "Are you here for the people who did the killings?...The Nazis?"

The Polish Girl Scout next to him sneered triumphantly, "Mein Kampf!"

The boy remained silent.

One American girl began to cry in disbelief, but the boy just looked away, impassive. How could someone younger than I have so much uneducated hate? My frustration peaked, however, when I looked closer at the boy. With many eyes coldly gazing at him, he seemed uncomfortable. I think he realized what was wrong and wanted to excuse the incident. But he was silenced and torn by the fact that his questioner was a "dirty Jew.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade-unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

[Reverend Martin Niemoller]

I am cognizant that this world is filled with wrongdoing. However, there are too many incidents when the majority's ideologies predominate over one's own. This type of blind prejudice is simply a legacy of hatred passed through generations -- the basis for it long since forgotten. There were no personal events that hindered the relationship between this young Polish Boy Scout and me. Yet the deeds, misdeeds, and burdens of our ancestors caused us to be enemies.

There is a strong emphasis in our education to be "book-smart," in hopes of developing great thinkers and leaders. However, how can we truly be intelligent when we can't even manage to relate to others peacefully? What I thought subsided years ago still exists.

I have never experienced such a threat to my own existence before strictly because of my natural-born religion. This blind hate has nothing to do with who I am, or even who that Polish Boy Scout is. I began to feel a resentful hate toward the people of Poland for treating any human being this way, especially after the Holocaust. Later, I came to recognize that my feelings of anger and retaliation would only add to the cycle, not discontinue it.

In his extensive research, Jonathan Wallace, a New York lawyer and novelist on the ethics involved with the Holocaust, reflected on the morality and responsibility involved with such a genocide: I helped chase a couple of thieves in the street....I was running because someone else had shouted Stop thief! And started off down the street. When crowds rescue a victim, someone has acted first, and others followed. When crowds stand by, no-one has taken the initiative. Most people are probably poised precariously on the edge between action and inaction, between good and evil. Everything depends on the one who steps forward. (http://www.spectacle.org/695/intro.html)

The Holocausts message has been stressed to an almost trite level: if we forget, it will happen again. However, it does not yet appear to be heard. Being passive, expecting others to act in a positive manner, only heightens the threat of another genocide. Just because the Jews aren't in Poland any more does not mean people won't find another group to discriminate against. The Jews were merely a vehicle for the destruction. And the problem is certainly not contained within Europe. However, right now in Poland, blind hate toward our people is out of control. History can repeat itself. Until my visit to Poland, I never thought there was even a possibility of a repeated genocide. Had the Holocaust not occurred, how much larger would the Jewish population be today? Enough to be the majority? The lives of six million Jews were physically erased. Over three million lives from other cultures were destroyed as well -- fathers, mothers, children, babies, aunts, grandmothers. But if we prevent them from being mentally erased, many more lives can be saved. A massive genocide does not necessarily need to take place. It is happening slowly and steadily around the world: ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Neo-Nazi groups, etc. Majdonek has been preserved as a historical monument. Pipings, beds, and buildings are maintained to keep this camp intact. Although it helps create a larger impact on the visitors that come to learn about people and their past, a large threat remains. This concentration camp can be started up to be fully operational in under one hour. If we forget and do not educate, it will easily -- most definitely -- happen again. If we forget, many more people will continue to die. When they come for you, others will have forgotten, and no one will be able to speak for you. As humans, we cannot afford to be ignorant and lose another nine million individuals.


WORKS CITED

Balmour, Shalmi. Lecture/Discussion/Interview. June-Aug, 1994.

Wallace, Jonathan. (http://www.spectacle.org/695/intro.html) and interview. 8 Dec 1995.

Yad Vashem, Israel. Various exhibits and documents. 3 Aug 1994.