Since arriving in the southern Polish city of Krakow last week my understanding of this country has grown exponentially. It's a country that has only begun to gain confidence as a modern Western European entity in the last 20 years, since the fall of the Communist Bloc. Before then the country was ravaged by war and oppression - starting in WWII with Nazi occupation followed immediately by war against and eventual domination by communism. However, walking around the city center feels quite modern under its historic architecture, with trendy young people and cafes everywhere. The hosts I've stayed with through a hospitality exchange program, Servas, have been incredibly warm and welcoming.
The focus of the trip is to start a project about the city of Oswiecim and its complex relationship with the adjacent notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz. While countless works of art and journalism have been produced about the camp itself, minimal attention has been given to the app. 45,000 people living near its gates in the present. The dark history of the camp- where over a million people were systematically murdered- casts a long shadow over current residents. My project addresses their effort to live normally while juggling their roles as the camp's ambivalent guardians.
Yesterday I met with two experts in Jewish-Polish relations, one from the Galicja Jewish Museum and the other from Jagiellonian University and we had some great conversations. I asked hard questions about sensitive subjects and they answered with grace.
It seems Poland's current transformation into a modern democratic state extends to the mentality of its people with regard to confronting their past. 700 years of Jewish tradition, including a Jewish population of 3.5 million, was left in ruins after the Holocaust. Until the fall of the Iron Curtain in '89, the country was not truly able to face that reality. Poland's self-confidence as a nation had been repeatedly slammed, by war, by tyrants, by the Catholic Church, and only now is self-reflection an significant part of their national identity. Because with freedom comes the ability to look in the mirror and address necessary changes.
One of those glaring flaws is the brutal history of anti-Semitism. During the Holocaust the country was gripped by a real fear imposed by the Nazis. After the crematoria consumed the Jews, the Poles feared they would be next on the list. According to the professor I spoke to, Edyta Gawron, about 10% of the population actively helped the Nazis in persecuting Jews, while about 10% of the country actively helped save them. The rest of the country remained silent, trying to live their lives without provoking the wrath of the Nazis. The most important question for me, which might never be answered, is to what extent could the majority of Polish people helped to protect their neighbors?
There seem to be plenty of examples to support either perspective, but no way of drawing a conclusion. Some Poles did not want to risk helping Jews because they did not care what happened to them, and actually preferred to see them done away with. Some actually took it upon themselves to murder their Jewish neighbors, such as in Jedwabne in 1941. In some cases, when Jewish survivors of camps returned to their homes to find them occupied by Poles they were run out of town or murdered. These are the most extreme cases, but there was plenty of subtle anti-Semitism influenced by the Catholic church and politics over years that corroded people's view of Jews. There are also many stories of those who wanted to help but literally feared for their lives and could not risk being caught. And of course, there's a significant list of righteous individuals who, despite everything, went out of their way to hide Jews from the Nazis.
On Monday I'll be leaving Krakow for Oswiecim. I'm sure many more questions will come up the longer I'm here. I hope I can ask the right ones and help people here, and everywhere, take a look in the mirror and think about why such atrocities came to pass, in order to help prevent them in the future.
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