3 05 2015

As I sit in my hotel room in Warsaw, with a beautiful view of the cityscape at night, Chopin playing, and a whisky in my hand (it was the bartender’s idea) my mind bends towards my visit to the largest and deadliest Nazi concentration camp.

The serene beauty of the area obfuscating its torturous past.

The train tracks covered in children trying to balance on them.

The barracks, most of which are nothing more than remnants, warm and aerated belying their former lives.

The presence of laughter and chit chat amongst so many visitors not precluding mourning nor, if I accidentally overheard right, admitting of association to loved ones.

The absurdity of the SS detonating dynamite at the crematoria to try and hide their deeds.

The irony of throngs of people clamoring to get inside with the staff ineptly managing the lines.

I am now considering a tattoo. I am toying with not shaving for a set period of time. Numerous ideas float before my mind’s eye in an effort to put some kind of form to everything that is swirling about inside me. There must be some way I can help retain a connection to this pilgrimage as the days, weeks, and years go by. It occurs to me that, though not always easy to procure from officials, memorials to the dead can actually be relatively easy to create.  Not to minimize the time, intention, nor effort that goes into effective ones. But once they are made, they are there, accessible and manifest. Where the real difficulty lies is in how to live in the wake of so much death, loss, and pain.  

While reading in preparation for my travels here, there was a particularly graphic clash of symbolism that made visceral how unprepared I still was: on a lunch break I would immerse myself in a world where the gold fillings were removed from victims’ teeth and then, when lunch was over, return to a world where a watch made of gold was the epitome of desire. As I look upon this cityscape tonight, I can feel that I am not carrying that tension anymore.  Not that the imagery no longer applies or the contrast has lost its potency, but that the tension it once created is not with me right now. To encase current circumstances in a canonized past cannot but ossify the present. And to ignore the past through delusion, ignorance, or cowardice cannot but breed arrogance. As Primo Levi put it, “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Or, as St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?”

I believe this is what disturbed me the most as I walked around Birkenau: what the Nazis attempted to do makes sense. There was a certain logic to it, and the fruits of it that surrounded me, that made the reality of what happened all the more oppressive. My mind and heart would one moment struggle to grapple with the magnitude of it all and the next be able to easily imagine the machinery of death working. And it was that oscillation that made me realize just how easy is for something like this to occur. In different forms and for different reasons and to/by different people, but the attempt to exterminate undesirable elements in one’s environment is so…. human. The iconic cries of “Never again!” are easily outnumbered by those who look upon a place like Auschwitz and say “How could anyone do this?”

And so I am unsure of how to symbolize my time here in a way that remembers and honors this era while also encouraging and challenging me in an ongoing fashion. I am also quite tired as I enter my final day of this pilgrimage before flying back. So hopefully a good night’s sleep (which I did not get in Kraków) along with relaxed exploration of Warsaw will stimulate more on this question.

But, for now, I shall sleep with a calmness about me that escapes recollection of when I last felt its ilk.




One response

3 05 2015

Reblogged this on omo10.

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