everything and nothing. not really sure yet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hello Hello

Well, it's been a very long time since I last posted - a lot has happened (both with me and with the world). But the good news is that I recovered my password, so now I can post for once.

And, now, for a headline that could be taken massively out of context:


But only about this.

And only partly.

This past February, as part of my gap year in Israel (Habonim Dror's Shnat Hachsharah - I guess I'll say more about this some other time), I travelled to Poland on a journey to explore the Holocaust and, particularly, the role of the Youth Movements and Jewish youth generally in taking responsibility over Jewish Polish society during such difficult times (perhaps I'll say more about this later - although I think most of what I'd like to say has already been said by my friends here). Part of this journey involved visiting Concentration Camps, such as Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Majdanek, the Treblinka site, the Plaszow site; visiting former ghettos and sites of uprising in Warsaw and Krakow; and other places of interest, such as a former shtetl (the name of which I have forgotten, it had a recently restored Synagogue), the Nazi sites of Lublin, the centre of Krakow and the former Jewish district of Krakow (Kazimierz).

In visiting Auschwitz I, the most famous (and therefore most visited) concentration camp, I was struck by something similar to what Irving talks about. Auschwitz feels like a Holcoaust theme park. There is something extremely unsettling about the way the museum has been put together - it does not feel real.

I would contrast this with Majdanek. Majdanek is in Lublin, in the East of Poland. It's harder to get to than Auschwitz. There's no real reason to go to Lublin, other than Majdanek. Krakow (near to Auschwitz), however, has a beautiful old city, full of history and culture. I would not come to Lublin as a tourist, only to see Majdanek. I would, however, go to Krakow as a tourist - even if I wasn't going to see Auschwitz. Lublin is a 6-hour coach drive from Krakow (it's a long way to travel by coach, trust me). Majdanek is much smaller than Auschwitz. Yet, partly because of this, it is preserved in a much more arresting and, frankly, 'real' way. When leaving most concentration camps and death camps, the Nazis destroyed everything they could (such as in Treblinka, where no original artifacts are left). At Majdanek, however, they were not afforded this luxury. They left in such a hurry, with the Soviet army approaching, that they did not destroy anything. Therefore, Majdanek still has original barracks. The crematorium stills stands, as does the bathtub next to the ovens, where the Camp Kommandant used the heat from the gassed corpses to warm his bath. Those parts of the camp that have either been curated (such as the barrack that has been filled with cages of shoes) feel altogether more real, less showy than those at Auschwitz I. Here it is immediate, close, you can touch it, smell it. The pile of human ash, housed by a huge mausoleum, is perhaps the most emotionally painful, arresting thing I have ever seen.

During my journey in Poland I recorded my thoughts mainly in the form of poems. Here is what I wrote after Auschwitz I:

Auschwitz I, a Tour

“Arbeit Macht Frei” reads the famous
Sign over the gate, but to even
Reach the entrance you have to
Walk through a building welcoming
You to “The Auschwitz Museum”.
And “Arbeit Macht Frei” points also
To the toilets, and you walk
Between solid brick barracks in
A respectful, mournful silence. Then
You enter a building where
People lived and died to see a
Display on The Final Solution, and
An inhuman pile of human hair,
In a room that held bodies –
Living corpses. But where did they
Keep the hair? The shoes? The
Suitcases? Why were they moved here,
Where they kept men – if you
Can even call them that? You exit
And stroll through the camp, passing
Poles on a day out to Oswiecim,
And you walk through a pre-
Prepared gap in the barbed
Wire, and wonder whether this
Really is Auschwitz, and not some
Holocaust-themed Amusement Park,
In some nondescript province of
Some nondescripts country, some
Fantasy, a stunt, a trick.
And then you enter the Crematorium.
You stand on the exact spot
Where someone stood at their
Death, and your heart jumps
And falls and shatters as
You stand in front of the
Ovens, where men were returned
To dust, and your soul
Sings a tuneful Kaddish as
You go back outside. Do you
Feel absolved?

Whereas here is what I wrote after Majdanek:


The house is square and quaint,
White and rural, and, as I
Stare up, the ghost of a child
Stares out, out towards the maze
Of barbed wire, Barracks and spilt
The camp. Majdanek. It breathes
Across the frozen air and cuts
Silence and flesh. Lublin City Buses
Drive, mundane and apathetic, past
The Crematorium and the Gas
Chamber and commuters shuttle
To any other work in any other
But this is not any other place.
I close my eyes and see barbed
Wire, I open them and I see
Shoes and ovens and the bath
They heated, and I want to be
Immersed, again, in a Mikveh of
Ignorance, free from this weight,
This pain.
And then a mountain of ash
Rises above it all, the twisted
Forgotten remnants of the blended
Thousands, the dust of man, a
Tragedy, an evil.
Evil it is, and men, women and
Children were killed as Cain killed
Abel, pliant, supple specimens of victimhood.
And amid all this horror and pain
And wire that cuts my eyes. I
Say a silent prayer to humanity
And its God, for goodness and light
And an answer to the question of
And the sun sets.

I think Irving is right to say that too much attention is paid to Auschwitz, and it has become a major source of income for the local area. This is where visiting sites of historical and emotional interest, in order to seek understanding, can slide into the sort of generic "Holocaust tourism" that so angers the likes of Avrum Burg, for instance. I don't think, however, that Irving really gets it. He's now going to run tours to other "Nazi sites", taking part in the generic consumption of the Holocaust and World War 2 that he's always been involved in. Rather than focus on "hey, look, this is where Hitler lived" and "hey, look, this is where Operation Reinhard (which, of course, as Irving's younger self would pop out and tell you, is all American-Jewish-Zionist-Communist propoganda) was conducted from", you should try and get to the bottom of what the Holocaust really was, how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, and how the Jews lived (in some cases passively, in some cases through active resistance) under it.

Coming up next time on Trilby Hats and Coffee: a new series, Shit That Really Pissed Me Off (Ground Zero edition).