“There’s a rumor that the Nazis preserved the ghetto to hold as a museum for the extinct race.” Our tour guide through the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow puts air quotes around “extinct race.” Her gesticulations are particular; she talks emphatically and waves her hands around in tandem, cocks her head to the side when she places emphasis on a word.
We’re gathered in a square just outside the largest synagogue in Krakow, rebuilt in the sixteenth century after a huge fire burned it down. Tourism in the synagogue is strictly monitored, and so we don’t enter the red-bricked building. Instead, we gaze at it from outside as our tour guide cycles through the Jewish history of Krakow.
In the 10th century, the Jews first settled in Poland, attracted to Krakow mainly because of its prominence along the trade routes of medieval Europe. Long before Poland existed as a unified country, Krakow stood as the capital of the Polish Slavs. The POLIN museum makes this point clear and so does our tour guide: Krakow and the lands that would later become the Polish nation were unusually welcoming towards the Jews in the 10th century. Cast against the general anti-Semitism of medieval Europe, Poland, and especially Krakow, was a halcyon for European Jews.
To be welcoming, of course, is not to be necessarily hospitable. Life for the Jews in Krakow was relatively well-off compared to the rest of Europe. That did not mean, however, that life in Krakow was exceptional or without its typical caveats for Jews. As was the case for most European cities and states, the Polish kings typically kept the Jews in the country for their economic use. Unlike Christians, who were religiously forbidden to charge interest on items bought on credit, Jews were able to charge “usury,” and thus gravitated toward the center of medieval merchant life.
While Polish kings typically recognized the economic importance of a Jewish presence, they had no interest in full assimilation. Jews in medieval Krakow were restricted to a ghetto—at the time in Europe, simply a Jewish neighborhood—just on the periphery of the central part of town. In the fourteenth century, Kazimierz the Great, the Polish king credited with unifying the Polish people into a modern nation-state, expelled the Jews to a city adjacent to Krakow: the eponymous city of Kazimierz.
Here, Jewish life flourished for centuries. Kazimierz was eventually annexed by Krakow, and now exists as a district within the sprawling city. The Jewish influence in Kazimierz exists to this day: Jewish stars still lay engraved in street signs and address placards on buildings. The JCC of Krakow is situated squarely within Kazimierz, and many of the restaurants in the area serve a Polish interpretation of Jewish and Israeli foods.
Our tour of the Jewish ghetto is confined mostly to Kazimierz. The Jewish ghetto that once existed in the main town of Krakow was taken apart after the Jews were expelled. Our tour guide eventually leads us to the oldest synagogue in Krakow, a modest building with a guard at the entrance. We’re led around the back of the prayer house. A cemetery sits here, encased by large, white walls. The ground upon which the gravestones lie seems raised.
“The government of Krakow refused to allot more space for the Jews in Kazimierz,” our tour guide starts. “So instead of growing out, the cemetery grew up. Some people estimate there are seven layers of bodies here.”
Our guide gives us some time to walk around the gravestones, warns us to stick to the paths so as to not desecrate the graves. On some stones, visitors have left printouts with various songs and poems, some of them in Hebrew, others in Polish. A few of them are in Yiddish, but they’re far outweighed in number by the former two.
We make our way into the synagogue and filter into the pews. The prayer room is tiny, we remark, compared to the ones in the synagogues we’re familiar with back home. The ceilings are rather low; the arc in which the Torah is kept isn’t so lavishly decorated. We wander about the synagogue, take in the Hebrew inscriptions on the wall.
For all this synagogue stands to commemorate—the wealth of religiosity in the Jewish community of Krakow in prewar Krakow—its lack of auspice makes it seem rather quaint, sparsely visited, almost barely noticeable. The prayer books nestled into the benches on the backs of the pews seem new and hardly used—not surprising given the size of the Jewish community in Krakow, estimated to be hovering at about 120 people. In a city of nearly 2 million, it’s no surprise that Jews in Krakow maybe have a hard time getting here.
We walk to the ancient limits of Kazimierz and cross a bridge over the Vistula to another section of Krakow. The fog hangs low, especially on the banks of the river.
* * *
Our tour guide leads us into a massive square where large, wooden chairs are fixed by their pegs into the ground. Just larger than a standard dining room chair, these pieces of furniture tile across the square in a grid, their seats collecting water after a light drizzle. At the head of the square, a squat gray building bears the years “1941” and “1943” over two sealed doors.
This square commemorates the deportation of the Jews of Krakow to the nearby labor camp, Płaszów (featured prominently in Schindler’s List), which was demolished towards the end of the war and is now a preserved park. During the occupation of Krakow, the Nazis forced the Jews to leave their homes in Kazimierz and move across the Vistula to the blocks surrounding this square. In 1941, this became the Nazi Ghetto of Krakow.
Years after the war ended, the city of Krakow opened a competition for artists to craft an appropriate memorial for the liquidation of the ghetto, which happened early in the year 1943. This memorial, in which the direction of the chairs symbolizes the direction in which Jews were deported (some face towards Płaszów, some towards Auschwitz), was chosen for a variety of reasons.
“It’s a subtle memorial,” our tour guide remarks. “What do these chairs remind you of? Dining room chairs, perhaps.” Around the square, local Poles have set up stands to sell trinkets to tourists. Some have boxes of old records; others have tour books of the city. Some of them sell tarnished menorahs and candle sticks. Our tour guide later confirms: “Yes, these probably belonged to the Jews who were evicted from their homes. When the Poles moved into these homes, they found all the stuff that was left behind.”
And now they sell it. Much like the dining room chairs in this square, they are subtle reminders of a life that once flourished here. I lean over to Nate, who joined me on an expedition the night before to find a bar near our hotel. We settled in one just by the end of our street. The inside walls bore a collage of torn paint and faded Hebrew letters. The bar tap, towards the back of the room, was raised on a dais. A lamp hung from the ceiling over the bartender.
“This reminds me of that creepy bar we went to last night,” I say. Nate nods. Locals pass by through the square of chairs, they sway gently in the decaying light of the bar, dropping coats lazily on bar stools and leaning up against the Hebrew lettering on the wall. A kid hops into one of the seats supposedly facing Płaszów, a man rests his hand on the Hebrew word for God scrawled on the wall, barely discernible among the crowds that swarm to pick up drinks from the bartender.
“I’m not really sure what to make of this monument.” Nate wanders away. His reaction is more reserved than it was the night before. Revolted by the very idea of a bar in an abandoned synagogue, he left briskly and made his way back to the hotel. He was quick to remark what that bar is: dancing on a grave that has no headstone.
But the revulsion doesn’t come as quickly here, in broad daylight, where merchants barter with tourists over the price of stolen Judaica. Something about the banality of it is disarming, much like the chairs—which, yes, could just be dining room fixtures—in this square. Something about all this history, hidden in plain sight, hidden only because the memorials, the indices for the life that once stood here, are subtle by design.
A merchant waves a menorah at us from the distance, shouting its price in local currency. “200 zloty! 160 zloty! I can do 140!” To him, perhaps to the people of Krakow, this alien object is an object of fascination, free of religious significance. The only thing separating it from a museum piece is a lack of protective glass, a lack of some distant ownership.
A museum of the extinct race. The Vistula sends cold fog into the square. I zip up my coat and tighten my scarf. I have to stop myself from relapsing into a thought I’ve staved off since the beginning of the tour: well, isn’t that just what Krakow is? A giant museum for the extinct race? Unlike Warsaw, this city was not demolished in the war. All of the buildings used by former residents of the city are still here, but they get left behind as the city gets older. Or, sometimes, they’re converted into bars.
We cross the street and head towards the museum of Schindler’s factory. Tomorrow, we’ll make the long-awaited journey to Auschwitz. I stop in a convenience store on the way to grab a bottle of water. At the checkout counter, a tour company has put up a sign: “Bundled trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, reduced price for limited time only!”
* * *
That night we gather in one of the hotel rooms and finish watching Schindler’s List. We lie down, side by side, some of us holding each other. We learned earlier in the Schindler museum that Schindler himself wasn’t considered one of “The Righteous”—those commemorated at Yad V’Shem for protecting Jews from the wrath of the Nazis during the war—until after the movie was released. The movie, which took some liberties with depicting Schindler as a savior for the Jews he employed in his factory, was enough to have him remembered alongside the names of families who risked their lives to store Jewish families in their attics, when, according to record, he had very little to do with the thousand names that were kept alive during the war.
For that reason, watching the movie feels cheaper, now. I text my mom: “I think I’m the first one in the family to go to Auschwitz.” She confirms that she went to Babi Yar when she was younger, found it particularly scarring. But she’s heard it’s nothing like Auschwitz. My dad asks me to call him after we leave the camp tomorrow. I tell him I’ll try, but I might not be able to if I can’t find good Wi-Fi.
After the movie, three of us go to a bar and sit outside on an old square. Our tour guide from earlier had walked us through it during the day. The giant rotunda in the center of the square was once a kosher slaughterhouse; now, small restaurant vendors populate the stalls and sell fries and ice cream to drunk tourists who happen through the square.
We talk about our upbringings as Jews. I get angry when one of us suggests that he, unlike myself, has trouble talking badly behind peoples’ backs on account of his Jewish schooling. “You are not the only one who went to Hebrew school!” I feel defensive of my own Judaism; something about being here, brought into dialogue with the history my ancestors, whom I admittedly know nothing about, opens a rift of vulnerability. Am I even Jewish enough to mourn the Holocaust?
When it rains, we go back to the hotel. I get in bed and can’t fall asleep. Marni warned us that we wouldn’t sleep well the night before the trip. It’s a curious kind of sleeplessness: one where the mind is blank, but the eyes won’t close. One where you can hear each individual water droplet as it taps on the window. Hear the footsteps in the hallway as other patrons of the hotel find their way back to their rooms, fumble for their keys, and rest them on the nightstand by their beds.
I look over and see a message on my phone from my younger sister. “Good luck tomorrow! I love you.”
* * *
The bus ride from Krakow to Auschwitz is about an hour long. Auschwitz is just west of Krakow, close to the southern border with the Czech Republic. The journey begins on wide freeways but sinews off onto smaller streets as we get closer to the town from which the camp’s name is derived. The town of Auschwitz is a rather small suburb; quaint houses flank the avenue that leads to the camp.
Flocks of student groups hover around the entrance, waiting to be pushed through metal detectors and a rather nimble security team. We’re able to meet with our guide just outside the gate to Auschwitz I, the first camp of Auschwitz and mostly a labor camp, above which lies a message fashioned from iron letters: “Arbeit mach frei” (Work brings freedom). We’re asked to wear headphones attached to radio transmitters that pick up a signal from our guide. This is so that she can walk us through the camp and keep her voice low.
Walking under the cast iron gate into the camp, my vision narrows. A chill snakes down my spine quietly. On the sides of the path leading into the camp are two-story barracks, the outside-facing walls made of decaying brick. There are about thirty blocks; each one has a number to the right of the door leading into it. The path is strewn with tiny pebbles. It’s rained recently, so the pebbles lie creased into the mud underneath them. A subtle crunch with each step.
Some of the barracks have been memorialized, and now are exhibits for items found in the camp after its liberation at the end of the war. In order to minimize bunching traffic, visitors are encouraged not to stop along the path delineated by the guides. Our guide leads us through introductory rooms, past panels with photos of prisoners in the camp taken at the time of liberation. She cycles through facts and figures that at this point we’ve all heard enough times that they aren’t shocking anymore.
“Auschwitz was the largest Nazi camp, and in it over 1 million Jews perished.” Our guide speaks softly into the microphone on her chest. “See, this room we’re standing in right now used to house prisoners.”
See the window, just left of the tour guide. Many before you have seen this window. Look out the windows to see tourists walking by. Imagine what one might have seen, standing in your spot 70 years earlier.
See this glass pane, behind which lie piles and piles of human hair salvaged from the storage receptacles of the Nazis. There used to be a row of bunks in its place. Two beds stacked on top of each other to each bunk, five bodies to each bed. See this braid in the pile. See, it belonged to a little girl, you can tell by how thin the hair is. She remains nameless, shapeless. All we have left of her is this little bit of braid, this little reminder of hands that could braid without even thinking about it, head cocked to the side to make holding the three ropes of hair easier as they were woven together.
This is a reminder of hair, of hands, of a head they all held onto. Millions of them, although face-to-face with a room full of tangled hair, 1 million bodies are still impossible to visualize. One million bodies don’t fit into this room. But there must be over a million strands here, each one snaking around the other in a frozen dance, pressed up against the watershed of time, the inevitability of decay. Each day more oils in this bunch dry up; the strands crinkle imperceptibly.
Keep walking, be mindful of the crowds. Next room is upstairs. Oh god, look at the face of the man who just left this room. Was he just crying or will he wait to burst until he’s outdoors? Look at his kid—what the hell is a kid doing here? Stop looking, stop looking before they make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact, don’t violate their space, don’t interrogate them with a glance that looks like interrogation but really you’re just stunned by, oh god, did you really just look at piles and piles of human hair?
Here is the room you’ve been waiting for, glass panes on either side of the walkway separating you from deep recesses of space filled with piles of shoes. When you tried to imagine it, you thought they’d be paired up neatly on the ground, just one layer sprawling outwards. Or maybe a shoe rack—naïve, but human at least. No, this isn’t like anything you imagined; my god how far back do these piles go?
See the red shoes in front. They look too small to have belonged to a grown woman. See the sandals lying closest to you, think about how many shoes you can’t see from here because they’re buried in the piles. Keep walking so the crowd doesn’t bunch up. Step over the girl who’s bunched up on the floor. I wonder how they deal with crowd control when someone loses it.
See the leather, undulating in a sea of worn-in shoes, shining underneath the lights of the exhibit. Think of how far a human body can stretch: hair in one room downstairs, shoes up here. A body inverted. Or several hundred thousand of them. Bunched together into a moment of viewing. If you think about it, some of these shoes must have belonged to people who didn’t even know each other, who were in Auschwitz at different times, separated by years, even. And for those people, this is the closest their shoes ever got to each other.
Break line to catch some breath. Leave the barrack-turned-museum a bit early for fresh air. Hear laughter. Laughter? How could someone possibly be laughing?
The rest of the group filters out. Some look stunned, others keep their eyes trained down. Tears are streaming down some faces, but not others. I think back to what Marni said before we left for Poland: “When we go to Auschwitz, everyone is going to react differently.”
Maybe it’s not a matter of reaction, and more reception. How do you even react to this place? There are no obvious signs of memorial here, no gravestones, no poems in Yiddish strewn on the ground. Here, only the ineffable drifts along the pathways and the corridors. Only some gentle refrain pressed up against the back of the forehead acts as a reminder: This is where more than 1 million people died. Here, on this gravel pathway.
But then the reminder quiets down. All you have are the mounds of hair and the shoes. Imagining the bodies that once donned them is an active process; they’re not a natural thing for a mind to concoct. I remember reading somewhere that all faces one sees in a dream are flash memories of faces one has seen before in life, transfigured and rearranged along the axis of a story. Faces are fished out deep from memory to keep the storyline of a dream going. The bottom line is that the brain can’t truly fashion a face from nothing.
Whether that bit of neuroscience is true or I just lack imagination, all the faces I see here are ones I’ve seen before. Some from movies, some from my life. I see my parents, my siblings, my friends from school. They wear braids, tie shoes, and slip on sandals. They walk the halls of these abandoned barracks, wear striped pajamas like how I’d imagine them to look since I’ve never seen a real pair, only ever read about them.
And all the while, guides murmuring in thick Polish accents usher visitors to keep moving. I look around. Beyond the gate of Auschwitz, a dog yelps as a car pulls into a driveway. A man with a leather briefcase jumps out briskly; the dog runs to greet him. He walks into a house that has a window gazing over the tourists that wander this camp. I wonder if the house has always been here or if someone built it here after the war. I wonder who lives in the room looking over these mudded paths, who lives in the house altogether. I wonder if they know what this place is.
* * *
Block 25 of Auschwitz I has been turned into a museum. Here, the facts and figures that our guide has been delivering during our tour of the camp line the walls in towering script. Videotaped testimonies of survivors play on a screen in one room; recreated drawings of children in the camps line another wall. At the end of the exhibit, a metal binding rises from the floor in the center of the room; attached to it are pages and pages of names. This installation is called the “Book of Life.”
In the Jewish tradition, the Book of Life holds the names of all souls destined for heaven. Tradition claims that God opens the book on the high holidays and reads the names of the righteous. Here, in Auschwitz, the Book of Life records the names of those who perished in the Holocaust. The names are alphabetized, the template keeps each inscription short: “[Name], [Village of origin], [Place of death], [Estimated year of birth]-[Estimated year of death].” The information seems sparse, but realistically, not much more can fit on the pages. Our tour guide mentions that 4 million names are recorded here. We ask why not 6 million, as that is the figure we’ve been taught since the beginning of this trip.
Almost as the question is asked, we know the answer. I think back to the cemetery in Warsaw. You can’t make commemorative stones if you don’t know all the names. This means that 2 million names are missing, gone from records. With 70 years of research, this number bears with it a remarkable feeling of hopelessness. If they haven’t found the names by now, maybe they never will.
If the mind can’t concoct a face, it certainly can’t fashion a name. I look through the “K” section of the Book of Life, imagining gaps in the printed names where undiscovered ones should be. I get to the bottom of a page, count 33 Zechariah Kahans. Back away from the book to let other visitors flip through the pages. I overhear a conversation two visitors are having in Hebrew.
“Why does it say ‘location unknown’ for so many peoples’ deaths?”
* * *
After the war, fewer than ten Jews remained in the town of Auschwitz. In 2000, the final Jewish resident of the town died. A local rabbi from a neighboring town had to stop an incoming bus to see if there were enough Jewish men on it to form a minyan (a prayer group) for the funeral. Luckily there were.
Auschwitz now has one synagogue left; it’s connected to a museum that explores Jewish life in the region before the Holocaust. After visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which, unlike Auschwitz I, was simply an extermination camp, we wander through the museum and file into the pews of the memorialized synagogue. Supposedly, it’s still in use, on occasion, which explains why there are prayer books in the bookshelf.
One of the students in the group suggests an afternoon prayer; another commits to leading the service. Each of us grabs a book from the shelf, flips right to the starting page. The hymns start softly, but we pick up the melodies quickly. It’s been a while since I last prayed—now that I think about it, not since Yom Kippur six or seven months earlier. Prayer normally feels interminable, kind of useless. I recite the prayers I know, stay silent for the ones I don’t. Sometimes the melodies are nice to hum along to, even if I don’t know the words. Not since my bar mitzvah have I participated actively in a religious service.
I look at the altar, feel my body relaxing. In a blip, I feel part shaman, channeling a voice that vibrates in my chest but doesn’t quite feel like mine. It feels more powerful. My voice climbs higher. I know this prayer. I sing it, and I’ve never felt like this singing before, but I feel like I might cry if I keep going, but I have to keep going. I choose to keep praying. I don’t know when it will feel like this again, feel like what I imagine salvation to feel like.
I look at the students around me, all lost in their own moments of prayer. I can’t help but smile. It’s not as simple as, “they tried to murder us all, but we’re still here.” Utterances like that squeeze the calamity of the Holocaust into just a sentence. No, we did not triumph. We did not win. Walking along the trenches on either side of the railroad that leads into Auschwitz-Birkenau, no part of me felt ownership over any victory. Looking into the remnants of the detonated gas chambers in the back of the camp, I didn’t relish in their destruction, didn’t wave my fist over their pieces and announce my presence.
Not much has changed since the start of the trip. I refused to answer honestly whenever some local would ask why we were here. I’d wait until a friend on the trip answered, “We’re here to study Judaism in Poland.” I’d look away or pretend not to be paying attention. Something about our activities felt unwelcome here.
On a sign outside a barrack at Birkenau, white text claims plainly that at any moment, 400 prisoners were forced to sleep in the small, wooden cabin. Marni claims quietly, almost mindlessly, “There are about 400 Jewish students at Princeton.” For the first time in the trip, the numbers begin to take shape. I see Shabbat dinner at the CJL, see the smiles, the bottles of wine floating around the cramped dining hall. I see it flash, disappear. I see the empty bunks. See the hair piled in bunches behind the glass. It all fuses together hopelessly; all the while, we’re reaching the highest moment in our prayer.
The leader rises to his tip-toes three times, repeating each time the Hebrew word for “holiness.” I stop praying until the end of the service. Let the words wash over me rather than trying to recite them myself. At the end, I wander over to Mikaela, who points to another student on the trip who’s been on his phone the whole time. “I guess we’re all getting something different from this.”
* * *
The day after visiting Auschwitz, we have our first day off on the whole trip. We walk into the city center, remark in awe at how well-preserved the buildings are. The city center of Krakow is the largest medieval square in Europe. It’s surrounded by three-story buildings, each a slightly different color. In the center of the square, a market sells goods to tourists. A small kid runs around the market playing with bubbles.
We try to get into the enormous church in the corner of the square, see the line reaching far out into the center of the square, and decide it isn’t worth the wait. We walk back slowly to our hotel, keep our eyes out for our last chance to dig into Polish specialties. We begin to talk about our trip to Auschwitz the day before, reflecting on the entirety of our trip.
From fears of the Polish government’s participation in the planning of our trip to latent praise of the POLIN museum, no aspect of the trip goes untouched by our premature nostalgia. Auschwitz marks a division point of our time in Poland, its enormity towering over everything else we’ve seen no matter how hard we try to fit it into perspective. This is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is pushing against, and to her credit, weeks after landing on American soil, the winding halls of her museum stay just as clear in my memory as the trenches of Birkenau.
But questions of historiography feel indulgent as we prepare to leave. Now, we must ask ourselves how to regard the future, not just how to study the past. We discuss the lunch we had earlier in the day with the director of Krakow’s JCC. It wasn’t so different from the JCC in Warsaw, except that it had a shorter member list.
“That’s the whole thing with this place,” Nate says, pausing for effect. “They’re trying to rebuild a Jewish community with no Jews. Of course it feels weird.”
I tell him that’s a good way to put it. The synthetic quality of Warsaw amplified that sense of displacement that Nate touches on, but it still feels strong here in Krakow as well. This is a replica, not a resurgence. Underneath piles and piles of rubble, nothing is really left. Improvisation is all that these remaining Jews in Poland—along with their American Jewish adversaries, who, at least financially, are pushing the movement forward—and so they wield improvisation freely. They erect JCCs and move to stock local groceries with kosher meats and cheeses. These are victories, but not in the monumental sense.
The battle these Jews are fighting is harder to articulate. Maybe they’re here to push against the forces of replication as opposed to resurgence, rather than act as agents for them. Where the government sponsors trips to American students and peddles nationalist propaganda, Jews in the Krakow JCC offer Shabbat meals and the occasional Saturday morning service. They trade idealistic nonsense for practice. Maybe the scale is paltry in comparison, but like Agnieszka and the Mickiewicz Institute, they are working for a net positive.
But maybe the battle is even bigger than that. Maybe they’re fighting for a history that was stolen from them. I think back to Agata’s impassioned defense of her work: “The JCC is Polish Jews reclaiming our right to be here.” Only now am I working out what it means to have a right to be somewhere, or to feel like you have to claim it. To feel sectioned off from history, forced to actively make links to a rich continuity that feels just out of your grasp.
The next day, on the train ride back to Warsaw, I begin to think about the future of Judaism in Poland. Having just visited Auschwitz, it’s hard to maintain visions of hope and prosperity. The design of the Final Solution wasn’t just to exterminate the Jewish people, but it was to render Poland a graveyard for the Jews. That’s why the concentration camps flank the Polish countryside and not the German interior.
In that way, the Solution was successful. Looking out into the countryside that passes by outside the window of the train car, I can only regard the rolling hills with unease. One thousand years ago, Jewish life sprang up here serendipitously. On account of a line of generous kings, the Jewish people found refuge in the foggy hills of Poland. Seventy years ago, that culture was set aflame. The calamity of it only really hits when you realize that 2 million names of victims are missing, and, when you’re standing in Auschwitz, that doesn’t even feel like that many.
Perhaps the unease is on account of uncertainty. It’s easy to say that Jewish life in Poland ended with the Holocaust and will never return. But the impossibility of stating it so factually is what makes everything built up here feel so unsettling. Almost across the street from the JCC of Krakow, which pulls less than 100 people per day, the bar in the abandoned synagogue easily culls hundreds of patrons a night. And it does so without any intentional programming or remote financial support.
Maybe Agata had it right when she warned us to stay away from seeing things in black and white. Somewhere in between lies a continuum of gray swatches, each with its own version of two successive declarations: one of hope and one of doubt. Look at what the JCC has established here, in Krakow. They have Holocaust survivors here almost every Saturday morning singing songs in Yiddish! But what happens when these survivors eventually die? What will remain of Jewish life in Krakow besides what modern Jews have decided gets put on display?
I think back to the first night in Poland, when Agnieszka showed us the run-down buildings amongst the regrowing city of Warsaw. There’s a parable nestled in there, a neat metaphor for what we’ve watched happen here. Slowly but surely, these buildings will be brought down, replaced with something shinier. There’s no way to keep their memory alive perfectly; with time, their carcasses will fade from the streets and then from memory. There’s no use in hoping to stop the flow of time. But Agnieszka’s story of them lives on in the lines of this reflection, in her memory and now in mine. Unlike memory, words written on a page are not susceptible to the forces of reinterpretation and degradation. They live on long after their source utters them. What behooves us is getting it down factually, having at least one record stand in full historical truth. Sadly, that’s easier said than done.
So maybe the lesson is to tell the story of our trip, tell the story of going to Auschwitz. It’s not anything even remotely like delivering a testimony of surviving the camp itself, but it plants the seed for the story to be told again and again.
But there are messages beyond the immediate that we must salvage if this isn’t all for nothing. Messages beyond the dangers of lachrymose history and the manipulation of a historical dialectic by an oppressive regime.
On the flight back home, I dwell on recent political shifts in our own system: our election of a tyrannical figure, mounted on his position of power on a wave of hateful speech and promises of punishing an ambiguous other for crimes that are not theirs. Have we learned nothing? Populist leaders whose platforms are predicated on hatred of the other rise to power across Europe. They stand as aggressors against the distance we’ve found for ourselves between the events of the 1940s and now, distance we might take for granted if we don’t consider it something to work for.
I talk to Zoe for the rest of the plane ride. We think about how to take this experience with us, especially back to life in school, where keeping up with work and social responsibilities naturally takes the place of contemplation. It won’t be easy, but we’ll make an active effort. If that means setting aside time for meals just to talk about the trip, then we’ll find time in our schedules. Carving out time seems like a small price to pay.
I look out the window, watch the sun set. Night hangs stoically over the European continent. By the time we land back home in Newark, it will have reached the American shore.
“It’s gonna snow tonight, I think.” Zoe says quietly, turning the page in her book. There’s no service on the plane, so I can’t check the weather. I guess we’ll have to wait until we land to find out what the conditions will be like for sure.