Most of the Polish countryside is tundruatic Winter white. Highways slowly unfurl into being, while off in the distance lies a coal or nuclear power plant (all depends on who you ask). A burly balding gentleman with a Russian fur hat and a Michelin-tire coat greeted us at Warsaw International airport. He introduced himself as "Bob," our guide.
Poland. Top travel priority of everyone you know. Did you know Chopin was Polish? The country was occupied by Russia for 50 years and is finally feeling the effects of an open economy -- McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Russians on the street sell fur hats, pocket watches and military buttons to the tourists, around them hotels are under construction to, hopefully, accomodate the hordes of potential visitors.
Modern day Poland is home to somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 Jews, most of whom have assimilated and left their religon behind. There is only one non-descript syngagoue left in Warsaw -- its walls are fortified by a small, but devoted contingent of Orthodox Jews and gawking tourists including Fred the Furrier. The only reason the building still stands is that it was used as a stable during World War II. It must have made quite a stable.
A two-sided scultpure celebrates(?) the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -- one shows the faces of the Jews marching towards their doom, while the other reveals a series of rebellious individuals fighting back. Much of the Polish Jewish history has been built over and around -- a housing development surrounds the remainder of the wall and a dull, treeless walk-through park cascades over what was once the ghetto. And from the tightness of the park, one can clearly envision the cramptness of the ghetto. This is clearly a city caught in a tightening choke hold -- who breathes free and easy. People bustle as they would in any city, avoiding eye contact and making their way through the streets. American fast-food seemingly brings a bit of pleasure.
Our sole evening in Warsaw, we dined with XX a Holocaust survivor and editor of Polish Newsweekly. He honestly spoke of his experiences in Auschwitz and the indignities he suffered. He has a great hope and optimism for the future of Poland and even for the future of Jewish life within it --"(For) there is no future without a past." His hope was contrasted by the total lack of life within the Jewish cemetary. Many of us felt lucky for those who were dead and buried prior to the holocaust. Remnants of tombstones were cemented together into a memorial wall. Slowly the remnants of the dead will crumble and eventually become less than a memory.
Crakow was described by Bob as the "Florence of Poland." Yes, both are European cities. The similarities cease at that point, save for a McDonald's or two. The streets are cobbled with large stones. In a tower a trumpeter's tune is interupted in a celebration of a myth. A brief stroll. There is more to see, yet we are carted off to the hotel. Past the former mansion and Nazi headquarters - a sprawling complex with turrets and towers, grim...exactly what you'd expect.
The former Holiday Inn has given way to the Polish Continental Hotel, a white two-storied affair with a large sign inviting us into the Casino Poland. The casino provided us with ten Polish dollars worth of chips (roughly $3 U.S.) and a chance to win an imported U.S. car. The dealer barely spoke English, but Lady Luck had a Crakowian slant...guess you have to be eighteen and friends with the bartender to have any luck. However, Ladies of leisure were prevalent in the International Bar and Grill...and offered a "good time for American Business men tourists" through their extremely glossy and lipsticked lips...like being propositioned by a ten year-old exploring their mother's make-up. Hint: go with the darker beer, it tastes less like ginger ale and more like Budweiser.
Auschwitz. The lettering over the black gates translates into: Wealth Brings Freedom. The snow provided the appropriate tenor. Brick buildings -- edifices from outside that could easily slip onto a New England college campus as dormorities. These have been converted into showplaces for evidence of what this prision, turned death camp truly was. The gates are foreboding and the heart stops as you cross them. Could this happen again? Maybe not here. Maybe not to the Jews. But it is happening. Without a war and a clear cut psychopath, would the Jews have received the same ignorant cold-shoulder as the Bosnians. Probably.
The barbed wire still stands. And the guard towers and walls. Death comingles with guilt. Emotionlessly we are guided through. "America the Beautiful" and fractions of Jewish prayers ramble the empty corridor of my mind. Past valises and photos, locks of hair and piles of shoes, and canisters of gas. A macabre memorial to the massacred masses. In the photos, their eyes are as wideThe air is dense and hard to breathe. Eyes linger for to long, as if they were at the scene of the murder and staring immobile as blood trickles out of the helpless victim. Through the crematoriums. Hints of gas linger? Relieved to exit.
Birchenau is no better. It looks even larger and more desolate than Auscwitz. The railway just as it appeared in "Shindler's List." Burnt out smoke stacks and cells. In the remnants of the crematorium, with a view of the resident's homes, we have a memorial service. "Without a past, there is no future."
I always thought of Poland as this grim and ugly place. In a lot of ways it is, yet it is also undergoing a massive overhaul, waking itself up from the slumbering of communism and trying to seek solace in a free market economy. Loads of projects -- highways and building are being undertaken. There is a hope; hope to build a mini-market or mall next to a concentration camp, but still a hope. If this is where people want to live and work, so be it. This is their life, and like anyone, they can make what they want from it.
There is a self-effacing, quiet dignity to Poland -- a calm, see how far we've come tone to the words of our guide. Within his sincere hospitality there is a slightly desperate y'all come back now, y'here to him. And yet, at the airport we are all grateful to see him leave, knowing we are one step closure to departure and for many of us -- a final one.
And onto the thriving presence of Israel.
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Adam F Cohen