June 13, 2012
It is a beautiful day this morning in Krakow. Our group has arrived safely; though we did suffer terribly from jetlag. Dartmouth students being tired is a relatively rare occurrence. We have remarkable students and though they do not know that I am writing about them this morning, soon enough they will know. I truly thank them for what they have been to date engaged in; the study and response to genocide and for what they will do beginning today and in those that lie ahead.
Those of you who have read these entries in previous years know that, save for typographical errors, these entries are neither filtered nor edited. Whatever comes to mind is written as written.
So, yesterday, after a two hour nap, I went to the Hotel restaurant to see if I could get a cup of coffee and awaken. The students had decided to fight the exhaustion that comes from this part of the journey went to explore Krakow. It was 3:00 p.m. and the restaurant was empty, save for an oriental woman waitress and two elderly woman from Britain sitting behind me. I had my first espresso and enjoyed it immensely. The waitress had disappeared and the English women wanted another cup of tea. One got up and tried to call out, but there was no response. She asked if I could help her. Of course I was unable to, but told her that I wanted another cup. When the kind-hearted waitress reappeared, though quite busy, the woman said in just the loveliest of British accent, “May we please have some tea and this gentleman would like another cup of coffee.”
Naturally, I was taken in and curious as to why Krakow? I summoned up some courage and inquired.” They said, “They wanted to pay their respects to the Jews who had perished at Auschwitz. Jews had suffered terribly, they both said, and felt it was only proper before they became too old – truly they were just lovely people – to go and to experience Auschwitz. I thought that they must be Jewish. I was mistaken. One was Roman Catholic – both might have been, but the other woman was silent on that question. Both were very nice.
They asked me if I had ever been and before answering said to myself, “I have been there eleven times and I suppose that qualified as an experiential expert on such a question.” I am neither an expert nor a scholar on this matter – who is – but I felt I had been there enough to offer them my experience which could prove useful. About a guide, I said, that wasn’t necessary if one wanted to avoid the “historic” approach. To simply go to Birkenau first (known as Auchwitz II as it was built later) as that had actually six crematoria as well as one very small experimental one known was the “White House” as that was its color. I explained that tiredness sets in, so that by the time, on the traditional tour with a guide, you arrive at Auschwitz II, you are exhausted, at least mentally, if not physically. How does one pull oneself from Auschwitz and offer advice on this visit? One cannot really do so. Yet, there we were talking as if one were to visit the Louvre or other work of western civilization.
They wondered how humanity could do such a thing – other than knowing that I was Jewish, they did not inquire as to what I was doing in Krakow (though I did tell them that I would be there tomorrow). I found myself thinking, for the first time really, that this was not as complicated a question as one would think, though I did not share this with them. I had thought of Martin Buber’s “I and thou” – something I almost never do – think Philosophically – or about human nature, but such was the case. Buber makes a distinction about human relations. One form is I- It where one sees the other as object and I-thou whether the other is seen as holy, sacred.
Lost in thought, perhaps due to the espresso (now my second cup), they felt awful that no Allie had bombed the tracks or Auschwitz though everyone new. “How could they not do that, moreover, they asked?” Instead of Buber, I cited Laurence Reece’s Auschwitz: A New History which posits that Auschwitz as an appropriate response to the “Jewish Question” arose out of a need combined with a perception by the Germans as advanced by Hitler that the Jewish people were not human. And if they were human, they were nothing but the ongoing source of all problems. Essentially, the Germans had reduced the Jewish people to an “It.” Combined with their desire to conquer the world, we were in the way, blocking as it were, their vision of world domination. As more and more Jews came under their jurisdiction, the need to exterminate became greater than the human capital that could be served to keep us alive. This was, to a great extent, nothing is ever really 100%, why, in my view Auschwitz II was built.
As to the decision not to bomb Auschwitz or the railroad tracks leading to the camps, it was simply not part of the Allied reason for entering the war. The Holocaust, the fate of our people, was something that was neither a motivating force or even after it became known as early as 1942 when Hitler proclaimed that he would not rest until he rid Europe of the Jews, for the civilized world’s decision and ongoing dedication to fight against the Germans. No – rather it was self-preservation. And, there is little to be argued and it is difficult to see a greater perspective, a greater purpose, once the ‘true’ purpose has been acted upon. We were “off to the side” until it grabbed the attention of those who had liberated the camps; only after the war had concluded did the Holocaust become significant, and even then, it took a terribly long time.
In a much abbreviated and understanding tone, I explained this to the two woman in the restaurant and I had the sense or the self-consciousness that it was time to change the subject and it turned to my subject of curiosity – ongoing really. What is the British perspective on the Queen’s sixty years on the throne and the entire history of the monarchy. They smiled and talked of their patriotism and that while some in Britain do not like the “royals” ‘all that much’ (I confess to being enamored with their accent – honestly), they talked of the stability and the rock-solidness of the Queen and for this they had great admiration. Britain’s strength is in its fortitude and in its commitment to cherish its history and the Royal Family symbolizes this.
I thought to myself about the stability of our people and how we are anything but physically or locally stable, strive as people we, the Jews are. Stability is not a word that easily comes to mind – yes I am smiling as I write this – when we think of what we Jews are associated with; though I believe deep in our souls, we would like to be that way. No, instead beginning with the Exodus from Egypt we have been a wandering sort, always seeking a promised land, a place to call home and where we would be able to fight and succeed if ever attacked. Some would say this would be Israel and there is great truth to this, I among them. Yet, today, I am not in Israel. I am in Krakow and soon once again to be at Auschwitz to remember a world of my people that once was and is no more.
I did not share this with them, but instead thanked them deeply for remembering and that what they were doing was right, good, and honorable. Genocide, I told them as I have our students, and as taught by Rafael Lempkin, is not a Jewish problem. It is a human problem. In its worst manifestation, it occurs when we see the other as “It” – as an object to meet our aims and our purposes, rather than when we see the other as “thou” – a human being to be treated as sacred, good and worthy of our love.