Grenoble It was important for the Organizers’ Forum delegation to try and get a grip on the Polish experience, and visiting the country that experience is both inescapable and illusive. Illusive, especially in Warsaw, because much of what you see in this very old city is new, brand new like the gleaming high rise office towers in the centrum, but also relatively new down to the Soviet-Cold War era apartment blocks along the wide avenues. The city is old by hundreds and hundreds of years and deceptive in the old city, the Stare Miasto, when you find yourself admiring the castle, churches, and historic buildings and realize you are in a real time Disneyland, because all of it was rebuilt from almost total rubble after the Nazi victory when they dynamited all the buildings in a scorched earth policy to teach the Polish people a lesson about resistance.
There are statues of generals and soldiers everywhere but perhaps the most moving was a dramatic, heroic grouping of figures in several places next to the justice buildings that memorialized the Polish Rising, the valiant, last gasp resistance effort of 30,000 Polish soldiers and Warsaw residents who rose to try to repel the Nazis from Warsaw after their occupation. This is a courageous tale without a happy ending. The Soviet army did not follow their lead, despite a promise to do so, and after two months of resistance, the death toll was over 250,000, displacement was almost total, and the city was laid to waste. We visited a modern, seemingly new, museum built in recent years dedicated to the Polish Rising which was dark, dramatic, and devastatingly detailed in its presentation of the rising and its defeat.
We had beautiful weather in Poland, but appropriately on our last day we drove to see Auschwitz and Birkenau in a steady, overcast of intermittent rain. From the moment you walk under the entry gate of the concentration camp with its lying exhortation “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work Makes Freedom past the barbwire and electrified fences to the rows upon rows of orderly brick buildings you are lost in a fog of oppression. I couldn’t get Hannah Arendt’s famous line about the “banality of evil” out of my head. Entering building after building that documented the horror of over 6.28 million Polish people killed during the war ravages and atrocities, many of them here as well as Dutch, German, and Hungarian Jews, Roma, and thousands of others.
The crowds lined up and the tours marching one after another in lockstep and headsets were frighteningly alive, but there was nothing but death here. Even entering Auschwitz in a long line, where any bags had to be left behind, and you emptied your pockets and went through airport-like screening made you wonder if you were being asked to relive being there. Our group peeled off on our own, thankfully, because moving through the buildings and along the graveled walkways by the shuffling steps of the tours and tourists, bodies bundled against the chill and heads covered in the rain, eerily made me feel as if I was being marched to the end as well. One building in fact had a running moving of people being marched along and the bottom was a mirror with your feet approaching in the same manner down the hallway.
The experience is powerful and necessary, but deeply depressing. These are monuments to monstrosity that literally boggle the imagination and at least in my case found me sorting through the horrors since World War II and cataloging the cases that though different have repeated the horror with odd twists different perhaps only in degree.