Monday, August 1, 2011


I expect to be speechless tomorrow. We’re going to visit Auschwitz, and, honestly, I don’t anticipate having sufficient words. Hell, I’m going to see a place that was designed by people to exterminate other human beings. How, exactly, am I supposed to wrap my brain around it and be eloquent?

I gotta tell you, when we rode through Warsaw and looked at the destruction wreaked by the Nazis and the memorials to those who fought and those who died, something in the back of my mind wonders whether X-Men: First Class and Captain America could play here. Because the wounds from World War II seem so RAW here, and so RECENT – when the city hasn’t physically recovered from Hitler’s attempt to wipe it off the map and the jewish population hasn’t even returned to the smallest fraction of what it had been – would it seem somewhat disrespectful to look at Nazis as villains in superhero movies?

I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m going to come out of this trip thinking that Hollywood has no business using Nazis as the go-to villains. (I’m still going to enjoy the Ark of the Covenant going all science fiction-y retributive on some Nazi ass, no matter how unrealistic.) But I am thinking that, living in America, without the more constant reminders of the very serious evil that the Nazis accomplished, we may be not entirely on top of the SCOPE of it – even when we’ve read the books and seen the documentaries. A lot of the people on this trip are talking about bearing witness, and about how seeing the camp is necessary when there are Holocaust deniers out there – but I’m starting to think it’s a little something more than that. I think I need to see it to fully get, on a base, gut, primal level, the exact size of the evil that was done here. So, yeah, I expect to be speechless – I already KNOW the words; what I’m here for are the feelings that words can’t convey.

Er... none of which explains why I’m speechless tonight.

Tour groups are weird little social groups; you’re thrown in with a bunch of total strangers with whom you’re having a shared experience. And when the experience is something as emotionally edgy as this one, you may end up with intensely personal conversations with the aforementioned total strangers. I just got back from dinner with some of my tour-mates. And because the visit to Auschwitz tomorrow is on everyone’s mind, the conversation went there.

And one Australian woman at the table, speaking from a position of (admitted) ignorance asked how it could have happened. “If someone came to take my neighbors away at gunpoint,” she said, “no matter what their religion, I would stand up and say ‘stop.’” So, she wondered, how could non-Jewish Germans have stood by when it happened to German Jews? It’s clearly a question that people have been struggling with since the Holocaust, and most of us had some sort of answer to give her. We spoke of social experiments which have shown how very EASY it is to accept benefits when someone tells you you’re better than other people, or that the others are “less” than you. We spoke of acts of discrimination, intolerance, and “ethnic cleansing” throughout history and the world today. We spoke of the segregated US South, and how people took “Whites Only” water fountains for granted. We spoke of how Nazi discrimination against Jews didn’t happen overnight – but was instead a series of incremental incursions on rights (which everyone “let” happen) which ultimately expanded into the unthinkable. We spoke of how the German people felt particularly put-upon following World War I, and how Hitler played into that psychology, making them feel good (and even superior).

Because I felt like being political, I spoke of some current attempts to limit the rights of Muslims to practice their faith. I mentioned how there are communities all over the country where people say, “We don’t want a mosque here,” and in many communities, it appears to be only the Muslims, and not their neighbors, who are standing up and saying, “No.” I suggested that it isn’t enough to say “No,” when the SS comes to take your neighbors away at gunpoint, and that we must be ever-vigilant to stop the FIRST incursions into others’ rights, so that it never gets to that point.

And our Australian questioner nodded and appeared to get it.

And then someone said to her, “Well, look at the Aboriginals in Australia.” And she rolled her eyes and said they were “a real problem.” And she said they’re alcoholics, and the male aboriginals rape little children. And we all said, “There are good aboriginals and bad aboriginals – and you want to punish the rapists but not take away the rights of the whole group.”

And she continued to not get it (throwing in, for good measure, what the “problem” with “Blacks” was).

And because we were sharing a table with her, and would be sharing the next couple of weeks with her, none of us went that last step and said, “THAT’s how it could happen, you racist idiot.”

And so, I am frustratingly speechless.

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