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6 Days For 6 Million: how can today’s brightest cities come to terms with a dark past?

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Images courtesy of Samuel Ahren

I always had mixed feelings about visiting Auschwitz.  Being Jewish, I have an obvious emotional connection and reaction to the Holocaust.  I’ve visited museums, devoured literature, and shed many tears for those who suffered; those I see as six million members of my extended family.  I saw Auschwitz as the symbol of a tragic pilgrimage; something every Jew (in a perfect world, every person) should do once in their lives to pay their respects to the victims and survivors in some small way.  What worried me, apart from the personal emotional havoc I anticipated, was finding myself at a tourist attraction; a twisted theme park for thrill-seekers who would not treat the world’s largest Jewish cemetery with the gravity and reverence it demanded.

I was very lucky to secure the last place in the UK March Of The Living delegation – a six day Holocaust-centric tour of Poland, culminating in a three kilometre march from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenhau on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The idea is not only to educate and commemorate, but also to celebrate the triumph of tolerance over prejudice, love over hate, life over death.  If ever there was a right way for me to do it, this would be it: seeing and learning about everything I would ever need to see, feeling what I needed to feel, surrounded by like-minded people, all there for the same reasons.

And so, having read Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl, and attended an educational seminar with the rest of my fellow-marchers, I made it through passport control in Warsaw (not without incident – there’s a reason our passport is known as the green mamba!) somewhat mentally prepared, but completely ill-equipped for the arctic spring weather that awaited me.  We trudged from one heart-breaking site to the next in the cold and slippery snow, unable to concentrate on much more than the pain that engulfed the region where our toes used to be.  We saw tombstones and statues, artistic memorials and plaques, tokens everywhere in memory of individuals and the masses who were forced to live and die in the ghetto, or made to walk to the central deportation point, the Umschlagplatz, on their way to more unspeakable horrors.  I started formulating the questions that would develop and nag me throughout the trip.

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Holocaust memorials in Warsaw from top to bottom: orphanage leader Janusz Korczak; Ghetto Uprising monument; Umschlagplatz

Over the following days, as we travelled south, we also seemed to delve deeper into the darkest shadows of Poland’s history.  Each death camp, each mass grave, each deportation point and ruined synagogue we visited was tastefully guarded by some kind of memorial; some, in my opinion, more moving than others.  My varied reaction to each memorial made me wonder: what are the roles of physical structures and architecture in helping a city find its way through devastating trauma?  Is there some kind of therapy in creating something symbolic that will last longer than we will, so that we can rest assured that our children will never forget?  Or would the experience be more meaningful, would we be able to feel closer to the victims, if the sites were left completely untouched?  The city as a capsule for history, it seems, walks a fine line.  Where do we begin to remember, and how do we find a way to allow others to remember in ways which are most meaningful to them?  Yes, design, architecture, memorialisation play critical roles, but how can we “un-design”, step back, and let history tell its own story?  Furthermore, how does a city maintain the level of funding required to preserve these sites without succumbing to the temptation of turning them into commercial cash cows?  Granted, my perception was somewhat skewed by the purpose and itinerary of our trip, but I couldn’t help but get the impression that there was some truth to the cynical view that “there’s no business like shoah* business”.

 

Auschwitz is consistently rated as one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions, and, although its visitors are implored to abide by certain etiquette, it still offers them the mundane conveniences of hot dog stands and gift shops.  The March Of The Living alone brings over 11 000 visitors a year, all of whom must be fed, transported and housed, boosting tourism income by millions.  How much can we reasonably expect cities to ‘rise above’ the lure of financial gain and treat reminders of their dark history with unbending respect?  I completely support Holocaust-related sites being promoted for the sake of education and remembrance, but I question how deep this conviction runs when I see ordinary houses literally overlooking the Majdanek death camp, or disconcertingly close to forests where entire communities were executed.  Are the inhabitants of these houses interested in what happened next door?  Do the children who play in the forests realise that they run on sacred ground?

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From top to bottom: memorial at the entrance to Majdanek death camp; memorial to the 6000 Jews executed in Buczyna forest near Zbylitowska Gora; residential neighbourhood over-looking the forest

I wasn’t travelling for fun or entertainment or to see the bright lights of Poland’s fast developing cities. I was there to find peace, or at least a version of peace that could connect me to my history, heritage and culture.  When does a city stop trying to market and sell an experience, and just allow the spiritual traveller to journey towards what they are seeking, what they need as solace?  Instead of selling picture postcards of crematoria, why not provide blank postcards, or ones bearing the names of individual victims, on which visitors can share their feelings, or leave thoughts and prayers for those who have passed?  I do think that the cities of Poland have largely gotten it right; memorials are mostly imposing, without being flashy, and entrance to the camps is free and open to all.  At Auschwitz, our group was accompanied by a particularly knowledgeable and sensitive guide, and, although there is a museum-like atmosphere in areas of the camp, displays are kept simple, as if allowed to speak for themselves.

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From top to bottom: Auschwitz survivor, Ernst Verduin embracing an IDF soldier at Auschwitz I; survivors leading the 11 000-strong March Of The Living; thousands of wooden paddles, carrying messages from participants, were placed between the railroad tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenhau

Perhaps South Africa can learn from Poland how to memorialise tragic aspects of its own history, from slavery, to apartheid to the on-going violence which threatens its citizens daily.  In our case, such tributes would probably be of less touristic interest than personal – a form of catharsis for a wounded society.  South Africans, past and present, deserve both spaces to remember, to reflect, to be quiet, but also spaces in which to create dialogue, to acknowledge the past, to respect those who have struggled and those who paid the ultimate price.

The trip was an extremely moving, life-changing experience for me; the spiritual impact of just physically being there heightened by the family-like support of my companions, our inspiring bus leaders, and the absolute privilege of being accompanied and educated by a survivor of Auschwitz.  Although largely harrowing, I also experienced some of the most uplifting moments of my life, as a new Jewish generation breathed life back into the streets where the lives of so many were cut short.  And perhaps that’s the lesson to take back to Cape Town: find a way to remember the past, not so that we may dwell on it, but in order to honour our ancestors, by fully experiencing and loving our city and one another.

 

*Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

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Pamela Hellig

Proud Paarlite, Capetonian and South African on a London sojourn. Actuary by day, actuary by night, but a weekend epicurean through and through.

  • Divya Babu

    Rightly said and beautifully written Pammie!

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