Traces of Memory

In our last post, we implied that we needed some distance before we could post our report from Tuesday—when we spent the entire day on the Jewish heritage of Central Europe.  First, we had a Jewish heritage tour and then we visited the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.  Indeed, we needed a full two days’ distance before we could summon up the emotional fortitude to write this post. And we are still processing.  But, in the spirit of moving forward with the rest of the trip, we’ll do the best we can here.  Please understand that the post is more about impressions and feelings than “what we saw” per se.

As context, the Jewish people comprised a significant minority population in Central Europe for over a thousand years.  Poland, in particular, was the home to many vibrant Jewish communities for centuries.  Those communities were characterized by memorable synagogues and enclaves in both major cities and small towns. Indeed by the early 1940s, Jews comprised approximately 10% of Poland’s total population (this compares to a one digit percent of Jews in the States today).  This data was staggering to us.

I would imagine that nearly every medium to large city in Central Europe offers some sort of Jewish Heritage Tour these days.  The purpose is to “showcase” where the Jewish communities and synagogues were located “in the day” and to demonstrate how they are coming back. This is aspirational because, in most cases, both the residents and evidence (buildings, synagogues) of those communities were completely decimated in the Shoah so there is very little to see in these tours—an archway here, a few bricks there, a trace of a cemetery there, and many memorial plaques everywhere.  So, the tour of Krakow was disheartening (though that was expected).  We saw a tiny 18th century Orthodox synagogue being rebuilt (the townspeople completely covered up the cemetery to protect it from Nazi destruction and it is still being renovated).  We saw a remnant of the ghetto wall.  But, most unforgettable was a remarkable exhibit “Rediscovering Traces of Memory” at the Galicia Jewish Museum - see (Galicia is the southern region of Poland that includes Krakow and the town of Jaroslaw, where my (Wendy’s) family emigrated from in the early 1900s.) The photographer tried to capture the essence and historical arc of the Jewish community of Southern Poland before, during, and after the Shoah through post-Shoah photos (only photos showing groups marking Holocaust Remembrance Days included people).  For instance, he photographed synagogues (and/or their remnants) throughout the region. He juxtaposed memorials in forests where there were mass executions with solitary signposts. Perhaps most poignant for me was a photograph of gravestones from a Jewish cemetery that had been repurposed as sidewalk blocks.  The exhibit was powerful and terribly sad. I truly had a visceral reaction to the loneliness, desecration, and sense of ruin portrayed in photo after photo.

(To learn more, refer to "Rediscovering Traces of Memory", by Jonathan Webber)

So, needless to say, I dreaded the afternoon visit to Auschwitz.  But, given my experience visiting other Holocaust museums around the world, seeing movies (like most of us), and reading more fictitious accounts (from every possible nationality) than I can count, my reaction was completely different than I expected.  Of course, it was surreal to be there.  And there were displays that were shocking.  Seeing the sheer size of Birkenau took my breath away.  And I certainly gasped at the entry way to the camps.  But, overall, I felt like I was on a terrifying horror movie set.  I knew intellectually what happened there, but—during my visit—I could not accept it emotionally. I felt like I was visiting a death factory—a fact that seemed reinforced by our (what I believed to be) melodramatic, yet clinical, guide.   The people in the photos (upon arrival at the camps) looked so normal—they could have been my great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, family friends.  I could not and still cannot allow myself to wrap my heart around its enormity. And the sign over the gate, translated as “Work Makes You Free” is one of the most heinous lies in history.   

I know we try to make our blog posts upbeat and fun—full of amazing meals and exciting adventures. This past Tuesday was not one of those days and this has not been one of those posts.  It truly gave me solace to recite both the Kaddish and El Molei Rachamim (the prayer for the dead) in the barracks at Birkenau with new friends.  We must never forget.

We arrived in Budapest on Wednesday late afternoon and have had a truly magical time, with many fun adventures, so far.  Tomorrow brings Kabbalah Shabbat Services at the glorious Doheny Synagogue followed by a foodies’ delight dinner.  So, we promise that the subsequent posts will be more uplifting.

wendy and wayne

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