Three years ago this week I was sitting in the dining room of a hotel called The Center for Prayer and Dialogue having breakfast with six people: two survivors of the Holocaust, their grandchildren and a man whose grandfather was the Nazi directly responsible for Josef Mengele’s medical torture on twins in Auschwitz. The hotel is located in the town of Oświęcim, otherwise known as Auschwitz. Did you know that Auschwitz is the name of both a town and the death camp that sits at its center? I didn’t know that until I visited Poland for the first time. The reason I was sitting with these people is that I had traveled to Poland to attend the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.
My visit to Oświęcim three years ago was the only time I was there during the winter months–my other trips were made in June and July. This time, I was there in January. When I landed in Krakow, which is about a one hour drive from Oświęcim, it was snowing. It had already been snowing for days so the ground and all of its natural inhabitants were covered in soft white. It was beautiful in the way beauty sometimes creeps into your heart so deeply it almost feels like nostalgia: a mixing of beauty, comfort and longing for something that is missing. As the plane neared the runway, I looked around me and wondered, “How in the world did I get here?” Technically, I was traveling alone but on the flight from Germany to Krakow I was suddenly in the company of several people I had met before, all of whom were traveling to Poland to participate in the anniversary: a man named Danny Spungen who is a Rotarian (the first person to encourage me to find a Rotary club, by the way) who owns the biggest collection of Holocaust artifacts in the world, Michael Wörle the grandson of Nazi doctor Otmar von Verschuer, and Rainer Höss whose grandfather was Rudolph Höss, the commandante of Auschwitz during the war. What strange company!
Upon arrival I was met by a man holding a sign reading “Szoo,” which is my maiden name. As a side note, it is always fun for me to be addressed as Szoo when I am in Poland or Hungary because they are the only people who ever pronounce my name correctly the first time. The man was older, about 70 years old with grey hair and a bit of a hunch in his back. He was wearing a shirt bearing the name of the hotel in which I was staying: he had been sent on my behalf. As we made our way through the snow-covered countryside, passing livestock, trees whose heights rival some city buildings and quaint towns no one has ever heard of, I felt I was journeying through a storybook. The peace of the immediate was tempered by the reality of the imminent as I began to recognize the tell-tale landmarks announcing our arrival to Auschwitz. As often happens when I am there, my imagination of the past began to spill into the pool of my present reality mixing a cocktail I would sip for the next several days. It is one thing to peer into the past through books. It is quite another to feel your feet sink into the mud made famous by yesterday.
The Center for Prayer and Dialogue was built, in part, under the vision and instruction of the preist who now oversees its operation: Manfred Deselaers. It sits on a small plot of land about two blocks away from the extermination camp Auschwitz I and about three miles away from the extermination camp known as Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. The purpose of the hotel is to provide shelter, education and healing for those who visit the camps. Much to my surprise when I arrived, it was also the main basecamp for almost all of the survivors who were traveling to be a part of the anniversary ceremonies taking place at both camps that week. This is to say, anytime I left my hotel room, I was surrounded by living history.
Another aspect of my stay that I could not have anticipated is that all of the meals were served family style in a modestly sized but beautifully decorated dining room. So, at every meal I was surrounded by a cacophony of at least four different languages (namely Polish, German, Romanian and broken English). Somehow, the men and women who possessed some crossover knowledge of the languages managed to translate some of the most captivating stories I have ever heard. And, as seems to be the case in groups of people, the group with which I dined the first night became a kind of small group, the members of which gravitated toward one another for all the following meals. So, if the narration of one story began at breakfast but was not finished by the end of that meal, the teller could pick up where she left off at lunch. It was a storyteller and writer’s dream!
One of my tablemates was David Wisnia, also known as A-83526. He was brought from Warsaw, Poland to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was 16 years old. His first assignment upon arrival was to walk the perimeter of the camp locating the bodies of prisoners who killed themselves by running into the barbed wire fencing. He and a fellow inmate picked up the bodies, placed them into a wheelbarrow and pushed them to the crematorium for disposal. He performed this gruesome duty for several weeks until a Nazi guard overheard David singing among a group of prisoners one evening. The guard asked him if he was a singer by trade, to which David reported that he was training to be a singer in a renowned synagogue in Warsaw. In that moment, David was taken off his previous job and assigned to be the Cantor of Auschwitz. This assignment saved his life as he served a purpose to both the prisoners and the guards, which gave him access to more food and brought him out from under the threat of hard labor. When the war ended and the Nazi’s were leading the prisoners out of Auschwitz in the Death Marches (days long walks in the snow and ice, without food, water or proper attire for the purpose of getting rid of the “evidence” in the camps) David escaped his group in the confusion of gunfire late one night. After he escaped he found a barn where he hid for several days until he emerged one morning, prompted by the sound of military vehicles rolling down a nearby road. Ultimately, those vehicles belonged to the 101st Airborne who quickly recruited David. He spent the rest of the war fighting against the very men who enslaved him in the camps for three years.
At the ceremony for the anniversary, David sang a Jewish song. Knowing his story made that moment all the more meaningful to me. The survivors and their families who attended the ceremony were housed in a large tent (very large and heated) at the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who were not family stood outside in the middle of the camp watching the ceremony on a big screen and listening to it via a very loud audio system, which echoed against the brick barracks, tall trees and the cement ruins of the gas chambers. As I stood in the middle of the falling snow, unable to feel my fingers or toes, listening to David’s song, I felt two things in exact measure: freedom and slavery. Nothing is ever just one thing. In that moment, the past and the present held hands, pain and joy locked eyes and a clawing sense of loss climbed up the sides of a tender moment of innocence. It was the kind of moment that both rips something away and offers a cloak of wisdom. That moment changed me.
Survival is a tricky thing. Through my travels, interviews and study on this topic, I have met basically two kinds of people: those who survive and those who thrive. Those whose identities remain huddling in the corner of a brick barrack and those who have lined the walls of their identity with photographs of family, friends and lives fully lived. There are those who hold anchors of hatred and those who swim in the open waters of forgiveness. Eva, my friend Eva, is the latter sort. David is also in the latter camp (no pun intended). From them I have learned a kind of boldness in living, the courage to stand up for myself and to cultivate the discipline of forgiveness.
There is a scripture in Hebrews that says a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds modern day believers in Christ. Those witnesses are, of course, the Old Testament believers such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–the men who lived before the arrival of Jesus. According to the genre of text in this chapter, we are to understand that these people are not literally looking down to see our current race, so to speak, but we can look to their stories and the way God interacted with them as a kind of instruction and inspiration. In other words, we can act as though they are sitting in the stands of our lives. There is a sense of our own history and identity that exists in knowing them. Maya Angelou also speaks of this idea when she says that she is never alone because she is surrounded by her family members who helped make her who she is and whose wisdom and characteristics live on in her. Or, lived on in her while she walked this earth.
Sometimes I forget who I am. Not literally, of course. But sometimes I allow my identity to be bogged down in the mire of the past, and my own weaknesses and self-doubt. You know when this happens the most? When I start to focus mostly on myself. When I go inward to the point of isolation. Last week I confronted a woman who has been bullying me out of her own insecurities for years. For some reason–well many reasons–I allowed her to do it. Over and over, again. I kept getting stuck between the idea of being “nice,” or, “forgiving,” or, “not wanting to make waves,” and the wish that someone else would stand up for me. You know when I finally got the courage to stand up to her? There were two moments: One was in considering the lessons of courage, living boldly and repeatedly choosing forgiveness that I have learned from the men and women with whom I have spent hours, weeks, months and years throughout my research on the Holocaust. “Stand up for yourself and stand up for others,” I heard them whisper from my memory.
Second, two weeks ago a friend of mine received an anonymous email that was filled with some of the most heinous aggression and vile meanness I have ever read. I thought to myself, “I wish I knew who this was because if I did I would immediately go to my friend’s defense.” That thought ruminated and sat with me for several days. Looking into her situation, I had the courage to stand up for her. Why was I willing to be strong for her but not for myself? And I realized what I needed was not for someone else to stand up for me but it was for me to find the courage to stand up for myself. So I did. No matter what the cost may be as a result of my standing up for myself, it cannot compare to the absolute freedom I feel in having faced the woman who I allowed to bully me for years.
It is also important to note that I have forgiven her. Forgiveness is a one-way street. It has nothing to do with the perpetrators (or offenders) in our lives. It is a decision we make for ourselves. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a two-way street. Reconciliation takes place when two people can discuss their conflicts, find common ground and continue to be in relationship with a feeling of safety, peace and an agreement to rebuild trust.
I am an adventurer at heart. I was born with curiosity running through my veins. I am blessed that I have learned from and alongside so many different types of people in a myriad of environments throughout my life, thus far. I think it is good to actively remember the people who have made an impact on my life and whose lessons I carry with me–both the big, glaring lessons and the small, quiet lessons, which are just as important. Our stories make us who we are and if we honor them, they continue to speak to and grow us. As we grow, our adventures continue to teach us new things, even from the past.
Onward and upward.
–copyright Jill Szoo Wilson
(The first two photos depict my view on the night of the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. The last in a photo of me with my table mates at the Center for Prayer and Dialogue.)
Top photo credit: Charles Moman