I’ve been going through my pictures from Poland and this is the last one in the roll. My grandfather gave me this Russian hat to keep me warm on the days we were walking around Auschwitz. Appropriate, since the Russians were the ones to liberate the concentration camp. On our last morning in Warsaw, I decided to wear it to breakfast, as well.
Since I got back home to Philadelphia, I have not been able to stop thinking about a lot of things. For instance, my grandfather’s tattoo. When my grandfather entered Auschwitz, the Nazi guards took away his name and replaced it with a number, 83526. It was one of the many ways they made sure to remind their prisoners that their individual lives had no meaning. Years later, and months after he arrived in the United States, my grandfather went through an expensive and painful plastic surgery procedure to have it removed. His arm was sewn in such a way that the skin kept pulling as it tried to heal together. He could not sleep for a year. Today, still, a curve of the 6 remains. There are survivors of the concentration camps who never had their tattoos removed, but lived the rest of their lives never wearing short sleeves, even in summer, even to the swimming pool. The tattoo is such a cruel metaphor of the legacy of the Holocaust. Even after being liberated from hell, these prisoners are never fully free. How deep does that ink go? What nightmares persist? We can never fully understand, but we owe it to these survivors, and to all those that were slaughtered, to try.
Go. Visit. See the museums, experience the camps, read the stories. Talk about it. The Auschwitz Museum and other organizations like it are doing incredible work preserving the camps and archiving the documents and recounting the stories. Reminding us that this is real. This happened. We need to be honest about history. We need to be honest especially about the darker sides of humanity we don’t want to admit exist. Because they do. As Primo Levi another Auschwitz survivor famously said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again… It can happen anywhere.”
And it does. It continues. Injustice, and cruelty, and oppression, and genocide. They persist. It is easier than we think for injustice to remain hidden until it is too late. So we cannot hide our heads in the sand. Remembering the Holocaust is not enough. Stay informed. Pay attention to the news. Ask questions. Speak up. Voice your opinion. Education is a weapon and a defense against propaganda and fear. Silence is a response. Stillness is a move. I am even more convinced now that we live in a world where we are responsible for each other and we must remind each other of our own humanity.
I have such profound respect for survivors like my grandfather who felt it was within their power to shield their families from the pain and trauma of what they went through. And so we owe it to them to hear their story – when they are ready to tell it, and when we are ready to listen. Already, this trip has started conversations within my own family that we have never had before. Ask your grandparents about their own stories, talk to your parents, your aunts and uncles. Tell your children your story. Do it honestly. The things that happen to us reverberate through the generations and in hearing about them, we can understand ourselves that much more. We all deserve to know where we come from. After my time in Poland, I know I do.
Thank you for going on this journey with me, for sharing your comments and messages. The conversations have made this experience even more meaningful. There are more experiences I want to share and more stories to tell.
More than ever, I feel a responsibility to keep telling these stories. Thank you for listening.
You can read an article about our return home HERE.
Browse the #MyPolishWisnia Photo Albumof the journey on Facebook.
Hear my grandfather sing at the Auschwitz Liberation 70th Anniversary Event: http://youtu.be/ONGl0sML5OY
*To keep reading My Polish Wisnia, click through to the next chapter Poland Part II: Prelude