Prior to the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Nazi’s 25% of the population of Krakow was Jewish. 50% of the population of Warsaw was Jewish. Yes, Poland had some rather nasty right wing politicians and their followers who were anti-Semites, but on the whole Jews held some high offices, lectured at the universities and owned some large companies. One can easily say that the Polish Jew of 1939 was as well accepted in Poland as the British Jew of 2015 is in the U.K.
Of course September 1939 changed everything, not just for the Jews of Poland but for all Poles. It became illegal to own a radio, the main square in Krakow was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz, academics and university professors were arrested, there was the omnipresent terror in everyday life and the gradual elimination of Jewish residents from the life of Poland.
All of the above could be excused as a necessary requirement of an occupying power in times of war? Well all except the treatment of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and others the Nazi’s deemed ‘non-desirables’. What no documentary, Oscar winning movie or book can prepare you for is Auschwitz-Birkenau
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a place of pure evil, it is hell on earth, it is the epicenter of the depravity of the Nazi regime. You see at first hand the psychopathic enjoyment that the Nazi’s got out of torturing the inmates. Punishments included ‘The Dark Cell’ need I elaborate, the Standing Cell’ where in 1sq meter four prisoners stood all night without food or water or latrines and then out to work all day only to be returned to the standing cell. If you survived a week then you get to return to the barracks! And then the living conditions, in Birkenau 90,000 people with washing and latrine facilities suitable for only hundreds, sleeping 4 to a bunk with bunks stacked 3 high and the bottom bunks you’re sharing with the rats and lice. Working until you’re either too disease ridden to continue and are gassed or new arrivals who are stronger, can be more productive than you, so your gassed. I had a feeling that those who on arrival were selected to go straight to the gas chambers actually had the better result!
It’s hard to describe the numbness that comes over you as the guide explains what happened in this area, in this room, how the Nazi’s experimented with twins, pregnant women, dwarfs and how they found an industrial method to kill in huge numbers, 1000 in the gas chamber at once, 3000 a day in the furnace and with 4 gas chambers and plans for number 5 & 6. Even as they knew the war was being lost they still wanted to murder as quickly and efficiently as possible.
But enough, from every experience we must find a positive and that’s easy in modern day Krakow. Be it the bustling bohemian Jewish quarter, restored buildings and Synagogues, Jewish shops, Jewish and Israeli restaurants and a thriving Jewish community center. I went to the Kupa synagogue early one morning. It wasn’t officially open yet I was made welcome by the staff. I asked both them and the team at the community center about security, there wasn’t any whatsoever. They looked at me and smiled, yes they knew I was from the UK and they knew about anti-Semitism yet only from what they read in the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel because its not something they experience in Poland, hence no security is required. “I feel perfectly safe,” said one young lady in the community center. “We have a class tonight of six ladies in their mid twenties who are learning Hebrew, none are Jewish yet they want to learn about us.” In this atmosphere you just cant fail to be uplifted.
At the main car park for Auschwitz there are literally dozens and dozens of coaches and the lines to enter stretch for over a hundred metres. According to the guide ‘its like this every day, its always busy’. Outside the gates of Birkenau, where the railway lines enter the camp I’m greeted by the sight of hundreds of Israeli teenagers. White, black & coffee coloured skins, some wearing the Israeli flag around their shoulders. They are the bright young future of Israel and Jews, they are tomorrows Jews visiting the resting place of over a million of their forefathers to say we will never forget you.
Yes, we will never forget, yes, because we are Jews we know how to carry on living even after the most heinous of crimes committed against us and yes, modern day Poland and its people uplift us.