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Archaeology of Jewish – Polish emotions

Israel and Poland must gently excavate their painful shared history, and accept that the truth is messy
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

Darkness. A screen’s hazy outline. The projector’s light flickers. We see fingers gingerly holding brushes, which carefully and painstakingly flow over soil. Sweaty faces bent, keenly gazing at the earth. Tiny clouds of dust arise, only to settle again, and once more to be whipped up and shunted aside. What is going on we wonder? A wider image reveals a group of young women and men on their knees. But they are not doing so in supplication or prayer, or are they? Suddenly one stops. Others notice this and suspend brushing their sections. A young woman peers intently and with a faster motion removes the soil from around a small metallic object. With the greatest gentleness she rubs it with her finger. She picks and holds it up; a spoon. The young people, all covered in a fine layer of dust stare. Haven’t they seen a spoon before? But this one is so strangely twisted. It looks like those used by a mother to feed her toddler.

We are witnessing a group of student archaeologists at an excavation site, among birch trees, with the barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau hovering in a distance.

This is taken from Andrzej Brzozowski’s documentary film “Archaeology.” In all of the scenes the only breaks in the movement of brushes are the discovery of other objects; here a pair of eyeglasses, there a fountain pen, a button, a key. And a bullet shell. This film is bereft of any dialogue or commentary. If you can think, than think for yourself you must.

Andrzej Brzozowski was Poland’s most brilliant documentary film director. This film was made in 1967. “Words?” he would say, looking me in the eyes. “What are words?” “Who needs words in the face of tragedy?” “A spoon can be more tragic then Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” “For objects do bleed.”

WWII erupted, when Andrzej Brzozowski was an 8-year-old. Two weeks after the German Blitzkrieg rolled over Poland, while the Soviets, in keeping with the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded from the East, surrounding the outgunned Polish forces. His father, conscripted as a Polish officer was incarcerated and then shot at point blank in the back of his skull like all the other 20,000 Polish high ranking officers, in the forest of Katyn, by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.

I asked Brzozowski why he never made a film about his father and the officers. Was this not a topic closest to his heart? “My task is not to shed tears over myself” he would stoically say. “Others can do that for me.” He would then stress that it was more important for him to spill tears “over the fate of my silent brethren.” “Brethren” was the term he used, with added emphasis. Since there were hardly any left in Poland after the end of WWII he felt an obligation to literally keep digging up the horrific history of the Jews’ fate. With many he had played ball, studied maths, and ate ice cream. But one day the Germans came in lorries and took them away. Could it be that this spoon belonged to one of them, he wondered.

Brzozowski made another heart rendering film, “The Egg.” Again in total silence, he observed how little blind orphans, cared for by nuns, for the first time were learning what an egg was. With tiny fingertips they would attempt to decipher the origin of all life. Eggs fall and crack. But the children keep on trying.

Right now both Poland and Israel are in the middle of what could well be their most acrimonious fight ever since these two nations came together under one roof in the 13th century. By 1939, the majority of Jews in Europe lived in Poland. This was a newly independent country, having just regained sovereignty at the end of WWI, after almost two centuries of non-existence. Like an awkward little orphan it was studying what freedom was, when this was abruptly curtailed by the German and Soviet invasions. And now, once more, like in déjà vu, it is ungainly, cumbersome and bumbling. Just some decades ago it was a conquered country, a backyard of the mighty Soviet Union. Again, it is learning how to figure out the intricate, stormy and convoluted ropes of International diplomacy. A beginner all over again. And eggs are being dropped in the process. Shells cracked, and the slippery contents spluttered on floors. Toes are being stepped on. Heads butt. Some even skid and fall.

Auschwitz was originally a concentration camp for Poles captured by Germans. 70, 000 of these Poles were killed. So it functioned, figured out the Germans, who liked to punctiliously test methods. No space for amateurism in their scheme of “work.” Now they knew that they could murder Jews here too, but their ambitions went much further this time. It was not just about killing; here was the annihilating of all Jews, by removing them from the face of the earth. In only Auschwitz-Birkenau the Germans murdered over 1 million Jews. What few know is that the Germans, overall, created an interlinked chain of over a thousand concentration camps across Europe, to be able to murder 6 million Jews, and other “undesirables.” But the largest and most ghastly ones they situated in Poland. Or what was formerly Poland. The smaller ones, just as horrendous, are all but lost to the memory of the general public. The German’s apparatus was always on the lookout for ‘efficiency’ and “perfection.” They therefore concluded that from an organisational and economic point of view, since most of the Jews were already living on Polish territory, why would they transport them all the way to Germany, when they could destroy them right where they had found them, in their greatest numbers. Logic. Efficiency. Thriftiness. Performance.

70 years after the ending of the war in 1945, Poland and Israel are suddenly using bulldozers topped with bullhorns to (mis) communicate with each other. And Poland has upped the family squabble and brought in as well a wrecking ball, a steam roller and a land grader. To what end?

When what’s really needed are nimble, gentle and patient hands, to first uncover the real reasons for the multitude of layers of antagonism, so as to then hopefully shove them aside, and next search for their former common history. For the war might have ended, in terms of firings, explosions, and cattle wagons screeching to an ominous halt, but not so when it came to the strife within Minds and Souls.

This time, Germany, with its superior managerial and diplomatic skills is keeping far from a fight that was and is actually theirs. Yes, theirs. But they don’t do eggs. And when they do, it is like the cunning cuckoo that surreptitiously lays its eggs in someone else’s nest. In this case they laid Auschwitz-Birkenau, and others, in a neighbor’s nest called Poland. And Poland justifiably shrilly cried and cries foul, that these are German eggs, German concentration camps, and not theirs. However in the process of returning these slimy covert eggs back to Germany, they have slipped up and made a real mess.

Isn’t it time to bring in the “Archaeologists of the Heart,” to carefully dig, and dig, and dig, this time through centuries of emotions that were never dealt with before and have piled up into an unsightly mound? For what has now gone beyond boiling point is to a large extent a tussle of emotions where facts be damned. This could actually be a golden opportunity to at long last carry out the overdue reckoning properly, since the shell is broken anyway. And that includes Poland having to officially accept it as a fact that Poles did indeed play an unforgivable role in the brutal deaths of very many Jews, though the state itself was not involved. And what makes this particularly painful is that these were often neighbors, co-workers, family friends. So do say your mea culpas, with humility and grace. Over and over again. 77 times, and add more. Generously. Speak out aloud and never tire. And on the other hand Israel should always make it abundantly clear that there were indeed no Polish concentration camps ever at all, and call out others on this lie, testifying that here is a terrible calumny. Let’s have Yad Vashem throwing in its weight by adding that there were many righteous Poles too.

Then both of you nations, get your act together and take Germany to real task, and make it account in an efficient way, for having almost succeeded in destroying the Jewish nation and creating untold suffering to others as well, creating wounds that still fester. For truth be told, during the Cold War standoff, both the West and East gave the Germans a pass, as they were more “useful” to this new configuration and confrontation. Both sides needed “their” Germans, many of them former Einsatzgruppen, SS, SD, Gestapo, Werchmacht etc. A united Germany has never been thoroughly taken through the guilt and honesty grinder. For instance out of 70,000 SS manning concentration camps, only 1,670 were ever brought to book. Outrageous. And there’s silence in Israel about such, and many other “overlooked” German perpetrators. Isn’t it ridiculous when Germans can now act as bystanders while a fight they started has flared up and is raging, while they innocently twiddle their thumbs?

In archaeology, you cannot avoid getting dirty. Oftentimes, extremely so, with muck. Not a pretty sight to behold. But that’s the only way to get to the bottom of the truth. Did I hear it right that someone just whispered, among the bleached birch trees: “The truth shall set you free”? Only then will you unravel the shape and purpose of an egg, and perhaps find a mother’s spoon.

About the Author
Jacob Barua is a historical commentator, not affiliated to any organisation, domicile or Century, a freedom that he jealously prizes.
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