Susanna Kokkonen
Speaker on Jewish-Christian relations; anti-Semitism; the Holocaust and persecution

Beauty to Horror: The Past and Now

This summer I had the unexpected pleasure of visiting Poland again. I was there together with my Israeli friends, who trusted me with the program. This, in itself, was not to be taken lightly since experience has shown that every tour group misses very important things. We all felt though that we saw enough. We saw the essentials. Everything on these tours goes from beauty to horror – the horror is contained in today’s world too. We are watching the news about another campaign of destruction in Syria, are we not?

There is a zoo in Warsaw so beautifully captured in the 2017 film “The Zookeeper’s Wife“. The story of Dr. Jan and Antonina Zabinski, how they hid desperate people in their villa, in the middle of the zoo, then occupied by the Nazis, shows that reality is stranger than fiction. The zoo is a beautiful site. The villa is still there, and a visit can be arranged. All of this is a testimony to courage under fire and, indeed, the Zabinskis have been recognized by Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among The Nations. The story shows yet another side to the city of Warsaw (outside the Ghetto Uprising (1943)  Memorial and the Jewish Cemetery). So do some of the city’s many churches, where during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the wounded were cared for. These churches were attacked brutally, thus burying the wounded and their care-takers in the crypts, were they had been staying.

The tour went on to Krakow; there the former Jewish Quarter is now a very fashionable area. Jewish symbols and music are everywhere. The Krakow ghetto is clearly visible with the empty chairs standing as a monument in the square. Here Tadeusz Pankiewicz had a pharmacy during the ghetto days. He became an invaluable source of help to the ghetto inmates and was also recognized as a Righteous Among The Nations.

Yet, where one always goes from here, as I remember my past visits to Krakow, is the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Time-wise the journey is not long but it is a journey into another world. How many times ever one visits, something is so wrong with this place that it will never cease to have an effect. Yet, I know, as a Holocaust survivor and my friend (who sadly passed away) once said to me: “The difference between us is that you never enter that place and I never left it“.

What does all of this mean in today’s world? We are living through terrible and untold human tragedies right now. What is visible is indifference to human life. What is happening right now on our TV screens is but one facet of indifference and devaluation of life’s sanctity. We may think we are different (than the contemporaries of the Holocaust) but the reality of it is that most of us will not know what to do – or choose not to think about these things. Hence, these sufferings continue happening.

Should we feel despair and sadness? May be. May be yes.

But since we have so many means of communication; so many ways of influencing and making a difference, why should we feel despair? Surely we will do something? Surely there are some among us, who act like the people I mentioned?

About the Author
Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, originally from Finland, has lived in Israel for the past twenty years. She has a doctorate in Holocaust Studies and has pioneered Jewish-Christian relations including at Yad Vashem, as the Director of the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem. She travels around the world speaking about Israel; the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and current issues.
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