History Teaches Those Willing to Listen

I spent almost two years of my university career at Uniwersytet Jagielloński in Kraków, Poland.

In that time, I studied a lot about the Second World War. I had a few particularly impressive professors, one of whom was a local activist for Shoah Remembrance (shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, which means destruction and was used as early as the 16th/17th century to describe the persecution of the Jewish people in Europe). With her, I studied the sociology of fascism, the history of the Holocaust, and the current present of rising rightist extremism in Poland. Because of her, I went to counterprotests when groups like the Obóz Narodowo Radykalna (the National Radical Camp — interestingly, the Wikipedia entry only covers pre-war ONR) marched through the streets of Kraków performing Nazi salutes and carrying signs that said Polska dla Polaków (Poland for the Poles) and anti-Semitic slogans. I marched in a pro-LGBTQ parade while groups like that threw stones and eggs at us.

I listened to Black professors from South America and the Caribbean talk about their stays in hospital because they’d been jumped, beaten, stabbed on the streets of the city for no other reason than the colour of their skin. All this while I studied the harrowing years of the Second World War in the very country that survived three partitions only to be plunged into the middle of the ring between Hitler and Stalin’s brawling fists.

This was in 2006/2007.

I visited Auschwitz, Majdanek, Birkenau. My ex-boyfriend, a German man, lived and worked in Oświęcim, the town in southern Poland where Auschwitz and Birkenau are. He worked at a place called the Międzynarodowy Dom Spotkań Młodzieży (the International Youth Meeting House) where he would help organise incoming groups of students from Western Europe, go to the camps with them, and help them debrief after. Because of my professor and because of Jogi’s involvement with MDSM, I spent a lot of time at Auschwitz/Birkenau myself. On the Auschwitz Liberation Day in 2007, I visited the camp with a large group of survivors and volunteers.

It was a cloudy night, a night where the cold was thick and heavy. The air was palpable freeze in my lungs. I was underbundled for the event. My dress shoes kept no warmth for my feet; my coat was far too thin. I remember standing there, surrounded by people in their 20s like me and others in their 80s who had, on that exact spot, once been pointed with a flick of Mengele’s cane away from immediate gassing and toward months or years of starvation and torment. People who had returned to that spot alive and with kind faces as tiny, perfect snowflakes fell from the sky and alit on their eyelashes and cheeks. People who, unlike me who had a warm place to go to and food to find for my belly only an hour later, had dwelled within those fences in only thin fabric and wooden clogs in weather as punishing and worse.

I remember as the ceremony finished, the clouds in the sky drew back like curtains and a stripe of the clearest, fiercest stars shone through. The stripe widened and the cold grew harsher, but the starlight fell upon our heads as we were all there alive together.

Later that night, over cakes and hot sweet tea with vodka, one of the survivors introduced me to his friend. They had been in primary school together before the war. They had both landed in Auschwitz. They had both survived. They had only found one another again after the war. Their camaraderie was soft hands with firm grip and eyes that laughed. The first asked me where I was from, complimented me on my Polish. When I replied in Polish that I was from Montana, he sat back with eyes dancing and a faux-affronted harrumph and asked why on earth I hadn’t brought him a horse.

Those are moments of joy and triumph. There were also moments of terror and despair. I learned from survivors about their experiences. I read about more of the horrors of that war. I know how it smells in the crematoria in Auschwitz. I’ve seen the piles of human hair. I can picture with perfect clarity that does not come from seeing a picture in a history book the iron gate with its ARBEIT MACHT FREI. I delved deep into the recesses of humanity’s capability for cruelty and destruction and found where it throbbed and pulsed and bled. I started to have nightmares where I would wake up in-dream in 1941 Poland. There is a trauma to learning these things (Madeline Ashby mentions a similar experience in this fantastic blog post), and I will forever cling tightly to the faces of the people who shared their stories with me because those stories must not be forgotten.

One day, I walked onto the Rynek in Kraków with two of my Polish-born but German-raised friends. The three of us stopped short, our feet skipping on the cobblestones, because the Rynek’s vast expanse was plastered with giant Nazi banners. Swastikas greeted us wherever we looked. Soldiers marched across the square in dull greens and heavy helmets. Trucks rumbled. It took us what felt like hours to see the cameras.

As impossible as I knew it was, for the string of seconds that I stood there with Adam and Martina, all three of us frozen with adrenaline and heavily-thubbing hearts, I thought my nightmares had manifested. I thought I had walked through time and ended up in hell. And still, once we realised the truth of it and tried to comfort one another, I will never forget the other sight I saw. An old couple, their years showing in wrinkles on their cheeks and their trauma showing in the way their gnarled hands held tight to one anothers’ arms, standing off to the side, looking around with wide, unblinking eyes full of tears.

How that movie set must have looked to them, through their eyes.

How they must have wondered if they’d ever really escaped.

So here’s what all that has to do with anything.

I am disgusted, disappointed, and discouraged that my state’s governor Larry Hogan is one of the more than half of America’s governors to refuse Syrian refugees. Good on him for beating cancer. Shame on him for his xenophobic, cowardly, bigoted stance toward a population of humanity desperately in need of safety.

I am chilled to my marrow that Donald Trump has said he would support American citizens who happen to be Muslim registering with some sort of database. And to say something a bit more strongly than Madeline said in her post, fuck Godwin’s Law right now because ignoring the actual historical and contextual parallels to pre-war Nazi Germany under Hitler is pure folly. Absolute and unadulterated folly. To not immediately denounce and vehemently oppose such a blatantly unconstitutional idea at even its earliest stages is to allow that seed to sprout.

Such a statement ought to cause a visceral reaction in anyone even moderately versed in history. That the person saying it is a frontrunner for the highest office in this country is abhorrent. It is absolutely repugnant. I don’t have strong enough adjectives. Because there is enough anti-Muslim sentiment in this country roiling at the surface (not even under it) that Trump will have plenty of supporters for his ignorant, intolerable ideas. And that is chilling, because they’re not new ideas. They’re not his ideas. Plenty of others have had those ideas before.

None of this is to make a slippery slope argument that we’re about to descend into internment camps overnight. But those things don’t happen overnight. They happen with a slow progression when we deem any steps toward them acceptable.

Pre-war Poland was an ethnically diverse country. Post-war Poland is 98% ethnically Polish and around the same percent practicing Catholic. I felt welcomed there — I can honestly say that the Polish folks I knew in my time there are some of the most warm, hospitable, caring people. They have a saying in Polish, gość w domu, bóg w domu. It means guest in the home, God in the home. If you’re in their home, you’re family. But also, when I was there I was white. Not openly queer. I was protected by the colour of my skin, and the few times I made myself visible as a progressive person in the safety of large numbers, there was a strong and unignorable backlash that turned violent. There has been a decided rightward swing there even since I left. My beloved professor at JU was rightly concerned about the growing resurgence of fascist groups.

All this is connected. But ultimately, the blind fear of someone different than oneself is the laziest kind of prejudice. It is a complete unwillingness to see the humanity in one’s fellows. I wonder how many deaths could have been prevented had FDR not refused Jewish refugees when he had the chance to help. I wonder how many we could prevent now by welcoming those fleeing Syria (or anywhere death bites sharply at people’s heels).

I think in the case of Poland, the homogeneousness of the country post-war provided the perfect petri dish for fear of the Other. They lived the fear of invasion and have a sort of national post-trauma when it comes to their country being invaded and their people slaughtered and their cities decimated. That’s normal. I had another Polish professor who used to joke about a common Polish joke (jokeception?). People say that Polish history can’t be summed up in two words. He’d say it could: była fatalnaIt was brutal. To me, the right-moving politics of the country and the resistance to accepting refugees of a non-majority race and religion are the modern-day manifestation of fear itself and what happens when it is allowed to fester over decades and centuries.

In the case of America, however, our cauldron of humans here is diverse and vibrant. Our context is very different, but it is somehow still leading us down a similar path, at least for a large enough portion of the country that simply cannot be discounted because they brought us Bush, Cheney, the PATRIOT Act, and are enough of a reckoning factor to elect representatives to make laws in state and federal government that regularly seek to reduce freedoms for any Americans who exist outside a certain mould (read: white, male, able-bodied, straight, cis, middle class or higher). We have no grasp of industrialised warfare fought on our land. Only those in New York on 9/11 have any hope of what it’s like to taste fire in the sky and feel the ground rumble as buildings topple, to see battered and wounded people suddenly made refugees in the matter of minutes. And that for us was one single day.

The scars of the Second World War live on in the psyche of Europe and are visible when you walk down city streets. And that was over seventy years ago. The wounds of war are living things for too many people on this planet today. This hour. This minute. While you breathe clean air, people around the world smell dust and fire and blood.

We don’t get that. We just cannot comprehend the reality of war. Americans who haven’t traveled to war zones cannot grasp what it’s like to have cities carpet bombed. To see a missile take out a school. To fear any sound of voices in the night because they might be coming for your children. To have to flee your city because it isn’t there anymore and the people who destroyed it will hunt you and your lover down and kill you if they have the chance. We. Don’t. Get. It. Because the wars we visit, to fight in or document, are somewhere else. We get to come home, and home is here to greet us.

I read a memoir (now out of print) by a Polish woman called Christine Zamoyska-Panek, an aristocrat turned resistance fighter in 1940s Kraków. When the Third Reich outlawed Poles achieving above a second grade education, the resistance started schooling people in culinary schools. While she peeled potatoes, she learned how to be a nurse. She eventually rescued and fell in love with an Australian pilot shot down over Silesia. When the war ended, he was jubilant. He couldn’t wait to go home. Her response to him (paraphrased) has always haunted me. She said, “You will go home, and your houses, your streets, your people will be there waiting. But this is my home, and for me the war is just beginning.” (True to her words, she was arrested by the Russians after working to smuggle resistance fighters out of Poland in the brutal world of Soviet liberation, where she was tortured and imprisoned. She eventually emigrated to the US.)

The American psyche, the mentality that spiked anti-Muslim (and anti anyone perceived to be Muslim) attacks in post-9/11 America, is notable because of our persecution complex. We are one of the most powerful countries on the planet. We enjoy freedoms that billions are denied. And yet over and over and over and over, we bleat about security and bawl about the Dangerous Other while forgetting the very real context of our own existence: that this country was one built on the lands and the backs of an indigenous population that preceded us, with the hands of slaves. Most of us (98%) came from elsewhere. And most of those who came willingly did so to flee persecution themselves — and in turn became persecutors. And today live in blissful ignorance of what war really means.

It’s not a new tale. But it gets sadder every time I hear it.

Because the real lesson the past teaches is that those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. (George Santayana, paraphrased)

There is a better way.

Even in the most frightening corners of my studies, even seeing scary glimmers of the past in the present, one thing is also true: in the hungriest chasms of war, you will still find something more powerful than the guns and the gas and the bombs. You will find the courage and love of humans who are willing to reach out a hand to someone they’re told is a threat. You’ll find Poles who risked being shot on sight along with their families to hide Jewish people from the Nazis. You’ll find nuns who smuggled Jewish children into Polish orphanages and kept their names so secret that even when tortured, the names were kept safe. You’ll find the purest, burning, blazing bravery that is born out of compassion and kindness and a belief that every soul on this planet is valuable.

If — and I hope with every fibre of my being that this if is the longest of long shots — those words of Trump go from being an idea to being a reality, that if my Muslim fellows in this country are subjected, like the Jews in Europe before them, to being tagged and catalogued and worse? If that happens, we are unworthy of the Statue of Liberty and the words she bears.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

  • The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

It’s worth also remembering this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • by Martin Niemöller

To my countryfolk who are so afraid of anyone different than you that fear has washed away compassion and kindness, I have only one hope for you. I hope that you never find yourselves fleeing death and destruction only to be turned away from safety and lumped in with your persecutors.

I hope that for all of us, but it’s already a reality for too many.

For those for whom this is the life you lead now, I wish you peace and safety. I wish you a warm home to hold you and a pillow for your head. I wish you warm arms to embrace you and tell you that you are welcome. I wish you warm hands to shake and new friends to meet. I wish you a world better than the place you left, though you will always feel home in your hearts.

For those of you who, like me, feel heartsick and helpless, I wish that we will remember that we are not helpless. That the voices of the few cannot overpower the voices of the many if we all shout for justice and sing for peace. I wish that we will find true courage, the courage compassion and kindness requires. The courage to reach out in love. Because love is the best defense against the volleys of violence by any terrorist, Daesh or otherwise. They’re called terrorists because terror is what they want to breed until it squirms wriggling over our hearts.

If we allow fear to rule us, they win.


Like this post? Subscribe to get more in your inbox!

6 thoughts on “History Teaches Those Willing to Listen”

  1. Beyond Brilliant!

    Trump the new Hitler? Hitler rose to power in the 30s using the anti-semetic mood, stoking the fire of their hatred. I pray that we will not have a repeat.

    I studied Schindlers Arc at college(the book that became the film Schindlers List), it was my first introduction to the Second World War, how children as young as 2 and 3 were taught not to tell anyone they didn’t know (ie. who wasn’t related to them) their real name. I also visited Dachau in Munich – although not a deathcamp (they claim) still pretty gruesome. I wanted to leave Germany immediately. Moving to Holland I learnt about what it was like to be occupied – something we Brits managed to avoid thanks to that little strip of water! My mother-in-law lived in a Jewish neighbourhood in Amsterdam, she waved her school friends goodbye when she was 6, having no clue that they were being sent to their death. She was also evacuated too. My father-in-law was shot at by planes while trying to get food for the family – he was 4 or 5 years old. On Liberation day (May 5th for the Dutch), we were at Westerbork a ‘transition’ camp. It was a refugee camp, for Jews fleeing Germany, but then the German’s came and it becamse a transition camp – where they would be taking to death camps. I have never felt so hopeless as walking round and reading the stories of these people – very few of which survived.

    My Great Uncle was trapped in occupied France in a hospital after having been blown up trying to get out when the German’s first came in. He lost a leg and half his face. But thanks to the French resistence he escaped – although climbing across the Pyrenees into Spain (with a tin leg) to do so. He wrote a book about, and it was incredible how the French people rallied. My Great Uncle was so horrified when he got back to England and found an anti-French mood, he wrote another book about that. Despite being out of print and self-pubbed at the time, I have managed to get copies of both, thanks to the internet, and I treasure them dearly. But even then he wrote the second book under a pseudonym as he feared a back lash!

    I find this entire situation devastating for all involved, and hope that we can somehow wake up a little as a species and understand the lessons we need to be learning this time round. The mood towards politicians/government in both US & UK over the last 5+ years has started to become untenable. If it corrodes much more, I dread to think of the outcome, although maybe this is all part of what we need to be doing here – standing up for what is right and just, and not tolerate it all being about money, oil or power.

    As a species we just seem to be going round in circles with it.

  2. Thank you for this brilliant post, Emmie.

    For years whenever I’ve overheard someone listening to the neo-conservative talk radio shows (which some people I know aptly refer to as ‘Hate Radio’, since they certainly seem to be expressing hatred much of the time), I’ve always been struck by how much the rhetoric on those programs reminds me of both Nazi propaganda and the things that the extremists in Rwanda also said on the radio, which were apparently instrumental in inciting the violence. It’s pretty scary that most people don’t seem to see how similar it is or believe that the same thing could ever happen here.

    And it’s mind boggling that very few people ask the right questions. For instance, the thing that everyone should have been talking about most of all in regards to the Boston bombers was what could have driven two young men who had their whole lives in front of them — and who should have been able to follow any dreams they wished to pursue — to instead become so bitter and angry at the world that they were ready to kill and maim people and to completely throw their own futures away (one way or another). But clearly they didn’t believe they had any futures. If they had, surely such a thing would never even have occurred to them.

    People who commit these kinds of acts are obviously desperate and completely without hope — they are all individuals who believe they have no future. Many of them — if not most of them — are children of war. So anyone with a shred of common sense should be able to see that denying asylum to refugees, and discriminating against people in any way that limits their opportunities and their chances for having a fulfilling life, is absolutely the worst thing to do if we want the world to be safe for both current and future generations.

  3. Really well done. Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking post. It’s really quite ridiculous that there can even be disagreement on this subject. An excellent read.

Comments are closed.