Polish Agony: Exploring My Family’s Past in a Nation’s Tragedy
During my stay in Poland last week I had the privilege of visiting many of the important sites of recent Polish history. There is the city of Poznan, where my mother-in-law studied, Polish and Catholic through and through, but still witnessing to 150 years of Prussian/German occupation with its Protestant church named after Kaiser Wilhelm II. There is the astonishingly beautiful city of Krakow, which was undamaged during the war, but whose massive Wawel castle served as the headquarters for the brutal Nazi governor general of Poland, Hans Frank.
Then there is Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was particularly meaningful for me, as it was there that my wife’s great-grandfather was murdered in 1941. He was part of the Polish ‘intelligentsia,’ an engineer who designed antiaircraft weaponry for the Polish military. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 he initially avoided arrest by going into hiding. Even during the months before he was captured, my wife’s grandmother (We call her, in the Polish way, Bapcia Hanna) tells me, she, a young girl of 7 years at the time, did not get to see him. But he apparently remained involved in the nascent Polish partisan movement, and when he was accidentally arrested in late 1940, the Nazis quickly figured out who he was. He lasted 7 months in Auschwitz, sending one letter to his family each month (these letters are now in the possession of my mother-in-law). The last letter came from Block 11, the infamous barrack next to the shooting wall in which the Germans kept the prisoners they intended to torture, starve, or murder. It was in the basement of this barrack that the Nazis first experimented with the gas Zyklon B on Soviet prisoners.
Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz I, was the largest and most efficient of the Nazis’ extermination camps. It was here that the Nazis murdered over 1 million Jews, many of them Hungarian, during the last years of the war. A German soldier – we will likely never know who – somehow photographed the process through which several trainloads of Hungarians were brought to Birkenau and murdered. Now you can go to the very places where the photographs were taken, identifying precisely how these men, women, and children were taken off the trains, removed of their possessions, and divided by ‘selection’ into two groups: those who were to be put to work as slaves, and those who were to be immediately gassed. For those in the latter category, it was a short walk to the gas chambers at the back of the camp. The whole process from debarkation to death might not last more than 30 minutes. The Nazis tried to demolish the chambers and crematorium but the ruins are still there, and you can easily identify the undressing room, the gas chamber, and the crematorium based on the architectural plans the Nazis failed to destroy.
Then there is Warsaw, the city entirely destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Polish Home Army’s uprising in late 1944, yet rebuilt in its core areas with such meticulous care that it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage sight (the only such sight that is a reconstruction). I had the good fortune of being shown around the city by Bapcia Hanna’s partner Teddy, who was a boy during the war. Teddy told me how during his first encounter with German soldiers in 1939, as a boy of ten, he was beaten for failing to get off the sidewalk when the soldiers passed by. Later Teddy became one of those remarkable Polish youths who were involved in partisan work, serving as a courier, training with weapons, and even sabotaging German railroads and trains. Teddy describes one such foiled effort, in which he and a friend had to flee into a forest while under direct fire from German soldiers. Teddy also showed me the house in the old part of Warsaw, now reconstructed, in which he had once lived, and in which his uncle, aunt, and their children lived during the uprising. The home was destroyed by the bombing and Teddy’s family had to dig themselves out.
Today there is a famous monument in Warsaw to the boy soldiers who fought, and in many cases died, during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. Teddy, 15 at the time, and his older brother were prevented from joining in the uprising by the cordon of German troops around Warsaw. Despite the fact that over 200,000 partisans and civilians were killed by the Germans during and after the uprising, Teddy tells me that to this day he regrets not having been able to participate. Bapcia Hanna’s mother, apparently carrying on her husband’s work (and apparently refusing to believe until well after the war that her husband had really been murdered), brought her two children to a farm south of Warsaw, then returned to serve in the uprising, like many other women, by preparing food for the partisans. Captured by the Germans like so many others, she avoided a concentration camp by escaping and managed to get back to her children. She did not escape the brutality of the Soviet soldiers who subjected thousands of Polish, German, and other women to rape and abuse as they occupied the region following the retreating German army.
Warsaw also witnesses to the Holocaust. During the war the city’s massive Jewish population was confined along with Jews from other places within a ghetto of only a few square miles. Conditions, which the Nazis captured on film, were horrific. Well before the ghetto inhabitants were deported to extermination camps thousands had died from the effects of overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Both Bapcia Hanna and Teddy described to me what they saw when they passed through the ghetto on the tram (whose windows were supposed to be darkened so that the Poles could not see what was taking place). The suffering, starvation, and death, stared them in the face.
Americans and western Europeans tend to look back on World War II as a just war that ended in victory. Poles don’t necessarily think of it that way. Poland, we forget, was invaded by two brutal armies during September 1939, the German and the Soviet. Both occupying forces murdered Poles by the thousands and deported Polish civilians by the hundreds of thousands. Both persecuted the Catholic Church and both sought to wipe out any semblance of Polish culture and nationality. The Polish became reluctant allies of the Soviets when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, hoping that with British help their country might yet win its independence. They rose up against the Germans in 1944 in anticipation that the Soviets would come to their assistance. But Stalin intentionally betrayed them, hoping to see the Germans wipe out the underground government and military that might serve as the foundation for a future free Polish state.
Six million Poles, half of them Jews, died during World War II (the total population of Poland on the eve of war was just over 30 million people). Yet the Poles, as they will tell you today, were not liberated in 1944. The British and the Americans betrayed Poland, along with the other countries east of the iron curtain, to the Soviets, figuring that Polish freedom was a small price to pay for the avoidance of war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets subjected the nation to their own brutality, and though communism was challenged by the Catholic Church and the solidarity movement in the 1980s, communism did not finally collapse until 1989. It was only then that the Polish people could erect a monument to the Polish resistance during World War II, or could openly discuss the Soviet murder of thousands of Polish officers in 1940, the communists having subjected the people to decades of propaganda and deceit.
To this day the Poles are still coming to grips with what exactly happened during those fifty brutal years. Given the years of manipulation and deceit, it is not only the conspiracy theorists who are skeptical and wary of standard historical accounts. Yet the churches in Poland, unlike in Germany and other parts of eastern Europe, remain vibrant and full, a testimony to their role in resisting the oppression of Nazis and Soviets alike, in providing hope by pointing to another way of life. The challenges for the younger generation are obvious, and here the churches have their work cut out for them. Still, for Poland, it would seem, the future can only be brighter than the past. I sure hope so.
Posted on May 30, 2013, in Holocaust and tagged Auschwitz, Catholic Church, Poland, Warsaw, World War II. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Polish Agony: Exploring My Family’s Past in a Nation’s Tragedy.