Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part II

I feel like a broken record saying I have no idea how and what to say in these posts. I often don’t know how to start my writing (exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, etc.: my graduate school essay that still languishes 75% done but with no beginning or unifying theme), but clearly this is in no way the same. So I’ll again preface this: I cannot hope to come close to what has been written about this place, but I will do my best to share what I saw on that cold Polish November day.

So I obviously left off listing some of the “exhibits” towards the first part of the tour. Sobering and horrifying do the “displays” no justice. They don’t just speak for themselves, they shout in anguish. They scream, as if each pair of shoes, each stolen piece of luggage was determined to tell the story of their owner who never got the chance to. Never in a place of hushed horror have I heard such terrified, yet determined echoes. Really.

In one of the barracks, with its recreated conditions (more about this later), the hallway is lined with photos and “information” about people who never got to leave Auschwitz.

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This hit me hard, to say the least. The faces are like mug shots for “crimes” they committed like being Jewish or an “intellectual.” They wear the uniform “striped pajamas” as a novelist once coined the attire. The eyes. Not one of these people left Auschwitz alive. Not one of these people got to ever experience freedom again outside of the barbed wire fences. (Note: There were just as many pictures of females, I just happened to capture the men).

Sorry for the glare (you can see pictures of women in the “background”), but here are two examples: the first I took because (selfishly) like me and my dad, this man’s “crime” was the audacity of being a lawyer (an “intellectual”).

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This second person doesn’t even need a profession to be a “criminal” – he is a Jew. The black eye he has goes without saying.

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You can’t see it in the picture above, but all Jews had their Star of David stitched into their clothes above their prison number (below).

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The audacity of being born a Jew. How dare they.

Because there is too much for me to begin to write about, I will conclude this post with a sign outside this particular barracks. Only at Auschwitz would this be reduced to a mere sign. I took a picture of both the English and the Hebrew on purpose.

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Erica

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Istanbul (not Constantinople), oh… and my Roma

This is a short post because I am excited to tell everyone that I’m going to Istanbul from December 26-30 as a “gift” to myself. Much to my parents’ dismay (Erdoğan, Khashoggi (RIP), among others), it has been on my “list” for a long time because it’s a literal gateway between Europe and Asia. And winter is the “down” season, so prices are much more reasonable. I go with full knowledge of the risks of a country known as a gateway to Syria, a border country to Iraq, a country in conflict with the aspiring “Kurdistan,” and not the most stable government. But travel and history and culture is the love of my life so far (to be vulnerable: hopefully, someday that love of my life will be a guy – who (must) accept that travel will always be my first love!). All I can do is be grateful, thankful, and in awe of the privileges life has bestowed on me in terms of seeing the world. All I can do is be smart, experienced, and cultured in pursuit of what I love – and that is to see the world through my own eyes, with the privileges of the formal education so valued and gifted to me by my parents as well as the the informal education my life’s journey has sometimes unwillingly dragged me through.

As for Christmas day, I will go to St. Peter’s Square for “Urbi et Orbi” Blessing at 12 noon in St Peter’s Square. Not sure what this is, but I want to experience it.

Also, New Year’s is one of my least favorite days/nights of the year. So even though I usually try to fall asleep as early as possible and miss it completely, I won’t miss a chance to see this at one of my favorite places in the world… A version of this scene was the background on my laptop for years. And here I am. Chills.

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So grateful.

Erica

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part I

As I wrote in my pre-visit post, I have visited this place so many times in my head through books and survivor accounts, documentaries and movies, that I both knew what to expect as in what I would see, but no idea what to expect about how I’d feel seeing it.

Of course, this is and was never about me and my feelings except that I was able to proverbially “bear witness.” This post will be about me, though, in that I can only write through my eyes, education, experiences, and biases. And honesty.

When we arrived at Auschwitz, I got off the mini-bus with 6 or 7 other people. We walked a little way before taking a left and beholding… throngs of people in lines guided by those dividers they have at the airport and Disney World. More on this later. I checked my bag into storage because it was too big according to the guidelines, passed through a metal detector, and was directed back and forth among employees who eventually gave me a headset (but no sticker – I went back to inquire why I didn’t get a sticker) and told me to wait outside for the English tour. I saw people with various colored stickers depending on the language of their tour: Polish, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, etc., and after about 10 minutes the English tour guide arrived. I had to find her amid a sea of groups forming in different languages with color-coded stickers.

In many ways, I think this is good. The more people that see and are educated by this place, the better. I recently got an update on my phone from CNN that read, “A CNN poll finds anti-Semitic stereotypes are alive and well in Europe, while 1 in 3 people surveyed know “little or nothing” about the Holocaust.” …Impossible for me to believe… except that … it’s real.

I want to stop and say that this is NOT what the majority of my Auschwitz-Birkenau posts will be about, but the atmosphere was something I felt was – I don’t know the word (s) – inauthentic, inappropriate, too much like an “exhibit.” I knew that this was not the “experience” for me, so at times that became more and more frequent throughout the tour, I separated myself from the group and walked alone with my thoughts. More on this later.

Before I begin, the most startling fact that I learned at Auschwitz-Birkenau was that the camp was largely created for the annihilation of Hungarian Jews. For all my reading, watching, and learning, I never knew that Hungarian Jews were specifically targeted. I have never visited Hungary (I hope to soon!), but for certain reasons, Hungarian Jews are always in my mind.

Our tour started outside the visitor’s center, and I saw it immediately: the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the camp’s entrance, with the stark brick buildings in the background on one side, and the black and white mechanical arm posted in front of the entrance. (Note, The “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “work will set you free” false propaganda/hope originally came from Dachau outside Munich in Germany. My dad and I went there a few years ago and saw the “original.”)

In what would become a familiar “feeling” – I was both buried in the emotions of screeching injustice, horror, and awe at finally standing “here,” and yet I also felt an utter lack of anything except a hollowness, a heaviness, and a hopelessness. There it was. I was here. It wasn’t a movie set or footage from a documentary or pictures from survivors’ accounts.

We walked down the path to the still-surviving barracks. I had “been” there before.

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I knew much of what to expect from the “exhibits” from my lifelong interest bordering on obsession, but as much as I knew, I was in no way prepared. We went through room after room of old barracks that now housed tens of thousands of shoes, family pottery, luggage, and everything else that could be stripped from the Jews and other prisoners when the arrived at the camp.

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There was a room where photographs were forbidden that was filled entirely with hair shorn off of Jews when the entered the camp and then used to insulate Nazi uniforms.

There were original documents kept by the ever-meticulous Germans documenting their plans and intentions.

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There is so much more to say, and I have only begun to scratch the surface. In fact, I’m quite dissatisfied with this post because I feel as if it is a very clinical overview of the first exhibits in the camp, and I don’t want my posts to be like that. In posts to come, I hope I can convey in some way the impact actually seeing this had on me and my reflections. However, I felt I had to in some way “set the stage,” so I guess that’s what I hope this post accomplishes. For now, I will leave you with this:

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Erica

Oggi sono grato per…

Today I am thankful for 31 things (plus many other things like family, friends, health, etc.)…

  1. Rome
  2. Being from a country that can have 4 former presidents from different parties come together to celebrate the passing of one of them
  3. My (American) passport
  4. Airplanes
  5. International travel
  6. The color red
  7. My iPad
  8. Being able to switch SIM cards from America to Italia and still keep the same phone
  9. How amazing I find it that Italians invented an entire language where basically 99% of words end in an a, e, i, or o
  10. Days starting to get longer on December 22
  11. Cobblestone roads
  12. When I get an end seat on the Metro
  13. Hair clips
  14. Having brown eyes
  15. Amazon Prime
  16. Fruit popsicles
  17. The Colosseum
  18. Podcasts
  19. Piazza del Popolo
  20. “Red days” in Italy*
  21. Living near the San Giovanni Metro stop on the A line
  22. Earphones
  23. How Hannah’s newsletter’s “word” today – athenaeum – was the same as my dictionary.com “word of the day” email (definition: a library or reading room)
  24. Spelling my name Erica with a “c” instead of a “k”
  25. Pearl earrings
  26. The Italian word for “witch,” which is “strega”
  27. English grammar, specifically relative clauses
  28. Did I mention Rome?
  29. The Christmas decorations/nativity scene at the Vatican
  30. Every time I see “SPQR” around Rome
  31. The Christmas lights decorating the street outside the school where I teach (see picture)

* “Red days” are what I call (i.e. only Erica Eve Beinlich, this is not what they are known as in Italy) Italian holidays (no work or school) because the day/date on all Italian calendars is in red. Thus, it is easy to spot no work/school holidays in Italy because the dates are universally (or nationally) colored in red, no matter the color scheme of the rest of the calendar. Every Sunday (Domenica) is a “red day,” and then all national holidays, many of which are religious due to the Catholic history of the country. For example, this Saturday is a “red day” for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception/L’Immacolata. It’s a Saturday this year, so most people already don’t have work or school, but if it was on a weekday, work and school would be closed.

Erica

GHWB, #41 & Gma B

George H.W. Bush was not the president I was “born under” – that was Reagan. But even though he was in office until 1992, when I was only 5 years old, he is the first president I remember (how I remember him as president when I was 5, I can’t tell you).

I know it is very controversial to like him and even “worse” to like his son, but I do. I always have. And though it isn’t popular, I would defend him still today.

George W. Bush’s presidential memoir came out on the Tuesday before the Thursday I took a plane from law school in Boston to Green Bay for our drive to Michigan for my Grandma Beinlich’s funeral. I remember buying it at Boston-Logan airport at around 6 in the morning.

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I remember the weekend so clearly. I was 23, but she was my first grandparent to die. I remember filing down the rows in order of her 5 sons’ births – so Dad, Mom, Greta, and I were second. I remember doing a reading for her. I remember my grandfather – ever the stoic German – breaking down before we filed out, and I remember my cousin Alexis “breaking rank” – she is the daughter of my dad’s oldest brother – as she went up to Grandpa by herself and helped and him away. I remember my Aunt Teri (my uncle Greg was with his brothers) comforting her daughters in a side room after, and how she invited me to share in their group embrace.

So at one of the saddest times of life – death – it reminds me of one of the first “important” deaths – if not the first – of my life. And what I remember, looking back, is how proud Grandma would be (and is!) of her 5 sons and their children.

Erica

I’m still here!

Hi everyone,

I haven’t blogged in awhile because I told myself that I wouldn’t blog until I finish my infamous grad school essay. I know I’m overthinking it, and I keep giving myself deadlines that I don’t keep. Hopefully it will be worth it…

Anyway, as soon as it’s done, I’ll be back blogging a few times a week, and I’ll write an Auschwitz follow-up post – or try to.

Ciao for now! 😉

Erica

Before Auschwitz

So. I’m writing this before on the ride there because I know I won’t have the words after – writing or speaking about this in a way that has not been said more truly or “elegantly” – and by that I mean horrifyingly – by hundreds of others.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the German name for the Polish town Oświęcim, so that’s where I’m headed.

I’m searching for what to say, about how and why I got here, on this bus, at this time. I can reach back to the age of 7 or 8 when I first read the book Number the Stars in one night. I vividly remember going to the bathroom to wash my hands for dinner while reading the book, and laying down on the bathroom floor because I couldn’t put the book down. Or the countless hours spent at the public library in Green Bay searching subject categories for World War II biographies or Holocaust. Or the dog-eared pages of my parents’ World Book Encyclopedia volumes of “H” for “Holocaust” or “I” for Israel or “J” for Jew, and so on. Or how so many of the “choose your own topic” school projects or book reports were about this time, this place. Or when I went to NYC with my mom and my grandparents at age 10 and the Broadway show I chose to see was “The Diary of Anne Frank” (with Natalie Portman as Anne, I later realized).

I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to it for so long – since 7 or 8. It goes without saying that it isn’t a topic most kids younger than 10 are interested in. But I was, and I am.

I have been to two concentration camps before, Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but this, of course, is the “big” one, the one that seems to encompass all others. It seems to be the most horrifying, the most unbelievable.

I have “been” to Auschwitz in my mind hundreds of times through books and documentaries and movies. Even before I get there, I can see it in my mind’s eye, especially the entrance.

I could go on forever about it, and it doesn’t seem real that I’m finally going. Will it be so surreal it feels like a “movie set,” will I feel the 1 million lives that were silenced and ended there, deep in my bones like cement that weighs me down and makes not just my soul but my body feel heavy and stuck in nothing short of blinding horror? I don’t know.

All I can do is hope that by going there, by coming here, that I see it as clearly as is possible in the context of the decades of history I’ve basically studied this place, preparing for a place that no one is ever fully prepared to see. I hope that I can proverbially “bear witness” to this place that must never ever be forgotten, downplayed, minimized or even treated as a tourist attraction. It isn’t. It never will be. And I don’t come as a garrulous tourist to only gape at the horror, to see it without really seeing it. I hope I come here and do what little I can to honor and remember what happened here, not for myself, but for the people who came here and never left, and for the families they never got to meet or never got to have.

To those who are reading this whom I speak directly to, and you know who, I wish I had more eloquent words.

We’re getting close now. The sun is coming out from behind the clouds. How unfair that a place like this should ever see sunshine again.

Erica

The “Getting to Auschwitz” saga

I’m on a bus for the approximately hour and a half ride to Auschwitz.

Before I reflect on that, I don’t think anyone has ever tried harder to get to Auschwitz. I have a ticket for a guided tour that starts at 10:30, and I wrongly assumed that the people at the train station would be familiar with a ticket like mine. I did my own research, of course, and I know there are three different stops at Auschwitz. I asked at the information booth and showed my ticket, which is for a tour once I get to Auschwitz. The lady at information told me to go to the ticket counter. The young woman at the ticket counter has to ask her colleague about my ticket because at first they told me I should leave the station at 10:30, which I knew wasn’t even on option based on the timetables on the website. They then told me I had to leave at 8:45, but then changed it to 8:30. I tried to pay for a ticket, but the woman kept saying 8:30 when I asked if I had to pay on the bus.

Long story short, the older bus driver wouldn’t let me on the bus, and it was 8:27 at this point, so I ran back to the ticket counter and excused myself in front of the line and the people being helped, and urgently told her I had 3 minutes, and the driver wouldn’t let me on the bus. She told me to wait, and then told me to go to information. There was no one at information so I ran back to the ticket counter. She ignored me, and I saw the information counter lady sauntering back to her desk. I told her the driver wouldn’t let me get on the bus, and she just said, “I don’t know,” and then continued to repeat the “gate,” G7. I realized I was getting nowhere so I ran back out to the stubborn bus driver, and he continued to shake his head until I took out my Polish money and gestured at it. Finally he said “12,” and I gave him 12 Polish zloty (plural?), and he shoved the change into my hand without looking at me, and let me on the bus.

I wasn’t expecting to get a free bus ride to Auschwitz, but the people I asked wouldn’t “let” me pay them. I tell this story because I’m sure I looked like an obnoxious American running back and forth, trying in desperation to pay someone to let me get on the bus to Auschwitz.

I don’t expect everyone to speak perfect English, but I had wrongly figured that they would be “used to” tourists showing them a ticket like mine.

This is hardly worth mentioning given where I’m going, but I wasn’t going to let anyone cause me to miss my tour.

Here we go.

Rain in Spain – or Rome… & Poland!

I am the last person in the world who likes to discuss weather or watch the weather channel. I know many people are fascinated with weather, but I have never found it the least bit interesting. I know what time of year it is, so I assume a range of temperatures, and go with it. This has sometimes been to my detriment, specifically when it rains.

It has rained on and off (mostly on) for the past 2+ weeks in Rome. I don’t remember experiencing a time when the rain has been this consistent for so long. It’s not always pouring, but the skies are almost always gray, and it’s hard to remember a time in the last few weeks when an hour or more has gone by without some kind of drizzle. Even native Romans say that don’t remember a time like this.

The amount of sunlight has always impacted my”mood,” not because of one or two days, but the season as a whole. I have always been generally much happier in summer when the days are longer, while winters usually bring me a tangible feeling of despondency and heaviness. So a combination of ever-shortening days, almost no sun during the day, and the time change may have combined for a not-so-great mix for me.

BUT the last few days have been markedly better in Rome!

Maybe because of this, I wanted to write a quick update.

Teaching has been going well (I know that doesn’t really tell you anything), and I’m slowly getting more students and more hours.

My graduate school essay(s) have ground to a halt. I “over-thought” myself, and I have no idea whatsoever how I’m going to incorporate what I need to say in a short essay – the gaps in my resume, the “non-career-related” jobs I’ve had intermittently, why I’m ready for grad school now, to mention a few. But perhaps that’s for another time.

Which brings me to my most exciting news. Part of the reason I love living in Europe is the ease, price, and shortened (for Americans) duration of travel between cultures (a few-hour flight from Italy to Germany, anyone? 😉). And now that I’m near a hub airport, it’s even easier. So next week I’m taking my first long weekend and going to Poland! I’ve never been to Poland or that far east on the European continent – the furthest I’ve been is Berlin/Vienna/Prague.

Specifically I’m going to Krakow. Every “trip” I take is deeply meaningful to me, but this is different to me in a few ways (yes I know life isn’t all about me and “Oh the Places [I’ll] Go,” but I can only write from my experience.

Apologies for another post that could have been 2 paragraphs that has turned into 9. I need to work on that.

Erica

Sciopero

For the second Friday in three weeks, Roman public transportation (called ATAC, or Azienda per i Trasporti Autoferrotranviari del Comune di Roma) – metro, buses, trams – are going on “sciopero” or, basically, strike. The above flyer provides that it is a 24-hour strike, but that there will be service from the time the transit system usually opens in the morning (maybe 5 or 5:30) until 8:30 and from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., presumably so all the people who aren’t on strike can get to work and school.

I’ve asked people if sciopero ever actually works, that is, do the employees ever get concessions from the government such as higher pay or whatever is the goal of their strike? The best answer I’ve gotten is “sometimes.” I’ve yet to hear of anything concrete, but I guess it’s a nice extra day off for them. 😉

But it’s not just public transit that goes on sciopero. I have been physically chased down by one of the employees at a neighborhood grocery store at 7:41 p.m. (they usually close at 9:30). The employees were not letting new customers in, were yelling “sciopero!” and were hastily making sure people were checked out as fast as possible. And let me tell you, the employees at this grocery store, to a person, could not be less concerned with efficiency or getting customers checked out at even a leisurely pace.

So, I was familiar with this female employee who was following my determinedly brisk clip into the store. I had my earphones in, and I could hear her on my heels yelling, “Signora! Signora! Sciopero!” I admit I pretended I could not hear her, or alternatively, that I didn’t understand what “sciopero” meant even though I did. Finally, she was so loud I turned around RIGHT when I was about to pass the check out lines and break free into the store. She kept emphatically yelling the same thing and directing me out. I was so close! And other people were still trying to get in! I have never seen that particular employee move anywhere close to that fast. I frequent the grocery store about every day because I buy smaller amounts of food on a more regular basis than we usually do in the U.S. Because of this, I am familiar with the “usual characters” that make up the grocery employees. Suffice it to say, I have never seen any employee in the entire store move as fast as they all were that night. 😃😉

Anyway, happy sciopero to the Roman transit/ATAC employees on Friday (tomorrow)!

Erica