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.

IMG_8602.jpeg

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”).

IMG_8606.jpeg

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.

IMG_8625.jpeg

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).

IMG_8626.jpeg

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.

IMG_8634.jpeg

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.

IMG_8501.jpeg

IMG_8511.jpeg

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.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_5788.jpg

IMG_8572 2.jpegIMG_8576.jpeg

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.

IMG_8530.jpeg

IMG_8531 2.jpeg

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:

IMG_8524.jpeg

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

From Aaron Hernandez to Rome

I’m a podcast addict – news, politics, true crime, international events, etc. So today I was listening to the first episode of a new podcast called “Gladiator,” which is about former Patriot Aaron Hernandez who was convicted of murder and then killed himself in his prison cell last year. In an autopsy, they found evidence of substantial damage to his brain from CTE, which is the condition that is so widely discussed today regarding the NFL and concussions.

45f44cc05aa84bf256966fad9e95623c5f788a2dab146a65e385a1211bac0ecd8cb9f070fbd6f59b92b6aad123bec115a0ef98a382b1fb411b91e749b5d1b296.jpg

But this post isn’t about Aaron Hernandez or the Shakespeare-esque tragedy that became of his life. Instead, towards the end of the episode, the narrator says, “In Ancient Rome, gladiators would put on their helmets and armor to compete for the public’s entertainment and amusement. Some of these men, and sometimes women, would die in their first contest in the arena.” Like anything else about Rome, that made me stop and immediately rewind the podcast so I could listen to that part again. It made me think of the 10-minute walk it would take me to get to the most famous of ancient arenas, the Colosseum. 10 minutes.

I am ever trying to solve the mystery of what draws me to Rome besides the obvious. My love affair with the city of Rome – with all its victories as well as its defeats and blemishes – is magnetic and everlasting and pure.

IMG_4861.jpeg

My dirty foot outside the Colosseum after a day of solo walking around Rome in July of 2015. (I have a weird habit of taking pictures of my feet after days exploring ancient cities including Beirut, Rome, Amman, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem). I am stepping on the famous “SPQR” initials found throughout Rome. SPQR are the initials of the Latin phrase, “Senātus Populusque Rōmānus,” which means “The Senate and the People of Rome.” The phrase originally stood for the idea that ancient Romans believed that all authority of the Senate came from the people. There’s a lot more history to it, but that’s it in a nutshell. Today, it is used in the municipal symbol of Rome.

But those lines in the podcast reminded me how large of a role Rome and its history still play as cultural touchstones to this day. After all, the narrator of the podcast didn’t have to go into a lengthy (or short) history lesson to illustrate the mental picture he was trying to paint. Our minds’ eyes automatically call up an image of gladiators in the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, the jeering crowds, and caesar overseeing the melee. To me, and I admit my bias, so much of Rome’s past seems like a larger shared past of the whole Western world. Ancient Rome gives us many of our cultural touchstones – the Colosseum, gladiators, Brutus betraying Caesar, the phrase “All roads lead to Rome,” and “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” the barbarian military general of Carthage, Hannibal, the image of the once-great Roman Empire being sacked by barbarians, and so on. It is why the title of the podcast, “Gladiator,” needs no explanation to evoke the fighters of Ancient Rome. And I live here. It still gives me goosebumps.

Is this a selfish way to look at the world? That I feel privileged that I live in this Eternal City (while still being a citizen of precious America), as if my living here is the most important thing in the world? Probably. Does it give me any insight into the world around me or the self within me? Not really, except that some Roman culture still echoes today.

IMG_4844.jpeg

The Colosseum at night, summer of 2015.

So at 8:52 a.m., on October 17, 2018, in Rome, Italy, I am selfishly grateful that I get to live here, in a city that literally gives me shivers every day and that I love for reasons I cannot fully articulate. “Just for today,” I will be happy and grateful no matter what the day brings simply because I am here in this place of ceaseless inspiration to me.

With gratitude and love from the Eternal City,

Erica

P.S. This post is dedicated to my dad, who will understand why.

P.P.S. It really bothers me that my autocorrect kept capitalizing the “a” in “Ancient Rome,” but there must be some reason the adjective is part of the proper noun. 🤔

On finding a permanent place to live

I have no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant or a refugee, to be someone who is forced to leave your country because of poverty, war, or violence. I don’t know what it’s like to be forced to move to a country where you don’t speak the language and where very few people speak your mother tongue (English is obviously the exception because it is so widely spoken around the world).  I cannot imagine moving to a place where you feel unwanted and unwelcome and a complete outsider.

What I do know is this: I have applied to more than 250 rooms in apartments in Rome for a more permanent location than where I’m staying now, and not one has come through. Oh, I’ve been to see places, I have corresponded with people about various rooms, but nothing. The most frequent response I get is none at all. Often the response is, “The room has just been rented,” (and why they then don’t take down the advertisement or listing is a mystery to me). I have encountered people that won’t rent to non-Italians, and I have been told by others they don’t want someone who isn’t fluent in Italian. This I can understand, as I would want to speak the same language as someone sharing an apartment with me. I am in their country, and it is not crazy for them to expect me to speak fluent Italian if I plan to live here for an extended period of time. What I don’t understand is when I go to an apartment two times to see it and meet the residents and THEN they tell me that they don’t want a non-Italian speaker when I follow up the next day because they didn’t call me as promised. Why waste my time as well as their own time? Or what about the girl who said there was no way I could come and look at the room before Saturday, and then on Friday marked the room as “sold.” When I asked her about it, she ignored me before saying she actually let some people come before the Saturday that she swore was the earliest I could see it. That’s happened a few times.

I’m sure if I had a more flexible budget, this would be less of a problem. Money talks, and money makes life a whole lot easier whether anyone wants to admit it or not. But I don’t have or make much money, and so today I’ll go to another apartment and scour the multitude of websites that advertise rooms to rent in Rome. Maybe today I’ll find something. At least I’m in Rome. And what luck or what a blessing that is.

Erica

On Kavanaugh, & why I’ll talk about politics on my blog

I’m sure we’ve all heard this before; the things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: religion, politics, and money. Unfortunately for me, politics and religion (as it relates to a place’s culture, history, and a nation’s current position in the world) are two of the topics that most fascinate me and that I like to discuss.

Without sounding too self-important, I believe that I have become adept at figuring out the type of person who can have a civil, informed, and enlightening discussion about these delicate topics without being offended or getting upset. I often enjoy conversations with someone who disagrees with me and is informed about a topic more than I do with someone who is similar to me in beliefs. Having discussions with others who don’t agree with me challenges my way of thinking, makes me defend my opinions, and gives me a window into their way of thinking and views on life.

Now I’m by no means an expert on foreign policy or politics, and I have no formal degrees in these subjects. What I do possess is a lifetime love of politics and international affairs. Literally since the age of 7 or 8, I have followed current world events and am interested in the history that leads up to these events. When other kids were watching cartoons, I was tuned into a 24-hour news network.

That being said, there are also many “current events” that I have little to no knowledge of, such as the economy, tax policy, global warming, and many others. I have a broad view of the topics and my feelings towards the issues, but it is not the type of knowledge on which I could have an informed discussion.

Knowing this about me, please take my opinions in this post forward with a grain of salt. Or, just skip altogether. 🙂

The idea for this post originated when a great mentor and support for me, Etti, who was one of my professors in college, asked me what I thought about the Kavanaugh mess. I watched the entire hearing on Thursday from Dr. Ford’s opening statements until the last senator questioned Judge Kavanaugh for the allotted 5 minutes.

It is of course very complicated, and it has devolved into nothing about finding the truth and everything about the optics of the circus before the midterms.

Yes, I think Dr. Ford should have had the right to tell her story and testify, but I have a major problem with Senator Diane Feinstein’s handling of the situation.

She had the knowledge of the complaint early in this confirmation process, and though she was “sworn to secrecy,” I’m not sure exactly what that means or what she agreed to in terms of keeping the identity of the person with the complaint a secret. For Senator Feinstein to not have brought up the allegations in the Judiciary Committee’s closed-door session with Judge Kavanaugh or in her individual meeting with him before the hearings I think is very wrong. This is exactly the reason Senate-confirmed positions seemingly have things such as closed-door hearings and 1-on-1 private visits with the senators.

I thought Dr. Ford was mostly a credible witness, and I believe she should have the time to tell her story. Unfortunately, by no fault of her own, I believe the timing of the revelation is purposeful on the part of the Democrats to disrupt the process before the elections. Had the allegations been addressed in the closed-door hearings I mentioned above, perhaps her identity could have remained private. From what I have heard her say, one of her major worries in coming forward was that she didn’t want to have her name splashed across the headlines. By waiting until the 11th hour, this is exactly what happened.

I thought some of her answers were odd and quite naive on her part. For example, she claimed she didn’t know about the committee’s offer to come to her in California because she doesn’t like to fly. I find this strange because not only should her lawyer have told her about the offer, it was public knowledge. I knew about their offer simply from news reports. Her fear of flying was also puzzling to me because though she claims anxiety around flying, she admitted to many vacations and trips she took to Hawaii and other places around the Pacific Ocean. This doesn’t matter at all in terms of her allegations, I just found the exchange about this between her and the prosecutor odd.

It hardly needs to be said to anyone who watched even a minute or two of Judge Kavanaugh’s opening statement, but his opening statement was filled with emotion that ran the gamut from anger to indignation to tears. I know there is always speculation on how a person acts after a tragedy or accusation (Are they not crying enough, are they crying too much? Is anger the sign of a truly innocent person who is falsely accused or the arrogance of someone who is guilty and mad he got caught?), so I don’t put much stock in that. I didn’t find the substance of his responses when answering the senators’ questions very “compelling.” His “I enjoy beer” line was used too many times, often in response to questions that weren’t about that, and for him to say that he has never forgotten something when he was drinking heavily… I obviously have my own complicated issues and past with alcohol, but I find it hard to believe. That, to me, then, makes it easier for me to question other things he says or denies.

All of this brings me to the biggest issue I have, and that is the question of  “burden of proof” in cases such as this and what constitutes “enough” in the era of the #MeToo movement. Obviously “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not apply here, and either does the civil burden of “preponderance of the evidence,” so it is difficult to know how to evaluate such an allegation in terms of how it should affect his nomination and those of others going forward. One of the pillars of our justice system, of course, is the presumption of innocence, and I wouldn’t want just any allegation to derail someone’s career, but then how do we deal with allegations that cannot be proven or disproven?

I am very uncomfortable with presuming guilt as a legal issue based on an accusation, but how much proof is “sufficient” to deny someone a job when we have cases such as this? And not just high profile cases, but everyday people who may be accused of something and lose or fail to obtain a job because of that. I don’t have an answer. Thoughts?

So now we have the FBI investigation. To me, this is all about optics and public perception. As has been pointed out on many news programs, the FBI doesn’t investigate state crimes, as these allegations would be, and further, they don’t draw conclusions in background investigations. They gather facts. I can’t see them finding anything that is going to sway a vote for confirmation one way or the other. This seems to me to put the Democrats in an odd position: they got their investigation, but if nothing new turns up, I suppose their next line of attack will be that it wasn’t thorough enough. What else can they say?

So to wrap up what has become a marathon post, my biggest issues are 1. the withholding of the letter during the FBI checks, closed-door hearings, and 1-on-1 meetings, and 2. the burden of proof the Senate or any other average company looks for when deciding to hire and/or fire someone and to evaluate when to deny someone an opportunity such as this.

I have lots more thoughts but that’s enough for today. I haven’t reread this so I hope it makes sense!

Erica