I should be using this long flight across the Atlantic to catch up on sleep, but instead I'm using it to catch up on thought and feeling. The 12-day trip was a blizzard of impressions. It'll take time to sort them out. Some are simply out of reach. My memory of our guided tour of the Auschwitz I camp is mostly white noise after the room with the vast display of human hair. Maybe if I return someday I'll be able to pay attention to my guide's voice instead of the loud flat buzz in my head.
One thing I've noticed on this trip is the human instinct to look for signs of hope in places of despair. I seen myself and my traveling companions doing this everywhere. It's what led me to admire the croaking of frogs in the Birkenau ash pit. It's what I assume led a number of the photojournalists on the inaugural FASPE journalism program to crouch down and take pictures of the delicate flowers along the tracks at the train depot from which Berlin's Jews were deported. And it's what led me to snap this photo:
This is the other end of the line--the spot about a quarter-mile from Birkenau's gate where those Berlin Jews (and others from all over Europe) were driven from the cattle cars onto the platform for selection. Some organization from Hamburg had left a bouquet of flowers along the track with a banner saying “we will not forget what happened.” A shaft of light in a place of darkness.
The final stop on our FASPE tour was a place of light: the gorgeous, vibrant city of Krakow. It was spared bombing in the war and retains its beauty.
A university town, it also hums with the energy of youth and creativity. Street performers entertain the crowds and the cafés on the main square bustle until the wee hours. After Berlin's somber memorials and the horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau, arriving in Krakow felt like stepping out of shadows.
But shadows remain.
In shops dotting the commercial district, you can buy yourself The Jew. You can buy The Jew clutching a menorah or fiddling a klezmer tune—or you can buy The Jew clasping a money bag with coins in his pockets.
It's easy, and tempting, to make too much of these dolls. Krakow today celebrates Jewish history and culture. The old Jewish district, the Kazimierz quarter, is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods of the city (although not populated by many Jews). Had I stayed one more night I could have gone to a club across the street from my hotel to take in a show by a Klezmer band out of Russia. Krakow is no hotbed of anti-semitism.
But the dolls added a dark note to an otherwise light place. Their hateful hunched shoulders and hooked noses took me back in my mind to our recent time in Germany--back to my father's memories of Kristallnacht and back to the courteous bureaucratic discussions about the Final Solution to the Jewish Question that still faintly echo in the House of the Wannsee Conference.