Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Choiceless Choices

May 24, 2006 – The Lodz Ghetto

There’s so much feeling, so many thoughts, I’m struggling to keep up. I’m tired and exhausted, but I’m wide awake all at the same time. Today we went to Lodz where Pinchas (the survivor on our bus) grew up before the war. He tried to tell us about his life before the war in hopes that we wouldn’t only hear about the terrible things that lead up to and occurred during the war. Lodz seems like a normal city today, it’s almost hard to see much evidence of a ghetto – but if you look its there. It is especially there at the monument that was built near the train station which left Lodz and took all the Jews to death camps at Chelmno and then Auschwitz. The monument is called Stacja Radegast – Pomnik Zaglady Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Our Polish guide (Chaim) asked me to read a “report” from one of the doctors who ran Chelmno. We learned that Chelmno was a very primitive death camp and that they used cars disguised as Red Cross ambulances to act as mini gas chambers. It was so deceiving to people, as they would get off the trains they would get into cars with a Red Cross on them, something we all perceive as help and refuge – and after getting in the cabin of the “ambulance,” the Nazis would connect the exhaust to back inside the cabin where the people were sitting. The report that I read aloud to our group was from a doctor asking his superiors to change the way this was done because if the exhaust was put into the cabins too quickly, then it left the fated passengers with distorted faces and bodies, often defecating on themselves or other bodily functions that they could no longer control, rather than gently putting them to sleep as was hoped. I don’t understand how a person can have compassion enough to want a peaceful death for these people, yet with the same heart still think that killing them is ok. These extermination vans also apparently concerned this doctor because soldiers unloading them were becoming affected. How can you have compassion and concern for one human being, this soldier, and not feel at least a little similar compassion towards someone else standing right there waiting to get into this deceiving van. Something that really struck me though was the set of choiceless choices imposed on the Jewish council at the Lodz ghetto by the Nazis. After the ghettos were established, most ghettos formed a council or some sort of city “government,” since most were operating as a city on their own, it was an attempt at normalcy and an attempt at maintaining some sort of security. However at several different points, the Nazis forced the Council and the citizens of the ghetto to do certain things – just as they started the deportation. At one point in the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis demanded 20,000 people from the ghetto to be deported. The Jewish council had a choiceless choice, who do you choose? I mean, I know we and I joke about how this last presidential election was a choice of the lesser of the two evils – but it wasn’t an absolutely choiceless choice. The Jewish Council of the Lodz Ghetto decided to ask for the children up through nine and the sick. They asked their own family and friends, their own neighbors to GIVE UP their children and their sick, to be sent away in a cattle car, or the Nazis were going to do it themselves and just pick. The Jewish Ghetto just figured this was the best chance at survival. I get that – I do – but I can’t imagine or even fathom how that felt. We even read a portion of the speech, but I still can’t fathom having to hear it in all seriousness and know that my precious niece and nephew, and my grandfather would have been on those trains. I can’t fathom having to consciously put your own family members on their own journey towards death. My heart aches, literally, pain in my chest, just thinking about it. Chaim is our Holocaust guide – each bus has a survivor, a Holocaust guide and a Polish guide (and a bodyguard J) – although I’m not positive, I think all the Holocaust guides have some sort of personal connection the Holocaust. For example, Chaim’s father was in a camp and survived, moved to Chile, and raised a family there before he was later murdered for the same thing that put him in the concentration camps. Chaim does not claim to be Jewish by religion, but he is culturally. He has moved to a Kibbutz in Israel and travels between Israel and Poland to do trips like this. It was Chaim who said some of the most profound things on this trip that I will never forget. Even just here, on our first stop of the trip he talked about knowledge in general. Americans, even the whole world, generally accepts knowledge as a good thing, as something you can never get enough of. And up until today, I would have agreed. But Chaim reminded us that to know more in the Holocaust is worse, because the truth, the inhumanity, the pictures and the people live with you forever, day and night. And just in these two days, I’m already confident that it will, that this experience will live with me every single day and every single night of my life. In this same conversation Chaim brought up another really good point about knowledge. Coming back to the discussion of is knowledge good or bad? I mean we also know the saying, ignorance is bliss, and there are many times in my life I believe it, but Chaim brought up a good point while he was standing next to a cattle car. Would it have been better to know where you were going stepping into that cattle car? Or would it have been better to have hope that you were moving on to another place in the country away from the “front lines” as those people were so often told? Would it have been better to know you were going to a death camp – or would it have been comforting to know that you were going to a concentration camp where you at least had a CHANCE at survival? We were all able to look in and at the cattle cars – the cars that were never meant for people, but were also the last site many people ever saw – and as Chaim talked about them he said something that I’m sure will stick with me throughout all my seminary career in an attempt to figure it out. He said, “I am not religious, but these cars are Holy.” We talked about these people in the cars, when they finally opened after a treacherous and long uncertain trip, the breath of fresh air they received. I can’t help but think about that one breath, that first breath they took, only to find out that they were breathing in their own death; breathing in air that was filled with the ashes of those who had come before them, and that would be filled with theirs in just a short time. The last part of this monument that we saw included a registry with the thousands of people who left from this station to never be seen again. Names, birthdays, occupations, ages and such were all recorded and have been preserved, and for most people as the only preservation that they ever existed. There is a hallway FILLED with these sheets of names, including some blank sheets, to serve as a memory to those who were not recorded before they departed to their deaths or the unknown. It’s an overwhelming site to see the lists because the monument doesn’t light up until someone is close to this display – so it’s hard to grasp how many of these forms there are. Our entire group ended up in this long hallway, and it seemed to go on forever. I just hope the memory of these individuals can and will do the same.

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