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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blue Numbers and White Lace

The tablecloth was lace. The candles were lit.

Sunday dinners at this family’s table were times for playful political bantering, and for poignant history lessons. Parents, children, different views, differing priorities, common values. I was glad to share dinner with my friend and his family.

I struggled to understand the meaning of swishing Polish consonants sweeping past, all sz's and cz's and dz's --- chshjenchtz (not a real word but a lovely sound that whooshed by time and again). Much of the conversation was lost in translation but I got the message.

One a bright,warm Sunday in June, we shared soup -- borscht -- and pork with apples, fresh bread and butter, a variety of garnishes and specialities, and a green vegetable that I assure you was not cabbage.

I don't remember all of that, I know it only because I wrote it down. But this I do remember. Can see even now.

The deep indigo numbers imprinted on his father’s forearm. A strong arm resting on white lace. He had passed me a bowl of salad, this middle-aged Polish man, and set his arm on the table between us. Numbers. What I remember now is how the typeface was so dark, distinct, easy to read. Tattooed, burned into his skin. His identification mark. From Auschwitz.

I never had the nerve to ask him directly but I did ask his son, “does he still think about it? Talk about it? Often?” “Sometimes, not very often. And not very much,” Christopher said quietly. “There are some things he cannot talk about.”

I had no idea that ethnic Poles had been sent to Auschwitz, for the crime of being Polish. This man had fought the Nazis in the forests of Poland, from encampments that were crude and barely fortified. His father had been shot in front of his eyes; as a 14-year-old boy, he witnessed the murder of his father by Nazi soldiers. As a teen-ager he fought to sabotage and undermine the crushing Nazi occupation of his country.

And he was caught. "He didn't have a gun in his possession at that moment, else he would have been shot on the spot." But he was sent to Auschwitz.

65 years ago today, Soviet soldiers liberated the biggest concentration camp in the entire Nazi system. They arrived early on a bitter, snowy morning and found dozens dead, but, miraculously, dozens alive, huddled together, hidden under haybeds, hidden even amongst corpses. 1.1 million humans were murdered on those grounds alone -- Auschwitz-Birkenau, most but not all of them Jews. But some had survived.

Including the man who passed me the salad.

Thousands of Auschwitz survivors had been force-marched in the previous weeks westward to Buchenwald and other Nazi camps. Of that number hundreds died along the way. Jews, Poles, Roma (Gypsies), and others.

The Holocaust stands as a singular event in human history. We have done dastardly, terrible things through the centuries. Even in that same last one. But, the systemmatic, scientifically organized murder, the intent to exterminate an entire race of people, the dehumanization of millions, the efficiency of the killing -- unimaginable horror -- of the Holocaust haunts us all and reminds us of the slim cord between control and tyranny. We are vulnerable to our own worst inclinations, our own worst instincts. The Holocaust reminds us of the requirements of vigiliance, and generosity, of the dangers of arrogance and, at the other end of the spectrum, and often at the same time, of fear and paranoia.

On this day, sixty-five years ago, the biggest death camp was torn open. The children who survived as skeletal heirs of an entire culture walked, or were carried out of the barracks and given over to the gracious care of the soldiers who liberated them, entrusted to the care of local Polish families, and nursed back to life. Young men like my friend's father, staggered through the snow to begin their journeys home. And the world was forced to stop ignoring the Nazi killing machines.

I've been to Auschwitz-Birkenau on two occasions. Both of them, life-changing experiences. It is eerie. It is harrowing. It is a moral "in your face" to all of us, all of us.

I've included some photos from a recent visit, photos that I could not bear to view myself for some months afterward. Yet these photos do nothing to truly convey the gravitas of the horror.

The true witness to the Holocaust, to the death camps, is best found in the stutter of the survivors, the haunted look in their eyes, the nerve damage that was permanent. The empty shtetls, the stolen art and stolen homes, and stolen lives. The cost of the Holocaust, among Jews and other victims, including ethnic Poles, is all too apparent in the next generation, as the children of survivors have paid a price for their parents' trauma.

But there is another witness that has come from this grim moment in history. The witness of human resiliency, of grace, generosity, work, dignity, and love.

At that dinner table, the strong arm that still bore a tattoo was also the strong arm that raised up a new generation, rebuilt and built new, carried and created a new society, albeit derailed for forty years by the lie of the imposed workers' paradise.

Strong arms. Blue numbers or not. Strong arms on white lace.