People always ask what my favorite place has been after a year and 21 countries of traveling. It’s a simple question that I myself ask of many other travelers that I meet along the route. The answer is much harder. Every country is tainted or gilded by the experiences there and the people who make them up. New Zealand is my default answer because it was beautiful and fresh and full of friendly people, and Nate and I had the run of the place in our little Spaceship minivan. Or were all of those things wonderful because we’d just spent the better part of three months slogging through SE Asia where everything was crowded and polluted and we were constantly harassed by merchants and beggars and we never knew if we were actually going to get to our destination without being cast in the sequel to Brokedown Palace or the next season of Locked Up Abroad? It’s a real quandary that only Brandy and Rodgers and Hammerstein could do justice…Do I love them because they’re wonderful…or are the wonderful because I love them?
I struggled to classify Krakow, Poland because of this phenomenon. I was really, really excited about eating pierogies that I didn’t have to thaw out first (I heart Mrs. T‘s!). However, starting the trip off with the unauthorized removal of my laptop was like having an appendage ripped off Tarantino-style. For the first four days, it was all I could do to stop the hemorrhaging/despairing over all the work I lost. I never left our Couch Surfing apartment while I cranked out the materials for my upcoming job in Sri Lanka. Nate lent me his laptop and brought me a steady flow of will-power-maximizing meals. Actually, I should mention here the incredible talents of our CS host, Yanni. Knowing the “way things work” in Poland, he was able to track down the name of the company in Poland that ran the bus Nate and I were on when we arrived in Poland, information that I’d been told multiple times by the parent company was impossible to retrieve. He told us he channeled his inner baba, or grandmother, as he berated some poor schmo in Polish on the phone until he agreed to give us the information. Unfortunately, though we were able to track down the driver with this information, the driver claimed that there was no laptop on the bus. And so it goes.
When I did emerge, it was to find yet another cute, old town square with gaze-worthy architecture and horse-drawn carriages for the adoring tourist masses. Smaller than Prague, but bigger than Pilzen, Krakow offered some pleasant strolls along bricked pathways leading to impromptu art galleries in alley ways and open-air markets with lots of the promised pierogies.
The real draw to Krakow, let’s face it, is its proximity to Auschwitz. I grew up, of course, knowing about the most infamous of Nazi concentration camps from school and from my mother’s own stories of ancestors lost to the place during WWII. I steeled myself for an educational but deeply saddening experience.
There is no denying how somber it was to walk around the grounds and imagine all of the atrocities committed against humanity there. Nate and I walked into dormitories with children’s drawings still on the wall, communal bathrooms that, like most of the facilities, were specifically engineered to erase any traces of human dignity. Most of the gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis just before liberation, but we walked through one smaller chamber that had the appearance of human claw marks covering the walls. Several buildings had photos of prisoners who were found alive at liberation but who had been used for medical experiments by the SS. The photo captions told how much the sexless, skeletal forms weighed when they entered the facility and how much after — sometimes a number in the 40-50 kilos mark, or around a 100-pound difference. Starvation was a fascinating field of study for the Nazis.
Each fact from our tour guide’s mouth seemed more horrifying than the last. I think the worst, though, was seeing signs of hope. The prisoners brought in on cattle cars were told they were being relocated. They were told anything to keep them silent and cooperative. Even the guards who helped the prisoners disembark were prisoners themselves, I’m sure providing some reassurance of safety. The phrase like lambs to the slaughter must have been penned after this place. The families were unloaded from the train onto a platform inside the camp along with anything they carried of their former lives on their backs. They were put into two lines: people who looked like they could work and those who couldn’t: children, pregnant women, the elderly. The latter were marched straight to the chambers, but not before being separated from everything they possessed for “delousing.” One building contained glassed-in displays of these items: suitcases, glasses, hair that had been cut off to be used for the war effort. The worst for me was a sea of pots and pans; each carried whispers of hope of a life beyond this temporary horror.
Auschwitz is bad medicine, like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, that one has to take to remember what hate can do unchecked. I didn’t have to travel to Poland to recognize that the hate that sparked the mass murder of millions of innocent Jews, Gypsies, and many, many others during the Holocaust still echoes today. It was at the jewelry store in Sri Lanka where a man thought he was connecting to the American couple in front of him by talking about how he liked Chicago, but not the black people there. It’s in casual jokes or comments by family and friends over dinner about this or that group of people ruining the world through “their ways.” Auschwitz just showed the end result of hatred; all of it starts as talk that is planted in the minds of those who were willing to listen and never question.
Luckily, all of it is just as easily erased with curiosity about the deep values behind behaviors that are foreign or strange to us. From there, tolerance takes over and sharing the planet with people different from ourselves becomes a blessing and not a curse. As a teacher, trainer, and instructional designer, I have to practice curiosity and tolerance each day in order to do my students justice. I teach intercultural communication as an inseparable partner to language learning. I help people to understand the why behind what they see. As a person, I do all of this because I want to leave a legacy of love, kindness, and caring behind to whomever just might be listening to me. In America, the land of immigrants, we don’t have very far to go to meet someone with a different upbringing, with different colored skin, with different values, and different life experiences or views. Seeing past all of that to see the person isn’t easy, but it’s possible with practice. And it’s the only way to avoid the horrors of our collective past.