A Jewish Boy At Auschwitz - Random Memories Of An Accidental Visitor.
"Hey, let's visit Auschwitz tomorrow," said one of the group leaders. We were standing in the Krakow train station, having just come back from the Wielicka salt mines. Trying to figure out what to do next day, we examined the placards showing trains running in all directions, and one of us noticed a familiar name. Auschwitz looked like an interesting destination, so everyone agreed.
We were on a student exchange of sorts, in the summer of 1973. Our group was made of 24 Romanian students. Our peer group was made of 24 Polish students, from an engineering faculty similar to ours. It worked like this: the Polish students came to Romania for a fortnight, on vacation. We arranged accommodation for them in student dorms which were unused in summer. The warm sands of the Black Sea did not disappoint.
Then, all 48 of us travelled together to Poland. But of course, we took a detour. I was the only Hungarian-speaker among them, but somehow managed to get accommodation in Budapest, for 48 students for 4 nights, overlooking the Danube. We've been less lucky in Prague, where we ended up sleeping in a railway carriage at the main station. There was relative freedom in our arrangements, as much as communism allowed for it. In Poland, we were traveling freely, needing only occasional help from our hosts. They arranged the accommodation and food, and it was up to us what to do.
Next day, as agreed, we took the westward train from Krakow and arrived at Auschwitz station. Without speaking the language, we found our way towards the museum. We passed a row of 20 different flags, arranged in an impressive arc. We all found the familiar flags: Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, German, etc. I was just standing there, looking, and looking. My close friend asked:
What are you looking at, Andrei ?
Oh, nothing, I am just looking for the Israeli flag.
I was 22 at the time, and I grew up with low expectations about acceptability and legitimacy. Other nations would hold their heads up high. I was to stay silent. But a second colleague picked up my thought, and asked the guide:
How come there is no Israeli flag ?
There were no Israeli citizens among the victims here.
The answer was logically correct. Aimed at our engineering heads, no one could object. We looked at each other, then we moved on. We passed through the rooms filled with shoes, or hair. There were lists of names. I could not find my grandmother, Sarah Weiss, but I did not expect the list to have the names of all 3 million people who perished at Auschwitz.
Out in the open again, the tourist trail led us to a shrine or something like that. I'm not sure what it actually was. There was a queue outside, perhaps 40 people, so we joined in waiting, without further questions. Soon, we noticed two men, in black robes, walking along both sides of the queue. They were taking the names of everyone in the queue, and putting together some kind of a list. We were watching what was going on ahead of us.
The priests, as they turned out to be, asked every visitor about his or hers religion. Communication wasn't perfect, because the foreigners didn't speak Polish. Everyone had approximate knowledge of other languages: German, French, English, Russian. No problem, tourists and their guides quickly become experts in using body language to talk. The priests put on a severe, motionless face, when they heard from a group of German tourists that they were of Lutheran faith.
Then, they got closer to us. First, they asked a lanky Romanian colleague about his religion. The question itself was a bit unusual for us. It was communism. We were studying computers and automation. At age 22, few of us cared about religion, but we had awareness of ancestry. So, my colleague answered he was Greco-Catholic. The priests indicated this is half right. Not the best, but passable - was the verdict on their face. Next in line were Orthodox Romanians. The priests looked irritated and they did not make any effort to hide it. Quite the opposite, their faces spoke of strong negativity. Soon their expression softened somewhat, when they found out we were not Russians.
The process was getting closer, and there was no escape. Everyone had to be on the list. A few more facial expressions followed, as my Transylvanian colleagues said they were either Unitarian or Calvinist. Finally, it was my turn. It was a difficult moment for me. Under the pressure of the moment, I said in German:
vielleicht ein Rabbiner (perhaps a rabbi)
The priests took a sudden step backwards, as if bitten by a snake. The one on the right, more senior, had red eyes and bulging veins on his forehead. They were both in genuine distress, gasping for air.
"No, no" - they said, in various languages. "No way"
Their arms were moving, their bodies were shaking, while they were repeating: "No, no, nein". They used all available languages to pass on the meaning to us, and we used all our comprehension to pick it up. The process took some time, and a circle of Romanians formed around the two revolted priests.
This was the moment when my Romanian colleagues exploded. I know how they felt, and we talked about it, both before, and after this incident. Romania is the Balkans. It's natural and beautiful, but undeveloped. My colleagues were going through a humiliating experience, as country after country seemed more developed, more clean, more civilised than their homeland. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland - they all seemed superior, out of the home league. And then, unexpectedly, they found the chink in the armour of Europe. There was no rabbi at Auschwitz.
Suddenly, the oh-so-developed world looked less bright. The graceful bridges over the Danube may enchant at Budapest. The Old City of Prague may speak of Middle Age glory. At the Krakow Castle, gold may flow like river. But look, there is no rabbi at Auschwitz.
The language skills were insufficient to express fine nuances, but body language was unmistakable. Spit to the ground. The eyes of the priests turned more red, their anger was palpable. There was no physical contact. Quite the opposite, everyone took a step backward, to make space for big theatrical gestures expressing contempt and displeasure.
I started to feel uncomfortable, right there in the middle. So, I quietly moved away. This was not my fight, but in a way it felt good to have some solidarity on my side. After a few minutes, we left the scene, without ever finding out what the shrine was about.
I'm not reading too much into this story. It's just an episode. It's important to remember, that I wasn't part of any Jewish organisation at the time. There was no Jewish capital pressing the case. No bankers, no governments. Just a Jewish boy at Auschwitz.
By Andrew Schonberger
Response by D Goska
I "met" Andrew through Facebook. I love his posts. He is very smart and full of interesting stories, well told. I love his reflections on life in Mittleeuropa. My dad was Polish, my mother Slovak, with cultural ties to Hungary. She had also worked for Jews and was friends with many Jews. She dropped Yiddish phrases and cooked Jewish dishes. My grandmother's second husband was Lithuanian. I'm not one of those "All Poland all the time" Polonians. I appreciate the music, embroidery, food, and history of many Central Europeans.
Andrew reflects that big embrace.
I invited Andrew to contribute to this blog.
"What?" he asked.
"Anything" I responded. Andrew writes so well and he has so much to say.
When I read this contribution, I was troubled. The simple truth is I am doubtful about Andrew's depiction of the priests. I've met a fair number of Polish priests, and I've never had an encounter like the one described here. I have not met Polish priests who go through a werewolf-like transformation when they encounter Jews.
No, I'm not Jewish, but I am often assumed to be Jewish, including by Poles, and including by one Polish priest. He was nice to me. No werewolf transformation. No red eyes, no bulging veins, no gasping for air.
When I read Andrew's story, above, I remembered something that happened in Poland in 1998 when I was there for the "Ashkenaz, Theory and Nation" conference.
I was with about five Jewish scholars. We had gone out to dinner in Kazimierz. Mind: these were scholars. Tenured. At prestigious universities. Opinion makers.
A great deal of the conversation centered around Jewish victimization at the hands of non-Jews. No argument – there is plenty of fodder for such a conversation. Yes, there were pogroms in Poland after WW II. Yes, many Polish non-Jews did many bad things.
It's interesting, though, that we really didn't talk about much of anything else. Anyone "just arriving from Mars" and overhearing our conversation would certainly have enough data to conclude that Jews are nothing but victims, and Polish and other non-Jews are never anything but victimizers.
Later, we walked around Kazimierz, and back toward Krakow's stare miasto, or old town.
We were standing against a wall of one of the ancient buildings and some Poles passed. One of scholars said, "There. Did you hear that? Those young thugs just cursed us out and said horrible, anti-Semitic things about us."
I stared at her. "What?"
She insisted. The young men who had just passed us, who had looked like garden variety young men to me, to her, were thugs. Their words, which I had heard as nothing of any import, were certainly anti-Semitic threats.
I had heard no such thing. Nothing. Nothing that even sounded like the word "Jew" in Polish.
There were no cameras. There were no audio recording devices. Almost twenty years have passed. Those young men are middle-aged now. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
I love Andrew's writing and am honored to include on this blog anything Andrew cares to contribute, now and in the future.
Yes, the Nazis' anti-Semitism was certainly disguised by the Soviets who dominated Poland after WW II. And as soon as Poles ousted the Soviets in 1989, they began correcting their history, including at Auschwitz. The Nazis' focus on the Jews was brought forward, as it should be.
But these priests? I doubt them. Andrew is certain of them.
"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten."
Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting 1979
Here is Andrew's response to my response:
Here is Andrew's response to my response:
Searching through memory, further details come back. There was to be a series of religious services in that shrine, in memory of the relatives of visitors. The priests were organising the services, so they had to know what kind of prayers each visitor whished for. This gives a practical context to the events.
Also, there is no proof the people running the list were priests. If you are a non-religious person, living in non-religious times, and you see two men in long black robes with large crosses on their chest - well, you assume they would be priests. At any rate, they were probably not too not high in the hierarchy. Senior figures don't do open-air duty, organising the crowd by denomination.
Credit goes to Danusha Goska for providing the blog for publishing this and the air of cooperative debate to comment on this. My mother tongue is Hungarian, my entire schooling is Romanian, my army duty is Hebrew, my life's work is in English. I live in Australia and I don't write much outside my personal Facebook page. Yet, I'm finding myself responding with great pleasure to Danusha's invitation to contribute to the development of Polish Jewish relations. It's a compliment to the owner of this blog.