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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Vacation Day 11: Auschwitz

Click here for pictures from Day 11 (Auschwitz)

We woke up very early to catch the bus to Auschwitz. The ride was about an hour, and we were shown a short film based on the Russian soldier who was assigned to document their discoveries there. The tour started somewhat at the sign which one tour guide called the "famous ironical sign, Arbeit Mach Frei." Our guide spoke very softly, and didn't seem to give too much information (for example, "I will show you many photographs during the tour and this is the first one.") We switched to another guide, who had much more information to give. Surprisingly, this turned in to an interesting situation.

Most people on the tour were not familiar with the details of the Holocaust or the Concentration Camps. Having had what I'll call a significant amount of education in this area, I found the tour guide's information to be not new. This isn't a criticism per-se, because there's a difference between talking about something in a classroom and being at a site. However, most other tourists seemed somewhat unaware of the details. One tourist asked lots of great questions. "Did anybody know what was going on?" "How can people say this never happened?" Based on one of the questions, our tour guide made a statement like so: "What I find is that Jews come here and they think they are the only ones who suffered. They don't realize other people were died here too. One Jewish tourist was smoking a cigarette and I told him to put it out, and he said 'I don't have to, I'm Jewish.' The Germans are much more respectful when they come here."

This shocked me, and it took me a long time to figure out my thoughts and feelings. How do I express my anger at her racist generalization without being labeled a self-righteous Jew? First I checked both with Beth and the man asking all the questions if I had heard her correctly. Had she really generalized to such a large degree? Both Beth and the other man agreed. Fortunately, the other man said, "I don't think what she says is entirely true." It took a while and some conferring with Beth for me to speak with the guide.

I said, "I have some thoughts about what you said. I agree with you that some Jews have a righteous indignation about the Holocaust, but I also know that I was taught that there were Poles and Russians gays and Gypsies that suffered at the hands of the Germans."

She replied, "Oh, so you had a good education."

"Yes. And I also think that it's not accurate that you say that all Jews are a certain way."

Quickly she turned to respond to the whole crowd, "The problem is that some people come here and think they have the facts. There was one tour guide who was talking about some things - facts. Some people complained: 'How can you say that? How dare you!' and so on. They got that tour guide fired. I should clarify: when I meant 'Jews', I didn't mean American Jews. I meant Israeli Jews."

I wonder if she realized she was revealing her racism twice, explaining her first racist comment with another one. What can I tell you? she's probably right to be upset that her colleague was fired, but there's racism everywhere, and it's tough to talk about one's feelings on race quickly, in front of 30 people.

After viewing Auschwitz we took the bus to Birkenau, three kilometers away. I would have liked to walk there if we had thought about it.

I assumed the trip would be emotionally draining, but in fact, the only part that was emotionally tough was my conflict with the tour guide. I seemed to be no other emotional backlash. Before leaving, Beth took picked up several stones from the ground so we could bring them to my family's graves the next time we go to the cemetery. I'm not entirely convinced they're appropriate for my family's graves for a variety of reasons, but we have them.

We returned to Krakow by 1PM and had a fabulous lunch, and walked through the city most of the rest of the day. The next day was my first day of work in the Google Krakow office, and I wanted to be ready.

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