The Polish Cross to Bear

The Polish Cross to Bear

by Kenneth Rayman on December 3, 2019
One of the examples I used in last night's talk to the Renton Kiwanis was to briefly explain "The Caretaker of Man's Penance," as an example of the effort to redefine the lens in which we view a particular country. I used my inadvertent trip to the Majdanek concentration camp as a way to showcase that new perception change to them.

Poland was a lifelong image of despair for me, and I wanted to see what there was to counter the image of pillage, destruction, and history's punching bag. I traveled, though, completely unaware that Poland is a devoutly Catholic nation. For a non-religious person, this presented a problem because my religious education stopped at understanding names, certain stories, commandments, and iconography. My personal experience with religion has been largely negative in many ways, leading me to be agnostic, though I respect customs, traditions, and principles. I was finding it difficult to empathetically connect with the places I visited because they were often Catholic cathedrals where I recognized the patron saint and some iconography, but I wasn't moved personally because I had no connection to the belief or institution. I refused, as well, to take photos in the cathedrals, though they were very beautiful, because my respect forbade me to think of using the cathedral as a photo prop. So my Poland trip, I thought, was going to be a bust because I felt empty and disconnected.

I never wanted to visit this place (Majdanek) or any other like it but the experience, coupled with a simple comment later by my driver on the two hour drive back to Krakow from Zakopane near the Slovakian border, finally connected Poland's history, culture, AND it's religion in a way I could make sense of. When he commented that Auschwitz had a history prior to the darkness it occupies in history, I told him, "You just said exactly what I came here for. I wanted to find the Poland that was independent of WW2 and that's part of it. I didn't know that Auschwitz had a benign history. Now that DOESN'T OBVIOUSLY absolve the lesson nor excuse what happened, but that's something I can use to make sense of Poland's history and educate to change the given outside narrative."

I would, though, have the idea for a month after this conversation, stuck on the blinking cursor of a blank page, struggling to find the right words. I wanted to make sure I didn't come across as flippant, insensitive, or as if I were trying to absolve those responsible. I wanted to accurately explain what Poland is beyond these terrible marks on it's landscape but also honor those who died in an unspeakable event.

The driver would continue, Poland has had to fight the rising tide of the labeling of places like Majdanek and Auschwitz as Polish death camps. He told me, "They are German death camps. The Nazis didn't have to build infrastructure when they occupied us. Auschwitz was a military base, that's why the camp is set up the way it is; soldier barracks became prisoner barracks. The only thing German about Auschwitz is the Birkenau camp expansion and the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate. Auschwitz is Polish, but the DEATH CAMP is German." When I asked curiously why, as a reminder constantly staring them in the face, they kept it intact, he said, "Because the world needs to know. Everyone needs to see it." This gave me the idea that, maybe, with the religious nature of Polish culture, they see a religious duty to preserve what the industry calls "Dark Tourism." I struggled here also, with the lack of religious background, to give it the proper label, but settled on "penance;" giving the article it's name.

I've learned since, as well, that Poland is often chastised for somehow either being complicit in the Holocaust, or complacent to the suffering of the European Jewish population. Yet there are stories throughout the war of everyday Poles, like Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw Ghetto or Warsaw zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski, saving or attempting to save Polish Jews from the gas chambers. Polish Intelligence agent Jan Karski would risk his life multiple times disguising himself as a Hungarian camp guard to sneak evidence of the Holocaust out long before Majdanek was the world's first actual glimpse in July 1943 (a year before the Americans discovered Dachau), yet his information would be disregarded by the Allies as eccentric storytelling to get pity for the Polish plight in the war. The Polish Military would be massacred in the Katyn Forest in 1940, so without proper equipment or training ordinary citizens of Warsaw would stage a losing effort to resist in 1944 and pay dearly. All one has to do is watch movies like, "The Aftermath," "Miasto '44," or "Katyn" to see where the Polish suffered anytime they tried to resist. Scenes in "Miasto '44" as well as exhibits at the Warsaw Rising Museum, show how Polish citizens were used as human shields for German tanks in the city. I also saw in "Miasto '44" how Hitler was determined to leave no Pole alive in the city, as he did in Lidice, Czechoslovakia after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, using the cities as examples against future subversion. So maybe that also is part of the religious significance to the culture. This implied complacency and indifference is the cross that the Polish bear.

I guess you could also say that this is why I've come to desire to travel to Germany. How does a culture with an eternal scarlet letter move forward, define itself, and address the elephant in the room when it appears? Perhaps that will be my next film review, the amazing documentary "Germans and Jews."