Oswiecim: Loss of another – Our personal loss (part 1/2)

Depriving a person of his or her freedom without any real reason (and a difference in religion or race, I do not consider a reason!), is, I believe, a gross violation of human sovereignty and dignity. It is also, in my view, a lack of understanding of God’s plan of creation, which the Father Himself described as good!

We (Hedwi, Natalia and other participants of the conference in Oswiecim, Poland) recently had the opportunity to learn much about life, human suffering, overcoming grief, and personal grievances during the international conference Grundtvig in Oswiecim, Poland. The focus of the conference was on understanding the suffering and grief associated with the Second World War, in the context of Jewish culture, history, and religion. Though bereavement is a natural part of life, the end of a life still brings sorrow and suffering to the survivors, and sometimes, misunderstanding and anger, as well. We were especially grateful to God that we could be there because of the 70th anniversary of the shutting-down of Auschwitz (concentration camp).

Loss of another – Our personal loss

The depth of one’s mourning is determined by many things: the relationship between the deceased and the survivor is the main thing, as well as the impact the loss creates in the survivor’s life. There is much to learn on this subject and I was grateful, thanks to this project in Polish Auschwitz, to be able to hear the story of Arnold Parot. Arnold told us the story of his father—a story of the loss of a loved one, and anger toward the then “System.” Arnold read us a story which his father had written. When Arnold’s father was just fifteen years old, someone knocked on their door and took away his father…forever. The fifteen year old boy did not speak of his loss for 62 years! The story finally saw the light of day seven years ago when the now old man responded to a request by documentary filmmakers and historians to contribute to a collection of stories from the Second World War. When reading the story to us, Arnold confessed that when he first read his father’s story, he understood for the first time his own loss–which was living life without his grandfather.

In the discussion groups which followed this story, I realized there are many kinds of loss, not just that associated with the death of a loved one. I was pleased that the conference looked at loss and bereavement in a broader context, such as loss of dignity or human identity, loss of home and homeland, customs and traditions, relationships, and property, or, in the case of the Jewish concentration camps—loss all of those things.

Concentration camps – why Poland was chosen

We visited the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where every loss imaginable took place. During World War II, over one million, three hundred thousand people were killed in Auschwitz. Most of them were Jews (1.1 million), while the rest were Polish intelligentsia, Gypsies, and captured soldiers of Germany’s enemies.

The City of Oswiecim was among several alternatives selected by Germany to house their death camps because it had a railway line that reached the whole of Europe. This could also be one of the reasons that the Second World War began with an attack on Poland in 1939. Shortly thereafter, the German army completely controlled all Polish public authorities, including police, railways, and the army. In a conversation with friends from Poland, I heard that it was no coincidence that Germany chose Poland as a country for committing atrocities against humanity. “The Nazis knew very well that Poles are quiet people and they would not speak about what was happening for a long time until some message got out to the light of day,” said an unnamed friend with visible sadness on her face.

History in Stained Cabinets of the Museum

The focus of the Grundvig conference was analysis of the suffering and grief that took place during the Second World War in the context of Jewish culture, history, and religion. The conference took place in Auschwitz where, among other activities, attendees were allowed to visit the city’s museum. The exhibit portrayed Jewish life from the past to the present, and displayed the characteristic symbols of Judaism, including the Torah, the seven-branched candlestick (Menorah), the Jewish calendar, which reliably noted holidays, including Passover, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Purim, and fashions of Jewish women from the late 18th century. I appreciated the message of the exhibition, which was quietly emphasized in almost every exhibit on display: Though Christianity and Judaism are different religions, believing Christians and believing Jews in (the town of) Oswiecim in the period before the war (18th and 19th centuries) did not perceive these differences as a reason for dispute, and certainly not as a reason for ending another human’s life.

Polish Christians and Jews in Auschwitz lived in mutual respect, as neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and friends. This is evidenced by the name of Auschwitz from the late 18 century—the town was nicknamed “Auschwitz-Jerusalem.” There were times when the Jewish population of Auschwitz exceeded 50% of the total population of the town. We learned later that after the horrors of World War II, only one Jewish man returned to Auschwitz; he died in 2002.

Oswiecim / Auschwitz Today

Two things really spoke to us during our visit to Auschwitz: The only reconstructed synagogue in town and an exhibition of modern photos of city life in the present. The photos were displayed in a local coffee shop and were of everyday, simple life events, but closer observation left the viewer with a deep chill: One photo showed a young girl roller-skating under a beautiful, romantic sunset. A closer look shows that the girl is skating on the road rightnext to the blocks themselves, where thousands of prisoners were held and killed during the war. Another photo looks like a nice Sunday afternoon, with a father and son fishing at a local lake. This would normally be nothing out-of-the ordinary, except for the horrifying realization that this was one of the lakes where tons and tons of human ashes had been dumped….The sense we were left with after viewing the exhibition is that “life goes on.” And truly, the people of Oswiecim live on (as we all do). But, as we know, this doesn’t mean that we have forgotten….

Legend of the Adventures of the Soul

The Isaac Jewish synagogue and Cemetery, along with other historic sites associated with World War II, are located in the Jewish District in Krakow, called Kazimierz. Even today, seventy years after the end of WWII, an indescribable tinge of sadness permeates the area. We could feel it in the richly-ornamented Isaac Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Krakow amongst couple others. There are only a few places in the beautiful baroque hall where the original wall fragments of text from the 17th century remain. However, the remaining texts are passages from the Torah, which is highly valued.

Jews are known for their deep, allegorical stories or legends by which they communicate God’s principles. One particular legend caught my attention: this story is about a king and his beloved daughter. The king wanted to give his daughter the best; he wanted her to have the opportunity to acquire all the knowledge and wisdom possible, so he sent her into a far country, to study with a wise teacher. The old man had one other disciple, a young man who quickly fell in love with the king’s daughter. The girl was popular throughout the city, where everyone loved her open heart, sincere kindness, and goodness. However, when the girl acquired all the knowledge her father, the king, desired for her, he sent word for her to come home. She was meant to lead the Royal Chamber and one day rule the country. “The royal daughter must live in the country, among her equals,” the king thought. But the king’s daughter was used to the life she had lived during her years of study. She loved her friends and even the common people, and they loved her back. The separation was painful. The girl wept because she was leaving her friends; they, too, were sorrowing because they were losing her.

When the teacher saw the inconsolable grief of the students and people of the town, he decided he must speak to them. He began with the question: “Why do you cry so bitterly? You should be happy for the princess’s amazing and rapid success in her studies. Another student might take years to learn as much as she has learned! You should be happy for her because she is going home to her beloved father.” When the crowd stopped crying, the teacher said “You know she was never one of us; she is the king’s daughter, sent to this place to study and acquire wisdom, which she will later use at home. You must not despair. Your friend has accomplished her task and now must return to her kingdom, where she is needed. Is not this, perhaps, a reason for you to rejoice with her and not to cry?

The king’s daughter, in this old Jewish legend, represents the human soul. Jews believe that God sent the soul to the world to study Torah and fulfill God’s commandments. When she/the soul acquires what is needed, the Lord takes her back home. Jews believe this is a reason to rejoice. Since God is righteous and just in all His decisions, we should not regret the departure of a man—even in his youth. God knows what is best for the soul of man.

Hedwi Tkáčová

::: Read also PART 2 :::

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