Today was a whirlwind of experiences. From racing through the Frankfurt airport to make a dangerously close layover, to stepping foot into a foreign country and culture, this trip has been non-stop since minute one. While I have had the chance to unwind in the beautiful Krakow city square, my conceptions of the country and its history have already been challenged immensely.
After landing in the Krakow airport, Father Desbois, our intrepid guide and teacher, was quick to lead the group to Oświęcim, the town a stone’s throw away from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. For context, prior to leaving Washington DC, the students in the Forensics Course visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum. This museum is expertly curated and an invaluable source of information and knowledge. Going to Oświęcim, I had envisioned more or less the same thing in terms of historical commemoration. It was easy to think in my head that the town so intricately tied to the notorious work camp must have a prominent memorial. Such was not the case.
There is one remaining synagogue in Oświęcim. It is a humble building, pressed between two structures and made up of four medium sized rooms for museum artifacts. In addition, there was one remaining Jewish cemetery. All in all, I was shocked by the lack of presence. As an outsider, my expectations were turned on their head. The legacy of Jewish life in Oświęcim was being built on by McDonalds and KFCs. While I don’t think that Oświęcim should be a prisoner of its past, I worry for the disappearance of history in the inadvertent growth of the town. As painful as the story of Oświęcim is, that story exists, and in my opinion (which to note, is one of a Western, Roman Catholic), should be protected for the sake of preventing future events of this nature. There is a fine line that one must balance when addressing the charged history of a town and their responsibility to grapple with that history. I know I cannot offer any answers – it’s not an easy topic to broach, and one that I can certainly not pass judgement on. I can only observe and reflect.
I come out of day one with an immense amount of questions. I struggle to grasp how the town of Oświęcim, from my perspective, seems to be disconnected from its past. The town grows around homes now empty of their former Jewish inhabitants. However, it isn’t just the history that I worry may be lost. After touring the synagogue and adjacent museum in Oświęcim, I asked Father Desbois about the type of research still needed to “fill in the blanks” of history, and he mentioned the invaluable nature of the records and administrative notes of the homes, houses of worship, and businesses that logged the demographics of Oświęcim and other towns like it – records that will never be found on the Internet or in the Library of Congress. Without the preservation of this information, Holocaust researchers and forensic analysts like Father Desbois would not be able to conduct the important work that they do.
I’m looking forward to learning so much more over the next few days. I’m incredibly grateful and privileged to be on this amazing trip, and I thank the CJC and Yahad in Unum for making this possible.