Hello from Dwight in Krakow, Poland
In 1939, Poland had about 3,350,000 Jews. At the end of 1945, Poland had 10,000 Jews. Over 99.6% were exterminated. No other country in captured Europe comes close to this proportion of genocide during WWII. When some of Poland’s returning Jews tried to occupy their ancestral homes after 1945, they were promptly murdered by Poles. There has long been documented accusations of Polish complicity in the identifying and rounding up of their Jews. I have read accounts that the Poles were very reluctant to give shelter to hiding Jews. I have had a few discussions with my Polish students over this topic. Generally, they have stated that conditions under Nazi rule in Poland were absolutely brutal for everyone. There was not much one to do.
Poland’s historical curse has been its being located between Germany and Russia. All too often, they were the battlefield and the spoils of war between the two combatants. Poland first existed as a country in 1919, AFTER they defeated a Russian army of over 1 million. The Polish phrase ‘harvdt ducha’ describes Poland’s resistance to external domination. “Silent Resolve”.
So what happened?
The Germans immediately built Auschwitz for Polish prisoners. Perhaps the first 200,000 killed there were Poles. The Poles lost 6 million citizens (approximately 20% of their entire population) during WWII. No other nation approached that % of population loss during WWII. Nazi oppression in Poland was by far the most brutal of any occupied country. The USSR had it terrible too, but not for 6 years. Hitler had well-documented plans to remove all Poles from Poland and stock the land with Aryans. No account of what happened to the Jews in Poland should ignore what also happened to the Poles. Sheltering a Jew during occupation meant automatic death for yourself AND your family.
So I spent a full day and Auschwitz and Birkenau (the extremely large, and even more horrifying death camp 3 kilometers away from Auschwitz). I don’t know that I learned anything more than I already knew, other than more facts. I had visited Dachau and the Anne Frank house when I was 18. Both camps are very well preserved, along with all the artifacts of its operation. 2 tons of hair cut from women’s heads, baled up and ready for processing. Too much of that stuff to bear. I think it was the photos of the children that got to me the most. I had to turn away from them. And some of the captured footage. The cattle cars of humans coming into Birkenau, filled mostly with women and children, being rounded up like so many sheep and going directly into the gas chambers. 1000’s at once. So today I visited a few museums, including the Jewish Museum and cemetery in Krakow. The Jewish population in Krakow was 65,000. Now it is a few hundred. Gone forever.
I am constantly aware when I am in the USA of the bones of the native Americans that I am walking on. The range of estimates of the indigenous populations in North America at the time of Columbus are from 25 to 45 million. 300 years later, the numbers were less than 3 million. Disease first, but also a very active policy of explicit genocide by the Spaniards and US colonists caused it. Stating this will cause some US citizens to bristle. But you cannot find a county in the US where at least 10 native Americans were not killed ‘because they were there’. By any name, it was genocide. Have we ever really owned up to it? Well, I was going to write about amusing little stories on the road, but I guess that will have to wait til the next one.
Tomorrow I will visit some castles, and then to the salt mines. Then I will take off on my bike to Slovakia and Hungary. I have ordered parts to fix the bike, but with or without them, I intend to ride to Budapest.
in a bit,