We sometimes amuse ourselves by flirting with horror and despair. Amusement at the price of others. Tourists flock to places like Alcatraz Island to get a vicarious thrill by standing in the place of a soul-damning existence. Alcatraz—a metaphor for lost hope. The last stop on the sanctioned ride to punishment. The damned locked up and isolated from the rest of us. A tourist ferry boat transports you across San Francisco Bay to a decaying edifice that holds the stories, fears, and fretted existences of thousands of prisoners who could glimpse the San Francisco waterfront only miles away. Unfortunately, the Alcatraz experience is not unique. It is not unique to San Francisco, nor California, nor the United States. Its brethren can be found the world over. Visit Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Not even the Auschwitz death camp in Poland has escaped this fate. It is the focus of a thriving tourist industry.
It was 1995, and I was in Poland. Fifty years had passed since the end of World War II, and only six since the fall of communism in the country. I was on a business trip to Warsaw for an American bank that I worked for. My colleagues in the Warsaw branch of the bank told me that forty million Poles were now desperate to get their hands on the bank’s credit cards. Welcome to the world of consumer debt. While my trip was principally business, I had a more significant reason for my visit. I am an American Jew, and Poland was the Holocaust’s principal killing ground. It was the vortex that claimed millions of Jewish lives. The Khmer Rouge’s killing fields or the Rwandan genocidal massacres tragically pale in comparison to the industrial and logistical skill, knowledge, and might brought by the Germans to their quest for mass slaughter.
I will not retell the history of the destruction of European Jewry. That is a story oft told over the past seventy-five years. For me, however, the story has been a particularly haunting experience. As a young boy in the early 1950s, I spent my summers in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City. It was not only a favorite summer retreat for the city’s Jews but also home to a fairly significant permanent Jewish population. Among both groups were a number of survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom were not far removed from the concentration camps and the displaced persons camps set up to house the survivors after the war. Their wounds were fresh and raw. Their wrists and forearms were branded by numbers given to them by the Germans. Their stories told of murder, humiliation, luck, and loss. They survived most often without family and with a bewildered sense of guilt for having done so.
I remember the owner of a hotel across the road from our house, an Austrian Jew who spoke of the murder of his family by the Germans. Another spoke of escaping from a wagon that was taking him to the gas chamber. One of the most haunting memories belonged to a woman of indeterminate age who operated a small threadbare shed along a country road near our house. She sold soda, candy, notions. Even years later, I cannot forget the look of tragedy and pain in her face. I left her shop haunted by her. She had a number clearly visible on her forearm.
While I was fortunate that none of my immediate family had suffered loss in the Holocaust, my father, who was an immigrant from Russia, had relatives in eastern Europe whom he never heard from again. What happened to them we never knew. I once looked up the fate of his shtetl on a website and learned of the horrific murder of its Jews by the Germans. The answer was quite obvious. It was against this backdrop that I made my trip to Poland.
Poland was the home of infamous genocidal centers: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Their primary mission was to kill Jews. Except for Auschwitz, the other locales were mostly eviscerated by the Germans to cover up the evidence of the crimes committed there. Buildings and even corpses were dug up to destroy the evidence. Poland was also the home of massive ghettos, such as the one in Warsaw, designed to house and hold Jews before their departure to one of the killing centers. A municipal holding pen before their trip to the slaughterhouse.