"East Europe 2005-06" story # 22

Andrychow, Poland           January 9, 2006

I left Cert and the scene of his snowboarding leaps and headed to mostly-flat Poland.
     The historical Polish scene known as Auschwitz probably hosted as much agony as any setting that any devil could imagine.
     And yet, as I toured Auschwitz on December 31st 2005, it was rather comely. The whale-long buildings (where Nazi captives used to sleep) were burnt-brick-red and old, culturally-quaint with four-paned windows made of wood neighborly nice. The ground was fluffed quiet by the cleanest snow, the sky was bright and thin, and sprouting leaf-less trees grew tall lining streets for strolling.
     The color of the buildings was more accurately the color of dried blood. And the odor inside them was of something horrible. The buildings contained a lot of information about the shocking history of the place.
     The first surprising and new - to me - information detailed how much the Nazis hated people different from them and how cruelly they were willing to treat them. For many years leading up to World War II, Hitler and the Nazis and their followers convinced themselves that other races were sub-human. They spoke publicly about solving "the Jewish problem" without compassion, and they claimed Germans shouldn't be expected to work or study beside "gypsies." Photos showed gatherings of Nazi supporters raising their fists in the air.
     During the war, they convinced Jews to travel in their trains by claiming that jobs or land awaited them. The Jews suffered, cramped in trains, until they arrived at concentration camps then went immediately through "selection." Most were told to get naked and go to the showers, where they were gassed and killed.
     The most-fit Jews - and many Poles, gypsies, and Russian P.O.W.'s - became prisoners of Auschwitz. They worked twelve-hour days (fueling the Nazi war, or else burying their fallen fellow victims), ate meager rations, slept practically on top of each other, stood during long roll calls, and endured various tortures, until most died from exhaustion or malnutrition. If a captive escaped, then the Nazis would bring his family to Auschwitz and make them introduce themselves so the other captives would know why they were there.
     The second new thing I learned was that gypsies were also targeted by the Nazis. The brown-skinned Sinto or Roma peoples, commonly known (perhaps unaffectionately) as gypsies, are a minority in Europe. Most live today as second-class citizens; they face stereotypes and prejudice; most whites in the Czech Republic speak only negatively about them.
     The "Sinto and Roma" exhibit showed successful-looking gypsy victims of the Nazis. It vaguely hinted that gypsies had been first-class citizens before World War II. I wonder if it was the Nazi devastation of minority life in Europe that is in fact responsible for the gypsies' poor societal standing? My comment in the exhibit book was: "I think the Sinto and Roma still face hardship and prejudice and unfairness in Europe."
     Among the Auschwitz buildings I visited was a gas chamber. A wide hallway made of cold, unfriendly concrete was the scene of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths.
     I was surprised that the feeling I got here was one of peace. The victims who entered this room were about to have no more worries. And they would die naked next to hundreds of people who were at that moment exactly equal. I would rather have been a victim than a Nazi who'd go on living full of hatred.
     It's better to be opressed than to oppress. I'd rather be poor than rich. I'd feel better about myself being an Iraqi man living in a destroyed city and facing 60% unemployment, or an Iraqi woman forced now to consider prostitution, than an American who supports our pillaging. Actually, it'd be better if there was no opression.

Auschwitz was worth seeing. Its barbed-wire fences and bulldog watchtowers may have been effective at keeping the prisoners in ... but, they didn't keep the cold out. I saw Auschwitz on my third day in Poland; afterwards, my body temperature was depleted.
     On my second day in Poland, I went with the man I was staying with to Wadowice. We saw Pope John Paul II's hometown church, which was spacious and orange on the inside with elaborate Catholic murals and holy golden decorations. We ate cream-cakes nearby, which the pope had loved when he was a young altar-boy.
     That evening, I joined my host's children and their "Scouts" group and walked around singing Christmas carols. "Jhezus je miwa, Jhezus je mawa!" (Jesus is nice, Jesus is little.) A cold, hollow wind roamed the flat fields this evening and invaded me.
     And on my first day in Poland, I arrived by hitchhiking. A man named Jerzy had driven me briefly; he wore the dark slacks and long trenchcoat of a quiet millionaire, he spoke only Polish and drove fast, and he gleefully hooted at himself as he acted out the bad fall he'd had on his bicycle. By the time I'd finished waiting for my eighth ride - this one from my fuzzily-brown-bearded, very Catholic host, Pawel - my insides were exhausted from fending off the cold.
     And when the Old Year ended and the New Year came, I was outside too.
     I was in the main square of Andrychow, pop. 28,000. I was amongst a big crowd, and we were dancing. A deejay played discotech music, but we were outside in the cold. We danced in winter hats, big scarves, woolly mittens, bulky coats and sweaters, and thermal underwear. I'd borrowed clothes warmer than my own, so I was quite happy.
     In fact, I wore a smile for the first two hours of 2006. The music was so good. Tribal- and Irish-sounding music with smooth, running rhythms made me feel as good as if I was at a Star Wars ewok party. We held champagne glasses in our mittens, our shoulders and their coats felt weightless, and we gazed up fully sedated at purple, orange, and green fire-works.
     Later, a Polish rock song played with kind, creative instrumental solo's. We slow-danced during the night, too.
     I was there with late-twenties Ania and her friends. Blond Ania had one of the greatest smiles I'd ever seen.
     She was an English teacher at the Andrychow high school where my host, Pawel, was principal. (This school is friends with my Czech school.) She spoke English nearly as well as I, and she was wearing unspectacular glasses when I met her, so the first impression I assumed was that she was boring.
     But, she liked to laugh about cute things with me. Her naively young face took the shape of a puff-ball when she smiled. She had a slight tilt to her smile, her eyes shined with a pure brightness, and her round cheeks were broken as if the smile were an ocean wave. She was intelligent. She didn't always wear her glasses. And she didn't stop dancing, either.
     Ania, like most Poles, unlike most Czechs, was a strong Catholic. Perhaps due to Catholic morals, Poles seem to stay younger longer than most Czechs. The Polish students were much less made-up than the Czechs. I'd guess Poles are more reserved about having sex. Ania and we drank very little though it was New Year's, and I'd guess drugs are less common than as in the Czech Republic. I'm a fan of Catholic morals.
     Zbasek, the twenty-year-old leader of the Scouts, was also bright. His innocent brown eyes and smooth face smiled truly and happily in every house he sang Christmas songs in, even though they were always the same two songs. He had a million interesting things to say to me, and they were all pleasant things.
     Of course, I also see negative sides to Catholicism. Pawel's pretty daughter had been photographed in so many poses during her over-emphasized First Communion, and I observed she looked totally miserable in half the photo's. Also, Catholicism teaches people to not question ideas but to accept what they're told. And Catholics may restrict themselves from or be suspicious of certain experiences that might actually be positive for them.
     I wish I would've had more time to get to know Poland.
     But, at least I know 2006 will be good. My plan for the year is to keep traveling, using only money which I earn as I go. I'd also like to have more confidence in my new philosophies on romance, to speak about them more often, and to give people more positive ideas. And thirdly, I personally could use more love in my traveling life.
     Okay. So ... that puts a wrap on last year. Happy New Year, everyone!!! 2006 is gonna be awesome.
     Come on, Ania, let's dance!

peace out, Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Vasek & Kristyna; Jerzy; three Polish guys who drove me one block before we realized they weren't going in my direction, but I wasn't too disappointed because their car was uncomfortable; Bogdan; Janoosh; Locas; Masek; Piotr; Tomas & Lucinda; Arek; and Martin for the rides!
Much thanks to Pawel, Kuba, Veronika, & Filip for the place to stay!

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