Saturday, May 14, 2016

What You Do Matters. Don't Be A Bystander

Coming home from Poland I struggled to put into words my experience the first few days. Of course, people asked me, “How was it?” or “I want to hear all about it!” However, I really wasn’t able to really say how I felt. I settled on a few words every time a different person asked me. Saying, “Amazing" or "Life changing” were my go-to answers. This was usually followed by “Great, good for you!” then some casual banter of what they knew about the Holocaust. Although, a month later I was able to talk about my experience.  

I think experiential learning is by far the most effective way I’ve learned here at Iona. I am amazed I was able to take what I learned from my religion class, and walk the ground where it took place. Walking through a concentration camp is obviously a million times different than actually living through it. I always felt extremely guilty in a way knowing that I was walking on ground, where people walked to their deaths. On the last day in Poland when we were given time to walk through Auschwitz by ourselves my heart felt so much sorrow for the victims. Not to say I didn’t feel this everyday walking through the different concentration camps, but this was on a greater level. Perhaps it was the knowing it was the last day here along with being alone with my thoughts. Silence in a concentration camp is a very somber and sobering experience. Not listening to anyone talk, allowed my own thoughts take over. 

As I walked past the double barbed wire fence, I couldn't imagine the pain these victims felt wanting to be on the other side of the fence. Wanting their life back after it was stolen from them. I thought, “How’d I get so lucky?” Here I am walking the grounds where thousands were murdered every day. I am walking free, with three sweaters, and a winter jacket after stuffing my face at a breakfast buffet. How is that fair? Why was I lucky enough to be free from it? Why was I lucky enough to practice my religion without being persecuted for it?  Why?

I clearly didn’t come to answer any of those questions because there is no answer. I don’t know why. What I do know, is how influential this religion course was for my life. My eyes were opened to the most horrific genocide in history. I do know that our life on Earth is short. If you are able to wake up in the morning, consider yourself to be lucky. I do know the great significance  to educate people on the Holocaust because overtime this deep, dark wound, fades, when it should never. People get historical amnesia and don’t realize this can happen again. How can they not realize? How do we not see and hear what is going on around the world? Mass genocides are going on right now, and we are doing nothing. 

The evil in the world deeply saddens me because at times I think, “What can I really do?” But, if I learned anything from this trip, it is - don’t be a bystander. Do something! Never stand back and allow something to happen that you know is wrong. This can be applied on many different levels with various aspects of life. For me, will I ever be able to stop world hunger? Or mass genocides? Or create world peace? Although I would love to, realistically these things are not an attainable goal for solely me or anyone. However, on a smaller scale, being a good person, and doing what is right IS something I can achieve and strive for. I’m not perfect by any means, but I do know the difference between right and wrong. I do know that love is never wrong. I do know whenever I think about how tough life is, I now have a voice in my mind that brings me back to Poland. How could I think such things? Am I that ungrateful? This course gave me a greater understanding of the world, people, places, and history. On a personal level, this course gave me a greater understanding of myself. This class gave me the awareness, and the importance of words and my actions. Life is precious, and I should never waste time over the small stuff. To have my life, I know am already so lucky. Now, I must live in a way that benefits humanity and be a voice to the voiceless.

Understanding the Importance of Perspective

Day II - Father Manford’s lecture: Understanding the Importance of Perspective. 

When hearing about the Holocaust, it’s quite easy to depict Hitler and the Nazi party, as the most hateful, crazy group of people on Earth. After walking through Auschwitz I and II I was nauseated as to how people thought of this. How did humans systematically, take horse stables, send them on transport, then have thousands of human beings to live in? Furthermore, with the goal of murdering these people after they were used to benefit their mass scheme. How did educators, doctors, scientist, architects, people at the time with the highest degrees of education meet and decide, “Okay, let's plan to wipe out the entire Jewish population.” It’s crazy to think that people with such high IQs, sat down in a room and decided to methodically bring about human persecution, as if they weren’t human.  
Father Manford’s lecture shed light on something I didn’t think about at first, and that is perspective. Hitler was a person. Nazi Commanders, SS men, they were human beings too. These people had families, they didn’t descend from Satan, although they are thought of to be. To understand the Holocaust, it’s imperative to understand perspective. How did this happen? How did the Nazi ideology come about? How did the Nazi ideals spread? Father Manford gave insight as to why people followed. 
After World War I, Germany was in a  crisis because they were lost, and weak. In desperate times, people need something to believe in, to bring the “good times” back. People started saying, “We lost our German roots, we need to get back to our roots.” In nature, the strongest animal survives. In nature there is an ongoing fight for survival. To be strong, means to fight with all energy, and to destroy whatever is getting in the way of your life. Eventually after Hitler came to power, there was one leader, and the community rested their trust in HitlerOne must realize the German people were starting to be given hope. Of course there would be a following. A promise to make “Germany Great Again!” Does this phrase sound familiar? 
It’s always easier to blame someone else, especially when people are victimsGermany was weak and was blamed for WWI. Hitler gave the community optimism by preaching strength. Hitler preached to be strong, you have to eliminate life unworthy of living. This in turn, will make the population better. This ideology was carried out into the SS. There are enemies against the state, and the SS must hate them. SS members showing they have human feelings, of any sort, lead to their death. Father Manford talks about, “SS went to arrest people in Germany for political opposition with prepared lists. This was to protect Germans. One of the SS men recognized his friend from school. His friend asked him, “Please let me say goodbye to my wife.” The SS men allowed him to. This man escaped. The next day this SS man was shot because he was a traitor. The system of terror was created.” Ultimately, the Nazis were perpetrators, but no one ever sees them as victims. Can perpetrators be victims? This sounds like a crazy thing to question because Nazis were murdering innocent people. However, they too were being murdered. Their lives were on the line too. This hateful ideology spread because people were desperate and needed something to believe in. I’m sure people knew this was wrong, but what if it came down to your family or someone else's family what would you do? Once, you're involved there is no way of getting out.  
Father Manford discusses the reality of the situation that people need to see. Yes, the Nazis were people killing innocent people. But, when looking back he asks, “What would you do? How can you say what you would have done in that situation, you don’t know. You think you do… but you don’t.” This is why it is so crucial to have had people stand up from the beginning before this ideology spread. 
When a society is taught to hate people for so long it will not change overnight. In 1946 after the war was over 37 Jews were brutally murdered on the street in Poland. Often times, when a dictator takes over and teaches people to hate- it has long lasting effects because people are brainwashed. Although the war was over, those feelings didn’t change over night.It is no surprise that after World War II, the surviving Jews of the Holocaust migrated and didn’t want to go back to Poland for numerous reasons. Most of their family had been killed, their houses had been destroyed, and there was still anti-Semitism after the war. Polish-Jews are essentially non-existent. Even to this day, there are synagogues in Poland, but very few and far between. Why would there be? There ancestors were killed. 
It is important to continuously discuss and educate the public to enlighten them to end anti-Semitism once and for all. Like many things, change does not take place overnight.Changing your beliefs can be taught. But overriding the psychological motives for the spread of Nazism is not fully understanding it. Nazis were human beings, that exploited the most evil thinking. However, they were people. Who says this cannot happen again? They were humans, born with good and evil just like the rest of us.

Pope John Paul II

Today was our second day here in Poland. After a good night’s sleep, I felt great and ready to take on the day! We ate a delicious breakfast and then went off on the bus to drive to Wadowice. While at Wadowice we walked around the town center and saw where Pope John Paul II went to school. Across the street was where Rudolph Hesler, the commander of Auschwitz, had his trial. When entering the museum we received a tour of Pope John Paul II house which is of course now a museum. 

I learned a lot on the tour about Pope like his early childhood and his difficult life. Karol (the pope’s real name) mother, father, and older brother all lived in this nice apartment right next to the Basilica. Across from the apartment there was a sun dial with the words “Time flies, eternity awaits.” Sadly, the Pope lost his Mother before receiving his first communion at the age of 8. His mom died giving child birth. Mundek, his older brother was 14 years older died 3 ½ years later working as a physician, he was infected with scarlet fever. At a young age Pope John Paul II had only one member of his immediate family left, his father. Throughout the museum we learned about the Pope’s love of football instilled by his brother (whom was quite good!) Additionally, I learned about the Pope’s dream of actually becoming an actor. Pope John Paul II was the first ever Polish Pope, and only Polish pope until this day. The museum has a room dedicated to the terrorist trying to kill Pope John Paul II and even has the gun that was used in the attempt murder. The Pope attributes the Blessed Mary for saving him, and apparently if the bullet moved even a centimeter, he would have died. I loved the photo of the Pope visiting the person who tried to kill him. The Pope visited him in jail just to say he forgave him. 

I also loved finding out that he is the most traveled pope! In the museum there is gravel/dirt from all the countries he has visited because he is always photographed kissing the ground the second he gets off the place. Lastly, my favorite part of the museum was reading the letters people wrote to the Pope in all the different languages. I did my best to translate my Italian letters and naturally flocked to the letters in English. These people asking the pope to pray for their family members, for strength, food, shelter, hope. This part resonated with me because these voices from people who asked the Pope to keep them in their prayers, had a lot of similar requests I, or a friend might have. After we ate lunch and I had a 7 zlotys hot chocolate which in my opinion was the best hot chocolate I've ever hadAfter we attended Palm Sunday at the Basilica.  

My favorite part was Dr. Rozensher’s talk by farHaving Dr. Rozensher as my professor I’m used to seeing her friendly face, during class hours. Not that I don’t expect professors not to have lives out of school, I suppose I just didn’t put much thought into her life story. Walking on the first day she mentioned to me that her husband was actually born in Krakow. Crazy, I thought, he must have family members who saw the German occupation. Today, when sitting down around the table I had no idea what Dr. R was about to tell us, and I can say it will definitely be a memory in my life of absolute amazement. Dr. Rozensher’s mother in-law lived through the Holocaust and was the only one of her family members to survive This woman has such an incredible, heroic life she led. I could go into detail of all the trials Dr. Rozensher’s mother in law (Genya) went through. The hardships of losing her family, starving, scared, alone and still having the fight to live. I question myself if I would have had the strength, intelligence, and even luck to survive during that time period. I will always remember vividly the end of the story of Genya being rounded up with a Catholic family she was living with. And one of the daughters said to her “Your fate is ours.”