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Stephen Muss (Miami)

About a week ago, I returned from Poland.

    Posted by Carlos Gamboa on 11.17.19

About a week ago, I returned from Poland. To be honest, I did not expect much from the trip; I was already knowledgeable about the Shoah. Additionally, I pictured the nation as bleak, uninteresting and run-down. In my mind, it was bound to be just another boring post-communist country; I could never imagine that I would find it beautiful, discover any connection to the land, or learn much more about what occurred there. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

From an academic standpoint, the journey enriched my factual knowledge of the Holocaust. During my time in Poland, I heard myriad stories for the first time in addition to ample new details supplementing what I had already been exposed to. For example, I had never been told of the fate of Azriel David Fastig or the horrors that took place at Majdanek, both of which greatly moved me. Apart from actual information, I also consider myself better able to comprehend the reality of the Shoah. It is impossible to fully grasp the horror of the killings without seeing artifacts from the time period and the places where it occurred with one’s own eyes. When I was standing in front of the pile of ashes at Majdanek, the collection of hair in Auschwitz I, or the mass graves at Lopuchowo, the stories I heard my entire life went from black and white and distant to colorful and right in front of me.

Besides this, the trip also uprooted my prior convictions about the country. I could never have pictured it as a real place before I went there, much less as beautiful; however, I was proven wrong. People, including a growing Jewish population, lead normal lives there despite its bleak history. Moreover, the natural environment and architecture there captivated me; I would dare say it is one of the most stunning places I have ever visited. In fact, I will struggle to come to terms with the duality of Poland for some time; it would be far easier to picture what happened there if the crematoriums sat in desolate plains under perpetually grey skies. However, nothing is that simple; testaments to genocide stand in some of the most amazingly pretty places. As I was wandering through the ruins of the world’s most infamous death camp, Birkenau, I came across a group of deer, rabbits, and even saw a rainbow hanging over the iconic entrance.

I believe this journey taught me a lesson not only about the country, but also about life; it is not only impossible, but often downright incorrect to see things in black and white. Going forward, I will try my best to consider every side of conflicts and form accurate, well-educated opinions without making generalizations or ignoring inconvenient complexities.