Walter Hamilton. Postcard from Poland and Auschwitz

Jun 9, 2014

Poland this month is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its rebirth as a democratic state. It is also marking 10 years since it became a member of the European Union. The country thus provides an interesting vantage point from which to observe Europe’s schizophrenic politics.

To the west––notably in the UK, France and Germany––so-called Eurosceptic parties took the spoils in recent elections for the Strasbourg Parliament (with every intention, too, of being spoilers); to the east, meanwhile, Ukraine is struggling to attach as much of itself as Vladimir Putin will allow to the EU locomotive. It is the Disenchanted versus the New Believers. While voters in the west have flocked to rightwing parties opposed to sharing their baguette with new arrivals, in the east, where they’re still biting on black bread (to extend the metaphor), and where stateless Africans are scarce, most believe the opportunities flowing from European unity far outweigh the costs.

Today’s Poland is where Ukraine hopes to be in a decade or two––which is why Kiev is willing to give almost anything––including, tragically, a measure of its people’s blood––to grab on to the EU. Poland, they tell me, is the only country in Europe to have experienced 20 years of uninterrupted growth. Able for the time being to use its own (undervalued) currency, it is experiencing a tourism boom, while the many new manufacturing and distribution plants of international firms erected on the periphery of major cities attest to an investment surge.

That’s not to say Poland’s EU journey has been all smooth sailing. One might describe the general appearance of the country as one of ‘receding decay’. The downtown precincts of cities like Poznan and Wroclaw are sophisticated, smartly dressed and thriving; the suburbs tend to be graffiti-scarred and grey. The new rich want more, while many others on meagre wages need to work long hours to stay afloat. In a Warsaw supermarket, a woman of 70+ years who served me at the checkout at 8am was still there when I went back 11 hours later. Our host in Warsaw, a retired teacher, also in her 70s and still working part time, bemoaned the 13% national unemployment rate and the much higher joblessness (26%) among the young. As we drove out of the capital she pointed out abandoned industrial plant (Soviet-era and obsolete), which she blamed on the EU experience. And where was the livestock that every family farm once proudly displayed? Disappeared under mass-produced food imports. But if I detected nostalgia for the past, she quickly corrected me: ‘Communism was awful through and through; nobody, except perhaps some party boss, wants to go back to that’. Food queues are no more, inflation is zero and, even if unacceptably high, current unemployment is below the long-term trend, and falling.

Poland, historically a gateway between East and West, now emphatically faces west. When President Obama was in Warsaw recently, the Polish government repeated its request for NATO to establish new bases on its territory. Sensibly, Obama refused to be drawn.

If Polish history teaches us one thing, it is that all frontiers lie: they lie to those who believe they can secure the homeland, and they represent lies to those who wish to change them. Heading north out of Krakow, our driver Michael pointed out two buildings on either side of the road ahead. ‘Prepare your passports,’ he joked. ‘We are now leaving Austria and about to enter Prussia.’ The border checkpoints, operational until 1918, stand as reminders of the eighteenth-century partition of Poland when it ceased to exist as a nation (as it did again from 1939). The idea behind European union––distinct nations united by a shared destiny––is an undoubted improvement for Poles after centuries of partition and domination. Affirming this, as they do, they take a wary glance back in the direction of their old nemesis, Russia. Though the fighting in Ukraine seemed far removed from the beer and food-laden tables of Krakow’s teeming Old Square, the ordinary Poles I spoke with believed Moscow’s territorial ambitions extend well beyond Crimea.

Frontiers are a European obsession these days, much as they are in Australia. With internal borders essentially open, an unauthorized entrant can make his or her way to any of the member nations of the EU. If they survive their journey in a leaky boat across the Mediterranean (Italy has received 40,000 unauthorised arrivals, mainly crossing from Libya, so far this year), theoretically they might end up in Bayeux or Bonn or Birmingham (or so the sloganising goes; the reality is somewhat different). This, more than any other issue, is hardening attitudes and inflaming rhetoric, and threatening the European experiment. New scapegoats have been found to blame for economic dysfunction and social stress, in a pattern that has terrible antecedents.

In Block 6 at Auschwitz, the main hallway is covered with photographs of former inmates of the notorious concentration camp. Nothing, not all the books and films, can completely prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is fine and warm on the day we are there, and many hundreds of tourists are being guided through the two camps (Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, the purpose-built extermination camp, is many times bigger than the other). Among the images on the wall at Block 6, I come across that of a Polish girl aged about 10. The caption tells me that she survived only a fortnight after being brought to Auschwitz in 1942. My eye alights on the next photograph: her identical twin sister.

There is something about their expressions I cannot immediately fathom. Bewilderment I see, certainly, and fear; but what is the other thing? It would be grotesque to compare the sufferings of the 1.3 million people, mainly Jews, who perished in Auschwitz to the present-day treatment of asylum seekers in Italy or Australia, and I do not intend to do so; and yet, as I walk past the rows of photographs, taking in the individual faces and reading the individual names, it occurs to me how easy it is to forget that, behind barbed wire somewhere bleak and inhospitable today, and also incarcerated for no crime and provided no date of release, are many nameless, faceless individuals for whom we have a duty of care. It becomes a compelling thought when in Auschwitz, but it should not be necessary to travel here to feel it.

And now I understand what it is about the portraits of the twin sisters that has so puzzled and disturbed me. In their anguished moment before the camera they ceased to be photographer’s subjects, just two more victims of a distant horror. Rather, they became cameras pointing at us, capturing an image of our souls, interrogating our hearts and consciences. It seems facile to speak of ‘ghosts’ in such a context, but for the first time in my life I truly felt that the mirror had been reversed.

Walter Hamilton is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story.


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