30 October 2011

The House

Gemmon looking for Amon Göth's house
Gemmon came to Krakow with one site she wanted to be sure to see: Amon Göth's house and I went with her. She knew about the Plaszow concentration camp commandant from the survivors' stories she's read as well as a book by Harold Welzer, that hasn't been translated into English yet: Täter or Perpetrator: How Ordinary People become Mass Murderers that she's been unable to read more than fifty pages of -- it was too painful. Plaszow was just outside of Krakow. Gemmon said she wanted to see the second floor balcony where some accounts -- including Stephen Spielberg's movie Schindler's List - say Göth stood and shot prisoners when the mood struck him.**

We found the house the guidebooks list as Amon Göth's house fairly easily: 22 Heltmana.

It's for sale.

Amon Goth's house

I wonder how long it's been for sale...and who on earth would buy it?

But it was the balcony on the back side of Göth's house that we came to see and it sure wasn't easy to figure out how to get there.

We walked back down to the entrance of the Plaszow concentration camp site.The Nazis tried to wipe out any evidence of the camp before the Russian army came so all that remains of Plaszow is an empty expanse of land with awkward man-made hills, worn signs marking the perimeter, and some memorial monuments.  The sign asks that people "please respect the grievous history of the site."

One of the signs marking the site
where Plaszow once stood
What the Plaszow site looks like now

It was just before All Saints' Day so there a few candles and some fresh flowers by the stone marker near the entrance. But there were no markings, no path, and we had to wade through brambles and low scrubby brush to be able to a place where we could see Göth's balcony through a chain link fence.

The back of Amon Göth's house.
It's hard to see but the balcony
is in front of that second story wondow 
From the back, it was clear that someone is living in the house -- there were clean lace curtains over the windows. I don't know why I found this so shocking, but I did. Then I remembered that, when the Germans invaded Poland, they took over most of the buildings so, when the war ended, there were few buildings that couldn't have been set aside as scenes of atrocities or, at the very least, occupation. Still, that the house is listed in guide books as the former home of Amon Göth yet someone is living in it and anyone can buy it as if it were just another house.

In the Schindler factory museum, one fourteen-year-old girl's note described being taunted and jeered as she walked down the street."It's not good being Jewish," she wrote. How often have I felt that way, relieved that I wasn't "fully" Jewish, embarrassed that I was partly? More often than I'd like to admit, even to myself. The Holocaust made one thing very clear to me as a child: there was something very, very wrong about being Jewish if an entire nation of people would want to kill you - or look the other way while others killed you - just for being Jewish.

And I can't even write this off to a crazed group that doesn't exist anymore. I went to school in a community that did not allow Jews to join their clubs. In the late 60s and early 70s. I had classmates in elementary school, in high school and even at Harvard who ridiculed Jews in front of me...and I kept quiet, I am deeply ashamed to admit, because part of me was relieved because it meant that they didn't know I was part Jewish. I have been told, on more than one occasion when someone's found out that my father's family was Jewish, that I don't "look Jewish." What does that mean? Was I, am I Jewish? To whom? We celebrated Christmas (presents) and Easter (candy). I was never taught a single thing about Judaism. Yet if I lived in Germany in the 1940s, I would have been Jewish enough to end up in Amon Göth's camp.

I don't really know what not looking Jewish has actually meant except that, because of it, I have been privileged to hear just how antisemitic some people are. I have heard people say that Jewish people "eat weird food", are "money grubbing", and that "if you throw a penny, a Jew will chase it."

I'll never forget one afternoon in the summer after my freshman year, my preppy boyfriend and his best friend came to my house to stay for a weekend. Both were classmates of mine at Harvard. I'll call Preppy Boyfriend's pal "Paul." "Paul" was the wise-cracking grandson of a prominent New England politician. When my best friend from high school, Naomi, came over, "Paul" made it pretty clear he wanted to sleep with her. Naomi was Jewish. She was gorgeous. Yet, when Naomi was playing the piano, her attention on her fingers, "Paul" put his two fingers up over his own tiny up-turned nose to mimic the shape of her's. My boyfriend laughed.

I did not kick them out of my house. I did not break up with my boyfriend right then and there. I watched all of this and said nothing.

Within a few years, Naomi got a nose job.

But what does all this have to do with faith? With religion? With belief? Does it at all? Just because there are antisemites, people who dislike Jews, they say, simply because they are Jewish, (and others like me who say nothing while it's going on) does this really have anything to do with religion? When religion is used as a pretext for war or atrocities, are my parents right, that religion, itself, is to blame? And, while this kind of hatred makes the desire for a separate land filled with only people of your same faith make sense, where do you get this land free of others? Can you get it without doing to others what was done to you?

I just cannot go here, into the confused place where land and faith, property and religion, power and belief  get jumbled together...at least not right now. But is it meaningless to try to understand the beliefs and practices of faith while ignoring some of the ways these groups of believers have behaved towards others? The way I stayed silent while group hate and disrespect happened right in front of me?

As a religious blank slate, I really have no choice but to start at the beginning: what do people believe and how do they manifest that faith in their every day lives? But the question of what goes wrong after that -- and why -- is always lurking.

I am so confused by all of this and I'm starting to realize just how much of my ignorance has been self-inflicted, a choice I've actually made as if the less I knew about these horrific actions and times, the less it has to do with me and my little life. Well, it does have something to do with me, whether I choose to know something about it or not, whether I choose to look at it, to see it, or not. Human beings like me did these things. Human beings are still capable of doing these things. Human beings are still doing these things in large ways and in small ones, every day, so it does, right now, have to do with every one of us. And it certainly has to do with me. I am capable of the kind of personal cowardice that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

~ ~ ~

**There's an argument about where Amon Göth actually stood when he shot people.  Stephen Spielberg's movie, Schindler's List, shows Göth shooting people from the balcony of his home but others argue the location was elsewhere. A documentary in which Amon Göth's youngest daughter spoke shows the balcony of the house at 22 Heltmana. Under any circumstances, Göth was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and even the Nazis considered him mentally ill. He was actually taken into custody by the US military from a mental institution where the Nazis incarcerated him in 1944. Here's the United Nations War Crimes report about Göth which only says that he did shoot people himself but doesn't go into any more detail than that.

The concentration camp in Plaszow near Krakow 
erected by nazi-Germany in 1942.

Amon  Göth on the balcony of one of the
places that he lived.
Clearly this is not the same balcony
as the house Gemmon and I saw.

Amon Göth's daughter, Monika
She was interviewed in a documentary about
her father in front of the balcony Gemmon and I saw

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