Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Forests of Poland

I just returned from my first visit to Poland. A pastors’ summit in the vicinity of Kraków provided the opportunity for my initial glimpse into a land of great beauty and great sadness.

As with the majority of my experiences in Eastern Europe, I had (for some reason) gone in expecting drab, gray, over-industrialized, under-maintained landscapes, and lifeless people. Yet—as with the majority of my experiences in Eastern Europe—I was surprised to find such color, aesthetics, natural beauty, and vitality. Not just surprised, but delighted to throw off this artifact of my upbringing in the waning days of the Cold War -- this persistent set of false expectations regarding the “Iron Curtain,” the “Communists,” the “Eastern Bloc,” and all such assumed familiarity with everything and everyone East of Berlin.

During my few short days in Poland, I was struck by the natural beauty of the countryside. Rolling hills, impressionistic fields, majestic forests... I simply felt more alive to be enjoying autumn surrounded by the trees and the sky. One day afforded the opportunity for an extended drive through the countryside West of Kraków, and I was invigorated by the winding roads through tiny villages and massive forests -- kilometers and kilometers of trees filtering the sunlight and breathing their oxygen into the world of freedom and vitality…

Then our drive through the countryside reached its destination. And I encountered another element of Poland’s significance—in the town of Oświęcim, better known by the Germanization of its name: Auschwitz.

It was a powerful and valuable experience to walk past the barbed wire fences and stoic barracks of the former concentration camp, used by Nazi Germany as a point of detainment and death for thousands and thousands and thousands of Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and Jews during the Second World War. I found it almost impossible to fully process the personal experience of a place stained by such suffering and sadness… The infamous wrought-iron sign above the gate mocking, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free)… The central square in which prisoners stood for roll call through hours and hours of dreadful discomfort… The gallows on which hundreds were hung… The wall against which thousands were shot… The crematoriums in which millions were gassed and incinerated like so much common garbage… During the course of touring the grounds of the camp, I was struck by the vivid contrast to the beautiful natural scenery experienced on the drive between Kraków and Oświęcim. Auschwitz is the antithesis of beauty. The antonym of freedom and vitality.

In one of the bunkhouses which had been converted into a museum for the memory of the Polish victims of Auschwitz, I was struck by a quote from a man named Hans Frank. In November of 1940, still years before the end of the War and the Holocaust, he commented: “If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles who were shot, the Polish forests would not be enough to produce the paper for such notices.”

On my drive back toward Kraków through the Polish countryside, I ruminated on these words; and the trees flickering past on either side of the road suddenly became more meaningful. Meaningfully beautiful, and meaningfully sad. And I hope that I will never forget the forests of Poland.


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