We decided to take the night train. On the departing trip from Prague, we kept the windows closed, incidentally turning our six-person sleeper car into a sauna. We woke up sweating and dehydrated, disoriented and flustered. The smile that I carried aboard the train was gone by the time we were set to disembark in Krakow the next morning.
Upon arrival in Krakow, we gathered our things and wearily took to the streets, in search of breakfast, WiFi, and our Airbnb, as the city began to stir around us on a quiet Friday morning. In hindsight, it felt like an appropriate start to the weekend.
Two nights later, on our return trip, we sat with the windows open, exposed to the outside world. It was an attempt to learn from past mistakes and a failure to do so all at once. They were mistakes we didn’t know that we had made; mistakes that weren’t even our own. Mistakes that changed our world—a reality reflecting a society changed, yet stubbornly defiant to it all at once.
I woke up at 5:14am. The illuminated image of my cell phone screen is still seared into the back of my mind. I can still hear the click-clack of the train tracks below us, and the whooshing of passing telephone poles beside us in the Czech countryside; their rhythmic cadence sometimes revisits me as I lay awake at night. The light mist of a near-freezing night settled on my thin, white bed sheet, and chilled me to my bones. Its a chill that sometimes revisits me on cold, contemplative nights.
The drunken scorn of a former co-worker (in the form of an Instagram message) welcomed me as I woke up. Our tenure together had been short, but tumultuous. She had quit. She held me partially responsible. I laid there, unmistakably alert in the misery of that morning, considering the burden I carried from what had transpired between us.
During my reflection, the dark, damp early morning darkness made my body shiver and stiffen. My mind then stung with the painfully humbling clarity of how terrible life could be. I had taken this train trip by choice, rather than by force (like those who came nearly 80 years before me). I was able to return home after visiting Oswiecim, rather than stay there forever. Once put in perspective, a poor relationship with a former coworker wasn’t all that bad.
I had organized a group of fellow travelers to visit Krakow and Oswiecim, the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, from our home for the month in Prague.
With my bastardized Polish surname, I had feigned interest in drawing some connection to my Polish ancestry, but what really drew me was a well-intentioned curiosity for humanity’s terrible capabilities by visiting one of the world’s deadliest sites. A place where over 1,000,000 people had been executed during the Holocaust. My hope was that I would leave with a solemn motivation to discover what I could do to counteract our capability for causing such harm. I did.
My group arrived at the concentration camp on a Friday afternoon that cautiously hung onto the fading warmth of late summer in Eastern Europe. Tour buses, bustling crowds, a cacophony of languages, over-worked coffee machines and a simple, unassuming gift shop all welcomed us at the entrance of the complex. Taken by a conflict of nervousness and excitement, we patiently waited our turn. At 2:30, we entered with a group of nearly 20 visitors.
The tour took four hours. From the wrought iron gates of Auschwitz to the solitary train tracks of Birkenau, I remember every step I took, every thing I saw, and every word that entered my ears from our guide’s microphone through my headphones. For four hours I could hardly muster the effort it took to speak, to think and to feel; I felt that I had been drained of my will to live. As I listlessly followed our predetermined path, I became a hollowed out, vacant shell of myself, solely intent on walking, breathing and existing while I connected with the world around me. The head shots of prisoners on the walls, the ceiling-high piles of discarded personal belongings preserved in glass tombs, the bullet holes in concrete walls, the confined wooden bunks, the barbed wire barriers, the empty gas chambers, the canisters of massacring chemical agents, and the resonance of pain and despair that permeated every inch of that godforsaken place will stay with me forever.
That day, I found a depth in myself that, through my most profound revelations, biggest failures and deepest depressions, I had never known before. I unearthed new levels of contemplation, despondency and solemnity that I had never imagined. I left that experience with a renewed clarity and commitment to preventing and combating hate and intolerance in whatever form it takes.
In preparation for the trip, I had reached out to a Jewish-American friend of mine, who had married a Polish man and lived in Poland with him. When I shared my plans to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau with her, she gave me advice on what to expect from my visit. She alluded to the kind of personal solace and healing that I would require to recover from it. Her advice for finding that space was to have a feast at a historic Jewish restaurant in the heart of Krakow’s former Jewish ghetto after my visit. That’s what my friends and I did.
In that space we reflected on our experience, found profound appreciation in the resilience of those who had endured and lost their lives to the Holocaust, and realized that without moments of warmth and joy like that meal, we wouldn’t be able to show up as our whole selves to counteract the evils of the world in our everyday lives. That was a lesson that stuck with me.
I spent Wednesday night at an open mic in downtown Johnson City.
We were about two hours into the evening when a young white guy named Shane got on stage. Shane started his set by sharing that he was going to do two things: make people happy and make people sad.
The first thing he did was gather everyone at the front of the stage to record a video for a student he was teaching English to in China, Mr. Floppy (yes, the student’s chosen English name was Mr. Floppy). A group of about 15 people bunched together to shout, “ Hello Mr. Floppy! Welcome to Johnson City!” That made everyone happy.
Once everyone sat back down, he provided the context that he was a local high school history teacher, announced that he would be reading some poems, and asked one thing of the crowd - not to applaud him for the rest of the set. He reiterated that this was going to be sad and then opened a poem book. After reading the first poem, he shared that the author was a Czechoslovakian child.
He went on to read next poem and, to be completely honest, I didn’t pay close attention because I was distracted by whatever mindless scrolling I was doing on my computer. When he finished it, he shared that this was also written by a Czechoslovakian child. I found that to be peculiar and decided to tune-in more closely.
That’s when he began illuminating the context of the poems he was sharing with us.
In 2017, about the same time that I was there, Shane had visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. That experience inspired him to become a history teacher, to become someone responsible for bringing awareness and understanding to the historical tragedies and truths of the world. He even went as far as having a framed pictured of Birkenau with the caption “Never Forget” hanging in his bedroom.
A year later, he returned to Central Europe to visit the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, and the place where this book of poems came from, Terezin. Terezin had been more of a Jewish ghetto than a traditional concentration camp, allowing for children to receive education and practice creative arts in their day-to-day lives. Of the 15,000 Czechoslovakian-Jewish children under the age of 15 who had called it home during the Holocaust, only about 100 of them survived Nazi rule, but all of their words and drawings lived on through the book.
You can find a partial PDF of the book here.
Shane went on to recite one more poem and then shared why he had brought his message to a weeknight open mic in Johnson City.
When Shane was visiting Dachau and Terezin last year, the most prominent neo-Confederate hate group in the United States, the League of the South, was planning two rallies to protest the inaugural PRIDE celebration in Johnson City and the removal of a confederate monument in North Carolina from nearby Elizabethton. Fortunately, thanks to a healthy mixture of grassroots community organizing and permitting restrictions, the rallies were prevented from happening by a combination of activists and governmental organizations.
Being abroad at the time, all Shane could do to help was openly reflect on the prevalence of hate groups in his community while visiting those former concentration camps. On the open mic stage, he revisited a moment where he spoke with the Dachau tour guide about what was occurring back home in Tennessee. Together, they both sat in reflective silence and considered what that meant; he spent that time considering what he could do about it once he got back home.
Listening to Shane recant his experience on stage, I thought about a report that the The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany published (you might recognize it as a New York Times article that made waves exactly a year ago, Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds). You can see some significant findings from the study below, but, in summary, we are forgetting our past at the risk of repeating, but we almost unanimously agree that education and remembrance of the Holocaust is vital.
After he finished his set, I introduced myself to Shane and shared what his performance had meant to me, and how I found myself on a similar journey.
As a history teacher, Shane found himself on that stage Wednesday night for the primary purpose of reminding people and raising awareness around the atrocities of the Holocaust. His response to where he found himself reflecting in Dachau a year and a half ago was to keep education and awareness of the Holocaust at the forefront of his life. During our conversation of all the wisdom and insights he offered that night, he felt that the most important one was the quote below.
“[I believe that] history is poetry; it rhymes and it does not repeat. Because of that we have to consistently reflect upon the past to make sure it doesn’t rhyme again.”
We’re all poets. Shane’s actions are proof of that, proof that all of us are capable of doing something about it. Not everyone has the privilege of visiting concentration and extermination camps like he and I did, but there are museums, memorials, videos, recordings, books, images and ongoing conversations all over the world that exist for the primary purpose of making sure we don’t forget what happened at one of the lowest points in modern history.
The statistics above are evidence enough that we have a collective responsibility to compose our present from the rhymes and prose of the past. Especially as we get further from the truth, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to make better use of them, to keep ourselves informed and vigilant.
I was grateful to be reminded of that in Johnson City, Tennessee this week.