Last week, my wife had the opportunity to teach a class about US Corporate Law in Poland and Ukraine. So, being the good husband I am, I tagged along for moral (and technical) support. Even though my grandfather was from Poland, I had never thought much about traveling to this part of the world. But now, I am forever thankful that I did.
A few days before leaving, I texted my dad, asking where in Poland my grandfather was from – thinking I may drive by the neighborhood and see his old stomping grounds. He quickly wrote back “Mila 16 in Warsaw” and also sent me a book called Mila 18 – a famous book about the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw during the Holocaust. It turns out that my grandfather lived in the center of what eventually became the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, where more than 400,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis in WWII (either due to starvation and disease in the ghetto, or by way of the Treblinka execution camp). Fortunately, my grandfather had emigrated to the US in 1921 (or I wouldn’t be here writing this blog).
After one week in Warsaw, my head was spinning with questions, horror and disbelief. While I obviously knew about the Holocaust, it was different standing in the middle of the place where it actually happened. Walking through the Old City of Warsaw, Praga and the former Jewish Ghetto, I began to understand the pure destruction caused by the Nazis. Praga, which was only 20% destroyed from the war, presented a “before” perspective against the “after” perspective of the Jewish Ghetto, which was virtually 100% destroyed (and rebuilt with soviet-era cinderblock buildings and newer skyscrapers). Mila 16, where my grandfather grew up, no longer existed – but the location served as the entrance to a monument for Mila 18 – an underground bunker where 140 Jews committed suicide as the Nazis invaded. The Polin museum provided an amazing chronological history of the Jewish people in Poland – from the beginning of their time there up to the present. And, a day in Auschvitz brought home the reality of the fate of more than 6 million Jews (plus millions of other innocent victims) during that period. The heaping piles of human hair and worn shoes. The bunk houses, designed based on barns intended for 53 horse stalls, that housed 700-1,000 people at a time. And, the remnants of gas chambers connected on one end by a changing room and the other by a crematorium.
I was sick to my stomach. Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me wanted to scream. But, among all the thoughts that ran through my head, it was the idea of hope that raised the most questions. Hope is so often viewed as something we hold onto in the worst of times. It keeps us going. But is hope always a good thing? This is my assessment:
Pure hope is comforting and empowering.
Although most Jews did not make it, I believe that hope made their final days more bearable. Seeing the piles of shoe polish brought by “prisoners” taken to Auschvitz is proof that, in the worst of times, many truly hoped they would be going to a better place. A place where they would actually need shoe polish.
Selfless hope is heroic.
Many people – Jews and non-Jews alike – risked their lives to save others. They hid people in their basements, smuggled food, and lied for others. While these efforts were often fruitless, their actions were heroic.
Desperate hope can be blinding.
What scared me the most were the stories I heard of what so many people did to save themselves and their families from death. In return for additional food rations or better shelter for their families, they lost their core sense of values and humanity. This is the most frightening type of hope as desperation is difficult to control.
Selfish hope can be deadly.
The only rational explanation I have for the Nazis doing what they did is that they had hope that their actions would provide them with incredible power and wealth. They were to become the elite class – and would do anything in hopes of getting there. This self-serving, gluttonous hope is beyond dangerous.
I clearly don’t have all the answers, and will never truly understand these horrific events. But, I do know that there is a lot we can learn from it. Hope is an incredibly valuable thing to have. But, let’s make sure it is always the right kind.
Curious to hear your thoughts on this difficult topic – please email me or comment on my blog. And, feel free to share this with others.
Thanks for listening. And, next time, I promise a more uplifting topic.