Hidden History: by Michelle Szydlowski

Michelle Szydlowski

Warsaw is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city. During our first three days there, I was repeatedly struck by the effort required to locate historical and memorial sites related to WWII. I quickly learned that the city I expected, one which openly memorialized its tragic past in the hopes of preventing future horrors, existed only in my mind. Instead, memorials hide behind wooded lots, unlabeled beside roadways, overlooked by people going about their daily lives. One often passes by without realizing the significance of an area only a few steps beyond the sidewalk but lying in the shadows.  

Perhaps living in an area with such a heavy history requires local inhabitants to compartmentalize the past to function in the present. Perhaps there simply aren’t enough ‘affected’ parties left to press for further recognition. Perhaps the city wishes to distance itself from past generations, or avoid pointing out former national conflicts in the hopes of not creating moral enemies. Our wonderful speaker points out that there is truly no good way to identify the perpetrators of such horror. Do we describe them as foreign invaders? Identify them by country and risk building future generations of prejudice? Do we label them with the name of their leaders? None of those choices fully encapsulates the variety of people involved, so perhaps a quiet history is required.

As an outsider, I am deeply affected by the lack of obvious, ‘in your face’ recognition of the hundreds of thousands murdered, relocated, lost, or sacrificed during the Second World War. How are we to keep this from happening again, when we see the same patterns and signs which preceded the Holocaust happening in our own neighborhoods and countries?

Simply put, we listen. We listen to the stories of survivors and their descendants. We listen to the quiet of the cemetery, interrupted by bird song and skittering paws of unidentified beings. We listen to the recordings at the Jewish Historical Institute; the voices speaking from the ghetto diaries collected, hidden, unearthed, displayed. We listen to each other as we try to process the sense of loss and grief which we can’t possibly comprehend. We listen to young Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Americans, as they grapple with current political upheavals which threaten to blossom into genocide. We listen.

Then, when we return home, we will talk. We will keep talking.

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