I have had an exceptionally difficult time generating ideas for our Poland Personally 2023 blog because of the magnitude of the experience and because of doubts I had about being able to craft something responsible and edifying. The problem was resolved for me over the last two days of our trip, however, as I found myself obsessively staring at a photograph that I took of a photograph at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Somebody said that it wasn’t 6 million souls-stories-worlds who perished in the holocaust, but rather one person plus one person plus another—adding up to 6 million. I cannot pretend to even begin reassembling one of those stories through a photograph, but I can share my emotional response to it.
The photograph to which I am referring is of one of those 6 million, that of Czesława Bernard. She came into this world in Poland in 1921 and she was evicted from it in November of 1942. She was 21 years old when she died, the same age as most of my students at Duquesne. There’s a smile on her face, though I can’t be sure it’s a smile. I just know it’s something that, in my poverty of expression, I might call “good”; her smile tempts interpretation but eludes it at the same time. Czesława’s smile–if it is indeed a smile–is not wry, it’s not defiant, it’s not cynical, nor is it sorrowful or fearful.
Her smile–if it is indeed a smile–has stressed my capacity for articulation to its limits.
Czesława’s head is shaved. She appears to be smiling. Who can know? Who can know her? Sometimes scholars, educators, and students have to be content with circling, with hovering, with reaching, and with almosts.
I value mental labor and depth of inquiry, and I require these things to the fullest from my students. But this is the best I can do with Czesława Bernard’s smile–if indeed it is a smile.