As the days passed approaching
the trip, a dark cloud on the horizon placed a lump in my throat. It
would be a busy time adjusting to the environment of an unknown country
while taking on the challenge of an intensive teacher-training program
and on top of this, I knew that Krakow, Poland was near the legendary
Auschwitz. There was no escape from the realization that as a human, I
had a duty to confront directly one of the greatest acts of evil in
human history. It was vexing but I knew I had no choice but to look
evil directly in the eye.
A respect for the unknown had always made me suspicious of the
simplified black and white image of the vicious soldier-beast
committing atrocities as if to suggest that a whole nation had simply
all gone crazy at the same time. The picture could not be so simple.
The average person must have been there, then just as everybody is
here, now. The time and place would have had its own explanation,
justification, and concession.
There was no such thing as a nation that had gone crazy and a
subjectivity hidden in that time and place must have made the holocaust
seem normal or logical given the chain of events. Anybody who was there
would have been part of this without noticing that anything was wrong.
This I did not want to understand.
Such deep cultural factors, and the story leading up to the
holocaust surely could not be understood within a short month's stay
but talking to my fellow teachers had revealed some interesting facts.
The Polish government had the policy of avoiding referring to the
Jewish people as being the main victims of the holocaust. Furthermore,
in the Auschwitz museum, the guides had been instructed to avoid
exclusively talking about the Jews and would often change the subject
when asked about them. The tragedy was not the sole propriety of the
Jewish people. This was a Polish tragedy and a European one that had
engulfed a whole continent. What had led into it was not exclusively an
anti-Semitism but a much broader institutionalized 'racial mania'.
Governments had gotten into a meticulous process of trying to determine
the ethnic origins, or 'race' of all of its citizens by classifying
people into groups according not to their country of birth, or native
culture and language, but by their family history and physical
features. One image that left a strong impression was within the
building at Auschwitz that was dedicated to the Gypsy, or more
accurately Sinti and Roma people victimized by this racial mania. There
was a black and white picture of a doctor using a caliper device to
measure the distance from the center of the eyes to the chin in order
to determine the 'race' of an unknowing middle-aged housewife.
This reminded me of the present day practice in Japan where the
city hall fingerprints and issues special ID cards to citizens it has
determined 'foreigner' based on family records that have been
meticulously kept. These people are born in Japan and for many of them
the issuance of the card and the directive that they use their foreign
names for all official documents is the first time they realize they
belong to such a classification. If one doesn't know their foreign
name, one will be provided by approximating a name in the foreign
language similar to the 'Japanese' one they have known themselves as
throughout childhood. Being a member of such a classification also
results in being treated differently under the law and among other
things, being entitled to less social welfare from the government.
For the Sinti and Roma peoples, the issuance of the card was a
first step. Next came compulsory sterilization; they were not to
reproduce and dirty society with their offspring. Finally, it meant the
What then is the next step for the Japanese government? What is
the purpose of keeping such meticulous family records of its naturally
born citizens and imposing unfamiliar names and pseudo-nationalities on
them? In the end, isn't this the same sort of 'racial mania' that swept
across Europe? Here in present day Japan too, the average person is
trapped in the here and now and cannot see how ridiculous and dangerous
such institutionalized discrimination is. We are blind. No government
has the right to collect such data because there is no telling what it
may be used for. The danger is clear and foreboding. Auschwitz bears
witness to this.
When I was new to Japan, I studied martial arts in a temple for
several years. I remember the teacher and head priest of the temple
explaining how within Buddhism there was also a tradition of holding
family records for centuries at the temple, but that he had broken that
tradition and burnt all the records. He said the records were a source
of discrimination as some families layed claim to a higher caste, or
more important heritage based on these records.
When will the government take this same step and burn these
records leaving it to the individual to decide how they want to embrace
their ethnic roots?
After leaving the Sinti-Roma building we went to the main
guardhouse. Beside it, in a small yard, 'the wall of death' still stood
as it was 50 some odd years ago. Prisoners were taken there and
executed as an example to other would-be misbehavers in the camp.
As a group of Israeli students cleared the yard and moved into
the building I noticed two old men standing in front of the wall
whispering to each other. They were trying to set up some flowers they
had brought but the wind kept knocking them over.
It struck me then that the place I was in was not merely
something from the movies or a history book. The events that took place
here had irrevocably changed the lives of these two human beings in
front of me. It had brought them a lifetime of sadness. It was quite
I remembered something somebody had said earlier that week in
Krakow. "Nowhere is the grass
greener than in Auschwitz"
Looking around, it did seem rather green with the strong wind
blowing the leaves of the trees and the thick blue grass everywhere.
I noticed another strange thing. There were no birds. There were
no chirping sounds. There was just the silence, the sound of the wind
though the trees and the whispering prayers of the two old men.
We proceeded into the guardhouse and down into the dark
basement. There were many small cells with black iron doors, one of
which had a plaque in remembrance of a Catholic priest who had been
starved to death there, in isolation, for speaking out about Auschwitz
at a sermon in the town. He had refused to be blinded by the
justifications and concessions of the there and then and had paid with
There was also a section with three brick chambers large enough
for a man to stand in but not large enough for him to sit down. As
punishment the man would have to stand there all night and then go back
to work the next day. This was often enough to kill him
The last place we went to was the gas chamber. I felt a little
uneasy going in. I wondered if there were ghosts or spirits present and
if so were they angry? Were they suffering? Were they confused about
why they were there and how their lives had ended?
I closed my eyes and listened to see what I felt. It was not
anger or confusion. To the contrary it was a cool, kind, and perhaps
even grateful feeling. Perhaps they were thankful to the people who had
come all this way to learn their story. Perhaps they knew that
something good would come from people having the courage to look
directly into the evil. Maybe we could avoid getting trapped in the
here and now next time. Maybe we would notice before it was too late.
Maybe even perhaps they somehow knew that I was a teacher and
could spread their message even if in only a small way. I felt as if,
without any pressure, they were gently asking me to do so. At that
point, with my eyes closed, I swore to them that I would. They were