I knew I was Jewish before I knew I was gay. And while I loved dressing up like King Mordecai (or Queen Esther) at Purim and scowled each December when Santa Claus skipped over our house in favor of a never-seen Hanukkah Harry, it was the black and white films shown on the cinderblock walls of my Sunday School classroom that truly impacted the story of who I was. These images reminded me how, during one of our darkest periods of history, a threatening force would have preferred to see me dead.
They were the films of the concentration camp liberations at the end of World War II. I couldn’t have been older than 11, witnessing the atrocities of a previous generation while my teacher stood in the back, a zaftig woman hunched over with her head held low. I didn’t have the mental capacity to understand how such a grand-scale extermination could happen — and to a certain degree, I felt a safe distance from its implication.
Over time I began to understand hate firsthand. In middle school I had itching powder doused down my pants after play practice. I heard the snickering, under-the-breath homophobic comments from my freshman-year college roommate, and then navigated my way through the system to change rooms. I came out in 1989 in the midst of the AIDS crisis — a year when the cumulative number of AIDS-related deaths topped 89,000. There was a time when I thought being Jewish and being gay was a double whammy, a scarlet A that branded me as “less than” compared to my gentile, straight counterparts.
Then the world began to change. Or maybe it was me. What I once considered a curse became a gift as I explored my gay/Jewish identity—not only in the context of my daily life, but also in my world travels. I have been to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao — the oldest continually used temple in the Western Hemisphere. I celebrated Gay Pride in Tel Aviv, which last year hosted an alarmingly attractive crowd of 180,000 Israelis and their admirers. I’ve even ducked into the ruins of the Córdoba Synagogue in Spain, a pre-expulsion house of worship dating back to 1315. But this rail trip through Poland would impact me in ways I never thought possible.
Kraków: That Was Then, This Is Now
Arriving amid bleak fields and barbed wire, it’s hard to believe that Kraków Airport welcomes more than 1.7 million travelers a year to Poland’s former royal capital. The facilities are a far cry from my KLM layover at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which is a destination unto itself. The 10-mile drive to the city center eases me into the Polish landscape that is not unlike the rolling hills of western Massachusetts or any number of idyllic locales throughout the United States — except that this landscape has withstood the test of war.
Unlike most Polish cities, Kraków was preserved because it became Nazi headquarters for a portion of present-day Poland and southern Ukraine. Approximately 50,000 Jews were deported before a short-lived ghetto was established in 1941. That, too, was dismantled and the remaining survivors shipped off to Plaszow or Auschwitz. Only seven synagogues still remain of the 90 that existed before the start of the war. St. Mary’s church still stands proud adjacent to the main Market Square, where hundreds of people congregate at outdoor cafés with a palpable energy that, if not for the guttural sounds of its Slavic language, could just as easily be Paris or Vienna.
Today’s Kraków is embracing an emerging art scene, which takes form at MOCAK, a contemporary art museum that opened its doors in 2011. In addition to its permanent collection, MOCAK has embarked on a series of exhibitions that celebrates local artists. But history isn’t more than a stone’s throw away, as right next door resides the Oskar Schindler Factory. The museum reflects on life in Krakow under Nazi occupation. Those familiar with the industrialist’s efforts to save the lives of his Jewish employees can also view his office in its original state.
Auschwitz: “We Must Bear Witness”
It takes a little over an hour to get from Kraków to Oswiecim, the Polish name for what the rest of the world knows as Auschwitz. My stomach churns as we near the site where an estimated 1.1 million people were gassed to death. In the final days of the war, just prior to the concentration camp’s liberation on January 27, 1945, the SS destroyed thousands of camp records, set fire to warehouses full of looted goods and blew up crematoria and gas chambers. From an LGBT perspective, an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 gay men were deported to concentration camps under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code. Many of them died at Auschwitz, but their stories are mostly forgotten. Now, more than 70 years later, an eerie calm hovers over the camp.
Our guide, Anna, solemnly walks us through the barracks and gas chambers, weaving in and out of rooms — some of them untouched while others showcase artifacts that survived the war. We pause at the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11, where thousands of Polish political prisoners were executed, then move on to “the post,” where prisoners were hung with their arms twisted behind their backs.
A fellow visitor moves in closely to take a photo and his sweater snags on the barbed wire, causing him to briefly lose his footing. We all catch our breath. “Don’t move,” says a voice from behind, and a young woman steps in to carefully set him free. It’s an indelible moment as I consider how many perished where I now stand. How they must have treaded so carefully to avoid that barbed wire, and how — for most — it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.
They were to die anyway.