From Mielic, Poland
I was going to write a note to my brother and sister about how it was travelling through this landscape where, a short lifetime ago our family and their neighbours were enslaved, tortured and slaughtered. But somehow, I never got it done. I was there with my cousin Joe to film the story of how he, a Jewish infant, was hidden from the Nazis by a brave Polish couple.
I never expected to be here. My father had sworn he would never return to this place, where those he considered his fellow citizens had risen against him, his family, his people. I followed his example, I have avoided this part of the world since I was old enough to understand what had been done here.
Joe, and I, and our small film crew walk the streets where the house of my father and his mother had stood, the neighbourhoods – long paved over – where he would have walked. The synagogue where some were burnt alive is now a busy supermarket. Waiting patiently for anyone who might wander over to look, is a plaque adorning a small monument, reminding no one in particular that once upon a time something else had stood here.
We set up to film in the pretty village square where my father, uncles, aunts, their families, and friends, their rivals and partners, had been herded from their homes. Gathered together in this place, only to be sorted for different sorts of murder: some quicker, some slower, some more painful, some to slavery and torture before disease, despair, bullet or beating hurried them to the crematorium or the mass grave.
I thought of them, of the pogroms, the blood libels, of the history of blood shed and suffering, of uncountable ranks of victims… of the never resting wheel of vengeance…. … of Bosnians, Armenians, Africans, Palestinians, the native peoples of the Americas… of hordes, of burning villages, the piles of skulls, the endless lines of slaves, the millions and billions who had been and continue to be raped, and murdered and tortured. I felt the boot heel that from forever has stomped down on the human face.
As I walked through the very same heavy iron gate that had slammed shut behind my father and uncle and all the rest as they entered the Mielic concentration camp, Today, that gate still stands, but now it is an unmarked side entrance to an industrial park. I was shocked at how normal everything seemed. It was hard to believe that it was here at all. Without even a sign commemorating the horrors it had once guarded. Even, stranger were the signs for all the European multinationals that now nonchalantly used that space, whose employees breathed that air with, I suppose, not a thought to what had once stood here. But mostly, I wondered what failure of my imagination allowed me to remain standing and talking, to rearrange the shots, to give instructions to my crew, to respond to questions about logistics and schedules… and not fall to the ground weeping overwhelmed with the horror.
Later, I stood with Joe, someone I’d known all my life, at the grave of a woman I’d never met, a kind of mother, whom he had known when so young that the vague memories he had must be woven together with old photographs he’d glimpsed and with stories he’d later heard or imagined.
But she and her husband, for no apparent reward, had risked their lives and the lives of their own children to protect him – a stranger, an infant they didn’t know.
I thought of them, of Petronella and Wladyslaw; of all the Petronellas and Wladyslaws who stood in the only way they could against the tide of madness and inhumanity. People who, when asked why they risked so much could only answer, “what else could I do?”
And finally I wept thinking about their courage and wondering how I would ever live up to the example they, no doubt unwittingly, had set for everyone who came after them.