Both were college educated, Polish men in early middle age. Both were licensed tour guides. Both were animated, but in different ways, when asked about their knowledge spheres. Their missions varied vastly and their personalities were poles apart (forgive the pun), but we cherished what each offered and listened as attentive students.
Jack (not his real name) took us around Krakow Old Town. Vibrant and witty, he wove fables into the history of Krakow, Poland’s former capital during the Joint Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. Jack regaled us with tales of King Krak and his daughter (who refused to marry a German prince), King Sigismund’s alchemy and Commander Kazimierz Pulaski’s victorious defence against the Russian army at Jasna Gora in 1769 (Kazimierz subsequently led a cavalry brigade for General George Washington and died heroically in the American War of Independence and was buried in Savannah, Georgia).
We sat with Jack under the twin towers of St Mary’s Church as the Trumpeter of Krakow played Hejnał Mariacki (which ends abruptly as a Mongol arrow pierces his throat), and admired portraits of the Polish Nobel Laureates Marie Curie and Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (that’s just one person, a writer).
In Krakow, Poland’s capital for 550 years beginning in 1038, there are three places you must see: the Old Town -once a walled city replete with grand old establishments and narrow cobbled streets — where we met Jack, the famous salt mines dating from 1200 AD (one hour east of Krakow in Wieliczka) and, one hour west of Krakow, the infamous Nazi killing camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Marek conducted this grim tour.
Where Jack had been endearing and flippant with Polish folklore Marek was sombre, recounting a sordid past which we must not forget. Where Jack’s undeniable enthusiasm had carried the crowd, Marek’s measured tones and even responses recounted carefully documented details of the Third Reich’s masterplan to exterminate the Jewish race. Where Jack saw enterprise and possibility Marek cited solid fact.
In the holocaust the Jews lost everything. Marek told us how they were stripped of freedom, of possessions, of place, of identity, of hope and of life. His mission was single-minded ensuring that the world does not forget, yet each year it grows harder as distance increases between the atrocities of the past and the carefree lives of the new generation.
Identically gaunt faces hopelessly stare out of the rotten corridors of each Auschwitz block. Upon arrival at Auschwitz life expectancy was eight weeks. Starvation, diarrhea, typhoid, merciless beatings, execution by firing squad, self immolation on electric fences and the poison gas zyklon B racked up the numbers of murdered inmates at the deadliest of all Nazi camps. With numbed yet sincere feeling and deepest respect Marek invited us to remember the dead whose only crime was to live during the time of the Third Reich. Hitler’s followers were masters at ruling through fear.
In contrast Jack wondered aloud about the heroes and heroines of Polish history, their achievements and lives, imagining how they felt and thought. His tour was punctuated with wit and self promotion. I felt like signing up for his evening gig: ‘vampires and vodka.’ In his own life quest Jack employed his tour guide lifestyle to travel during the offseason — last year it was one month in India.
The charm of Krakow reverberates from the tourist trodden city streets, and Jack’s wit and charm. Yet behind this facade of vivacity and celebration lurks the reality of evil, imprisonment and fear in the dastardly deeds of those who surrendered themselves to self above all else.
Hitler planned the murder of all 11 million European Jews and the cowardly cooperated. Over six million were exterminated, gassed in concrete chambers, their corpses were burned to cinders and their bones ground into dust. The perpetrators planted avenues of Poplar trees around the concentration camps to hide their misdeeds using their victims as slave labor. The Holocaust remains a stumbling block for faith in Judaism. My mother was the daughter of a Jewess.
‘~ ~ the difference between Christians and Jews was that for Christians everything that comes from God is good and everything evil bears the mark of man; the Jews, however, press their search further and more blasphemously, crediting God with evil as well as absolution. The first act of Abraham, the first Jew-his readiness to sacrifice his son-was an accusation against God and his injustice. After that Moses shattered the tables of the Law, in anger not only with his people but with the God of his people. The midrash contains a troubling legend along these same lines. Cain says to God: ``Why did you make me commit this crime? Why did it have to be me? You could have prevented it, but you didn't. Why not?'' (Elie Weisel, The Gates of the Forest, 1966, 94-95.)
Always in life both aspects remain. The young see life as grand and ambitious, the old allow jaded feelings and broken promises to seal their fate. The young lust after adventure and innovation, the old focus unwaveringly on survival in the here and now. The young want to fulfill ambition, the old ensure they do not lose what they have worked hard to attain.
Yet we can be old and enthusiastic or young and and tied down with dread. It is a daily choice that becomes harder with the years but easier with practice.
The perspectives of both tour guides, Marek and Jack, help instruct us on life’s path. Like Marek we must never ignore the reality of evil, but we remember so that we might not surrender to evil in any form, whether the evil of simple selfishness or the terror of gross injustice.
Like Jack we find enjoyment in life and see possibility surrounding us. We are perpetual students embracing variety and approach life as learners in every phase of being.
And above all we hold fast to the faith that readjusts in a world of change. As we reflect on society and being and life and death, as we contemplate injustice and anger and greed, as we wonder at the heavens and what lies beyond the gates of this life, do we carry faith with us or does our faith perish in the dust? Do we allow our limitations to define our boundaries or do we allow God to to lead us, each step, each day?