Nearly two full years of COVID-related disruptions have forced me and many others to reflect on our world. It’s a difficult task to make lemonade from the lemons distributed by the virus: nearly a million Americans dead; painful divisions over masks and vaccines; economic, educational and social disruption, widespread anxiety and uncertainty. A small, sweet swallow could come from these forced reflections: what was the world really like before, and what did we love about it? For me, the ability to travel with few barriers or worries is a luxury I sorely miss.
I was able to criss-cross much of America on a wing, a prayer, my thumb, and a motorcycle in the 1960s and 1970s, but little beyond that. I felt the beauty and diversity of our land and our people, while acknowledging the dominant influence of the Cold War and its endless arms race and clashes across the globe.
When I saw the jubilant video of East and West Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989, I imagined a new era and the possibility of a ‘peace dividend’. Part of our military budget (eclipsed education and social spending) could be used to build a fairer and more prosperous society rather than defend against communist threats.
As Eastern Europe dismantled the Iron Curtain after more than 40 years and turned to a democratic future, the Peace Corps (created by JFK to help win the hearts and minds of people in disadvantaged countries) asked its new leaders how it could help them. To my surprise, many responded that what they felt was most helpful was . . . English teachers! As the language of international business, a greater command of English would help them in the expanding global market.
My sister, already a two-year Peace Corps veteran, was chosen to be part of the first group sent to Poland in 1990. I was lucky enough to visit her there in 1992.
I knew little about Polish history at the time, but this visit (along with some recent research) gave me a new appreciation. Ancient castles and modern museums have shown a civilization that was one of the largest, most powerful, and most advanced in the world in the early 1600s; a leading force in scientific discoveries, literature, art and architecture; ruled by a hopeful democracy that elected its kings (modeled on Roman ideals); is home to an extremely diverse ethnic and religious population. But soon it was a target for conquerors, invaded and ruled by invaders for centuries. The people’s strong distrust of Germany in the west and Russia in the east was constantly reaffirmed.
Most of our time was spent in modern Warsaw. As vibrant and hopeful as people had a future without communism, the shadow of World War II was inevitable. The once magnificent city was now dominated by Soviet-style concrete monoliths. Warsaw was the center of armed Jewish resistance against the horrors of the Holocaust and the site of desperate attacks in 1943 and 1944. After poorly armed Jewish fighters were finally overwhelmed in 1944, the Nazis destroyed the city in revenge , including 93% of its buildings. . Photos show German death squads pursuing civilians and mountains of rubble in all directions.
Prior to the 1944 uprising, the “Home Army” believed it would gain support from Russian troops massed on the east side of the Vistula which divides the city. Instead, Stalin chose to allow mass destruction, continued killing and boxcars to death camps, then swept away to establish a communist dictatorship. Russian betrayal allowed Warsaw and Poland to be decimated again.
But alongside an appreciation of the Polish people and culture hides a memory that is less attached to Poland than to all of humanity. We chose to visit Auschwitz. On a suitably cold, wet and foggy day, we were escorted through its remains to see some striking images and some of the machinery of the genocide. The interior exhibits contained huge piles of suitcases, eyeglasses, clothing, and personal items, all collected in quantities the Nazis could not process as they systematically killed over a million people there. Every shoe, dress, and hairbrush once had a human owner.
Robert Burns observed in 1784 that “man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands weep.” In this case, he underestimated by a factor of at least 1,000. I was forced to consider, and eventually accept, the existence of pure evil in the world.
Travel near and far can open our eyes to wonders and horrors never before imagined. I hope that our opportunities for appreciation and new perspectives can soon be resurrected.
Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary era detective story “The Sword and the Scabbard”, and resident of Greenfield. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at [email protected]