For this week’s, WPC theme of ‘danger’, I thought I could post my daughter’s photo of the injured seal that had worn itself out and washed itself up on the beach near Santa Cruz, where she lives. It was in grave danger until Lisa called Marine Rescue, who turned up quickly and returned to poor creature safely into the ocean.
There was also a photo of a skunk walking down the garden path between Lisa and her front door! Skunks are notoriously aggressive, unafraid of humans, carry diseases and smell disgusting. She was in great danger of being attacked or sprayed as she carried her shopping in from the car.
But then, as I was reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for my Open University course, I suddenly realised just how much danger some persecuted individuals or groups have faced, over the centuries.
In the Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who is hated for being Jewish. Shakespeare explores this brilliantly as only he can. But it reminded me of places I have visited where evidence of the dangers of being Jewish is still clearly visible, or just below the surface.
Last year I visited a little Catalan town called Empuriabrava. In the old town, I was horrified by the evidence of past abuse of Jews. There was a cemetery dedicated specifically to those who had been coerced into converting to Christianity.
“On 18th February, 1417 more than 100 people were baptised at the font of the Basilica of Santa Maria, surrounded by their godfathers and authorities.
In 1415, there was the first wave of mass conversions to Christianity as a result of the Perpignan ordinations driven by Benedict X111, known as “Papa Luna”. From that moment on, the converted Jews were buried in a delimited space of the Christian cemetery. The cemetery was attached to the Northern wall of the apse of the basilica. This area has been known for centuries as “the cemetery for the converted Jews”. Nowadays part of the old cemetery is occupied by the Cappella del Santissim, built in 1724, and the other part has been restored as a pedestrian walkway. “
It is a beautiful, peaceful town now but I have to say the references and reminders of those dark times were everywhere, and quite menacing.
At Gettysberg, Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain said,
“On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”.
I knew exactly what he meant when I travelled to Krakow in Poland.
The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around. But my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory in Zablocie, which is now a museum, was a revelation. It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”. The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific. The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.
There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.
In March 1941, all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles. Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls. By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.
On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun. The first-hand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum. I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children. They were marched off to be used as forced labour. Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot. Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps. Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely. The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution. Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months. The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported. In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women. They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards. The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army.
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.
Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly. They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps. They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest. The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.