Today and tomorrow mark the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the time when the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews in Germany became explicit and violence against them commonplace.
Organizations which track hate crimes have noted with alarm that anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have been on the rise since the elections a year ago. That concerns essayist Arno Michaelis. He's a former neo-Nazi and white supremacist from Milwaukee who now leads the anti-hate group, Serve 2 Unite. Michaelis wrote about visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, and shares his essay with us:
I didn't want to go.
Who wants to go somewhere where a million people were murdered?
The men, women, and children who were systematically tortured and executed certainly didn't want to go. Just like me, I imagine they would have much preferred to go to the movies, or to work, or to the dentist. Anywhere else than the place called Auschwitz.
But they didn't have a choice. I did.
So how the hell did a beaming smile find itself on my face as I barely made the train to Oświęcim? - that's the sleepy town where the death camp once operated.
The exhilaration of exploration had a lot to do with it. Wandering the beautiful city of Kraków, thousands of miles from home, without speaking a lick of Polish, and without the social seatbelt of cellular coverage, delivers a high that none of the drugs I've done — which is most of them known to man, at least at the turn of the 21st century — could ever come close to. Literally using The Force to know which stop to jump off the Cold War-era tram packed with Poles of all ages and walks of life, and to know which way the train station was as the conductor whetted his lips to sound the departure whistle — that kinda journey will produce a smile like no other.
But the most essential ingredient in my cherished stranger-in-a-strange-land smile is always people.
The cab driver who brought me from KRK to Kraków: my man could eke out a bit more English than I could Polish, which again is zero. "Fast 89 zlotys. Slow 69 zlotys. You choose!" I chose Slow and we commenced the 25 minute scenic route.
Agog over the quaint houses and shops in towns I've never seen, my little kid buzz was soured by a repeating pattern of anti-Semitic graffiti: the Star of David with a line through it, over and over again along a 4km stretch. Perhaps for the sake of gang prevention/intervention guys like myself, who could interpret such symbolism in a Chicago street gang context, ‘NO JEWS’ accompanied some of the defacements.
I wanted to ask my new friend about it, but was intimidated by the language barrier. Earlier I was asking how to say the street name where my apartment was. I gave up after four attempts. He followed up with "...street name Polish Fighter!"
Ahh! "Like from the war?"
He smiled and made Fred Sanford-esque boxing motions.
"...Oh, like a boxer?"
He frowned a bit and shook his head before chuckling, "My English no good!"
Thus I ruled out a proper conversation on the intricacies of contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland. Instead I opted to address another important issue: my low blood sugar and elevated risk of migraine. Digging a bag of almonds out of my backpack, I felt obliged to offer homie some before I dug in.
"Would you like some almonds? They're organic."
His puzzled mug met mine in the rear-view mirror as I shook the bag in his direction. I was contemplating whether telling him they were from Whole Foods on Prospect Ave. in Milwaukee would sweeten the deal, but instead giggled out, "No?"
"Yes, YES!" and he probed a finger to coax almonds into his hand, elaborating wordlessly with a grin and a wink what kind of fool wouldn't want some crunchy delicious organic almonds from the Whole Foods on Prospect Ave. in Milwaukee. We both laughed as I shook more almonds into his cupped hand at the next stoplight.
The cab dropped me off and I set out to explore Kraków. Wandering the town square, I found a fake beer I really liked and I found myself really appreciating all of the people that I met.
The server who smiled with patient amusement after saying the name of the fake beer for the fifth time and me mimicking horribly. It was something like "ziv-itch nis-co-al-co-hov-ya".
The teenage girl with the Final Fantasy silver-purple-ish hair running concessions at the Ars Cinema, a brilliant movie theater remodeled from an ancient mansion. "Do I buy tickets here too? Can I get extra butter on the popcorn? Do you have non-alcoholic beer?" Every one of my questions was answered with the most endearing giggle, like I was the most amusing dumb American she had ever seen, but not at all in a mean way. She giggled as if I were a silly puppy.
The rough-lookin’ teenaged boys on the tram, who pointed out the ticket machine after seeing me dog-paddle through the dense river of humanity, trying to drop a five zloty coin into anything metal with a remotely coin-shaped orifice.
I asked each of them how to say "thank you" in Polish, multiple times. Each very pleasantly and patiently replied "dziękuję," multiple times. It sounds kinda like "jehz-koo-yeh," ...I think. I've been able to get it after it was said to me a bunch of times, then I'd repeat it as I walked down the street:
"Jehz-koo-yeh, jehz-koo-yeh, jehz-koo-yeh..."
...cracking up at the thought of how I must look. Saying "dziękuję" to myself and thinking it sounded just like they said it… up until I had occasion to thank someone, at which point I'd blather out something to the effect of "nustrobia." Brilliant huh? It gets better: also because I'm a gifted genius, I found myself answering any question where a "yes" would be appropriate with "sí," further emphasizing my inability to speak Polish with my inability to speak Spanish.
All of that had everything to do with the smile I wore, despite feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be smiling.
Almost there now. Still smiling as foreboding woods trot by outside the train window. Woods where I have a feeling nightmares happened, along the way to one of the worst nightmares in human history. I'm still smiling because I know what an honor it is to have this chance to bear witness. To breathe in the suffering of millions of my human family. The suffering that still drives people to hurt each other today. The suffering that hurts so bad it can take the human right out of any one of us, the moment we pass our hurt on to others instead of cradling ourselves with loving-kindness. Smiles help to conjure up that loving-kindness when it’s most needed, even in the face of Adolf Hitler.
Hitler himself wasn't the problem really. The cause of the Holocaust was the society that allowed him to come to power. A society reigned by fear. Fear of people who seemed different. Fear of not having enough. Fear of standing up. Fear of speaking out. Most of all, most simply: fear of change.
"Jehz-koo-yeh. Jehz-koo-yeh. "
I'm back on the train now.
My trip to Auschwitz included a return ticket. As the train begins to move, I don't know if I'm glad to leave or not.
I saw a room full of shoes – piles and piles of shoes. Shoes that once belonged to men, women, and children. Shoes carefully chosen before the feet that went in them were displaced from homes along with the rest of their bodies. Little kid's shoes that once caught a parent’s eye from a shop window, thinking, "These will look so cute on my little one."
Before the room full of shoes there was a room full of eyeglasses. My dad noticed I needed glasses when I was 8 years old and unable to read letters on a sailboat not too far from his buddy’s Chris-Craft while we awaited 4th of July fireworks on Lake Michigan. Our prescriptions were almost identical. Lifetimes of sight and experience, cut brutally short, lying in an imposing spidery mound.
Then there was a room full of pots and pans. My mom has a favorite pot that she's had since college. It's perfect for making popcorn. That pot produced the popcorn that along with ice cream composed 'crap dinner' she used to make us when she was too tired to cook a proper meal. A room full of pots, each filled with dinner stories of their own.
Another room was full of Jewish prayer shawls that I'll never really understand the importance of, other than the truth that these bits of blue and white cloth literally meant the world to the men they were torn from. Their woven connection with God.
Next, a room full of human hair - some removed from gas chamber corpses and some removed from live people by the forced labor of fellow Jews before they were executed with mechanical precision.
There’s a room full of 4.2 million names, shown to me by a man who won’t rest until each of the remaining million-plus names are uncovered.
I don't know that I'm glad to leave such horror, because I feel an obligation to honor as much of the immense suffering as I can. Being there, where it all happened, at the epicenter of a massive atrocity that I once had a hand in denying, was something that I had to do. Something I have to keep doing.
So what the hell was I smiling about? What the hell am I smiling about now, bumping these words into my phone on a rickety old train with fresh tears following the trail of dry ones down my cheek?
I'm smiling because I know it's far and away the best way to cultivate a reality where the Holocaust can't happen again. Yes, there is horror happening somewhere on Earth as I live and breathe. Yes, there are human beings hellbent on proving themselves unworthy of such a title as I read this. All the more reason for gentleness when it comes to what we put into this system that we all exist in.
Happy people are much less susceptible to hate.
All of us share the same capacity for shame or greatness, hate or love. All of us are subject to the unbearable pain of a broken heart, no matter what color our skin is, no matter what language we speak, no matter how much money we do or don’t have, no matter what spiritual tradition or lack thereof, no matter who we’re attracted to, or how we relate to gender. All suffering is as deserving of someone to bear witness to it as the Holocaust is.
A genuine human smile is one of the most powerful weapons we can wield against the kind of rampant hatred that led our human race on a collision course with Auschwitz. A smile is gratitude.
When we express gratitude, for things like knowing when to jump off the tram, and people like the girl at the movie theater with the giggles and the silvery-purple hair, and experiences like sharing some almonds with a taxi driver, we are tending a garden of inner peace where our interdependence with all life is a welcome given. We are finding immense value in each moment, and broadcasting like moments into the universe. When we share that authentic happiness with the world around us, it becomes contagious. As a Former neo-Nazi who once espoused the same hatred that destroyed millions, I understand the antidote to that hate: presence, and love.
Most of all though, a smile is fearless. When we find the courage to look at all of our great human family with the love and adoration of kinship — and all the more so when we find new differences to celebrate — the idea of hurting anyone becomes anathema. When we can be confident in the basic goodness of existence, and smile in appreciation, ideologies of fear and separatism have no purchase on who we are. A simple smile is proof against the kind of fear that twists society into a hell on Earth.
Dziękuję, Auschwitz. My heart is awakened like never before, and utterly fearless.
That makes me smile.
Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist from Milwaukee who now leads the organization Serve 2 Unite and is the author of My Life After Hate.