Life in the Shadow of Syria

This is not a political statement and I’m not going to suggest any solutions or what any government should or should not do. I’ve been getting lots of questions about what’s going on and this is a personal response from my personal experience.  

So, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you’ve seen something on the news recently about Syria. For the past two years, the country has been engulfed in a civil war: the president vs. the opposition. Over 110,000 Syrians have been killed (a conservative estimate that only includes confirmed deaths), and over 2 million have fled to neighboring countries as refugees. A couple of weeks ago, anywhere from just under a thousand to several thousand civilians were killed with the use of chemical weapons. There have been accusations of chemical warfare from both sides for a while, but this was the mostly deadly and visible attack yet. The international community has longed condemned the use of chemical warfare and a UN research team was already in the country to evaluate previous claims. In response to the most recent attack, several Western powers, including the US, have indicated that they are likely to strike against President Assad, believing he is responsible and wanting to ensure that he doesn’t use chemical weapons again. This would be the most aggressive assertion of international intervention to date in the conflict.

For the past two months I’ve been living in Amman, Jordan working with an international NGO assisting Syrian Refugees. I have been learning a lot about the situation of refugees in Jordan and the challenges they face. I was with my Jordanian friend the afternoon I found out about the attack. It had just happened that morning and the world was still waking up to the news. Every news source we looked at had several stories running and no one was quite clear on the details. Accusations were made from both sides, but honestly, at least for me, this flurry of opinions only made the situation more confusing.

Even before the most recent chemical attacks, I was burdened by the fact that in Syria, like in most conflicts, there doesn’t seem to be a “truth.” Everyone claims that everyone else has done a thing. And it seems like no one really knows who did what. People here are still arguing over who started the violence in Syria two years ago. And it feels likely that “the truth” will never be known in the ways we would like. More than that, it doesn’t feel like there is a right or wrong side. No one is innocent. Every “side” in this conflict has committed atrocities in the name of justice.

I’ve been trying to listen, not to speak. And even in my listening I am not finding answers. Different groups – social classes, nationalities, and religions – all have different opinions about the conflict, what has happened and what should happen. Even within those groups people differ. And everyone believes that they are right. So it’s hard to know “the truth” as much as I might want to.

And yet normal life goes on. I woke up this morning and went to work. On my way home later I will stop at the little supermarket by my apartment and buy milk. My host mother and I will sit and watch Turkish dramas dubbed in Arabic. And we’ll probably talk about the fact that she wants to teach me to clean on Friday so my future husband will be happy. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Syria. I’m not sure I know what I want to happen. I want the violence to end. I want my neighbors and friends to be able to return to their homes. I want shalom to come. But how will the violence end? Only with more violence? What about the fact that my friends have no homes to go back to? I don’t know what to do with these questions.

For today, normal life is happening, it just has a shadow hanging over it. And I am praying for peace, for shalom. I am thankful for a God who became human, who knows our pains and our fears and our weaknesses. I’m still praying, “Jesus, please come.”

A Prayer

I don’t actually know why we keep these blogs. I’m not quite sure what they accomplish. I have a private journal; this isn’t where I express and process my deepest thoughts. And if it were, it definitely wouldn’t be public. I’m not convinced that it’s just about keeping everyone at “home” (whatever that means) updated. There’s no way I could give enough context to adequately describe life here. I’ll probably spend the next ten years at least trying to understand what’s happening around me, let alone describing it to someone else. And this blog is most definitely not the wise lessons and observations of some twenty-something year old woman. If anything, I’m more confused about life today than I was when I started this.

And yet, here we are. I’m going to tell you (anonymous reader that I probably/hopefully know) about my life, what I’m thinking about, and what I’m trying not to think about.

– – –

Every day here is its own cycle of ups and downs. At times I feel so isolated. And then there are these moments of connection. I’ve never been one to run short on emotions, or feelings, and that holds true here. I feel everything, all the time. Which means that there are also times when I feel nothing. If you figure out how that works, let me know, because I actually have no idea.

This city overwhelms me. And it’s beautiful. When you look out over the city, it’s like this endless sea of… of… of what? I don’t know. Buildings? People? Dust? Humanity? The hills make it look like waves and waves and waves. It just feels endless.

I’ve only been in Amman six weeks. I don’t want to leave yet, but I want to be at home (again, what does that even mean?). I am only beginning to “live” here, but there is always about 49% of me that wants to be in Memphis or Wheaton, laying around/on people I love there. That’s been difficult. There were a solid two weeks where I was pretty miserable. But I couldn’t leave. I wouldn’t really want to. I’m feeling more and more like I need to be here.

I think I’m just beginning to touch the surface of things I came here to learn. My first semester at Wheaton, I was introduced to the idea of shalom, of peace that is more than just the absence of violence, but the presence of righteousness and justice, characterized by right relationships with God, others, the environment, and oneself. Over and over again that idea has sprung up in my growing understandings of the world. This month, our HNGR course readings talked about shalom, what it does and could mean. And it’s also been just the past week that I am both longing for and doubting the coming of shalom.

I’ve seen elderly mothers cry over their murdered sons; wives try and make sense out of missing husbands; fathers weep because of their inability to feed and clothe their children. And I don’t know it. I don’t understand it. I feel very detached from the war these men and women are fleeing, yet I see something. And I hear my friend tell me that, even though he smiles and tries to be happy, he’s deeply “sad” because his home is destroyed, his family is separated, and there is no way back and no way forward. There’s “nothing.” And I wonder, where is shalom? Where is its very present presence? Can there be shalom here? Even if the violence and destruction were to end today (which it won’t, probably not for a very long time), how could there be justice? How can there be right relationships when neighbors are murdering each other in the streets? Even the physical world has been destroyed – there’s nothing to go back to. Where is shalom? Where is hope? I want to see shalom incarnate, embodied – I don’t just want words. I want to see hope out, walking around – not just some easy proverbs we tell ourselves. Where is Shalom? How/when/can it come?

In my journal, I almost always end with this prayer:

“Jesus, please come.”

A Few Good, Random Things

Here’s a few random things I felt like sharing. They’re all good and some are pretty funny. 🙂

  • Bringing a stuffed animal with me was probably one of the best packing decisions I made. It was definitely one of the best pre-departure pieces of advice I got. I love my stuffed cat.
  • Fireworks are a year-round thing in Amman. Every day and night there are kids setting off fireworks in the street. Also, there’s a truck that goes my neighborhood selling vegetables and fruit that plays music like an ice cream truck.
  • Sometimes I say Amman has lots of hills, but a lot of times they feel like mountains. Going up them can be rough, and so can going down! I joke that, if nothing else, I’ll leave Amman with really great calves.
  • There are about 10 different commercials on air right now that are Gangam Style and/or Harlem Shake themed. They’re pretty funny. Oh, and there’s a music video of a grown man who’s dressed as Spongebob dancing around with a bunch of kids, singing “Ana spongeee-bob!” (I am Spongebob!) But, it’s not like, on a kids’ channel. It’s mixed in with all the really dramatic, tragically romantic, grown up videos… ?
  • No one thinks I eat enough. And like, it’s not a subtle thing. Almost every night my host mom questions me, “What did you eat today?” And I have to give a very long answer or she brings me food. Actually, most times, she still brings me food.
  • Also, some foods don’t count. I’ll say I’m not hungry or don’t want to eat, and she’ll say, “Oh, but it’s fruit. It’s not food!” or “It’s sweet! It’s not food!” The same thing applies to water.
  • I’m going to have a great, cheap, questionably legal collection of DVDs by the time I leave Amman. If you want a movie, let me know by December.
  • It was also great advice to bring a pillow. I’m definitely glad I brought a pillow.
  • I probably got the best compliment ever from my host mom. She told me I was beautiful because I like to read and write and always want to know about everything. I really hope those are the things people see as beautiful in me (because of Jesus of course).

Peace and love!

A Very Brief Introduction

Where do I even begin??

I’m in Amman. I’ve never seen a city like this before. It’s this huge, sprawling sea of white, off white, and sand colored buildings spread out over miles and miles of hills. I live near the top of my hill and you can see the city go on for miles. During the day it’s kind of hazy because of all the dust, but there aren’t any clouds so it’s also strangely clear. And at night the city lights up. There are lights on in every window, the minarets dotting the landscape are lit up green, and now that it’s Ramadan there are crescent moons and stars and lantern lights hanging in all the windows. It’s really beautiful.

I live in a neighborhood/on a hill called Jabal Ashrifiyeh. I share a little apartment with a woman named Jehan. There’s another little apartment in our building where an elderly couple lives, Umm Hanna and Abu Hanna. It would take me ages to tell you how kind they’ve all been. So you’re just gonna have to believe me on this one – they’re fantastic. Jehan speaks a little English (more than I speak Arabic right now), but Umm Hanna and Abu Hanna don’t speak any English… which makes for quite the “conversations.”

I work with an organization called Caritas Jordan. They have centers all over Jordan and several in Amman. I work at one of the centers right down the hill from my house. It’s about a 15 minute walk there, and probably twice that going back (uphill is hard!). I really like the people in my office. I’m still getting to know them all, but I’m excited for what it will be like when I’ve been there more and when my Arabic is better. So far, as far as work goes, I’ve done a lot of watching intake interviews, which is when the beneficiaries (refugees) come to get registered with Caritas. One day I got to go on home visits, which is where the Caritas staff visits home to assess the specific needs of families. I’m looking forward to what work will be like when I know more and can do more. I think I’ll eventually get to help with some aid distribution stuff, teach some English classes, and travel to see projects at the other centers in Jordan.

What else to tell you? There’s so much to say! Um, I really like the food. Everything I’ve had has been really good. Umm Hanna cooks a lot of food and will just leave it in our apartment for Jehan and me. No one thinks I eat enough, which is funny, because I haven’t been hungry since I got here. I don’t know if the heat is helping. I feel like I don’t have an appetite when it’s hot, and the days are so hot! Seriously, there are about 6 hours in the afternoon where I just wanna hide from the sun and the heat. Luckily the hill I live on is pretty breezy. And the nights are almost cold. Because it’s Ramadan most people stay in during the day (very few things are open until 6, 7 ,or even 8 pm) and then come out at night. So the nights feel pretty alive.

As far as Arabic goes, it’s so hard! But I’m learning. Every day I get a few new words and I’m even starting to get some phrases! Waddup! I actually ended up enrolling in a month long intensive course at a school here in Amman. It starts on Monday and will be 2 hours a day, 5 days a week for the next month. I’m really excited for this opportunity and I think it will give me a good foundation for continuing to learn the language throughout my time here. I know that language is going to be really important not just to my work, but to relationships as well. So far, I’m really enjoying my relationships here. I’m meeting more people every day and getting to know people more as I have more time with them. Some of my friends speak English and some don’t. Honestly, the first 2 weeks it’s been really easy to spend time with English speakers, but I’m setting a goal to change that. And I’m trying to seek out some cool opportunities to get plugged into communities here.

There’s a lot more I could say about being here. I feel like I’m learning tons every day. But take this as a brief introduction to what will hopefully be more fleshed out stories in the future. I’m really glad to be here. Six months seems impossible and much too short all at the same time. I appreciate your prayers and would love to know how to pray for you all too! Also, be praying for the other HNGR interns who are out right now. It’s been a really big blessing to have brothers and sisters who are experiencing and processing a lot of the same things. J

Lots of love!

Clara

 

Also, here are a few pictures!

This is the Abu Darwish mosque in Ashrifiyeh. I live just down the street from here! Isn't it beautiful!!

This is the Abu Darwish mosque in Ashrifiyeh. I live just down the street from here! Isn’t it beautiful!!

This is a view of Amman from the top of Ashrifiyeh. In real life you can see clearly for miles and miles.

This is a view of Amman from the top of Ashrifiyeh. In real life you can see clearly for miles and miles.

This is some yummy tabbouleh that Jehan taught me how to make!

This is some yummy tabbouleh that Jehan taught me how to make!

This is tucked away in one of Amman's hundreds of stairs leading up and down the hills. I think it's really beautiful.

This is tucked away in one of Amman’s hundreds of stairs leading up and down the hills. I think it’s really beautiful.

I got meet up with Sado in Amman! This is my new friend Jessica as well!

I got meet up with Sado in Amman! This is my new friend Jessica as well!

I'm in Amman!

I’m in Amman!

Krakow

This past weekend I was able to spend two days in Krakow in southern Poland. IT WAS AMAZING. Only two days, but we did so much and had such a good time of exploring and learning new things in a new and beautiful city.

The cool thing about Krakow is that it wasn’t destroyed during WWII (unlike almost all of Warsaw). So the old city is still intact and beautiful. It was also the capital of Poland for centuries, so the old buildings and streets reflect the wealth and importance that the city  held. It’s still an important cultural center for Poland. One of our speakers told us that, to begin to understand Poland, you have to go to Krakow. So we did.

Nine of us went. Five of the Americans, three of the Ukranians, and one Pole (my roommate!). My roommates lives with her family just outside of Krakow, so we were actually able to stay with her and save on a hostel. She was also our unofficial guide for the weekend, which was so kind of her.

We took the day train in on Friday and had that evening and night in the city. We explored and saw so many beautiful old churches and civic buildings. On Saturday we spent the morning exploring the city’s old castle (a real castle!). In the afternoon we went about an hour and half out of Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’ll write about that separately at some point because it was a very different experience. After returning to Krakow we had dinner and caught the night train back to Warsaw in time for Sunday HIA events!

All in all, the trip was amazing. I had so much fun, learned a lot, and got to experience some of “old Europe,” which was really great.

This huge cathedral sits right at the center of Krakow's giant market square. The myth is that the two towers were built by two brothers racing and when the first finished he killed the second to ensure that his tower would never surpass his. He then committed suicide by jumping off the tower.

St. Mary’s Basilica sits right at the center of Krakow’s giant market square. The myth is that the two towers were built by two brothers racing and when the first finished he killed the second to ensure that his tower would never surpass his. He then committed suicide by jumping off the tower.

This is inside that cathedral. It was by far the most beautiful church I've ever been in. I was able to take some time to pray here and it was really special.

This is inside St. Mary’s. It was by far the most beautiful church I’ve ever been in. I was able to take some time to pray here and it was really special.

This church has survived since the 11th century! It sits in the middle of part of the giant market square. The 11th century!

The Church of St. Adalbert has survived since the 11th century! It sits in the middle of part of the giant market square. The 11th century!

The original entrance of the church is still intact!

The original entrance of the church is still intact!

This is just one view of the castle we got to explore! It was so beautiful!

This is just one view of Wawel castle we got to explore! It was so beautiful!

This is the castle's courtyard. Imagine GIANT parties here.

This is the castle’s courtyard. Imagine GIANT parties here.

Having so much fun at Wawel castle!

Having so much fun at Wawel castle!

Some of the other fellows goofing off. We had a great time!

Some of the other fellows trying to look cool. 🙂 We had a great time!

An Update on the Everyday

So I’ve been meaning to write another blog post for a while, but you know when you get in a routine and, even if you’re half way around the world doing really cool things, every day just feels kind of normal? And then you’re like, “Oh, I should blog something exciting,” but you’re like, “What’s exciting?” Yeah, that’s basically what happened.

I’ve been in Warsaw for almost a month now and things are pretty chill. Actually, they’re almost winding down. A week and a half ago we entered the “output phase” of the program. We switched from attending lectures and having discussion sessions to working in small groups on a final project. My group consists of me, a German fellow, and a Polish fellow. Given the topic of “Jewish Rights/Issues,” we chose to address everyday anti-Semitism in the Polish language. It’s inspired by a book I read a few years ago called The Everyday Language of White Racism by Jane Hill. If you haven’t read it, you should. Because it’s amazing. And it rocked my world. And some of her theoretical assumptions are underlying my project here in HIA. The project consists of creating a workshop for Polish high school students, trying to encourage them to think about and change the language they use. It’s actually been pretty neat to plan out class sessions. It was a really great carryover from learning how to do lesson plans last year as a BRIDGE TA.

Other than project stuff, we have just been relaxing and enjoying our time here. Most days I wake up to the sounds of construction work and traffic outside my window, which is wide open because the ho(s)tel doesn’t have AC. I have a ton of mosquito bites – they get me at night while I’m sleeping. We have a continental style breakfast downstairs which consists of lots of bread and yogurt. Then we explore and work and explore and work. This past weekend several of us went to Krakow, a city in southern Poland, for a few days. I’ll write a separate post about that trip, but overall it was awesome and so much fun. In a few days HIA’s big annual, international conference will start here in Warsaw. I’m pretty excited for it. All the other 2013 fellows from across Europe, senior fellows who’ve done the program in the past, and lots of other really interesting people will be here and I’ll have opportunities to meet and network with them all.

After the conference there will be zero time to debrief, as next Monday I’ll head to Amman for my HNGR internship. I’ve been trying to think and process through what I have learned here in Warsaw. For the most part, I haven’t learned what I was expecting to learn, but I have learned so much. That’s a pretty vague statement and a lot to unpack, but I’m still sorting out what it all means. In HNGR they tell us to hold our expectations loosely. And I remember someone telling us that we’ll learn the most from the unexpected things. That’s definitely been true of my time here in Warsaw (and all of my life, but we forget, right?). I’m excited to see how exactly God uses this time I’ve had (and still have) here, and what it will mean for the future, and how it will influence other things in my life.

Here’s one thought real quick: I think part of the reason being here became “normal” so quickly was that so much of the program style and structure is centered around the American fellows. There’s a lot of privilege built into the program. Everything is in English. We live in a hostel/hotel with one roommate each and private bathrooms. We come home at night to “a little America.” The program directors communicate with us through Facebook. Polish TV and radio stations play a lot of American films and music. Other people do our laundry and change our sheets. We didn’t need visas to come, while some other fellows did. When we go out, most Polish people know a bit of English and don’t expect us to know any Polish. It’s really a very insulated program. And I don’t really like that. One thing I appreciate about HNGR is that it’s not meant to be so insulated. The amount of privilege we (Americans) have here is overwhelming (as I’m sure it will be on HNGR as well). What’s so strange is that the program is intentionally structured in ways that keep us insulated. It has been difficult to be here, be a part of a program that’s set up to privilege and separate us. And that’s just what everyone, staff and fellows, expects and accepts. Does that make sense? I’m still figuring a lot of this out. But this one thing has been bugging me since we got here and has caused me to question the program a lot. If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them. 🙂

I’ll try and post some pictures soon of life here in Warsaw. Pictures always help me, so I like to put them up for other people.  Please pray for me this last week, that’d I would take every opportunity and use them well. And pray for me as I head to Amman. All the other HNGR interns are in the field and I’m eager to join them. If you get a chance, you should check out the other interns’ blogs at hngr2013.com. It’s been really helpful for me to read some of their reflections on their time so far.

Lots of love! And peace!

Clara

Treblinka

I had learned about Nazi concentration camps and death camps in school, but I had never heard about Treblinka. And that was the goal. Treblinka was one part of a larger crusade to erase a people and their history. Even the camp itself was meant to be erased from the history books.

Treblinka was among the last extermination camps to be built in Nazi-occupied Poland (they were all in Poland). It was the combination of all the lessons they had learned as they swept over Europe, tirelessly seeking to deal with “the Jewish problem.”

Treblinka was located in the woods, about 2 or 3 hours north of Warsaw. It was built as an extermination camp, a death camp. Technically, the death camp was Treblinka II, as there was a work camp, Treblinka I, located not far away. But the two camps had only their names in common. They had different administrations and different goals. Workers in Treblinka I knew nothing about nearby Treblinka II (from here on, just Treblinka). This division was on purpose. In camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, workers in the concentration camp could see and hear what was going on in the death camp. They were witnesses. In Treblinka, there were no witnesses.

It was a very strategic system. Jews were brought, either from Warsaw or other areas of Poland, to Treblinka. Many of them knew about the nearby work camp and thought that they were going to work. They were told that they were being disinfected after hours of standing in railway cars. They came in groups of up to 2,000. Within 2 or so hours they had all been directed into gas chambers, where they were killed and then cremated. Almost 1 million people were killed at Treblinka.

Unlike other camps, there was no registration, so we don’t have names of anyone who was killed. They were cremated because the Nazis had learned that bodies were dangerous and the risk of mass graves being found was too high. Their clothes and goods were sent to work camps where they were cleaned and repaired before being sold on the market.

The camp was closed by the Nazis when the Jewish population in the region had been mostly eliminated. Rather than leave a camp as evidence for someone to find, they disassembled it and sent all of the material to be used in other parts of the Reich. The last Jewish workers tried to escape. Most were killed for what they knew and for trying to run away, but anywhere from 80-100 survivors made it out. If they hadn’t, no one would have any idea what the camp was like or how the system worked. Witnesses and documents were destroyed. Treblinka was erased from the history books. It was a “success” story for the Nazi plan.

There’s really not much else to say. The Nazis built a farm where the camp had been. When the war was over, the land was reclaimed and in the ’60s a memorial was built.

The memorial is an open field where the camp once was. It’s not very big. There are close to 17,000 irregular shaped stones jutting out from the ground in the parts of the field where the most human and organic ash was detected. There is a large arch. Modeled after ancient “victory arches” from western history, this arch is instead sealed. You can’t go through. Over the top, there are almost nightmarish carvings of men and women.

These stones mark the railroad that led to Treblinka. On the left, you can see where they built a platform where the original was.

These stones mark the railroad that led to Treblinka. On the left, you can see where they built a platform where the original was.

DSC03189

This is the stone arch that is at the center of the memorial.

One view of part of the field. You can see the stones jutting up out of the ground.

One view of part of the field. You can see the stones jutting up out of the ground.

Another view from the other side of the field.

Another view from the other side of the field.

Personally, I think the thing that I’m thinking about the most is how systematic it was, the whole Holocaust, but Treblinka in particular. It was a terribly well-executed plan. And it was carried out on horrific proportions, all across Poland. It’s nearly impossible to stand there and imagine what the camp looked like, or sounded like, or smelled like. It feels very empty. It’s even more impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of people, almost a million of them, being systematically murdered. It’s weighty. And it makes me think. And it makes me want to examine the systems that we have, that I participate in, that lead to destruction of life. I don’t really know where else to go with it.

DSC03195

Warsaw (Warszawa)

It’s been a week since my fellowship with HIA Poland began and I have already learned SO MUCH. I came knowing almost nothing about Poland or Warsaw, its capital. I still can’t claim to know very much, but I know a lot more than I did and this knowledge is adding some depth and context to the city and people I’ve slowly started to get to know.

On a practical note, I’ve learned how to stand on a tram, facing the windows so you can transfer weight from one leg to the other. If you try and face the front you end up falling forwards and backwards and looking like an idiot even more than you probably already did. Trust me on this one. And I’ve learned how to read bus and tram schedules. I have successfully found my way home from a couple parts of the city all by myself! It’s almost like I’m an adult here! Woo! And I’ve learned that only Americans wear shorts and flip flops. Either item is a dead give away that you’re American. And I wear these things anyway, mostly because my Polish roommate told me I don’t look Polish so there’s no point in pretending. All of these little facts are helping me survive and not feel so out of place here in Warszawa (say it as if the “w”s were English “v”s – “Varshava”).

Apart from these smaller points of existence, I have also learned quite a bit about the history of Warsaw and its citizens, especially the 20th century. A large part of the HIA Poland program is geared towards learning about WWII and the Holocaust. We study this in the US, but it’s a very disconnected form of study. The weight of this history is felt here in a way that it is not in the States. I feel it’s probably impossible to get to know contemporary Poland and Warsaw unless you learn about this chapter in their history. I’ll try and tell you just some of the basics so you can make sense of anything else I might write in my time here.

-A Very Brief History

The Polish Kingdom existed for centuries and was considered a multicultural society, with Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and Lithuanians, among others. The kingdom and the people had a strong national identity, with distinct cultural systems and a unifying language. Then, in the 18th century, the kingdom was effectively split up between its larger European neighbors. The kingdom just ceased to exist. Yet, Poles still retained their identity as Poles, holding onto their traditions and language.

Poland was divided until the end of the First World War, when it was again declared an independent nation. Interwar, independent Poland was still considered diverse, with a mix of Eastern European peoples, including a Jewish population of around 3.5 million. The country was a center for European-Jewish culture. Warsaw was the national center of this community, with 1/3 of the city’s inhabitants being Jewish.

WWII began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Though the Polish army resisted, Nazi forces quickly moved to occupy the western part of the country. Russia took over the east. Warsaw fell under Nazi occupation early and the Warsaw Ghetto was established soon after. At its fullest, the Warsaw Ghetto held over 400,000 Polish Jews, making it the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. A large part of the city was walled off and its inhabitants were slowly starved. After 2 years, in 1942, the Nazis sped up the extermination process. Every day, thousands of the Jewish ghetto inhabitants were sent to Treblinka Extermination Camp a few hours north of the city, where 5,000-6,000 Jewish citizens could be killed in a day.

By the end of 1942, most of the ghetto’s inhabitant had been killed, with about 35,000 left as workers in the ghetto and another estimated 30,000 left in hiding. In the Spring of 1943, around 1,000 of these inhabitants decided to revolt against their oppressors. Ill-equipped and severely outnumbered, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not really an attempt at freedom. It was more of an assertion of dignity, ensuring that the up-risers got to choose their own death, instead of dying in gas chambers. Even though they had few weapons, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising managed to fight for a little over a month. In the end, the Nazis burned the whole ghetto, murdering all of the remaining inhabitants.

This monument is on the site where some of the last Jewish resistance fighters committed suicide in their bunker as Nazi forces were approaching. The bunker was destroyed, so it is also the grave of around 100 of these fighters. They call it "Warsaw Masada."

This monument is on the site where some of the last Jewish resistance fighters committed suicide in their bunker as Nazi forces were approaching. The bunker was destroyed, so it is also the grave of around 100 of these fighters. They call it “Warsaw Masada.”

After the Ghetto was liquidated, the Nazis continued to occupy the Polish parts of Warsaw. Poles are a Slavic people and according to the Nazi racial structure, Slavs were just above Jews. Throughout the war, Poles had been murdered indiscriminately as signs of force and hundreds of thousands were deported to work camps in the east. The Polish intelligentsia was murdered as soon as they were occupied and any town or village that tried to resist was brutally punished.

The Polish population of Warsaw was in contact with the Polish government in exile throughout the whole war. A year after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1944, they learned that Russia and Germany had formed a secret agreement to split Poland after the war. Determined to remain independent, the Polish leadership in Warsaw planned the Warsaw Uprising. The inhabitants of Warsaw staged a violent revolt in an attempt to retain sovereignty. Though they fought for 2 months, the uprising was squashed and Warsaw was destroyed. Russia was supposed to help Warsaw as a means of weakening Nazi control over the region, but they stopped on the other side of the river and literally watched Warsaw burn. As the Nazi took military control over the city, they murdered close to 200,000 civilians, lining them up on the street and killing them. Once they had control, they burned the city behind them, leaving almost nothing.

This is the wall of what was an old hospital. It is one of the few buildings that survived the Uprising and you can still see the bullet holes where SS soldiers murdered the patients and hospital staff.

This is the wall of what was an old hospital. It is one of the few buildings that survived the Uprising and you can still see the bullet holes where SS soldiers murdered the patients and hospital staff.

After the war, the Soviet Union took control of Poland and it remained under Soviet control until 1989. Demographically, with the Holocaust and boundary changes, the country became almost entirely homogenous, with around 95% of the population being ethnically Polish. During the Soviet time, much of the wrongs done to Poles in the east by Russians were twisted and attributed to the Nazi soldiers. It has only been the last 20 years or so in which the truth about atrocities done by both the Nazis and the Soviets has begun to be sorted out.

Also, because 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed, almost all of the “old looking” buildings are buildings that have been rebuilt from photographs or paintings. For example, Old Town, the original walled city was completely destroyed and then rebuilt according to artists’ depictions of it.

A restored photo of Warsaw after WWII.

A restored photo of Warsaw after WWII.

The rebuilt and restored historic square of Old Warsaw.

The rebuilt and restored historic square of Old Warsaw.

So, this was a lot of history and kind of a long story, but I’m finding that the more I understand this story, the more able I am to understand what my Polish friends are talking about. Poland has been occupied and split up and traded for centuries. Its citizens have been enslaved and murdered and subjugated for generations. When my Polish friends talk about freedom or oppression, it is not a far off, distant ideal. It’s a very real and present experience. Many of my friends were children when Poland gained independence from the Soviet Union. They say their Polish identity has been shaped by this history and the approaches they have towards issues of diversity or discrimination are a direct result of this heritage. It’s a long story, but it is one that I am so grateful to get to learn because it is allowing me to develop relationships in a context that is more meaningful and understanding than it ever could have been otherwise.

Lots of love from Warszawa!

Selfies in Old Town!

Selfies in Old Town!

A Few Random First Impressions of Warsaw

All of us American fellows got to Warsaw throughout the day on Friday. We got to our hostel and some crashed from jet lag at first, but we all managed to go out to dinner and explore Downtown Warsaw a bit. I’ve come to Poland knowing almost nothing about Polish history or culture. So all of my observations are without context for the most part and all my first impressions are almost certainly wrong.

  • First, almost everyone is white. I mean, almost everyone. According to the 2012 census, 96% of Poles are ethnically Polish
    In the back is the (HUGE) Stalinish-era Palace of Science and Culture. It's surrounded by a host of more modern buildings.

    In the back is the (HUGE) Stalinish-era Palace of Science and Culture. It’s surrounded by a host of more modern buildings.

    and most of the remaining percents are other European ethnicities. I can probably count the people of color I’ve seen on two hands and maybe a foot. I know this is something we’ll talk about throughout the program, so I’m quite interested to find out how/why this is.

  • Architecture in Warsaw is very interesting. The majority of old Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, a lot of it in the Warsaw Uprising. So the city is a mix of the few remaining buildings from before WWII, a host of soviet-style buildings from the days of Communism, and the newer, more modern buildings from the past few decades.
  • I can’t quite place Warsaw on a scale of how wealthy it is. On one hand it’s Poland’s capital and is bustling and busy. On the other, it’s a little rough around the edges. The sidewalks (at least in our neighborhood which is right downtown) tend to pool water and are falling apart. There’s lots of trash. But there are also lots of businesses. And last night we went through a modern shopping mall. There’s lots of public transportation in this neighborhood – buses, trollies, and a subway system. It’ll be interesting to learn more about the city and explore other neighborhoods.
  • It’s also obviously a very historical city. There are plaques all over the place, none of which I understand besides the dates. The Warsaw uprising was in 1944 and I’ve noticed a lot of the plaques have those dates.
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We saw this symbol all over the place in downtown Warsaw. It comes from the Resistance Army’s flag during WWII.

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The Resistance Army’s Flag during WWII

  • There’s lots of graffiti. Almost all of it’s in Polish so I have no idea what it’s saying. But we found one, right down the road from the Palace of Science and Culture, that wasn’t too hard to understand (see below). What do you think? It’s pretty cool/interesting right?

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Ok! I haven’t seen much else and don’t really understand a ton of what’s around me yet. There are lots of kebab stands – so delicious! I’ll hopefully have more developed and thoughtful posts as the weeks go on!

Lots of love from Warsaw!

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