It was a journey that was a lifetime in the making. And in order to remain succinct and stay on topic, I won’t relate all the factors that led to my departure for London at the end of May 2004.
What was important was how the whole thing took on a life of its own during the planning phase several months earlier. And how the plans that took shape during that time bore fruit during the months that followed.
I interviewed local tour groups in 2003 to see what they offered, and finally found one that was not local, but offered everything I wanted. Their group offered individual “tour modules”, each available for a specific price, that concentrated on one particular geographic and historical area of the campaign in Europe.
Originally, I signed up for the week in Normandy, figuring that would be enough. But then, how could I ignore the airborne and amphibious staging areas in England? How could I miss the Dutch countryside, where some of the bitterest fighting took place between allied paratroopers and Nazi SS troops? How could I not visit the Ardennes forest, arguably the American G.I.’s finest hour in the European theater during the furious fighting of the winter of 1944? And if I was going that far, how could I forego a visit to the Dachau concentration camp, or fail to visit Hitler’s conference center at the Eagle’s Nest?
So, when the dust settled, I signed up for the whole shooting match. And it did not come cheap. But, by this time, the entire journey had taken on a momentum all its own, and all I did was go with the flow.
At this point, I took a deep breath, sat back, and examined the itinerary. (I wasn’t quite prepared to look at the bill just yet.) Two and a half weeks of following the allied armies’ crusade in Europe was plenty. But something told me it was not enough.
So, realizing that this was as much a pilgrimage of the soul as a unique, one-time, early summer vacation, I stopped to ponder some of the deeper elements of the significance of what I was about to experience.
My intent was to recapture yesterday. But that’s an elusive quest. The past tends to slip through our fingers. We can seize it for a time, but we can’t hold it. At the same time, my purpose was to achieve a greater appreciation of the contributions of American fighting men in dire circumstances – for themselves, the country, and the entire world. And if that was my intent, then I had to see the worst of what they were sent over to Europe to destroy. And, in my never-to-be humble opinion, that boiled down to one site.
Auschwitz. The pulsing, beating, heart of darkness that throbbed at the nexus of the Nazi nightmare was a must-see if I was to accomplish my goal.
To fully appreciate the significance of what American fighting men were sent to Europe to accomplish, I simply had to see this monument to destruction. There was only one problem. The organized tour terminated in Berchtesgarten. Any further travels would have to be done on my own, and by myself. Not one to be deterred, I made travel arrangements for Krakow, Poland.
Just as no military plan survives contact with the enemy intact, no travel plan long endures the vagaries of the road. My nice, new airport Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Krakow had just blown a transformer and was without power when I arrived. Forty-five years of communism served so well in Poland that the country’s infrastructure is still a patchwork quilt of what works and what doesn’t. But the good folks at Holiday Inn set me up with a reservation at a 100-year-old hotel in Old Town Krakow. It was my fortunate circumstance that Old Town is also the university district.
Wandering around the streets of Old Town that first evening, I sensed that I had somehow lost a hundred years. But for the asphalt-paved streets replacing the aging cobblestones, and late-twentieth-century transport, it was easy to see why. Old Town definitely had an Old World sense to it. It also was alive with young people. Not surprising, considering the close proximity of the university.
As I walked the streets, I was amazed at the open displays of affection I received from total strangers – all college students, it seemed. I was treated to forthright demonstrations of smiles, waves and handshakes. Of course, their English was marginal, and I do not speak so much as a word of Polish. But I finally figured out their fascination with this middle-aged American wandering the streets of their city. I was wearing a wide-brimmed hat with twin-American flag pins prominently displayed on its face.
I had dinner both nights with a group of Polish college students in Krakow, total strangers all. But they all had one thing in common. They were fascinated with America. This fascination took many forms. All of them either spoke English or were learning it. All of them were consumed with going to America. Some had already been and were going back. But they all had a passion for the country that has drawn so many people to its shores for the last century and a half and beyond. And most significant of all: They are committed to becoming Americans.
These young people were in love with the idea of America. They were not naïve about what America had to offer. They labored under no illusion of streets paved with gold, or easy money to be had just by showing up. But, growing up as sons and daughters of parents who knew nothing but years of communist oppression, they had a heightened appreciation of what America stood for. Freedom, opportunity, respect for individual achievement and individual rights, and perhaps the greatest quality of all, the conviction that America represents the last bastion for human beings to live with dignity and respect.
It was an enlightening, albeit sobering experience, to view America through the lens of those who can only experience it vicariously. For all the significant experiences I encountered on a journey that was chock full of them, this was one that stuck.
At home, we take our country for granted. And that’s understandable. Familiarity breeds, if not outright contempt then certainly a degree of entitlement. People rarely treasure the gifts they’ve inherited by means of the sweat and sacrifice of others. That’s just human nature.
We really don’t pay any mind to our ability to voice our opinions. We do it all the time. Or not. And while we don’t take for granted our livelihoods, our family, or our capacity to earn a living, we’re not terribly concerned about such things either. This is America after all. It’s a free country. There are opportunities galore. And it’s our birthright. So we go to work, earn a living, raise our kids, pay our taxes and live our lives. And if we’re truly fortunate, the world won’t bother us while we’re out there busy getting what’s coming to us.
So, I’ll ask a simple question at this point: Who are we?
Who are we when we are no longer able to voice our opinion in public without getting arrested for angering the powers that be? Are we somehow diminished because we have to guard our tongues? Isn’t it a small price to pay to insure our ability to live comfortably, secure a prosperous future for ourselves and our children, and guarantee our future posterity? But what kind of posterity are we talking about? What kind of legacy are we really leaving for our children? And more significantly, who are we, after such a small compromise that carries such enormous significance?
Who are we when our government in its infinite wisdom decides that our ancestral home – a home that has perhaps been in our family for generations, and is priceless to ourselves and our loved ones – is better off being transformed into the latest Wal-Mart Supercenter, or a strip mall, or a parking lot? Because, let’s face it, we can live anywhere. And we really don’t have any inherent rights to private property, now that the government has declared such rights illusory. Who are we then?
Who are we when our government has determined we are too dangerous to remain as unfettered members of our community and takes us by force into custody? Who are we when our individual rights to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves from a tyrannical government are gone? What becomes of our dignity as human beings, our worth to ourselves and our society, our ability to influence the course of our lives? Who are we when the ultimate choice of how we would leave this world – on our feet or on our knees – is taken away from us? Who are we then?
These and many other questions, no doubt, were pondered in great depth by the group of people I had come to Poland to memorialize. The Jews of Auschwitz. They too, had been integrated members of their European communities. They too, had availed themselves of varying opportunities to build meaningful lives. They too, had rationalized the erosion of their rights as human beings. And they paid for this fallacy with their lives.
I had occasion to take “The Death Walk” in the Birkenau death camp. There is a rail line that runs the length of the camp – which is enormous, you can’t see the end of it, front to back or side to side, it’s so big. Midway along this line is the “Selection Hut” where the Nazi doctors chose who among the incoming Jews was fit enough to work, and who was condemned to die. Those so condemned were marched from the Selection Hut to the rear of the camp for extermination. The Death Walk. I took that walk.
During that time – not a short journey, be assured – I had occasion to ponder what becomes of people who have been stripped of everything, including their right to die with dignity. I wondered how things got to such an extremity – to be incinerated like yesterday’s leftover garbage – all the while knowing the truth of how it happens.
It happens when people put their faith in a benevolent government they are convinced can do them no harm. It happens when leaders have confidence in their ability to make a deal with the devil for their own well-being at the expense of the citizens they are charged to serve. It happens when people compartmentalize the maelstrom of events swirling around them and decide it is somebody else’s problem. It happens when we are unable and unwilling to recognize evil for what it is, and act accordingly to destroy it. And above all, it happens when people are convinced in the inherent goodness of themselves and their fellow man.
In America, much of our ability to provide technological innovation has been shipped out of the country. Our manufacturing ability has likewise vanished from our borders. We have long since ceased to provide our own energy resources through our own efforts. America is a nation dependent on the heavy lifting of other countries for increasingly essential services. America is besieged by an invasion of poverty-stricken workers who, our leaders tell us, are doing the work that we, as Americans are too good to do. They do not seek to become Americans. They demand their rights as foreigners in an attempt to annex, occupy and conquer. Our school-age kids have no sense of themselves or their heritage. Those who do not speak English do not understand. Those who do, don’t care. And through it all, we go to work, raise our kids, pay our taxes and live our lives. We shrug our shoulders, because it’s not our problem. It doesn’t bother us. It does not affect us.
A nation without a sense of itself is not a nation at all. It is a collection of unrelated strangers all acting in their own self-interest, without any sense of community. The men of Normandy knew what their country meant. They were not highly educated, for the most part. But they knew what was at stake. They knew nothing of wealth, opportunity or power. There was hardly a semblance of it during the Depression. But they knew what their country stood for. The children of the Depression were measured by their privation. But they jumped out of airplanes under fire over Normandy. They fought the German juggernaut to a standstill in the frozen Belgian countryside. They assaulted suicidal Japanese garrisons from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. They beat back the assembled barbarian hordes, and they did it again and again. And they did not flinch in the face of the cost in blood. They knew who they were.
Abraham Lincoln was right. Lincoln was a young member of the Illinois State Legislature in 1838 when he gave an address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, his home town. He chose to address the pressing subject of mob violence and the political institutions of the United States. At one point, he spoke thusly. . .
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
So, I’ll ask again. Who are we? What defines us? What do we stand for? What do we value? If we stand idly by and busy ourselves with the business of living, we act as one-dimensional automatons, ignorant of the cultural, social and historical whirlwinds that rage around us. If we ignore our heritage, we forfeit our legacy. If we lack the commitment to preserve our national identity – an identity, I would point out that is much beloved and desired in corners of the world infected with the sickness of oppression – we are not citizens of a great nation at all. We are truly damned.
And perhaps most significantly, what will become of us when the totality of America, in all its nobility and all its darkness is no more? Where will we go when there is no America to go to?