Saturday, March 22, 2003

I watched The Pianist (based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's true story and novel of the same name) today and was at times, overwhelmed by the sheer horror of what evil a human being is capable of. The terrible things inflicted upon the Jews during the World War never ever cease to horrify me. Despite the fact that people do terrible things during the war, I just can't imagine someone just casually selecting people and then shooting them dead for no reason whatsoever, a point that is rammed home many times during the course of the movie, but not at all in an exaggerated fashion. The scene that stands out the most in my head (and is a spoiler, so for those of you intending to see the movie, look away now), was the scene when the SS officials enter into a residence in the Jewish Ghetto and demand for everyone to stand. An elderly cripple in a wheelchair is unable to obey that command, and so, the soldiers wheel him over to the balcony and tip him out of his chair where he hurtles to his death.

A lot of praise has to go to Roman Polanski for choosing to drive home the horrors of the Holocaust in a subtle manner, and also, for choosing not to glorify any single hero for standing against the Germans, but in this case, showing what ordinary people do - running, surviving, living for oneself only, instead of making a 'grand stand' and saving hundreds of lives.

When I was backpacking by myself in Krakow in June last year, I made a half-day trip to Auschwitz. I remember walking through the compound, feeling the coldness of the day despite the fact that the sun was shining and it was summer. It was as if the tragedy and the senselessness of what had occurred had driven away all warmth and only the chill of death remained. It was a profoundly affecting journey. The first building I walked into turned out to house all of the former occupants' belongings - there were rooms containing hundreds of suitcases alone, hundreds of shoes (including a fair number of children's shoes) and what was the most horrifying sight of all - the room containing several tonnes of human hair, to be sent to factories in Germany to be woven into fabric.

I also took a look at St. Maximilian Kolbe's cell in Building 13. He was a Polish Catholic priest who asked to be executed in place of another POW. He, and nine others, were placed in a cell to starve. Kolbe, amazingly enough, survived for two weeks and was the only one of the the four who was still alive to be fully conscious when the Nazis ordered for him to be executed by lethal injection. His cell is now a shrine, and there were many bouquets of flowers placed at the foot of the door on the day I was there. Happily, the man he sacrificed himself for, Franciszek Gajowniczek, went on to live many more years and died in 1995.

The very last building I went into at the camp, and the one that sent me on my way speedily, was the building containing the gas chambers. I entered the ordinary looking building not knowing what it was and stood staring uncomprehendingly at the rather empty room before raising my head to look at the ceiling and realising that this was the gas chamber where so many people were ushered into to be executed. I walked out very quickly, not able to take the horror of the place any longer, and went to wait for the bus to bring me back to Krakow.

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