Manfred sits down and places a bottle of wine down on the picnic table not far from our tent. His treat, to enjoy while we pore over the map of Poland and he shares his experience and knowledge of this as-yet unknown to us country. He’s an engaging and educated man with a balanced view of the world. He tells me his parents were and still are holders of beliefs that he clearly doesn’t subscribe to. I wonder to what extent this has forged his balance. I would have liked to pursue this line of enquiry further with him but the wine and the map conspire to divert me.
He has a strong personality which might overpower some but it’s generous and kind and I find myself engaged and energised by his diverse knowledge. We fall easily into deep conversation as the wine gradually depletes. Another camper joins us for a short time. Frank arrived earlier today, marking himself as unusual in a good way by tipping us a smile and wave as he parked up. He has a softer, more acquiescing personality that contrasts to our other companion and he also piques my interest. It’s a pleasure to be able to converse and communicate ideas with people easily again, if only for a short time. The warmth of the evening and of the company, combined with the hazy glow of wine-induced relaxation all contribute to a happy surrender that eventually carries me to my bed around midnight feeling light of spirit. Not before Manfred has managed to awaken a quiet excitement and curiosity about Poland. As we prepare to cross another border, old fears resurface, quieter this time but still there none-the-less. Fear of the unknown, of the uncontrollable, of being alien and alone. Fears we all have but few need to acknowledge or face. I’m grateful to Manfred for the gift he’s given me that quietens these fears.
During the conversations that evening and the following day we learn that the campsite we are all pitched on was once a border control between East and West Germany and that the decision to implement ‘the final solution’ – the slaughter of millions of Jewish men, women and children – was officially taken only a mile or two away in Wannsee. A thought that goes beyond sobering. Every single day of this trip we have been reminded of one of the World wars. The history of this part of Europe is so tied up in the wars in a way that the UK’s is not and I hadn’t realised this stark contrast until this journey. Occupation and direct threat to the whole population left its mark here and it is still tangible in many ways so many years later.
The following day Frank walks with us to the old bridge border crossing a few minutes west of the camping site. My head just won’t wrap around the history contained here. A small pillar tells of how a young couple out on a day trip accidentally strayed over the border. The guards shot to kill repeatedly, succeeding with him but only disabling his female companion. Countless stories. My mind wanders. I see so many parallels between the events prior to the atrocities of WWII and the darkness of spirit I feel falling across my own country right now. I see so many parallels. The feelings of betrayal, or maltreatment, of disenfranchisement that allowed the population to be manipulated by people looking to meet their own power-hungry ends. A population of immigrants to conveniently blame for it all and powerful voices whipping up hate. I fear for our future. Are we becoming a populous too misused and manipulated to display kindness and compassion? How much longer before we slide further down the slippery slope? But even amidst the evil of the war, the best of humanity could be observed too I remind myself. It’s worth remembering.
We are asked, will we visit Auschwitz? I know it will destroy me from the inside out. I know it. I don’t want to. A part of me wants to run from it. I don’t need to go, we could pass by it easily. But a larger part of me knows that we will go nonetheless. Because I feel we must. It’s imperative to me that we bear witness to the echoes of what took place and the lives that were lost there. Vital that I taste a tiny fraction of the evil that took place in those walls to know, to remember. To never, ever forget. Essential that I try to understand the reasons that built to that final devastating decision. Greed, power, division, entitlement. All of the things that are currently thriving in the world today it seems. Franks tells me he supposes that I don’t need to go, it’s not my history. Later he’ll come to understand after talking to me more that it is my history. It is all of our history. For each of us are capable of such evil and each of us are capable of being so powerless. We forget that at our own personal and collective peril.
The next day we cross into Poland. Instant change. I still find land borders an unsuspected curiosity. Having grown up on an island whose borders require a change of transport to cross, it is no surprise to me that after a boat ride the people are different on the other side. But crossing a short bridge to find the whole national character has changed is bemusing. Such a strong thing, national identity. And this with the borders having moved repeatedly even up to recent times.
Thanks for reading! I’ve always related to and been inspired by people who tell me something was hard but they got through it, rather than those who breeze through life.
So, here, I try to create honest and authentic accounts of our travels that look for the positive but don’t gloss over the hard times. I hope you find some inspiration in it. If you do please share it so that others can too.