The World Keeps Turning with Columnist Allen Woods: The good old days: Travel, appreciation, perspective

  • ALLEN WOODS  ALLEN WOODS

  • People are seen arriving at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German death camp, where more than 1.1 million were murdered, in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020. A new Polish foundation has been created to distribute grants globally to groups that come up with novel ways to fight indifference to hatred and discrimination. CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI

  • The gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) stands open in Oranienburg, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Berlin, Germany. AP PHOTO/MARKUS SCHREIBER

Published: 2/4/2022 2:38:32 PM

Almost two full years of COVID disruptions have forced me, and many others, to reflect on our world. It’s a tough task to make lemonade from the lemons distributed by the virus: nearing 1 million American deaths; painful divisions over masks and vaccines; economic, educational, and social disruptions, widespread anxiety and uncertainty. One tiny, sweet swallow might come from these forced reflections: What was the world truly like before, and what did we like about it? For me, the ability to travel with few barriers or worries is a luxury I sorely miss.

I was able to crisscross much of America on a wing, a prayer, my thumb, and a motorcycle through the 1960s and ’70s, but little beyond it. I felt the beauty and diversity of our land and people, while recognizing the dominating influence of the Cold War and its endless arms race and clashes around the world.

When I saw the jubilant video of East and West Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989, I imagined a new era and the possibility of a “peace dividend.” A portion of our military budget (dwarfing education and social spending) could be used to build a more equitable and prosperous society rather than defend against Communist threats.

As Eastern Europe dismantled the Iron Curtain after 40-plus years and looked towards a democratic future, the Peace Corps (established by JFK to help win the hearts and minds of people in disadvantaged countries) asked their new leaders how it could help. To my surprise, many responded that what they felt would be most helpful were . . . English teachers! As the language of international commerce, greater English fluency would help them in the expanding world market.

My sister, already a two-year Peace Corps veteran, was chosen as one of the first group sent to Poland in 1990. I was lucky to get to visit her there in 1992.

I knew little of Poland’s history then, but that visit (along with some recent research) brought a new appreciation. Ancient castles and modern museums displayed a civilization that was one of the largest, most powerful, and advanced in the world by the early 1600s; a leading force in scientific discoveries, literature, art, and architecture; governed by a hopeful democracy that elected its kings (modeled on Roman ideals); home to an extremely diverse ethnic and religious population. But soon it was a target for conquerors, overrun and ruled by invaders for centuries. The people’s strong distrust of Germany to the west and Russia to the east was consistently reaffirmed.

Most of our time was spent in modern Warsaw. As buoyant and hopeful as people were about a future without Communism, the shadow of World War II was inescapable. The once beautiful city was now dominated by Soviet-style concrete monoliths. Warsaw was the center for armed Jewish resistance against the horrors of the Holocaust and the site of desperate attacks in 1943 and 1944. After the poorly armed Jewish fighters were finally overwhelmed in 1944, the Nazis vengefully destroyed the city, including 93% of its buildings. Photos show German death squads pursuing civilians, and mountains of rubble in every direction.

Before the 1944 Uprising, the “Home Army” believed they would get support from the Russian troops massed on the east side of the Vistula River that splits the city. Instead, Stalin chose to allow the wholesale destruction, continuing killings, and boxcars to death camps, then swept in to establish a Communist dictatorship. Russian treachery allowed Warsaw and Poland to be decimated again.

But alongside an appreciation of the Polish people and culture lies a memory less attached to Poland than to all of mankind. We chose to visit Auschwitz. On a suitably cold, damp, and foggy day, we were escorted through its remains to view stark images, and some of the machinery of genocide. Interior exhibits contained huge piles of suitcases, eyeglasses, clothing, and personal items, all collected in quantities the Nazis couldn’t process as they systematically killed more than 1 million people there. Each shoe, dress, and hairbrush once had a human owner.

Robert Burns observed in 1784 that “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” In this case, he underestimated by a factor of at least 1,000. I was forced to consider, and eventually accept, the existence of pure evil in the world.

Travel near and far can open our eyes to wonders, and horrors, never imagined before. I hope our opportunities for appreciation and new perspectives can be resurrected soon.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era crime novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at awoods2846@gmail.com.


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