This upcoming May, if all goes well with the world, I’ll be co-leading a travel study trip to Poland with students. Over the past few months, I have been starting to read and study, as any educator does and in much more detail than I ever have before, Poland during World War II. I gave a talk in Warsaw back in December 2018, and during my time there, I visited various sites such as the National Gallery, the Uprising Museum, remnants of the ghetto wall, and more. I did not get the opportunity to go to Treblinka, and I never made it down to Kraków and Auschwitz. Since my three-day trip, I’ve been thinking about Poland a lot, partly due to the connection I’ve made with Michał Choiński from the Institute of English Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. It is through Choiński that I’ve really started to think about the connections between Poland the Southern United States.
This connection served, in many ways, as the impetus for the proposal to do a study travel to Poland. In the fall of 2019, I hosted Choiński at my university for a talk about his exploration of the work of Lillian Smith in his book Southern Hyperboles: Metafigurative Strategies of Narration. During our conversations, and during his talk, Choiński pointed out William Styron drew a direct comparison between the locales. In Sophie’s Choice, a novel that contains the interactions between characters from the South and Poland in New York, Styron writes,
Poland is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, soul-split country which in many ways . . . resembles and conjures up images of the American South–or at least of other, not-so-distant times. It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness–the quagmiry but haunting monochrome of the Narew River swampland, for example, with its look and feel of a murky savanna on the Carolina coast, or the Sunday hush on a muddy back street in a village of Galicia, where by only the smallest eyewink of the imagination one might see whisked to a lonesome crossroads hamlet in Arkansas these ramshackle, weather-bleached little houses, crookedly carpentered, set upon shrub less plots of clay where scrawny chickens fuss and peck.
I can look at the landscape around the Narew River and see similarities to the marshland in South Louisiana, the picture of a single, solitary tree sitting along amongst the grass and water. I can see the similarities in housing in Galicia and rural Arkansas. These tactile connections provide a sensory linkage between Poland and the South; however, the connective tissue bridging the two runs much deeper than the surface-level landscape.
Digging deeper, we see the psychological trauma in the roots of each region. We see the ways that war, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and more shape the psyches of individuals. Lillian Smith knew this connection well from the outset. In April 1948, a year before the release of Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith wrote a letter in The New York Times where she called out individuals for not fighting for human rights and an end to segregation in the South and the nation. She knew, as she would show again and again, that Nazi Germany and Hitler were not unique in their totalitarianism and fascism. She knew, as she points out in the letter, the totalitarian nature of the South in its repression of thought and speaking out and in its creation of external and internal enemies to stoke fear within the white populace. She writes,
It is hard to understand such timidity at a time like this, unless we remember that Georgia, U.S.A., still has a lot in common with Georgia, U.S.S.R. Totalitarianism is an old thing to us down home. We know what it feels like. The unquestioned authority of White Supremacy, the tight political set-up of one party, nourished on poverty and ignorance, solidified the South into a totalitarian regime under which we were living when communism was still Russian cellar talk and Hitler had not even been born.
Smith points out, here and elsewhere, the long history of the repression of democratic ideals in the South, a repression that arose, in part, from the traumatic events of the Civil War, the decimation of the South’s economy and landscape. This repression served as a backlash to the emancipation of enslaved individuals. It served as a backlash to the North which, also complicit in the institution of slavery, destroyed the region’s economy. These things, and more, had a psychological impact on white Southerners, and this impact mirrors, in many ways, the same feelings of Germans following defeat in World War I.
The trauma of the Holocaust in Poland, and the trauma of the Nazi regime’s systematic murder of Jews, Poles, Romani, gays, and more remains. The wounds, the scars, the roots remain. While Germany has reckoned with the actions perpetrated in the name of the nation, the United States still struggles to confront its past. Smith saw the correlations between Nazi fascism and the totalitarian oppression of whites in the South. Speaking with a camper in Killers of the Dream, Smith told her about the connections between the murder of millions during the Holocaust and the lynching of men, women, and children in the South. She knew the differences, but she also told the camper that while they are different the actions of whites in the South feel “in a way more evil” because of the ways that the acts serve “as a symbolic rite to keep alive in men’s minds the ideas of white supremacy.”
The correlations run deeper, deeper than I realized when I first started looking into this topic. The more I read about the Holocaust or the more I read texts such as Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the more connections I see. Hannah Ardent’s “We Refugees” (1943) details her thoughts about the period and having to move from nation to nation to escape the Nazi death machine. As I read her essay, I constantly thought about the Untied States’ treatment of Blacks, denying them the rights of citizens in many of its regions and treating them, legally and socially, as inferior to whites. Ardent writes, about herself and others fleeing Europe, “I can hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while; since society has discovered discrimination as the great weapon by which one may kill man without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinctions.”
During the study travel trip to Poland next May, we’ll explore these connections, diving into them in a multitude of ways. We’ll visit Auschwitz. We’ll visit Warsaw. We’ll visit other places. Perhaps one of the most important things we will do, though, is reading sections of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream and discussing it, along with what we have learned, with students in Choiński’s Southern Studies Course. This will provide students with an opportunity to talk with Polish students and share their experiences, building, in many ways, bridges between them, showing them that we must think about the connections between events. We cannot view events, no matter what they may be, as singular and devoid of connections to other things. Everything is interconnected, in some way shape or form, and one of the main things that I hope students get out of the study travel to Poland is this fact.