chains of racism
By Celeste Riley // Guest Blogger
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”
as stated by Mark Twain is a quote that’s needed in today’s diverse political environment especially in Memphis.
In May, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel abroad with Southwest Tennessee Community College to Poland. When we arrived in Krakow it was like stepping back in time to the beginning of the 7th century with buildings that exploded with medieval architecture. The Old town square had brick walkways and long rows of colorful buildings painted cheery red, yellow or green hues while roofs were black, red or green. Krakow is best known for its Jewish quarter and was the center of Nazi Government during WW11 in 1939 with a population of 70,000 Jews at that time.
Hearing Polish spoken most of the time was unnerving making one feel lost, but being with the group and an agenda anchored us.
Our group was made up of one white professor, one black, a Russian advisor, two Hispanic students, one African student and four African American students.
Our diversity was warmly welcomed in Krakow with friendly smiles and admiration. We walked around the town so much in those few days and had a real great feel for the country via the open market, restaurants and shops. The food was carefully prepared with only the freshest ingredients that left one’s palate bursting with flavor from the Krakowsky Borsch to the Pork Pierogi. The Borsch is a traditional beetroot soup with homemade ravioli that can be stuffed with beef, pork or mushroom. Surprisingly many restaurants offered Beet juice which is also common in Latin American countries known for its medicinal properties.
The feeling of elation in Krakow still had the ominous underlying feeling of dread and sadness by what happened during the Final Solution from 1939-45. In 1933 Hitler stated that some people were “dangerous” and enacted the Nuremberg Race Laws with the purpose of having a “National Community” guaranteeing health benefits and social programs. This lead to the first concentration camp for half Germans who were not part of the “National Community” according to ushmm.org. Polish German Jews were forced to move to ghettos in Krakow, which we visited along with viewing pictures from the Jewish museum and the Jewish cemetery.
To see graves markers desecrated by the Nazi’s and used to create a road to Auschwitz was emotionally numbing. We visited Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration camps and seeing the endless barbed wire, children’s articles of clothing as well as adults, mounds of eye glasses and whole shaved off hair still in braids was shocking. We also visited a Professional Photographer from Memphis who currently lives in the Jewish ghetto and his building was evidence to the terror brought by the Nazi’s. This building was home to one hundred Jewish orphans during the occupation who were taken by the S.S. to their demise along with the Rabbi who cared for them.
..endless barbed wire, children’s articles of clothing as well as adults, mounds of eye glasses and whole shaved off hair still in braids..
After three days in Krakow we traveled north to Ludz a five hour trip which proved to be a crude reminder of our ethnicity by dirty looks of disgust and disdain.
When our group sat down for dinner at a restaurant another all white male group , who obviously were having a good time until we arrived, abruptly got up and left.
My discrimination experience came due to my looks (being Half Hispanic and half Bulgarian Gypsy) in an unlikely manner. We waited in the hotel while our professor called for three cabs to take us to the Museum of Cinematography and when one arrived we were told to go out quickly to catch it. I went to open the back door of the small sized taxi and the taxi driver pulled away from me and up a couple of feet. I was dumb struck and didn’t know quite what to do so I asked the professor if she could advise him that we were indeed part of the student group. He never did apologize but just took us to our destination, the experience reminded me of the history of America’s mistreatment of minorities.
Even with the Emancipation Proclamation and Black Reconstruction minorities had Jim Crow laws to deal with until Dr. King challenged with civil disobedience. Today we have political rhetoric that state that certain populations are “dangerous, rapists and drug dealers” who drain our economy. We have new laws that ban travel from certain Middle East countries and plans to build a wall to keep out criminals. The immigration laws are a hundred years old and need to be updated to allow a secure process of mercy to fleeing immigrants while halting terrorists at our borders.
The biggest lessons I learned in Poland is that people are intrinsically valuable and add new dimensions of hope and talent to our global world.
We may speak different languages, eat different foods like beet juice or are just different from those around us but that doesn’t make one better or more deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all love our families, want to live in safety and want to make a difference in this world by leaving our mark with dignity and pride.
Celeste is a non-traditional student who decided to continue her Undergraduate at Southwest Tennessee Community College while balancing work and home life. She’s currently pursuing an Associates of Science in Teaching K-5th grade with an emphasis in ESL and Minor in Spanish. Celeste loves being involved in student life at Southwest by joining Honor Societies, Study Abroad programs, as well as the Student Newspaper. She started as a reporter, became Deputy Editor and is currently Editor-in-Chief of The Southwest Source.
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