The Creeping Thistle is no flower. Although it’s reddish-light purple, globe like ball of fluff makes you think otherwise, the aggressive weed is illegal in different parts of the United States because of its nature to infest landscapes. Categorized as highly invasive, a Creeping Thistle can hinder reforestation and displace native vegetation. Yet, from afar it looks like a beautiful, blossoming bud.
On a walk through a town in Pennsylvania, I encounter a field of Creeping Thistles and my eyes are drawn to the weed, gawking at the plant as if staring at prisoners behind bars. The hairy green leaves are long, up to 18 inches in length. When I peer closely at the tips of the leaves, I notice sharp, needle-like spines pushing up against smooth stems. I can’t reach them. As much as I yearn to touch the thorny edges poking in between the fence’s outer fringes, I recognize the danger involved in such an act. I try to avoid giving the vibrant colored thistles my attention, glancing around in other directions, staring at the ground, willing it to storm. But how can you avoid beauty in such a dark place?
In a Times of Israel blog, writer Sara Greenberg shares the story of her grandfather at Auschwitz. As a prisoner, he had planted flowers along the train tracks at the entrance to the death camp. When a guard asked if anyone knew how to plant flowers, he raised his hand. The flowers he planted represented false beauty. In exchange for planting flowers, he received one extra slice of bread per day. For making a dim environment beautiful, he was allowed to starve a whole bread slice less. But then the beauty and the small, backward reward for beauty in a place of ruin, unexpectedly created cause for more damage. One day, when a new transport of Jews arrived, some people accidentally stumbled over the flowers he had just planted. The grandfather was ordered to beat up the prisoners who had trampled the plants. He refused. He lost the job and the extra bread. He was lucky not to have lost his life.
I stood in the middle of the wooden, brown train tracks at the entrance to Auschwitz. For me, the tracks were a crosswalk. For millions of prisoners, these tracks were an omen of death. I had always been taught to look both ways before driving or walking across a train track. If I didn’t, perhaps a train, or worse, a cattle car, would have come spiraling down the path and hit me right where I was. I reached my hand up to my neck, searching aimlessly for my glass Jewish star necklace. It wasn’t there. I felt my cheeks grow flushed with heat, my neck becoming marked with red patches. I clawed at my neck, and rubbed my finger in circles where the necklace should have been as if that would make it appear. I couldn’t remember why I decided not to wear it while I toured the former campgrounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After a moment, realizing where I was paused, I hurried across the tracks and the surrounding gravel, making my way to a patch of nearby grass. In the not-so-far distance, I could see golden yellow zinnias popping up, stretching their necks tall, calling for attention. I had known that the Theresienstadt transit camp in the Czech Republic had been “beautified” and gardens had been planted there. Theresienstadt had served as a “model camp” to trick Red Cross visitors into thinking Jews were being taken care of at the camps. But I had not known there might have been this horrific beauty at other concentration and death camps.
I wondered who planted those golden yellow zinnias. I wondered what the planters were thinking. I wondered if those flowers were the same flowers that were grown and tended to during the Holocaust when my ancestors’ bodies were flung beneath the soil.
Thistles hurt you if you touch them. Creeping Thistles hurt the environment. They replace native plants, changing the plant community structure and species composition and reducing biodiversity. I notice that there are no other plants surrounding the Creeping Thistle. The spiky leaves have kicked out the possibility of any other plants sprouting in the area. The Creeping Thistle spreads like a virus and is very difficult to remove. From a distance I can admire its beauty, but up close, I can feel my legs getting itchy just by barely touching whatever pops through the cold, metal fence exterior. The wind whips my hair around my face, the cool air feels nice on my back, a pleasant break from the beginning of summer high 80s heat Pennsylvania has been getting.
In the 1940s, what once might have been beautiful Polish and German terrain, became covered in smoking chambers of gas. The flowers were simply a disguise.
From 1943 women were assigned to live permanently at Rajsko, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. These prisoners became part of one of two units: gardening or plant-growing. The gardeners grew vegetables for the guards, worked in fields, and tended flower beds. The flowers were distributed all over Germany, attaining a reputation for their quality and longevity. Their lives would be longer than the lives of the people whose hands had planted them.
The gardeners held a market for the guards and their families. The guards would bring their children to shop for a range of vegetables, fruit, and flowers. The prisoners, of course, did not make a penny.
I imagine the prisoners bending their exhausted, worn-out backs to prune the gardens with a guard nearby watching their every move. They would not have been allowed to talk. If the sun beat down on their necks, they had to endure the heat without water, without breaks. They implanted their knees in the dark, damp soil; all they could do was trim, water, shape, and repeat. As they tended to the gardens, pulling weed after weed out of the ground, these women knew that the guards observing them considered the planters to be human weeds. It was only a matter of time until they too, were yanked from the ground.
On January 18, 1945, Rajsko was liquidated, and the prisoners were forced to join a Death March. Yet, several women survived. Did those women go back and plant flowers at the camps after the war?
I twirled the bottom of my pigtail braid. Holding it with my left hand, I wrapped the thick brown strands around a finger from my right hand, as I stared looking out at the expansive field in front of me—the size of 6,000 football fields. I recalled watching football games at home on television and thinking how much space the athletes must run. Now, I imagined them running across 6,000 of those fields.
The green space seemed to never end. I was nervous. I should have been crying, soaked in the waterfall of my own tears. Auschwitz is an open-air museum; it was maintained in such a way to make tourists feel something. Instead, I felt numb inside. It was also a cemetery. There must be someone whose job it is to walk around and beautify the gardens in the cemetery. I shuddered at the thought of such a position.
I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad. My eyes were glued to the grass around me. I read each plaque very closely, forcing my brain to absorb the image of the fields at the camp. I looked at Auschwitz the way I looked at a Creeping Thistle. I couldn’t glance away.