There was a small hole in the kitchen floor that led to a secret crawl space. That image is burned into my memory. The space was maybe five feet long by five feet wide.
The owner of the house said, “They used to fit six people inside there. When the Nazis would come.”
His name was Tadeusz Skoczylas, and the house we were in had belonged to his family during World War II. It was a small brick house in the town of Ciepielów, Poland. It had a red roof that had seen better days. The front door was just a few steps off the street. In the backyard were a few barns and other small shacks.
I had been in Poland for a few days already, and the horror of the history I had experienced was overwhelming. But this was something different. This was so personal.
I’m looking at this tiny space. And I’m imagining six people down there, hiding from death. Six real people. Crawling through that little hole right in front of me. Not that long ago. It wasn’t a history book. It wasn’t a museum. It was right there.
Tadeusz explained that one day in 1942, Nazi soldiers visited the house on a tip. Someone in the village had told them that the family had been harboring Jewish people. There were supposed to be 10 Skoczylas living in the house. On this particular day, the youngest boy in the family was not home when the soldiers came by. The Nazis grew suspicious and began tearing the house apart. They found the hole and the crawl space, but the Jewish people the family had been hiding were not there. They had already moved on.
Without saying a word, the Nazis went next door to a neighboring family and took their young son. The punishment for hiding Jews was death for the entire family, and they had a quota to fill.
The soldiers took all 10 people out back and executed them right in front of those barns and shacks that are still standing there today.
When the little Skoczylas boy returned home, he found his entire family dead.
That little boy was Tadeusz’s grandfather. The house stayed in the Skoczylas family, and his grandfather lived in it. Now Tadeusz and his mother live in it.
I couldn’t believe it. And as I walked through the rest of the house, this feeling sort of took over me. There was all this history right in front of me. And it was real. I could reach out and touch it. I could feel it between my fingers and smell it in the air. It was a tangible thing.
I took that trip just a few months ago. It was my first time in Poland. I went there to learn more about something that had fascinated me since I was a teenager: the Holocaust. I’d read so many books and articles about it, but reading words on a page is not the same thing as seeing things up close.
Then I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., for the first time. It was 1998, and I was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. I was in D.C. meeting our owner, Herb Kohl, over the summer. We had some time free time on my last day in the city, and Mr. Kohl suggested we go to the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. I’ll never forget how I felt after those two hours in there — I could have spent two days. My immediate feeling was that everyone needs to go there.
There was one room in particular, though, that I think about often. It’s filled with photos of Jews from a town in Poland. The pictures line the walls and extend up toward the sky, where light floods in from a window. Almost 90% of the people in the images were sent to their death. Before they were taken to concentration camps or executed, they would leave their prized possessions behind with friends or family.
The people of these Jewish communities were pushed to the absolute limit of their human instincts. They just wanted to survive. And from that, the tales of brotherhood and camaraderie are so awe-inspiring. It was a reminder of what the human spirit is capable of — both for good and evil.
Honestly … it made me feel sort of irrelevant. Which was a strange thought to have as a young NBA player who was supposed to be on top of the world. I was realizing that there were things outside of my bubble that mattered so much more. I wanted my teammates to feel that as well. So every team I played on after that, whenever we were in D.C. playing the Wizards, I would ask our coach if we had time to go through the museum. Every visit was different, but each guy came out thanking me for taking us there. I could see in their eyes that they had a different perspective on life after that experience.
I thought I knew what the Holocaust was, and what it meant. I went to Poland with a few close friends to learn more. But I wasn’t prepared for how deeply the visit would affect me. I had seen so many documentaries and films on Auschwitz, but nothing really prepares you for being there. The first thing I felt when I walked through those iron gates was … heavy. The air around me felt heavy. I stood on the train tracks where the prisoners of the camp would arrive, and I felt like I could hear the trains coming to a halt. I had to take a breath to center myself. It was so immediate. So overwhelming.
We walked through the barracks and gas chambers and what I remember most is what I heard: nothing. I’ve never experienced silence like that. Apart from footsteps, the complete lack of sound was almost jarring. It’s eerie and sobering. You’re standing in these rooms where so much death has taken place and your mind is trying to come to terms with all that’s happened in this space.
One question keeps repeating over and over and over in your mind: How can human beings do this to one another?
How does somebody process that? You can’t.
This is not history. This is humanity. This is now. This is a living lesson for us as a people.
After Tadeusz Skoczylas took us through his family’s home, I stood outside for a while by myself, thinking about everything I had experienced.
Why do we learn about the Holocaust? Is it just so we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Is it because six million people died? Yes, but there’s a bigger reason, I think.
The Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other.
When the Skoczylas family was risking their own lives to hide people they barely knew, they weren’t doing it because they practiced the same religion or were the same race. They did it because they were decent, courageous human beings. They were the same as those people crouched in a hole. And they knew that those people didn’t deserve what was being done to them.
I asked myself a really tough question: Would I have done the same?
Really, would I have done the same?
When I returned home to America, I got some very disheartening messages directed toward me on social media regarding my trip. Some people didn’t like the fact that I was going to Poland to raise awareness for the issues that happened there and not using that time or energy to support people in the black community.
I was told my ancestors would be ashamed of me.
I know there are trolls online and I shouldn’t even pay attention, but that one sort of got to me. Because I understood where they were coming from. I understand that there are plenty of issues in our own country right now, but they were looking at my trip the wrong way. I didn’t go to Poland as a black person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person — I went as a human being.
It’s easy to say “I went to make sure these things don’t happen again.” But I went to learn about the true reality of what happened during the Holocaust, and what we can take from that. The people who believe that I am not spending my time the way the right way … well, they’re missing the entire point. We shouldn’t label people as this thing or that thing. Because by doing so, you create these preconceived notions, which is how we get into these horrible situations in the first place.
We have to do a better job breaking through ignorance and the close-mindedness and the divisions that are plaguing our society in 2017.
I remember being a kid in elementary school, and we all used to have a couple pen pals from around the world. I was so excited to hear back from people in different countries. I wanted to know about how they lived. I was curious about their lives. And I feel like we’ve lost that a little bit. It seems like now, we only see us. We only want to look out for us. Whatever us even means.
I think about the Tadeusz family. Who did they define as us?
They saw us as every human being, regardless of what they looked like, or what they believed. They thought everyone was worth protecting. And they were willing to die for it.
That is something worth remembering, always.