Albinoni’s Adagio was the high point for me. 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello. St. Bernard’s Church, Cracow, Poland, old and chilly, but beautiful acoustics. More visual stimulation than a person can absorb in a day, paintings, sculptures… a stuffed church. It was the centering I needed to be ready for the next day.
Jarek had accompanied me the night before to the stop from which the minivans leave for Oswiecim. 7 zlotys. For breakfast I had an orange and the last of the now 3 day old pastries which Jarek bought on my arrival. I walked to the van. I got in and took the front passenger seat. Plenty of leg room. I recognized the young man across the aisle, sitting with his travel companion on the bench directly behind the driver. He had been at the concert the night before. Handsome and long haired, wearing a Hard Rock Café - Kobé jacket. I assumed they were Japanese. They were from Tokyo, not Kobé; they had been studying architecture in Bochum.
The road out of Cracow seemed very circuitous to me, but then, with everything being unfamiliar, nothing going very far in a straight line, (no grid), and with snow falling pretty seriously, I had no way to tell direction from the sun.
I was glad to be in a van. A train was the other option, but somehow a train, even a Polish commuter train, felt too spooky. On the other hand, as we got farther out of town the roads got worse. I reassured myself. “This guy looks like a very experienced driver.” Still, there were no seat belts. I imagined a radio report:‘Tourists dying in a rolled over van on the way to one of histories most tragic sites…’ I told myself to breathe deep and easy. “This is not bad, I have driven in far worse.” Was my mother’s ghost visiting me with her fear of driving on slippery roads?
After not quite an hour and a half, through some very beautiful, snow covered, pine forests we arrived in the town of Oswiecim. A black sign with white letters pointed the way to Auschwitz Museum. Through a small park and then through the parking lot. The museum is basically the remains of the concentration camps. Unlike Sachsenhausen, where a separate museum contextualizes the site beyond the point of distraction, this museum was done right.
A film was to be shown at 11, so I had 20 minutes to wander through the grounds on my own. After the film two English speaking guides came to divide the waiting group into two sets of 15.
I went with Magda, we left first. Though the other guide was a very handsome and intelligent looking man, I forwent the aesthetic pleasure.
We walked out of the reception hall into the cold, windy day. Snow continued to fall. We stopped before passing under the gate where the original iron ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ still worked its twisted humor on all passers-beneath. The camp we were entering, Auschwitz 1, was originally a Polish army installation. Brick barracks. Here and there signs explained things. I listened to Magda’s voice. Her knowledge surpassed her language skills. I don’t mean to say she couldn’t explain things, but that she was well versed in her subject. Her tone always had a certain reserve, coupled with a bitterness, a contempt for the barbarousness of her western neighbor. An anger with a different flavor than any concentration camp memorial would ever have in Germany. Move some of the sadness into anger.
I recalled Bozena’s father. Tattooed forearm. An Auschwitz survivor. “I only speak German when I have to. When East German colleagues come to visit me at the ministry of mines, they always compliment me on my German. I defer. They persevere, and ask me where I learned it. I say softly, the University, hoping they will drop it. Anxious to make connections, they never fail to continue, Which one? (They can never leave well enough alone, as if speaking German could only be perceived to be a good thing). I say Auschwitz. Unnecessary conversation stops there.”
We entered some of the barracks. It was explained that some were originally one story. The camp prisoners added the second stories. We saw the wall of death - a brick wall before which hundreds of people were shot, and the gallows, where one day 9 were hanged. These were the only two reconstructions. Everything else I saw remained from then. We saw the basement where prisoners waited to be executed. A room where people were tortured by being deprived of light. A room where many people were crammed in so that they suffocated - only one small hole for fresh air. Four closet sized rooms in each of which four prisoners would be forced to stand all night. No room to sit nor lie.
In some of the barracks thing had been preserved from the Nazi’s warehouses of materials confiscated from their victims. Tons of human hair, saved to be sent to factories in Germany to be used to manufacture mattresses. Hair shaved from the heads of women on arrival. Bushels of eye glasses. Piles and piles of shoes. Pretty beat up. Most of the good ones had been taken for use. And countless unimaginable prosthetics. And suitcases. Unlike other items, the suitcases were not anonymous. Each had a name and the address of what had once been the home of its owner.
We left the barracks, and were led to the gas chamber, a low ceilinged room where canisters of Zyklon B were dropped in from overhead. The ovens for cremating the bodies were in the same room. Iron tracks on the floors used to guide wagons to the ovens.
This was where Auschwitz began. Then we had lunch, and went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The expansion. This is the place we know from the movies. The front gates remain. The vastness remains. Hundreds of primitive brick chimneys still stand where the wooden barracks used to be. Few of the 300 barracks remain. Barracks is too generous a word. Most of the barracks at Birkenau were horse stables, prefabricated in Germany, shipped to Poland, and set up in Auschwitz-Birkenau to hold 90,000 prisoners. The wood didn’t hold up. Only a dozen or so were preserved.
It was a cold windy day. The snow blew between the few remaining barracks, often blinding us. It was a perfect day to imagine the horror of this place. Designed to efficiently kill eleven million. I have never been anywhere where evil seemed more concentrated. More people died here at the hands of the Nazis than anywhere else. Only the outcome of the war kept the total at Auschwitz from being 11 million.
Most people arrived here and were sent straight to the gas chambers. Told to remember where they hung their clothes so they could find them after their shower. Herded about by special groups of camp inmates, special groups which too were systematically exterminated. Every two months because they knew the system of “the final solution” too well. These special groups herded the arrivals into the showers, and then later piled their corpses and loaded them into the ovens.
Only a small minority survived the day of arrival. Those who “lived” in the camp were tattooed. They were kept to perform slave labor
I saw a memorial installed where the ovens used to be. The nazis destroyed the ovens before they abandoned the camp. Except for the oven which one of the special groups succeeded inblowing up with chemicals smuggled in by women who worked as slave labor at the IG Farben plant. The memorial was in the language of every country from which victims were brought to Auschwitz. It was the only place in either of the camps where I saw German. From the memorial I walked the train tracks back out of the camp, back to the taxi. The driver was a Pole who had lived 25 years in Chicago. Only in Chicago could he have spoken so little English in 25 years. Others waited for me inside the warm cab. I thought about thousands in vertical stripes and, if they were lucky, wooden clogs. The same vertical stripe that Willi Smith would make fashionable in the 1980’s. I walked out over the train tracks that brought so many in. Most of them were told as they entered: “The only way out of here is through one of the chimneys.”
The snow continued to fall, as human ashes once fell on this neighborhood.