Post Cards From Auschwitz

Emerging from the train with a throng of people, I glance around the station in Cracow, Poland, to get my bearings. I have not slept for two days. I search my pockets for the travel book I brought from the United States, the one that lists hotels and hostels in Eastern Europe. I can't find it. I suddenly remember having taken it out to consult it as I left Budapest. With a sense of doom, I realize I must have left it on the train—just as the train is pulling out of the station, bound for Warsaw. I curse after it and then turn and notice a Cracow city map on a far wall near the information booth. The map is in Polish, of course, and I am unable to remember the Polish word for "hostel"; there are no obvious symbols to denote them. I stand in a long line at the information booth, hoping the woman inside speaks English and can tell me where I can find the nearest hostel, but when I finally make it to the front of the line 20 minutes later, she does not understand me, convinced instead that I am asking for a hotel. Frustrated, I look around the station and spot a kind-looking old woman standing by a magazine stand and holding an umbrella, although there is not a cloud in the sky. I walk up to her and ask if she speaks English. Her eyes expand with sudden fright, and she runs off in the opposite direction.

As I exit the station, the heat of the Cracow morning slaps me in the face like an insulted nobleman. Cracow is one of those Eastern European cities that seems oddly discontinuous, its ornate buildings spanning three centuries competing with modern glass hotels and Communist-era cubes that eschew all bourgeois detail. The buildings are like historical figures from vastly different epochs trapped together in a broken elevator. The sight of a rotund man at curbside leaning against a small green cab assures me I am still in the present. He is unshaven, wearing a tweed cap and smoking a short, brown cigar while reading a Polish newspaper. Catching sight of me, he quickly folds his newspaper under one arm, tosses his cigar stub into the gutter and rushes to greet me with a pasted-on smile.

"Oswiecim?" he asks, taking my backpack even before I can answer. The word sounds familiar, and I try to remember if it's Polish for "hostel."

"I'm trying to find the youth hostel," I explain.

"Yes, yes, Oswiecim. You go," he tells me, as he leads me to his small cab.

His movements are rapid for such a large man. He places my backpack in the trunk rather recklessly and leaps around to the passenger side to open the back door, smiling all the while. Before I can say a word, he settles into his seat, fires up the cab, clears the meter, adjusts his rear-view mirror—his transient smile greeting me in its reflection—and flips a quick U-turn, as illegal here, I am sure, as it is in the States. I stare out the window at passing Cracow. My head aches from exhaustion and the unnerving sense of uncertain destination. I notice an identification tag hanging from the glove box. The driver's name is Josef Klucinski; in the photograph, he wears the same beguiling smile that meets me in the mirror. He glances at me from time to time and laughs. I smile back, more out of fatigue and confusion than anything else.

Brown Cracow gradually changes to green farmland. I wonder why a hostel would be located so far outside the city. Cows dotting the rolling green hillsides stare back at me in mute disinterest. My mind begins to register a sense of betrayal. I feel myself hurtling through space, the cab gradually increasing speed toward its unconfirmed destination, when a panic attack hits me. The disjunction between this particular time and place in the universe and my role in it as unsuspecting tourist descends on me in waves of undulating terror and I consider—briefly but seriously—the prospect of throwing myself from the speeding cab. My mind is a film reel spinning wildly out of control. I try to isolate a sense of my own being, but my identity outstrips my will and replicates itself, cell-like, into a mantra of three declarative sentences: I am a consumer of discrete cultural experiences. I am a neo-cosmopolitan who delights in unplanned arrivals. I am a shithead in a country whose language I do not speak.

We pass a highway sign, and suddenly the revelation of this mundane mystery drops to the pit of my stomach like a lead sinker. The sign reads, "Oswiecim 20 km," but beneath the Polish name for the city is the more familiar German one: "Auschwitz." Josef's smile meets me in the rear-view mirror, and I imagine myself from his point of view, watching my enlightened mug transform itself into an enormous lollipop. I have been caught in a tourist trap. There is no way out.

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