Post Cards From Auschwitz

Auschwitz was not on my itinerary, and it is even less appealing now. I have not slept for two days. What I need is easy slumber, preferably miles from the nearest death camp. I want to demand that Josef turn the cab around and take me back to Cracow. I want to shout at him my rights as an American and international traveler, but I can only lamely muster up the word "Auschwitz," to which Josef responds, "Yes, Auschwitz. You go." I turn to appeal to the cows on the hillside, but they stare back at me with the languid look of an underpaid Greek chorus. I am wishing that I had at least learned how to curse in Polish.

But I realize I must surrender to my fate as hoodwinked traveler. A slight change in my itinerary is all this means—nothing more. I am far too tired to resist. There is no need to panic. I will adjust. I will see this museum of atrocities and get back to my travel plan. I will pass over this unforeseen bump in the road and then ask this devious travel agent on wheels to take me back to a hostel in Cracow.

We pass through the gates of Auschwitz in our little green cab, and Josef points up at the German words shaped from wrought iron in the arch overhead: "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Make You Free). A somewhat similar sign hangs on my boss's door in the States but with considerably less historical irony. Josef tells me that most tourists take a train into Auschwitz that lets them out on the very platform where, 50 years earlier, Nazis unloaded their human cargo, inspected them like animals, and broke them into two groups: the strong and the weak. The strong were marked for work and the weak were marked for death. Most of the children and elderly fell into the latter category. As for the others, work never led to freedom.

Hundreds of tourists pull up to this platform each day for the authentic experience, Josef explains. He reassures me he will wait while I visit the museum. Just as I am about to enter the building, I turn back to look at him. He has resumed his posture of leaning against his cab and reading a newspaper. He glances up, smiles and waves as I disappear into the gloom of the building.

I am sitting inside a tiny theater, watching newsreel footage of the Allied liberation of Auschwitz. There are about 10 other people in the theater. A few sobs punctuate the dreadful images onscreen. The film is one I have seen before, depicting the conditions the Allies discovered at the death camp. The emaciated bodies of surviving prisoners are displayed for the camera by soldiers; too weak to stand on their own, some of the prisoners have to be held up. They look self-consciously at the camera as our eyes scan their decrepit features through the window of time. The dead bodies are less self-conscious but otherwise do not look much different from those of the living. I glance down to read a booklet handed to me upon entering by a pretty young woman with badly bleached hair. It describes in English, German, French and Russian the history and layout of Auschwitz. The English translation reads:

"The Museum consists of two of the three parts of this death factory created by the Nazi system, i.e. of the main camp Auschwitz—KL Auschwitz I—organized and developed in the former Polish military barracks, and of Birkenau camp—KL Auschwitz II—entirely built by the SS. The site of the former camps as well as the majority of the constructions are preserved in their original condition and shape. To the most important constructions in Birkenau camp belong: ruins of four crematoria and gas chambers, cremation piles, the special platform where trains were shunted and the deportees were sorted out to the gas chambers, a pond with human ashes, whereas in Auschwitz camp: the "Death Block." Furthermore, in both camps are well-preserved blocks and a part of prisoners' barracks, the main entrance gates to the camps, sentry turrets as well as barbed wire fences. Some of the constructions destroyed by the Nazis were rebuilt, for instance the crematories at the crematorium I, dismantled in 1943, whereas the majority of the wooden barracks are ruined."

I notice some obvious omissions in the story this booklet tells about the camp. The words "Jew" and "Gypsy" never appear in it. Instead, the booklet describes Auschwitz as a memorial to "The Martyrdom of Poles and Other Nations." Its centerpiece is a detailed account of a Polish Catholic priest named Father Maximilian Kolbe, who offered to give his life in place of a fellow inmate who was about to be executed. The Nazis rewarded Father Kolbe for his selflessness by condemning him to starve in a small underground cell. The story is poignant, a touching depiction of how, even here, where humanity was crushed into dust, an act of courage and self-sacrifice managed to survive. But there is also an unnerving sense in the story's very prominence that the horrors of Auschwitz are just the backdrop for Polish hagiography.

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