Post Cards From Auschwitz

As I read, the sleeplessness of the past two days finally catches up to me, and I drift off, lulled by the clicking of the film projector behind me.

Voices awaken me. As I look up, I notice the other people in the theater filing out while the tour guide holds the door open for them. She is glaring at me with contempt. I leap up, and the booklet in my lap goes flying two rows down. I cannot decide whether to retrieve it or head straight for the exit, and for a few seconds I hesitate. The woman's eyes follow me. She does not say a word but merely watches me as if I were a pesky fly that refused to leave her house. I rush down, grab the booklet and head for the exit.

The tour of Auschwitz I is brisk, our guide quickly describing each section, exposition and display in efficient, impeccable English before heading to the next. Those who linger to read placards or meditate on what they're seeing are left to fend for themselves. There is no sign of emotion in our guide's voice, perhaps because the day-to-day recitation of atrocities requires avoidance—or at least a masking —of emotional investment.

We are taken past the Exposition of Nations, artwork hopelessly trying to represent the unrepresentable, commissioned by the governments of various countries who lost large Jewish populations. We walk single file past glass partitions, behind which are piled as high as the ceiling countless shoes, suitcases, eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs of the victims deported to Auschwitz, their sheer number relating a kind of ghostly and pornographic excess. We walk through the barracks where prisoners were housed in Auschwitz I. They resemble horse stables, although they are not nearly as roomy. Here, the prisoners were forced to eat (a mere six ounces per day), sleep and defecate in the same straw-strewn crowded spaces, pressed shoulder to shoulder against one another. We are led into the "showers," where prisoners were herded, believing they would at last receive the small luxury of cleanliness but where they were instead gassed through ceiling vents with canisters of Zyklon B. We are told that the first few experiments with various chemicals were not successful, and the terrified prisoners died a slow, agonizing death only after repeated applications, their horrible screams perhaps sending chills through the frames of some SS guards, perhaps giving sadistic pleasure to others. We walk past two surviving ovens from a crematorium, installed when the deportation of Jews for the Final Solution had reached such a startling speed that burning dead bodies in heaps could no longer keep up with the assembly-line workload. Atop the cylindrical iron platforms used to wheel the bodies into the ovens are several lighted devotional candles, whose melting wax drips down the metal sides of the platforms and onto the floor, looking like a half-century of hardening tears.

I could go on, but the horror of Auschwitz comes not just through the historical narrative that accompanies it, not just through the testimony of survivors who courageously relive it, not just through the clipped words of a tour guide who faces the daily threat of being crushed underneath its weight, or even through these carefully arranged items that managed to survive the Nazi flames, mute witnesses in their own right. A sense of indescribable desperation emanates from this museum, an inarticulate desire to communicate something that remains largely unthinkable. When words fail, one is oftentimes reduced to mathematics, and the most affecting displays rely on sheer numbers: the glass rooms filled to capacity with belongings stripped from prisoners, the long white walls lined with photographs of candy-striped children, the endless rows of prisoners' barracks. Here, barbarity was carried out with the utmost efficiency. Yet for the visitor, the true horror of Auschwitz comes from its seeming discontinuity with the present, seeing these signs dumbly appealing for acknowledgment and verification in an inevitably grim, Disney-like setting. We are like travelers from another world whose systems of understanding break down at the sight of these gross displays of tattered and desolate objects.

A woman from the tour group asks our guide, "How long have you been giving these tours?"

She answers, "Five years."

"How do you feel about it?" another woman asks.

"I understand why people feel compelled to come here," she responds. "But sometimes I think the museum is an improper venue. Perhaps a better idea would be to just leave it as it was, to let people walk through without expositions or tour guides. A memorial rather than a museum."

There is a long pause, perhaps to acknowledge our own position in relation to her comments.

"So why do you work here?" a man finally asks.

She looks at him uncomprehendingly. "Because I need the money," she answers.

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