Poland

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.

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.

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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