Sunday, February 13, 2011

Overnight in Auschwitz

I don’t really know how to describe what I’ve been up to for the past two weeks other than to say that somehow I got off on a history-of-the-Holocaust bender of sorts that has left me completely spent.  I plan, as a result, to take a hiatus from all things Holocaust-related the minute I finish this post.

Holocaust-related literature
 in a local bookshop
It started the day I arrived in Krakow.  I previously wrote about my visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum, but what I didn’t mention is that I spent the better part of two hours in the gift shop-slash-bookstore thumbing through dozens of Auschwitz-survivor memoirs with the intent to purchase just one.  But by the time I reached Auschwitz on Thursday, I had bought and read three in quick succession, including I Was Number 20823 At Auschwitz by Eva Tichauer, I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree, by Laura Hillman (also a “Schindler Jew”), and Primo Levi’s quintessential Survival in Auschwitz.  The latter, penned shortly after Primo’s liberation in January 1945, brought me directly into the inner world of Auschwitz like no other.  It's one of those books that, by the end, makes you feel like you know the author personally.  I now feel like I know Primo, and that's why I've taken to calling him by his first name.  

All along I had planned to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau on my own rather than with a group, mainly because I didn’t want to experience it through the words and filter of others.  I also didn’t want to be rushed.  Most people make Auschwitz a day trip from Krakow, and follow a guide’s schedule, but I found those logistics limiting, especially given the time it takes to get there (almost two hours by bus) and that, in winter, the camps close earlier, at 3:00 p.m. rather than 6:00.

The Center
So I decided to stay over for a night.  Online I located a couple hotels nearby, as well as something called “The Center for Dialogue and Prayer.”  The Center is a Catholic institution intended as an interfaith place for “reflection, education, sharing and prayer” for those moved by what happened at Auschwitz.  I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it sounded interesting, and was also the cheapest option, so I booked a room there.


I caught an early morning shuttle bus from Krakow, found my way to the Center, checked in, and headed over to Auschwitz.  I felt nervous as I approached the entrance, particularly given the two-week massive build up I had created.  I stood reading some informational signs while others milled around, perhaps waiting for their tours to start.  A girl next to me turned to her friend and said, in a British accent, “I almost feel guilty for eating,” before taking a big bite from her sandwich.  This made me think of Primo and his daily bread rations, along with the watery soup with bits of potato peelings that represented his “dinner” night after night.

In fact, I walked around the camp constantly thinking of Primo, using his recollections as my guide.  Here is the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate through which Primo marched to and from work; this is the Block before which Primo stood naked on his way to the infirmary; this is where Primo stood for roll call; this is where Primo watched his fellow prisoners executed.  I ended the tour with the most horrible parts; namely, the gas chamber and the hanging gallows, and finally exited the camp eager to retreat to my little room. 

Back at the Center, I lay down and reflected for a while.  It was hard.  After an hour or so, I emerged from my room and asked the girls behind the front desk if I could have a look inside the Center’s library, which I understood was stocked with even more Holocaust-related literature.  Just what I needed.  I was told that someone would have to unlock the library and escort me inside, so I took a seat in the lobby and waited.

Meanwhile, a slight, elderly man walking with metal leg braces entered the building.   Another man from behind the reception desk greeted him and sat him on the couch adjacent to mine.  I noticed his eyes were sunken in, and soon I observed that he had trouble with his sight.  Twice he brought his wristwatch to within a half-inch of his eye to check the time.  He seemed to be waiting for something to happen, and then it dawned on me.  I had read in the Center’s information brochure that it sometimes arranges meetings with former prisoners of Auschwitz.  Something told me, this man is an Auschwitz survivor.

The man’s escort led him over to the elevator just as another woman showed up to take me to the library.  After brief introductions, I couldn’t help myself.  “I was just wondering, who is that man that just went up the elevator?” I asked, strongly suspecting what the answer might be.  I had guessed right.  The woman told me the man's name is Edward Paczkowski, and indeed, he is an Auschwitz survivor.  He was in the Center this evening to address a large group of German high school students from Dortmund, now waiting upstairs in a conference room.  His talk would be in Polish, and translated into German.  I wouldn’t understand, but I didn’t care; I asked if I could listen in.  

During the talk I was mostly lost in translation, but I'm certain I caught the gist.  Every now and again I would recognize a German word picked up from Primo’s book—like lager for camp, or kapo, for prisoner-trustee; and of course I perfectly understood words like “Nazi” and “SS.”  At one point, Mr. Paczkowski pointed to the numbers tattooed on his arm, and that needed no explanation.  During a brief bathroom break, a few German girls seated nearby filled me in on some other details in English.

Afterward, I approached Mr. Paczkowski to thank him and shake his hand.  He took my hand in both of his; his were warm and soft, and I felt something profound as our hands remained clasped together.  He addressed me in Polish, which was translated in turn;  “thank you,” he said, “and have a safe trip returning to your country.”

I next visited the library, as I had earlier intended.  I asked if I could check out a book or two to bring back to my room for the evening.  I ended up with four, including one called Holocaust Denial.   After experiencing what I had, I was curious to know precisely what these Holocaust deniers were denying.  I took the book with me and left the Center in search of dinner.

It was dark, and the two long streets between the Center and the closest establishments were completely deserted.  I found only one place open—a restaurant connected to a nearby hotel—and entered to become the restaurant’s only patron.  It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps no solo traveler in her right mind ever spends the night in Auschwitz.

I ordered a chicken filet with a side of mashed potatoes; comfort food.  I sat eating alone, occupied with a transcript of the Montel Williams Show on “Holocaust Denial,” from April 30, 1992, and reprinted in the book’s appendix.  At one point, Montel comes back from break and says, “We’re talking about the Holocaust, and whether it did or didn’t happen.”  Oh, it happened alright; in fact, right down this scary, dark street. 

I finished the last morsel on my plate, save for a garnish of parsley.  I looked down at it and thought, Primo would have eaten this parsley.  I started to chew on it, but it tasted extremely bitter and I quickly spit it out.  It was then that I realized that I could no longer do something as simple as have a meal without putting a depressing Holocaust-spin on it.  I needed to pull myself together.

But I still had Birkenau to visit in the morning.  Birkenau—or Auschwitz II—is a separate camp located approximately 3 kilometers from Auschwitz I, and is the worst of the worst insofar as Nazi death camps are concerned.  It was raining when I arrived, and the place—much larger than Auschwitz I—was eerily desolate.  I walked around for some time, visiting the communal latrine and poking in bunkhouses where short periods of sleep interrupted long days of forced labor.  Then I set off to the far end of the camp to have a look at the crematoria ruins.  I say ruins because, when defeat appeared certain, the Nazis worked quickly to destroy the evidence of their terrible deeds.

I already felt sick to my stomach and by now wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of this place.  Halfway down the long road I stopped to read an informational sign.  It said something like:  You are walking down the road where millions of Jews were herded to the gas chambers.  That’s when the tears came, and I knew that I could not take much more of this.  I walked to the end, paid my respects, and left.

I realize that my blog is called Travelarity and asserts that "Something funny always happens along the way."  In the wake of my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I now stand corrected.  Nothing funny happened.  But I think it was important in any event to tell you what did.