This Way to the Gas Chambers, Ladies and Gentlemen (Auschwitz 2003)

by GH

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Birkenau. Photo by Alex Dram, via Flickr.

An excerpt from my unpublished travelogue about Poland, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

As the bus left the station, my breakfast was trembling in my belly. I hadn’t slept much, maybe four hours. It was going to be a bad day, clouded by fatigue and dyspeptic twinges.

Then I was disgusted with myself. Such childish kvetchiness, as if my creature comforts were all that mattered. I looked around: I counted nine other passengers, middle-aged to old, and all foreign. That is, not Poles. And probably not American, except for that guy in the forest-green windbreaker. His sneakers clearly marked him as a compatriot. He also wore a yarmulke, but the way that he kept patting it suggested that he normally went without one. A hunch: he had put on the yarmulke so that the Poles he encountered would know he was a Jew. American Jews do this sort of thing. Every summer they have the March of the Living. A few hundred Jews parade near some death camp, shouting, “Never again” and singing the Israeli national anthem. On the sidewalks, the Poles shrug, thinking, “Why do they have to announce this to us?”

Any other Jews on the bus? Probably, but it was hard to tell. Just Dan and I. As for the rest, what did it matter?

Dan was a delicate-looking guy of thirty or so with longish brown hair and a languid, thoughtful air. He spoke little; he was a word-measurer. Maybe he was just on his guard around me — maybe I rubbed him the wrong way. After all, he had been reluctant to have me with him today. He had told me that he preferred to go alone. Then he called to tell me that he had changed his mind.

“I think it would be good to go with another Jew,” he said. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, although my feelings had been hurt.

Now we sat on opposite sides of the aisle, as the bus took us past the same verdant hills that I had seen with Marek. I made one attempt at small talk, saying, “I was just around here the other day.” Dan nodded without really meeting my eye. After months in Poland I finally got to hang out with another literary-minded American Jew, and he didn’t like me.

Or maybe he was just nervous? Because I was very nervous.

Our guide was a Polish woman of about forty. Her spectacles were extremely large. She stood up, cleared her throat into the microphone, and welcomed us on the “excursion to Auschwitz.” Actually, that was the German name for the town, she said. Its real name is “Oświęcim. Pronounced Os-vench-EEM.” Some fifty thousand people lived in Oświęcim, which is in the province of Śląsk, which, again, we may know as Silesia, its German name. Śląsk once had “many industries, such as coal mining.” These days most of the mines had been shut down, and it was very poor. Oświęcim is only seventy kilometers from Kraków, she said. (How convenient for the Nazis, I thought.) The bus journey would take about an hour and a half; in the meantime, please note that we were passing the monastery known as Bielany, where only a few monks live a “very severe existence.” (The passengers, myself included, looked to the right at the domes that seemed to float above the treetops.) In addition, the guide said, the Romanesque monastery of Tyniec was also nearby. It was possible to take “guided excursions” to both Tyniec and Bielany. She had pamphlets with scheduling and pricing information for “such an excursion” if we were interested. Would anyone like a pamphlet?

Silence.

The guide, eyelids fluttering behind her overlarge lenses, thanked us and sat down.

The parking lot was half full. (Dan and I had decided to go on a weekday, “to avoid the crowds,” as if we had been planning a ski trip.) We were dropped off at the Visitor’s Center, a very long building with a huge, steep roof set with dormer windows. A very attractive building, in fact. We assembled by the entrance, beneath an overhang. Now our guide was a young woman, maybe twenty-five, with spiky mauve hair. She brought us inside, pointed out the bookstore and the snack bar. I didn’t know what to think about the snack bar, where dozens of Polish teenagers were messing around, eating snacks. Then we were in a sort of lobby, with displays that showed pictures of inmates and their own descriptions of how they had been tortured. The displays were very nicely designed. It was very strange: teenaged voices, descriptions of torture, and a sculpture of a torso with one outsized and agonizing arm tied to a concrete post.

Into a theater, to watch a short film about the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz. A procession of twins through the corridor of electrified fences. Sterilized men with female breasts. Children pulling up their sleeves to show their numbers. I knew these images; I had seen them all in Hebrew school. These were the images that had taught me what it meant to be a Jew. Or should I say, these are the images they had shown me when they wanted to teach me their version of being Jewish.

Outside again, it was cold, and the sky was gray. I saw trees, a lawn, and park benches. I saw the electrified fences — those concrete posts, like modernist shepherd’s crooks, with rows of sagging wire between them. I saw a long, one-story building, with twelve small chimneys.

“Is that the crematorium?” asked an Englishman.

“No, those were the kitchens,” said the guide.

The pathway had new paving stones and it was extremely clean — not a gum wrapper or cigarette butt in sight. The first place I had seen in Poland without litter or workmen doing some renovation. The guide was saying something about four hundred and thirty eight thousand people from Bucharest who went directly from train to gas chamber — I didn’t catch the rest of it, because I saw the guard tower and the gate with Arbeit Macht Frei curving above it, and for a moment I was overwhelmed by fear.

Eleven years old, in Hebrew school, I saw the image of this gate, followed by scenes of bulldozers shoveling corpses into a pit. What was the connection, I had wondered, between those words and the corpses? Had the Nazis meant that the Jews would be worked to death and that there was freedom in death? Or was the slogan some kind of sarcasm?

I still didn’t know. I knew so little about anything.

We were walking down a road, and there were trees and brick buildings — tidy, two-story brick structures which, liked the entrance hall, evinced a pleasing symmetry. “Polish Army barracks,” the guide said — but why didn’t she say that the Austrians had built them? Or had she said it and I hadn’t noticed? For we were inside one of these buildings now, climbing a chilly staircase. Here were the famous vitrines. This one was filled with hair, swirling, stiff mounds of hair. Two thousand kilograms of it, said the guide, for use in German textiles. And here was a bolt of cloth made from Jewish hair. The guide was telling us that the hair contained traces of certain chemicals that proved the use of Zyklon-B. She went into detail about this. Why? Because she had been trained to talk. Why? In case of doubters, revisionists. Because they came here too.

More vitrines. Prosthetics. (A child’s wooden leg! They murdered a child with one leg!) The Hall of Forty Thousand Shoes. Luggage. On one suitcase, written in chalk: Marie Kafka of Prague. Who was she? How old was she? Does anyone alive remember her name?

Into a hall with an enormous clump of steel wool behind glass. It revealed itself as a pile of spectacles.

The guide gathered the little group around her. Responding to some question, she spoke about the Polish children who had been sent to Germany for adoption. Perhaps two hundred thousand little blond Poles had been “Germanized.” Eighty-five percent, she said, had not been located.

I thought: But they are alive. Isn’t it better to be German than dead?

 

 

Outside: guard towers and viciously pruned trees. Into a courtyard between two buildings, Block Ten and Block Eleven. At the far end was a brick wall. In front of it, there was a re-creation of the Black Wall, where the Nazis had shot tens of thousands, mostly Poles, “politicals” and POWs, well before the Jews were being stuffed into gas chambers. The guide was talking near the Wall. She was explaining everything, disseminating important facts, but I couldn’t seem to stay with the group. I kept walking away from the group and back to the group, and I knew that I was missing crucial information. But, even though it was a reproduction, I was physically unable to approach the Black Wall. Instead I waited until the group moved into Block Eleven, then followed it down to the basement.

The room of standing cells. The bricks were stepped, as in a cutaway drawing, so that you could see the interior of the cells. The prisoners had to crawl through a metal door. Inside, it (obviously) too narrow for sitting. Or one man could sit while the others stood. Unless there were four men, which meant that they took turns crouching. Sometimes they were in the cells for days, sometimes only at night, and they were released to work during the day. The floors and the walls would have been covered in excrement — they would have pissed and shat on each other. When snow filled the air vent, they suffocated.

The Englishman — the one who had asked about the kitchen — positioned himself next to a brick cutaway, comparing his own size to the dimensions of the cell. Looking at his wife, he shook his head with ostentatious compassion. I wondered if she disliked him as much as I did.

Down the hall, the starvation cell. It had a decorative gate: iron bars in the shape of a flaming brazier. There were plaques inside, and an extremely tall candle, and a bouquet of flowers on the floor. Father Kolbe, who was canonized by John Paul II, died in this room. The guide said that when anyone escaped from Auschwitz, ten men from the runaway’s block were put to death. After someone from Father Kolbe’s block escaped, he put himself forward in the place of man with a wife and children. The Nazis locked the ten men inside this cell and left them to starve. After two weeks, Father Kolbe was still alive. It was my guess that he kept himself alive in order to perform last rites on his cellmates. He had that kind of willpower. A Nazi killed him with an injection.

I knew a little more about Father Kolbe. I knew that he had founded a journal and a Catholic newspaper. These publications could not be described as supportive of the Jews in Poland. I had mixed feelings about Father Kolbe.

 

 

We were walking towards a chimney. A small brick building set into a hillside, with a fat chimney atop — the gas chamber and crematorium. We went inside the gas chamber. The walls were concrete, the ceilings had concrete crossbeams, and I was standing inside a gas chamber. I dimly heard the Englishman ask if the scratch marks on the walls were from victims. “We don’t know,” answered the guide. “It is possible. But it could be just deterioration.” I looked at the walls. There were long, vertical gouges. And someone had scratched a swastika into the concrete, someone else a mogen dovid.

In the crematorium, there were two sets of brick ovens. That is, there were four ovens, two to a set. And two of those metal carts used to slide the corpses into the flames. “Fifteen to twenty minutes from train to chamber,” the guide said. I walked around the ovens, examining the apparatus. The heavy iron door, rounded at the top, was like the door to a standing cell. Like the windows of Jewish buildings. The cart was also rounded to fit through the opening. Was it heavy, this cart? Or hollow? I wanted to tap my knuckles against the metal — which, by the way, was polished to a high sheen — but this seemed inappropriate. I wondered what it was like to slide a body into the furnace, to dump out the ashes, to repeat this process a hundred, five hundred times. I wondered if I would have had the strength to do it — to hear the screams from the chamber, so loud that the Nazis once tried to cover them by revving motorcycles. To see the pile of naked, twisted corpses, to fire up the ovens, to feel the heat spreading through the cart until the handles blistered your palms. To smell burning humans. To feel the muscles, already weakened from malnutrition, strained by the lifting, pushing, pulling.

It occurred to me that one is always imagining how one could live in Auschwitz. But almost everyone died in Auschwitz.

“And now,” said the guide, “we will have a thirty-minute break.”

 

 

At the snack bar, you could buy granola bars, soft drinks, or a pre-packaged sandwich. I was tempted to get something, because the indigestion had abated, leaving hungry jitters in its wake. But I hesitated before buying anything, because I recalled a friend who had been disgusted by the sight of this snack bar. She had spoken of it with contempt. Maybe she was right — maybe it would be better to have one hungry afternoon in Auschwitz.

But I felt weak. I had been up half the night in anticipatory anxiety, and now I felt gutted, depleted, and yes, hungry. A snack would be comforting. A snack would give me the strength to get through the rest of the afternoon.

Then I felt the same self-disgust that I had on the bus, but the feeling was even more acute, because this time I was thinking of my own belly in Auschwitz, where hunger had dominated the lives of the prisoners.

However, I wondered what my own discomfort would mean to anyone other than myself. That is, my own discomfort would have absolutely no effect on the past. That it was vain to consider the question of eating or not eating as having anything to do with 1.1 million murdered human beings.

Or did not eating have everything to do with 1.1 million murdered human beings? Wasn’t discomfort the only appropriate physical state for those who visited Auschwitz? And wasn’t this snack bar, whose chatty customers who didn’t seem the least bit gutted or depleted, actually quite obscene considering that 1.1 million human beings had been murdered here?

Another argument against the snack: for Jews, fasting is a means of commemorating a specific disaster, a way to keep you focused on mourning. In other words, if I had a snack, I would be happy while eating it, and thus, for a minute or two, not mourning the victims of Auschwitz.

So then it was definitely better not to buy a snack. That was what I decided. Then I bought a granola bar and a bottle of apple juice.

I was ashamed of myself, and I didn’t want Dan to see me eating. So I went outside. Facing the parking lot, I ate the granola bar in two bites. I was simultaneously chewing and struggling with the cap of the juice bottle when Dan appeared.

“You’re eating,” he said.

My mouth was full, so I shrugged while composing a regretful and embarrassed expression.

“I couldn’t,” he said.

I nodded, trying to relate that this was the better choice.

“Do you know where the bathroom is?”

I did. He went. I drank the juice and lit a cigarette. Now I was having a smoke in Auschwitz.

The guide was also here and also smoking. Our eyes met, and I gave her a little bow. She responded with a quick, rueful smile. Her smile conveyed appreciation for the gesture and an acknowledgment of these horrible surroundings. But the surroundings were not horrible — there was just a parking lot and some Polish kids having a smoke.

I thought about the color of the guide’s hair. I had seen this mauve color on women all over Poland. It wasn’t attractive, so why was it so popular? It was a mystery to me.

It occurred to me that I would not have been thinking about hair color if I had not eaten a snack.

 

 

Now we were on the bus to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. We sat quietly, the ten or twelve of us, lost in communal misery. Or in individual, concomitant misery. (Dan faced the window, his eyes moist.) We were let out in the parking lot of Birkenau, by a stark, one-story building. It was like a stable, if a stable had a guard tower at its center. Directly beneath the tower was an opening slightly larger than the width of a train car. Another Jewish opening rounded at the stop. Train tracks led up to it, but it had been sealed by a chain-link fence. We entered Birkenau instead through another opening to the left of the tracks.

On the other side I felt a spasm in my bowels. I knew that Birkenau was large, but seeing it — seeing it was like traveling in an instant from the Earth to the Sun.

We were taken up into the guard tower and the vast expanse of the camp was below us. The tracks extended forward until they merged into one gray line. On either side of the tracks, the fearful symmetry of barracks, guard towers, and fences. There were grids of nonexistent barracks, rectangles of brick with slim chimneys at one end.

The group walked to a barrack on the men’s side of the camp. We saw the bunks, where the men slept eight to a bed. Again it struck me that the place was very clean. The floor had been swept and there was no dust on the wooden bunks. But when the Jews were here it had to have been filthy. The men would have been covered with pus and slime. An attack of dysentery and the bed would have a layer of shit. The men coughing, spraying mucus on each other. They must have been covered in each others’ excretions, and lice, and bedbugs. A prisoner at Auschwitz would have had an atrocious stench, mingled with the smell of burning flesh from the overworked ovens.

There was a brick heating duct, perhaps two feet high, running down the length of the barrack. “It did not work very well,” the guide said. And she described the thin uniforms that the prisoners wore, the clogs that hurt the feet.

“That’s all they had to wear?” asked the Englishman.

“That’s all,” says the guide.

“And over there they had all that clothing,” the Englishman said, waving vaguely towards Auschwitz I.

I thought that this man’s indignation made him pleased with himself, and that I would find it pleasing to punch him in the face.

Next, the latrine — rows of hollow, concrete benches. The prisoners relieved themselves through circles in the concrete. No pits had been dug beneath the benches, so the “toilets” would have been overflowing, smeared with urine, shit and blood. The guide said that the prisoners were allowed to use the latrines only at certain times and only for a few minutes. They literally fought for a place on the benches, she said. I imagined the starving men, near skeletons in striped uniforms, tearing at each other for the privilege of taking a shit.

The guide told us that the tour was over, but before we went back to the bus, did anyone have more questions? No one responded. There was a palpable sense of relief. We had done our duty. We had seen it. Now we could leave.