It is raining. I’m riding on what the woman at the bus station in Krakow called, in surprising English, a minibus. Maybe five rows of seats. I am sitting next to an Asian woman. She must be going where I’m going—why else would she be here, on a small bus in the miserably rainy Polish countryside? I am sure we’re going to the same place, but we don’t talk. The bus is full, but no one talks. I wonder who else is going to the end of the line. Are these tourists, or Polish people getting off somewhere along the way?
In the row behind me an old Polish woman sneezes and blows her nose. Every few minutes, she repeats. It is the summer of swine flu, and I lean forward, hoping to be out of range of whatever she is sneezing toward me, and look out the window. The scenery is pleasant, though unremarkable. Green trees and fields. A two-lane country highway passing small, solitary houses with vaguely attractive rounded iron fences.
My guidebook says that the bus ride takes an hour and a half. We left the station just before 10 in the morning. I keep checking my watch. My stomach gets upset when I’m nervous, and as it gets closer to 11 and then 11:30 I feel the rumbling grow. I’m glad I only had a piece of toast for breakfast. I’m sure I could not have kept anything else down. As the feeling gets stronger, my guts clamping down on themselves, I think, why are you doing to this to yourself? Why do you feel like you have to see this?
The bus stops next to a chain-link fence. A few people have gotten off or on over the course of the ride, but everyone still on the bus gets off here. Once off the bus, the other tourists group together and walk through a gate in the fence. I walk behind, a little slower, fiddling with a cheap umbrella I’d bought in Paris the week before. I have been in Europe for three weeks, traveling with a friend from school, but I broke away from my travel partner to do this leg by myself. I told him I needed to be alone for this.
I walk up the drive, past a parking lot full of tour buses, to the visitors’ center. Admission is free. Signs in the lobby urge you to book a tour guide, or to latch on to one of the many tour groups gathering there. I do neither.
Before heading out, I stop to use the restroom, which charges 1 zloty (about 30 cents American) to enter. In Eastern Europe it is common for public restrooms to charge a small fee. I have a small bladder, and in this part of the world it is costing me. Literally. I drop the coin on the table at the restroom entrance and mutter, I hate this fucking country, as I take a piss.
Finished in the restroom, I exit the visitors’ center via the side door. The gate is the first thing that I see. It is maybe 30 yards away, and a gravel path runs through it. I follow the path and stop a few feet short of the gate, the iron curled into those infamous words, Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free. Barbed wire runs from the gate around all sides of the camp, two rows of fencing with a space about six feet wide between. The nodes through which electricity was pumped into the wires still protrude from the fenceposts.
I did not know how I would feel when I saw the gate. I’d been afraid that I’d throw up on the spot. But at this moment I don’t feel nauseated. I feel perhaps a small sense of wonder, but mostly I feel the feeling of feeling nothing. I take a photo. It doesn’t turn out well—there is a leafy green tree behind the gate that obscures the word Frei.
I stand before the gate, holding my camera. I debate whether or not I want to get a photo of myself in the gateway. I can’t decide if it’s disrespectful to the dead. I begin to walk through the gate. I stop and turn, looking around . I am indecisive by nature, and I often pace when I can’t decide what I want to do. I turn and walk back out the gate. I can delete the photo later if I decide it was a mistake. I ask a big, thick man who looks either Polish or Iowan to take a photo. He doesn’t speak English, but I hold out the camera and he gets it. When I look at the photo, I see myself standing below the gate, my mouth a tight, unmerry line in my patchy three-week-old beard. I am holding my umbrella open, pointing it to the ground, in a pose that makes me think somehow, absurdly, of Mary Poppins. I do not delete it.
I walk around the edge of the camp, circling the rows of brick barracks. The rain patters against my umbrella, the gravel and gritty mud of the pathways crunches under my shoes. I try to steer clear of other people. After I’ve gone around the grounds once, I walk up a row between the barracks. Many of the buildings have been converted into exhibition halls. Because I walked around the perimeter first, I end up taking the exhibits out of order. The first one I enter is dedicated to crimes against the gypsies. The building is nearly empty; I see only one other person, a man with a graying beard and a purple rain jacket. I walk through the exhibit slowly, taking time to read most, if not all of the plaques chronicling the persecution of the gypsies. I think that these people suffered and were wiped out the same as my own. I have at times been guilty of privileging the suffering of the Jews, playing the whose-had-it-worse game (Don’t play the race card with me, my people got gassed and burned), but I’ve come to feel that that is unproductive. I’d like to treat this visit as an observance of everyone who died here—not just the members of my own family.
I walk. I see more barracks, more exhibits. I see piles of Zyklon B canisters. Piles of suitcases, shoes, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, items that people were stripped of, forever, the moment they stepped from the boxcars. In one room I find a glass case full of children’s shoes. This hits me hard. The shoes are so small.
Another room houses an enormous glass case full of human hair. A plaque explains that the Nazis collected the hair shorn from prisoners and used the fibers to knit nets and curtains and such. I stare at the case. It holds thousands of pounds of hair. The sign at the entrance of the room bears the words Exploitation of Corpses, and I can’t help but feel that the Nazis aren’t the only ones who know how to cash in on the dead. The piles of suitcases and shoes and the children’s dolls and other things are possessions, objects, but the hair, the hair is a part of the victims. The distinction is important. It isn’t right to display this.
In many of the barracks, the hallways between galleries are lined with photos of camp inmates. The Nazis took headshots of everyone admitted to the camp, until the number of admissions became too great. Each photo on the wall includes the inmate’s name and number—the number that was tattooed on his or her arm. I scan every photo, looking for a Goldman or a Borenstein. I find none. Some of the faces are blurry, presumably because the inmate moved as the shot was taken. The people in the photos mostly have shaved or closely shorn heads, though some of the women look out from hair tossed wildly around their faces. The expressions on the faces of these women seem more shocked than on their counterparts. It is the hair, but there is something in the eyes as well. I wonder what these women have seen that the others have not.
The thing that strikes me about these hundreds, maybe thousands of photos is that the faces are unremarkable. These are just people. Even shaved and tattooed and garbed in identical striped camp uniforms, after every attempt to strip away their humanity, their individuality, each of these photos is of a person. A person sent to this place to die.
I have been in the camp for several hours by now. There are barracks dedicated to victims from various countries—Primo Levi’s Italy, Elie Wiesel’s Hungary, Anne Frank’s Netherlands. I walk quickly through a few of these and skip a few more. I am wearing old, worn out shoes, and though I have no wish to privilege my family’s experience over any other, my feet insist that I hurry up and get to the point.
I reach the barrack dedicated to Poland. The exhibit is large and disappointing. Room after room, there is no mention of the Polish Jews. More than three million Jews lived in Poland before the war, a population that was annihilated. More than 300,000 Polish Jews died in Auschwitz alone. But all I see throughout this building, indeed, anywhere in the camp where the gentile Polish are mentioned, are exhibits celebrating the Poles who helped Jews hide and escape, the Poles who fought in uprisings against the Nazis. No mention of hundreds of years of anti-semitism. No mention of pogroms. No mention of the swaths of the Polish population who were perfectly content to let the Nazis deal with their Jewish problem, with the added bonus that they got to pick up whatever property the Jews happened to leave behind.
I am angry at this museum and at this country. I had already wondered if traveling here was a good idea. My father told me he wouldn’t do it. He believes the Polish are profiting on the ashes of a destroyed civilization, a civilization in whose destruction they were complicit. The compromise I decided on was that I would go to Jewish Museums, paying the admissions fees when there were any (figuring that admissions costs go to museum upkeep, and it was good to have the museums to encourage the remembrance of the extinguished culture), but that I would not buy any souvenirs—nothing that would go in the pocket of a Polish Catholic selling a Star of David pendant to make a quick buck. But is this compromise enough? The lack of acknowledgement of Polish complicity here confirms my father’s worst suspicions.
I am done with this exhibit. I come down a flight of stairs, into the last room in the Polish hall, ready to breeze through and take leave of this place. But at the bottom of the stairs, against the wall, I see a sideboard bearing two white binders full of laminated pages. I pause and take a look at the pages. Lists of names and numbers. A list of Polish citizens who were imprisoned in the camp, taken from the official camp registry.
I flip through the book until I reach the letter G. I do not know what I will find. I don’t know my grandparents’ Polish names—they were probably changed when they came through Ellis Island (my father’s given name is Stanislaw, but his American papers say Stanley). Plus, later in the war, when mass transits began to come through the camp, many prisoners weren’t registered. Certainly not the ones that went straight to the gas chamber.
I find three Goldmans. A Samuel, a Szmul, and a Julek. No Josef. It makes sense that my grandfather wouldn’t be in the log. He fought in the Polish army, and when the Nazis captured him, he hid his identity. He was sent to work in a mine in a POW camp, and was only sent to Auschwitz late in the war when someone discovered he was circumcised. My grandfather survived the war, thanks in large part to those years in the mine, the mistaken identity. The wife and children that he had before the war, his first family, were not so lucky. I do not know if they came to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, or succumbed to heat and thirst on a boxcar, or submitted to the disease and starvation of the Lodz ghetto. I do not know the names of these people, my aunts and uncles.
Really, I don’t know much about my grandfather. He died in 1988, when I was seven years old. He was a baker and spoke little English, though he lived in New York for more than 30 years. My memory of him is only an image—a round old man in a long gray coat and a hat that might have been plaid, coming through the door and into the narrow blue walkway of a small apartment, a loaf of bread under his arm. I do not remember ever seeing the number on his arm, and while my father is sure of its presence, he cannot recall the exact number, so I have no point of comparison for the names in this book. I take a photo of the page, just in case.
I flip back through the pages until I find the Bs. There are six Borensteins listed, including alternate spellings. There is no Gina, but I do find a Janina. This name, unlike most of those in the book, does not have a corresponding number. The space where the number should be is simply blank. My grandmother had no tattoo. No one knows why she didn’t have one. Nor what she had to do to avoid it.
I stare at the name. It has to be her.
Imagine you are a small child. Your father is a graduate student. Your mother works as a nurse, often on the night shift. Both are gone long hours. You spend these hours with your grandmother. A bond is forged between the two of you before you are even conscious, self-aware. Most of the photos taken of you when you were a baby, the ones that hang on your parents’ wall to this day, are taken in your grandmother’s apartment. Your first memory is walking through a light snow from this apartment to the Bronx Zoo, holding your grandmother’s hand. Her long, slim, fingers wrapped around yours. Holding tight.
Imagine always knowing something terrible happened to this grandmother, who you loved before you knew what love was called. This terrible thing happened long ago, and your grandmother will never talk about it. When you are ten years old, you have to interview an old person, ask her about her life when she was a child, as part of a homework assignment. Of course you choose to interview your grandmother. Your father tells you, don’t ask about the war. Only ask about before.
Imagine your grandmother picks you up from school everyday. She walks the four blocks to meet you and your younger sister in the schoolyard, and walks back listening to you describe each day’s happenings. Only one day she doesn’t show up. You and your sister wait in the schoolyard, at the edge of the chainlink fence. It is hot. You are sweating. You begin to feel panicked. Where is she? You walk the edges of the schoolyard, and when you can’t find her you rush home. You find her in her room, sitting in bed. She is reading a book. When you ask her where she was, she says she’s been there all along.
Imagine your grandmother begins to forget other things. She leaves a pot of water boiling on the stove. She loses money, and when she can’t find it she accuses your sister of stealing from her. Your sister is nine years old, maybe ten.
Imagine your parents put your grandmother in a nursing home. Imagine she starts calling at all hours of the night, every night, calling your father, saying that people are at her door, that they’re coming for her. Your father gets a second phone line, hooks up the phone and turns the ringer’s volume all the way down so it won’t wake up the rest of the family. The answering machine fills up.
Imagine the messages on that machine.
Imagine that you are sixteen years old when your grandmother dies. You do not see her in the last few days of her life. You don’t even know why. You just don’t visit. You always feel guilty about this. You hear later that the last time she saw your father, she did not recognize him.
Imagine you can’t talk about this with people. Not even your father. A decade passes, and the only time it ever comes out of you is on a bad night of drinking. You go to Holocaust museums, you see Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful. Everything makes you feel worse. When your best friend tries to tell you that rank and file Nazi soldiers shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions, your argument nearly turns into a fistfight. It is the closest the two of you ever come to blows.
Imagine a dozen years pass. You plan a summer trip to Europe. Poland is not on your original itinerary, but halfway through the trip, you realize there’s really only one reason you crossed the ocean.
Imagine you’re on a train from Prague to Krakow. You’re sitting with a couple of nice British kids, a guy and a girl, 22 or 23, fresh out of university. They’re funny in the way that British people tend to be, witty in the way they use their words. They will be in Krakow for two days, and plan to visit Auschwitz. (Every traveler you meet in or on the way to Krakow plans to visit Auschwitz—it’s the main tourist draw.) The guy gets up to use the bathroom in one of the other cars while the train is stopped at a station. While he is up the train splits, half the cars going to Krakow and half going somewhere else. The guy is almost caught on the wrong car in the switch, and the girl, who is sitting next to you and is very pretty, makes a joke about him ending up on the train to Auschwitz. You say that everyone who visits the camp should have to ride there in a boxcar. The three of you make a few more jokes, imagining a Universal Studios Auschwitz Experience. You laugh. It seems funny. You can tell the British kids mean no disrespect. They seem apprehensive about visiting the camp. They wonder if a few abandoned buildings in a field can hold the power of what happened there years before. You wonder the same thing. You are sure they wouldn’t have made the jokes if you had told them about your grandparents. You do not tell anyone you meet on the train or in Poland about your grandparents.
Imagine, after all this, you’re now standing above a binder holding thousands of names and numbers, all that is left of nearly all the people listed therein. You stand above this binder and you stare at your grandmother’s name.
I look at the name and all I can think is, wow. That’s it. I don’t cry. I just think, wow. I take a photo of the page and exit the building.
I think about that name as I walk. I can’t decide how I feel about it. In a strange way, I feel … good. Walking around the camp, I hadn’t felt a sense of atonement. It seemed the Polish were taking the easy way out by saying, the Germans did this. Seeing the name doesn’t make me feel like there is atonement going on, but I do feel something else now, something just as important: acknowledgement. Acknowledgement that she was there. That her suffering is remembered. That what happened at Auschwitz and throughout Europe is not just that number, six million, that we always hear. That these were individual people. Nothing will ever make it better. She left part of herself there. She was damaged in a way that most people can’t imagine. There’s no way to recoup that suffering, but at least it is acknowledged. That means something.
This is what I think as I walk three kilometers from the first camp to the second. Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was built about two years after the first camp opened. It was the true death camp, the site of the gas chambers and the crematoria. The place where death went industrial.
I walk for maybe ten minutes along a two-lane paved road. The sidewalk is lined with trees. I see a sign for Birkenau pointing up what looks like a freeway entrance. I walk up the ramp. It doesn’t go to a freeway at all. It just goes up and then descends again to a flat, narrow road with no sidewalk. I follow the road past a few country houses and then I come around a bend and I am looking straight down the railroad track that passes through the Gate of Death, the square brick entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The thing that gets me about the second camp is the size of it. The Nazis destroyed the crematoria and gas chambers when they fled—they’re just piles of brick and concrete now. Many of the barracks are gone as well, with only the brick chimneys remaining. But the grounds of the camp, they stretch on and on. A mile-and-a-half long. A mile wide. More than 400 acres. All that barbed wire.
It is after three o’clock. I haven’t eaten since 8 a.m., but I refuse to buy food at the concession stands. (I refuse in part because of my no-helping-someone-make-a-buck-off-human-suffering rule; in part because of my nervous stomach; and, in part, I suppose, because I feel I should go hungry here). The cloth lining in the heels of my shoes has worn all the way through. I can feel the raw burn of new blisters. My feet beg me to stop, head for the exit, find a seat on the next bus home. But I walk all across that camp. I walk on the tracks, hopping from tie to tie, until I reach the guardhouse where the Nazis drove people off the trains to make their selections, to decide who would die now and who would die later. I stand on this ground and imagine hundreds of people having their bags ripped from their hands, being clubbed if they cried out. The screaming. I walk between two tall barbed wire fences, down the road that women and children who were sent straight to the gas chamber walked. I am reminded of the ramps in a slaughterhouse.
On the far edge of the camp I see a small deer spring between the chimneys. I try to take a picture, but the deer is moving too fast. It is so vibrant, so full of life. But it is trapped inside the barbed wire. It can’t find its way out. The deer bounds out of sight. I never see it again.
I stare after the disappeared deer. I grind my feet in the gravel footpath. My anger is a dull, consuming hardness, as if I were encased in stone. In my three weeks in Europe, I’d crossed paths with many German people. On the whole, I found them to be the kindest, friendliest people I encountered in my travels. I had harbored ill feelings against Germany ever since I was old enough to hold a grudge, but in meeting German travelers and reading about German efforts toward atonement, the monuments in Berlin, the laws against denying the Holocaust, I had begun to wonder if I should let the grudge go. I thought about adding Berlin to my itinerary. But traversing the vastness of Birkenau, I feel that sentiment wane. I cannot forgive the routinization of murder. It’s not the act of murder that I can’t forgive—it’s the way that murder was industrialized, put on the assembly line. This is what I think as I walk between barbed wire fences, on roads small children trudged to their deaths, through stands of trees where people had to wait their turn to die because the gas chambers were full, past ponds and pits where the ashes of the dead were dumped, past the wreckage of the crematoria, piles of brick that look like they’ve collapsed in on themselves, the way I imagine a body without a soul would crumple, from the inside.
I think of my inability to forgive, and I think of the members of my family I will never know who walked these paths, and I think of my grandmother and grandfather, who somehow avoided these paths, who somehow stayed alive until the camp’s evacuation, who somehow escaped during the death march from Poland to Germany. Was that how they met? Under a snow-covered bush, listening to the shuffling feet of the walking dead, the shouts of the S.S., waiting to be noticed, waiting for the bullets that would take them to the end they’d somehow escaped when they eluded the gas? Was this where the elements that ultimately formed me began to bond? I do not know. I won’t ever know, now.
As I leave the camp, passing through the same gate my grandparents did as they were driven west, I find two conflicting impressions stand out. The first is disbelief at the scale of the operation of this genocide. What’s left of the camp now is just old buildings and what’s left of other old buildings. It’s a place where people did terrible things to other people a long time ago. There are many places like this throughout the world, many of them unmarked, unremembered. But the sheer size of this place, the number of people who came through here and who died here, the ruthless efficiency of these murderers, sets it apart. Even walking the grounds where it happened, having read all the books, seen all the movies, knowing and loving people who were here when it happened, it is still almost unimaginable.
And yet, there is that name in the book. In the act of recording my grandmother’s presence, publishing it for all who pass through to see, the keepers of this erstwhile death camp have given me a gift. My grandmother has been acknowledged, and it feels as if I have in some way been acknowledged as well.
Deep down, I had always known I had to come here. I knew that, until I came here and saw it for myself, this place would haunt me. I’ve always felt that the Holocaust was something I could never escape, that what the Nazis did to my family would forever define me. But now, having seen that name, walking through the gate, leaving the camp behind me, I feel different. I can neither forgive nor forget what happened to my family, but perhaps it is possible to honor the memory of my grandparents without defining myself through their suffering. Today I walked the grounds of Auschwitz. I saw that name. And something ended. There are many parts of my grandparents’ stories that I don’t know, that I’ll never know, but there is a little bit less that I need to imagine after today. That is something I can begin with.
*This essay was originally published, in slightly different form, in Dark Sky magazine.
Pingback: The Best of From a Brooklyn Basement | From a Brooklyn Basement