After Remuh cemetery my senses lit up and Krakow came into magical focus. I was Dorothy in Polish Oz. I saw lanky bird-footed creatures, straight out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, darting into Starbucks to get out of the rain, shaking their umbrellas like wings.
But also echoes… Boots on cobblestone. Pounding on doors.
Waiting in the cafe, I sipped my tea and flicked through my Instagram feed. Family vacation shots. Barbecues. Dip recipes. Anything to distract.
Our Auschwitz driver was late to meet us.
The ride to the camps was long and terrifying. Our driver spared no speed on rain slick curves, politely informing me, that it was perfectly legal to text and drive in Poland. Then he ran straight over a young deer, without flinching.
My daughters, in the backseat didn’t see.
“What was that?” They asked, after the telltale thunk on the undercarriage.
“Nothing.” I lied.
But my friend, sitting directly behind me, knew. Our eyes met in that silent mother’s pact not to speak a word of this to the kids. As if sparing them the knowledge that we had run over an already-dead fawn, was going to protect them from the world.
The wipers beat out a lackluster swish, swish, swish of resignation. No turning back now. Outside the window ramshackle barns and rusted tractors and thickets of tall trees flew by.
The scenery reminded me of childhood summers spent in upstate New York. We’d played “Where would you hide from the Nazis?” and ducked between trees wide enough to conceal ourselves. It was my favorite game. I really was a macabre child. Or maybe I was normal, acting out the stories I’d heard swapped for fairy tales.
Last year I toured Yad Vashem, outside Jerusalem in Israel. The shoes. Shoes always get me. Tiny baby shoes and delicate tooled sandals, jumbled together with well worn boots and scuffed up slippers.
I almost didn’t make it all the way through Yad Vashem. It was just… too much. Just as the corridors got impossibly narrow, forcing visitors to crowd together, just when the dark walls seemed to close in and almost no light remained from above, panic beckoned. I had to pause and regroup.
Yad Vashem is so well designed. It’s a compassionately engineered mind game that’s worth sticking out to the end, where you walk uphill into the light. Yad Vashem sends you off humming a remembered tune, your soul infused with a collective memory of songs and names and hope. The words Yad Vashem mean “A Hand and a Name.” It’s something to hang onto.
Auschwitz is the reason we need Yad Vashem. And it’s nothing like it, nothing at all.
The crunch of tires on gravel announced our arrival. A visit to the ticket office, a quick stop at the restrooms and we were in. Us and a few hundred other tourists with tickets for the 5pm showing.
We solemnly picked our way along the path towards buildings I’ve seen in countless films and photos. So real. Surreal. Supersaturated and damp. Ozone scented air. Impossibly green grass, livid with life.
“This is where the band played to keep the prisoners calm.” Our guide gestured to a plaque beside the path.
Under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, Japanese tourists snapped selfies and parents with young children, just finishing up their tours, laughed as they splashed through the puddles and hurried back to the gift shop to buy some ice cream and souvenirs.
Are you allowed to splash in puddles and laugh at Auschwitz?
I began to understand the reason for all the monochromatic close ups of the razor wire and moody black and white photos of the camps. Auschwitz, in person, is a little too lovely looking.
Neatly symmetrical red brick buildings separated by leaf dappled courtyards and walkways. It’s all so sturdy and reassuring in composition – like a school campus or summer camp. A literal summer camp. Which is exactly how the Germans intended it to look, I suppose. Crafts center behind the girl’s bunks.
Our guide rushed us along, reciting a monolog worn smooth and featureless from overuse. He stepped outside to check his texts as we lingered looking at some examples of prison garb.
“Unfortunately, the more detailed displays of human hair andcollected effects of prisoners are closed for renovation today,” he told us, tapping his watch. “It’s a shame really, but anyways we are short on time and you can get the idea from what you have seen in the barracks.”
Should we have felt cheated, not to have the opportunity see the most human elements of Auschwitz – the piles of human hair and confiscated artificial limbs and suitcases?
Inside the barracks, empty eyes followed us down the immaculately clean and well swept corridors lined with inmate photos. Rows and rows of similarly shaven heads, both male and female blurred and mingled until they stopped having names, ages, genders. But there were specific badges that sorted them by crime: Jew, political prisoner, homosexual…
I forced myself to read the names and dates, calculating in some pathetic attempt to quantify; to box and confine their suffering to a calendar. 3 months was the average length they lasted. But here and there were Annas and Victors who made it 6 or 8 months or even a year. How? Why? For what?
Empty eyes staring back at me. No secrets to share.
Outside on the path my friend stooped to pick up some candy wrappers and litter. The litter enraged her almost as much as the freshly mown grass and happily chirping birds tweaked at me.
Can you eat candy at Auschwitz? Can you sit on the grass for a small picnic, between barracks? How long till the moss grows thick, forming a cloak of invisibility between the living and the dead?
How many generations does it take for the wound to heal?
I was a bit surprised when my daughters looked at me with dry eyes full of frustration.
“It’s Auschwitzland,” they said. “I don’t know what I expected to feel but… it wasn’t this”
Before leaving we visited the gas chambers and it was here, much like Remuh cemetery, that I finally felt something. A hand on my back. A shove out the door.
“Leave,” the voices said. I had the sense that it was a couple. A man and a woman. But I’m not sure which one was speaking.
“Just go. Leave now and don’t come back. What are you doing here anyway? You can leave. You can just walk out that door and keep walking. It’s so easy. Go!”
And so I did. We all did. Wordlessly, obediently, we all walked out the door, thru the gates, past the barbed wire and back to the van.
My younger daughter paused in the parking lot, glancing back for a few moments.
Twilight darkened the sky and settled quietly around us, touching first the trees, then slipping silkily to the ground like a cloak as we rolled back toward Krakow. Distant lights blinked off fairy tale castles and the stars came out to shine.
No spirits followed us home.
- Spirits in Poland Part 1 Family
- Spirits in Poland Part 2 Krakow
- Spirits in Poland Part 3 Auschwitzland
- Spirits in Poland Part 4 Spirit Sausages
- Spirits in Poland Part 5 The Mourner’s Prayer