Saturday, May 28, 2005


Dispatches from Poland: the Auschwitz Museum

[Monday, May 24]

Untitled-5 The Birkenau extermination camp at Auschwitz

My intention of visiting Auschwitz was always a vague notion, like the occasional wish to learn a new language or a new musical instrument. “Oh yes, I’ll go there some day,” I’d think, but without much conviction that the intention would harden into a plan. But when I found myself on my way to Poland, and to Krakow at that – just over an hour away – it was clear that I had to, and would, go.

The visit to Auschwitz – I find I prefer calling it “the Auschwitz Museum” to name the experience of visiting the site of the former concentration and death camp as a tourist – was hanging over my Poland tour like a dark cloud. Trying to enjoy oneself in quaint little Krakow, knowing that Auschwitz had operated just down the road, involves a measure of denial reminiscent of the revelers in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

For much of the day before the trip, B and I were snappish and irritable, due no doubt to anxiety about what would on doubt be a painful and disturbing experience. The hour and a half bus ride was incongruous: as we drove through picturesque Polish countryside on the beautiful sunny day, I thought about how well over a million people had ridden through this same countryside as the last trip they would ever have in their lives. The bus ride became a time for brooding contemplation. Even the chatty American kids sitting behind us shut up a half hour into the trip.

Walking to the museum entrance, I was very conscious of being stared at by a long row of people-watchers on park benches lining the path to the entrance: 14 year old blond boys speaking Polish and laughing, men smoking cigarettes and slowly turning their heads to follow us we crossed their field of vision. The mood was all wrong.

Inside the museum, a multilingual throng, signs in at least six languages, tour guides giving instructions to small clusters of people. B told me to go ahead to watch the introductory film while she lined up to buy tickets for the guided tour.

The movie had the newsreel footage of the death camp that you’d expect, but was strikingly unmoving. The crackly-sounding narration in accented English, with its florid text and translated-into-English phrasing, gave the film the quaint, unpersuasive air of a Soviet-style propaganda film. Couldn’t they have put together a more compelling short film to introduce visitors to this monumentally important site?

But my emotions were jolted when B rejoined me and told me that we had just missed the 11:30 tour. We’d have to cool our heels in the waiting area for an hour and a half until the 1:00 p.m. tour started. Couldn’t we just tag along with the 11:30 tour, I wondered aloud?

No. The tour groups were identified by color-coded square stickers, which we were all to attach to our shirt fronts. The people on the 11:30 tour all had orange stickers displayed on their shirts; but we were given green.

Nice touch – color coded stickers for the clothing. The idea of having some authority figure dictate my freedom of movement due to the color of some sticker on my shirt certainly created a heightened sense of experience: it made me sort of sick. I contemplated a scene in which I’d get in the tour guide’s face is she tried to kick us out of the group: “Here of all places! Shame on you!”

In the event, they found another English speaking tour guide (apparently there is something of a shortage) and we were able to get orange stickers after all.

The tour of the camp then began. Auschwitz is actually two camps. The first, Auschwitz proper, was actually a converted Polish Army barracks. And if you look only at the buildings and grounds, without hearing details of what went on the site, it does not look like such a horrible place: I’ve seen American prisons whose physical plant looks more scary and depressing.

The tour quickly devolved into a museum tour distinguished only by its unusually horrific subject matter. You see, hear and read about, the detritus of the horror of the camps – the torture and executions, the huge piles of human hair and luggage – but it is conveyed in the manner of a museum: the tour guide’s lecture, captioned photographs and selections of real artifacts inside glass cases. And not a particularly well-presented museum at that: I’ve seen half a dozen museum exhibitions of the holocaust that moved me more. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. was a far more powerful experience.

I began thinking, as we trudged around the camp buildings-cum-museum that this Auschwitz Museum was a good introduction for people who knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. I’m no historical expert, but I’ve done some reading and seen several documentaries and Hollywood movies about the holocaust, and felt I was getting nothing new. How strange that the most moving aspects of the experience were the personal logistics of getting into the mus – the bus ride, the walk past the gawkers, the color-coded tags.

That was until we went to the gas chamber.

Auschwitz had one gas chamber – a prototype for the larger ones that would be installed in the later death camps – and it survived the war. The attached crematorium, where the bodies of those killed by the poison gas were incinerated, was destroyed by the Nazis in their coverup effort as they retreated from Poland; but the Museum has realistically restored it using original materials.

We lined up outside, and then filed into the gas chamber, as millions of people had done as the last act of their lives. In that moment, I felt all the layers of thought that protect me from shameful feelings – the evaluative, judgmental, humorous, cynical, angry layers of thought – stepped aside. There was nothing but to feel “I am here, now.”

I’ve not had that many moments of such unfiltered experience. This one took the shape of a single sob.

After that emotional spike, the tour plateaued. We took a break, and boarded a bus for Birkenau. Built by the Germans for the express purpose of exterminating Jews, the huge Birkenau encampment, with a substantial fraction of surviving barracks and its long rail spur ending at the former crematorium site, conveys something semblance of the horrors that occurred there. We walked down the long dusty path to the spot where condemned Jews disembarked for the selection – immediate death in the gas chamber or a small chance of survival as slave labor. Here, you become part of something suggestive of a re-enactment. The people who got off the train between 1942 and 1945 stood there in their ordinary street clothes, just like us.

The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” has never had much meaning for me, a mere tired metaphor in a religious incantation. That too changed when, back in my hotel room, I wiped the dust of Auschwitz-Birkenau from my shoes.

You should go there.


Thank you, Oscar.
i visited this museum in 1997 and was shocked by the mundane of it as well - once inside the fences, auschwitz looks like a row of college dormitories. during golden polish fall it's actually a pretty campus, until you see the piles of hair and the labeled suitcases, and hanging tallitot.

at birkenau, it was strange to hear cattle lowing and to see butterflies, but i did.

one single sob? me, too.

poland does not deal particularly well with its role in the holocaust - the lack of impact of the museum there is one way of showing it... but then again, it is the place itself - it does not need more impact than that.

on our bus back to krakow, i wondered what the farmers on the road to oswiecim thought was going on at those camps - or did they choose not to think of it at all...
Oswiecim is a terribly complicated place, for sure, as is the history surrounding Jewish people in this country prior to and after the war. I have been reading, listening, asking about it for decades, and as Pole, I still feel I do not have a grasp of the entirety. Oh, if it were only simple, so that we could point fingers at the wrongdoers (never us!) and make ourselves feel good!

You have to know that Oswiecim is a poor, depressed town now. Young people hang out with nothing to do.They feel themselves cursed to be placed at the feet of a death camp, deprived of a normal life, with all visitors watching them, expecting the weight of the place to be their weight as well. If Poland had the resources, it should buy out the land for miles around so that it would not be farmed, so that normality would not be part of the imagery leading up to the camps. But it doesn't, nor do Poles have the ability to sell and move elsewhere.

Farmers who knew or did not know what went on during the war? Well okay, go ahead and ask that. But we already know the answers -- some Poles helped hide Jews at terrific risk to themselves and their families. Some Poles sold their souls to the Nazis. But not many. Thank God, not many. As for those farmers who ploughed their fields then - I want to ask not only what they may have been thinking, but what others, those outside Poland with the resources to do something about the horrors that went on inside all six death camps in this country, what were they thinking? So many Poles lost their lives in a resistance that was an ugly, most often pointless blood bath. Unassisted by countries that were already focused on the political consequences to them of each and every battle, thinking about how the boundaries of Poland were to be drawn after it was all over. And with each day,thousands upon thousands died, leaving nothing but gravestones (if that) to console the family members that managed to survive.

Anyway, I think we have a lot to study and think about. And to learn and to observe. And to find fault with. But knowing all the while that so many who lived through this nightmare were not any all less noble, less brave, less heroic, less human than perhaps we ourselves would be. And that it's not always easy to pick out the heores and the villains. Sometimes it is, but not always.
Life and death, tears and ashes, the present and the past. Thanks, D. The greatest legacy of the Holocaust victims and survivors could be in how we respond to deadly injustice today. Do we recognize, and mourn when necessary, the common humanity of life, or do we merely aspire to be on the winning side of the next holocaust? "If night falls, and a bomb falls, will anybody see the dawn?" I pray God we choose the first, for all the living and the Dead.
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