The night train stops at dawn with a heave and a sigh. The sound of a whistle, a small bustle outside the compartment window. I look at my watch. Almost five a.m.; we’re still an hour from Krakow. All night, the train rocked gently from Prague, yet I slept uneasily. Woken at the Czech-Polish border by pounding on the door — Passport Control. I slide off the top bunk, careful not to wake my sleeping little girl in the middle bunk, my husband on the bottom, and I carefully raise the blackout blind. It sticks and the catch pinches my finger but I finally raise it enough to see out. A white sign hangs outside, framed perfectly by the train window. Brzezinka. The name sounds familiar but it takes me a moment to remember — it’s the Polish word for Birkinau, the largest of the three Auschwitz concentration camps.
Auschwitz! The word is ashes, sirens and stomping boots, my baby ripped from me and trampled, vomit and diarrhea and starvation, choking for breath. It’s fear. I shut the blind; I’m not ready to be here yet. This morning we’ll continue on the train to Krakow. Tomorrow I’ll come back alone, to Auschwitz. Tomorrow is why I, an unobservant American Jew, just before my fortieth birthday, am on this train. I am a Jew, and this is my destination.
The train whistles, lurches, and pulls out of Brzezinka and into the Polish countryside, heading for Krakow through the green, foggy fields at dawn. Bill and Annie still sleep in their bunks, but I reopen the blind to watch the passing countryside with the strongest sense memory I’ve ever experienced. This is the first time I’ve been to Poland, but I bear an Ellis Island-butchered Polish name and this place touches something deep in me. Instead of feeling the horror of Auschwitz so close, these fields, these misty colors, release a deep, ancestral memory and I feel home.
I’ve rarely considered myself a spiritual seeker. Except, perhaps, now on this journey to Auschwitz, the place I fear the most. Auschwitz may seem an unlikely site to seek meaning. Unless you’re a Jew.
I was raised as a counter-cultural Jewish-Atheist red-diaper grand-baby in San Francisco and Marin County in the ’60s and ’70s. My father was a member of the “lost generation,” Bar Mitzva’d by a non-observant merchant family, who rebelled against all things traditional. My mother was a dancer. Her family, revolutionaries in Russia, socialists in Nebraska and Tolstoyan vegetarians in upstate New York, communists and labor leaders in the ’30s, believed in one world/one people and hated the rigidity of the old Jewish traditions to the extent that they celebrated Christmas with Christmas trees, caroling, and advent calendars. Our family never talked about religion except to scoff at those who practiced. We never addressed why people seek a deeper understanding of life. Religion was the refuge of little minds, the opiate of the masses; churches were political forces up to no good. We did not trust, we distrusted. And yet we were Jewish.
By the time I boarded this train to Krakow, I was a typical Bay Area non-religious Jewish pseudo-skeptic; a double Libra with my Venus in Scorpio who didn’t believe in astrology. I kept a nineteenth-century Thai Buddha on my mantelpiece and tried to emulate his serenity. Decembers were Hanukkah candles, latkes, and Christmas trees. On the Harmonic convergence, Bill and I drove up to Mt. Tamalpias to greet the dawn — but merely to witness the crystal-blessing, flute playing scene. I didn’t believe in God, unless you define God as physics. Sometimes, however, writing at dawn, I’d watched the auras of my house plants glow. The one time I took mushrooms I was deeply aware of the universe’s layers of consciousness, and of myself as a small part of the whole. I believed in meaningful coincidence, serendipity, that we are not what we seem, yet I’d rarely been to church, except as an anthropological experience in other countries, and I’d been to temple only twice, when invited with friends.
The train rolls through the countryside, the towns, the industrial outskirts, and into the city. We gather our luggage and disembark. A new country for us; unlike in Budapest and Prague, nothing is in English and we don’t speak a word of Polish. We’re in bad temper and nervous, just seventy kilometers from Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was the biggest of the World War II Nazi death camps. It was actually three camps: Auschwitz I, which held mostly political prisoners; Auschwitz-Birkinau, a huge concentration and extermination camp where over a million Jews, Gypsies, and political prisoners were gassed and cremated; and Auschwitz-Monowitz, a chemical factory. The Auschwitz-Birkinau State Museum, open to the public, is comprised of Auschwitz I, an educational museum and memorial shrine, and Birkinau, three kilometers away, which was burned and bombed by the retreating Germans and has been left as it was. Auschwitz-Monowitz is closed except by special arrangement. Tomorrow, I’ll visit both Aushwitz I and Birkinau.
I haven’t always been ready to come here. When Annie was a baby, Bill and I took her to Europe and found ourselves one afternoon in a mad, driving dash across Germany to catch an airplane out of Amsterdam. Rain, crying baby, hungry, low on gas, we pulled off the autobahn to gather our wits, came to the exit, and saw a sign pointing left: DACHAU. “Get back on! Get back on the autobahn!” I yelled, and Bill did a quick U-turn and drove us as far and as fast as he could.
This time, I want to be here. I will go by myself — Bill will go alone the day after. The reason for this is pragmatic: one of us needs to stay with our now seven-year-old daughter — and it’s emotional: an experience this extreme is best not filtered through another’s reactions. It’s a journey we each need to take alone.
Auschwitz is the last stage in a journey we began in Budapest ten days ago. We spent a week teaching in Budapest and then traveled to Prague. Our plans to come here tinted the rest of the journey; I’d been in Budapest and Prague before but this time I saw everything through a Holocaust lens, as if World War II had just ended.
In the Budapest synagogue, the ghosts of the Jews who had sat in the benches rose around me, I felt them. I walked through the branches of a metal weeping willow memorial tree, each leaf engraved with the name of a Holocaust victim, and the fingers of the dead reached out to catch my hair. In the Budapest flea market, on a wooden table amidst the cultural detritus, I stumbled on a three-inch high lead soldier wearing a Nazi uniform and arm band, his arm raised in a Heil Hitler salute. In Prague: Bill’s last name on the Pinkas Synagogue wall; a military antiquities store window filled with Nazi nostalgia. On our last night in Prague, I dreamt about Auschwitz. In the dream, it was just another Holocaust display. I awoke distraught. All my life I’d read books, seen pictures and movies, names on walls and sculptural trees. At Auschwitz I’d really be there. Where it happened.
How am I a Jew? It’s confusing when your ethnicity bears the name of a religion. A few years ago I tried to become more Jewish. I started with the traditions that my family had left behind. I read about Shabbat, a time for reflection once a week, an evening to light candles and be together, a peaceful break from a busy life. For a working mother who woke up in the middle of the night to finish the day’s tasks, this idea of an island of stillness soothed like water on a thirsty throat.
At a store selling Jewish books and supplies, I shopped for a pair of brass candlesticks. My heart pounded every time I entered the store (imposter!) but I persevered, finally working up the courage to actually purchase them, along with a supply of white, stubby candles. I lit the Shabbat candles three or four times. I explained it to my two-year-old daughter as a little party, a time to celebrate the week. These were the words I used; they came from one of the books I read. Bill went along with me, bemused and slightly indulgent.
And I felt like a phony, a faker. Because I wasn’t really Jewish. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, reciting words in a different language, waving my hands superstitiously over the flames and then covering my eyes. Because I didn’t believe in God. Because I couldn’t support an oppressive religion, and all of them were. Because I didn’t really want to be Jewish, a victim, a hated, big-nosed, hairy, nasal, whining, smart-mouthed neurotic. Because, really, I’d always wanted to be normal looking, not dark and exotic and Jewish-looking. Because what, in my confused state, was I teaching my daughter? The candlesticks dulled and I didn’t shine them.
After getting Polish zlotys from an ATM, staring at maps in the station and almost getting ripped off by a cab driver, we head off for the center of Krakow on foot, our backpacks heavy on our backs. We find a small hotel near the square, the Hotel Saski, and we walk from there to Kamzierz, the Jewish ghetto. I know this place from the movies: Schindler’s List; Jakob the Liar. It’s a mess, still a ghetto. Boarded-up windows, trash in the streets. Next to an impoverished synagogue, a cemetery of stones torn up during the war, every tooth violently yanked from a mouth, reset, now, in arbitrary rows. A Jewish bookstore. A few restaurants and stores catering to the Israeli tourist market.
The man in the bookstore speaks some English. A sign on the window advertises tours to Auschwitz I and Birkinau. “You don’t need a tour,” he tells us. “You take the bus, not the train.” He looks like my cousin. He writes down the schedule for us. The bus leaves at 9:30 a.m. It arrives at Aushwitz I in Oswiciem (the Polish word for Auschwitz — it’s a town, too), at 10:45. The minibus from Auschwitz I to Birkinau leaves at 1:30. It takes five minutes to get there. At 3:05, the minibus goes back to Auschwitz I, and at 3:30, the bus back to Krakow. Don’t miss the bus and get stuck at Auschwitz. In gratitude, we buy a book from him. Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.
The rest of the day we sightsee. The center of Krakow is beautiful, this city where the current Pope was born and raised. Nuns and priests in black habits everywhere, the famous Wawel castle on the hill next to the cathedral, the old town square bordered by shops and outdoor cafes. We hire a horse cart, we climb the tower. From the top, we see beyond the ring of the quaint old city limits into the new part of town. Huge industrial complexes, Soviet housing blocks, a nuclear power plant along the river. Until a few years ago, this city was one of the most polluted in Europe. I stare out at the horizon. It’s there, seventy kilometers away.
In the morning, I leave Bill and Annie at the Hotel Saski and walk to the bus stop. In Auschwitz, in my imagination, the trees are always bare, lashed with wind and blinding rain and sleet. The skies are always grey, the people always grey with hunger and weariness. Shreds of clothing hang loosely, the sky shrieks, the babies die, the mothers weep. It’s a dark place and there’s no daylight.
In contrast, the Polish countryside radiates in a spring far greener than the wet green winters of Northern California, my home. Young colts frolic in the fields, birds sing, the ground pushes up fertility, farmers till the land, small castles dot the rolling hills. Lush forests. And every once in a while, a road sign. OSWICIEM. I cannot breathe. I am going to a funeral.
We pass small towns and old farm houses. That barn was there then, did Jews hide inside? What happened on this land? A young farmer stinking of booze stumbles on the bus and sits behind me, covered with dirt and straw. I welcome his stench; it matches my internal reality better than the clean, spring air. I photograph and take notes frantically. The acceleration of the bus whines like air raid sirens. We parallel the train track now. Almost there. We pass car dealerships and small hotels. We’ve arrived.
The moment I step off the bus, my feet and legs lose all feeling. Disembodied, I float through the wooded outskirts where the guards lived, into the Auschwitz-Birkinau State Museum parking lot where the buses belch diesel fumes. School buses. There’s a large new building here housing the museum shop. The cafeteria. A theater where they show an informational movie (in English twice every day). The ticket booth. I skip the movie, pass through the glass doors, into the grounds of Auschwitz I in line with a number of teenagers. A sign tells us to respect the sanctity of this place.
I want a Jewish star to wear. If there is anywhere on earth I want to wear a Jewish star it is here.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI. I pass under the metal arch, “work will make you free,” and cross the railway tracks. I walk away from the crowds heading towards the crematorium and down the railroad track because I need to be alone. I’m here, and like a grown child visiting a childhood home, it’s smaller than I remember in my nightmares, and like a nightmare made real, too solid, the buildings too building-like, the trees too much like trees. Birds sing.
Many of the barracks have been made into museum displays. Several house the general exhibition: Extermination; Material Evidence of Crimes; The “Death” Block — and eight have been set aside as separate exhibitions: U.S.S.R., Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia/Austria, Hungary, France/Belgium, Italy/Holland, The Jews. Alone, I walk into the Jewish barrack where nothing is left as it was, the building as impersonal as any museum. TV monitors show black and white loops of Jews herded into ghettos. A large blow-up photo of Anne Frank smiles down at me from the wall, a large blow-up photo of piles of dead bodies in a mass grave. Like my nightmare in Prague: the same images as in any Holocaust museum. Alone, I follow the proscribed path through the exhibition. Near the end, an homage to seven Jews in the Polish Resistance movement. What! As if the Polish Resistance didn’t sell out, turn in, sabotage, kill the Jewish Resistance in Poland.
The final room is a dark chapel lit by a single candle in the center of the floor. I press a button on the wall and a kantor’s voice sings the Kaddish, the Hebrew Song for the Dead. Near the candle, sunk into the floor, a single gravestone with a Star of David on it, cracked in half, glassed over. The candle flickers. Six million people dead, and this is what we get? A single grave, a religious song, a candle?
I walk quickly from the room back into the light, out of the barracks and into the yard.
Now I rejoin the crowds, tour the museum exhibits, cozy up to the tour groups, hear about the killing techniques, systematic starvation, torture. The experiments: irradiation, castration, twin studies, injections with contaminated blood. I see the gallery-long cases of hair, shoes, suitcases, combs and brushes, piles of wire-rimmed eyeglasses. The cans of Zyklon B gas pellets. I walk past the Wall of Death, thorough the assembly square, bright in noon sun. School kids giggle anxiously and tourists rest against the walls, pull away from the tour groups, numbed. A high school girl stands to the side of a building, her face white and running with tears.
I’m devastated by the horrors I see but confused, too. It still doesn’t feel real, a movie set. Auschwitz is too small to be Auschwitz. The evil is silent. And yet it’s here. And yet it’s not. And I notice more: No pictures of Jewish inmates, only Poles. The famous Wall of Death where they executed 10,000 people, all political prisoners: none Jewish. They wouldn’t waste a bullet on a Jew.
I’m stunned, a tourist in a tourist attraction with a political agenda; this is not really Auschwitz anymore. The focus is wrong. The Auschwitz-Birkinau State Museum, established in 1947 by the Soviet liberators, is a monument to the Polish victims of World War II, and, oh yes, all the other victims of National Socialism too. Even now, they don’t acknowledge that 90% of the people who died at Auschwitz were Jewish. They say “many.” They say “the majority.” It’s dishonest, a final disrespect. Betrayed, I walk out the gate and stand at the bus stop, waiting for part two. Birkinau.
Waiting for the minibus to Birkinau, I wonder what made me think that this locus of evil, Auschwitz, where the cruelest and most cynical acts against humanity occurred, would give me clarity about how and why it happened. The How seems understandable. Perhaps. The devaluing, the systematic approach, the slow, lazy slide into evil. The only Why that seems reasonable is unbearable and too easy — it’s because human beings do things like this. It’s in our nature. We have so little reverence for life; the human race is a race of horrors, humans are not capable of humanity.
Is this what I’m passing on to my child? Annie is not here with me today, won’t be here with Bill tomorrow, but we’ve dragged her through so much these ten days — synagogues and cemeteries and ghettos. We’ve taught her about Auschwitz, the worst in us, before she knows about the ways people save and nurture each other, the thrill of accomplishment, the power of resistance. Have we done this thoughtlessly or as a warning?
It’s a short ride to Birkinau.
In Birkinau, left as it was, there’s less room for political revision. A few tourists step off the minibus with me and we walk through the open Gates of Death and immediately dissipate in the immensity of this complex. It’s huge. Huge! I walk an hour and a half, swiftly, the last ten minutes at a dead run. Walking the full perimeter of Birkinau would take twice that time.
Acres of ruins. Rows and rows of shadows of barrack foundations covered in waving green grasses, the crumbles of brick chimneys like tall gravestones behind rusted barbed wire electric fences, the ceramic circuitry still crisp and white. Everywhere, everywhere, green grass. I walk and walk west down the railway tracks where day and night cattle cars crammed with Jews pulled through the Gates of Hell. It takes me 15 minutes at a rapid pace past the women’s barracks to the Selektion platform. Here the barking, snarling dogs, patrolling soldiers. Here the trains coughed their loads of Jews: some were pointed left to the camp toward extermination through work; most were pointed right to the crematoria to immediate death. The gas and ovens working day and night. Killing.
Yet I can’t see or feel this. Birkinau is silent, the silence of nothing, the emptiness of a long railroad track to the diminishing point of infinity. There are no ghosts here. At Tikal, the Mayan jungle ruins in Guatemala, I stood near the killing stones beneath the pyramid, I laid my hands on the stones and I heard the screams and smelled the blood. But those people belonged there, believed in their sacrifice. No people belonged here. The dead dissipated with the smoke, the few who lived through it departed, leaving nothing behind.
The air is warm and clear, the sky blue. At the collapsed rubble of Crematoria III, I turn north, past the baths, through the woods, past the long foundation outlines of “Canada” where the dead’s belongings were sorted into huge piles of shoes, eyeglasses, luggage, clothing, combs, catalogued and sent in the now-empty cattle cars back to Germany to pile up in huge warehouses. A small pile of spoons rusts beneath chicken wire. I flush a wild grouse; it flies away low and brown.
I pass a stand of trees. In these forests, they sometimes stood all night waiting for room in the gas chambers, knowing they were going to die. I come to the meadows where they burned piles of corpses in the open air when the numbers overloaded the crematoria. A still, natural pool in the meadow. There, four black, granite, nameless tombstones. The grass and trees glow with exuberance as if sprouting from the essence of life itself. Today, after almost 60 springs at Auschwitz, frogs, lilies, flowering reeds, the sky deep blue, the sun bright and yellow, the meadow lush and in bloom.
This is no locus of evil. Only humans create evil. Dead is dead. Ground renews.
There’s a resignation in this, a lightening.
Past the ash fields, the path goes east through Sektor III skirting the men’s camp, gypsy camp, “family” camp, SS headquarters, quarantine area. As I round the guard tower at the final corner I stop next to the fence. Some who made it past Selektion into the camps chose death by suicide–running towards freedom into the electric wires. I pick up a few shards of the white ceramic knobs used to bear the wires, a few pieces of long-ago burnt metal. I look at my watch. I’ll miss the minibus. I run the rest of the way.
Until I visited Auschwitz-Birkinau, I’d always measured myself against the survivors of the Holocaust. Would I have had the internal tenacity and grit, the inner goodness to survive? Yet only 23% of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz ever made it past Selektion. The rest were gassed and burnt immediately. By the time the Russians liberated Auschwitz in 1945, only 7,000 prisoners remained.
I understand now: If I were born a few decades earlier in Europe, I wouldn’t be able to choose or reject my Judaism, test my mettle, question my beliefs. If I didn’t look right at exactly that second on the Selektion platform, if I was too young, too old, too sick, disabled, if I didn’t fill a quota, if I was like 77% of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz, I’d be dead immediately. I wouldn’t be a human being, just a problem, part of a day’s work, kilos of ambulatory meat to be destroyed. If I made it into the camp, I’d be exterminated through starvation, disease, murder. I’d be dead.
Post-Auschwitz, the whole world was Auschwitz for a while. We spent a week in Paris, the famous city of light, and all the buildings looked like bone. I walked the streets in a blind panic, afraid to stop walking, exhausted and sick. A week of rain and visiting cemeteries. The catacombs, six million dead bodies, the bones and skulls stacked in macabre piles. Pere Lachaise cemetery. I toured the cemetery alone. I walked unprepared into a row of memorials for the deportees to Bergen Belsen. Dachau. Malthausen. Majdenek, Buchenwald. Auschwitz. Gaunt sculptures, gray faces of agony. An outstretched gaunt arm.
Who is this woman, sobbing in the rain, and placing pebbles on the memorial stones of people dead almost 60 years?
For me, Auschwitz was a wake-up call. We live on an injured planet. Here, in Northern California, the oaks die of a Phytophoria marched in on human feet, miles of funereal forest, thousands of hundred-year-old trees gray and skeletal, their branches like the arms of concentration camp victims reaching for the sky. The whales suicide on the beaches, governments shout and topple, war screams in the Middle East, and is my friend Ayala safe there? I cannot hold my daughter close enough: a nuclear cloud can reach us in days.
There is no haven. The world turns gray and Auschwitz. I cannot, ultimately, trust human beings. We have great reserves of good in us but are tainted by our ability to do evil. While the universe strives for balance and equilibrium, human beings are the bullies of the playground. Nature has great power to heal our wounds, it’s what it does, growing over the gashes, reusing the ashes. But how far before it’s too late? I am not optimistic.
There isn’t enough time. It’s important to pay attention to life in all its complexity, to choose to defeat the inhumanities and intolerances within myself. I think of Birkinau itself, vast and green, thick with life. Almost 60 years ago, six million people were slaughtered. In another 60 years, give or take, I’ll be dead, too, my body returning its nutrients to the ground. This gives me hope. Nature replenishes.
When I came back from Auschwitz, I wore a Star of David earring for a few months as a statement of my cultural identity, until the Palestinian Intifada began again and people saw the symbol as political support of Israel. Since then, I’ve turned 40 and 41. I’ve started a writer’s community. I’ve planted a garden; vegetables and flowers and bulbs, vines and roses. I dig, weed, move stones. I mother my daughter, revel in her love and zest for life, and try to consciously teach her about the goodness in people. I focus in on my marriage. I still have the Buddha on my mantel, the seder at Passover, the Christmas tree in December. A Christian symbol does not make me Christian any more than wearing or not wearing a Jewish star will help me if the jack boots stomp for me in the night.
My father recently posted a quote by Bernard Malamud in his house: “If you ever forget you are a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.” After Auschwitz, I know my being a Jew has nothing to do with my choice of religion or my spirituality or my politics. My ethnicity does not wash off in this world. I will never again apologize for not being Jewish enough. Just so, I will not use my ethnicity to apologize for cruelty, horror, oppression.
I don’t know if I’ve faced down my terror of Auschwitz. I’m still on my path. I know that I have it in me to be evil so I strive to be honest and kind. I seek equilibrium, struggle to notice detail, appreciate what I have, walk in the woods every day. I wonder about life’s fragility and tenacity. I wonder for myself, and I wonder for all those women who looked like me, who thought and felt like me, who were ripped from their homes, shoved onto trains, and died at Auschwitz. I wonder for all who are ripped from their homes, for those buried under the collapsing walls of home.
I keep my fragments of the ruins of Birkinau in a plastic bag in my top bureau drawer. Sometimes my fingers find them accidentally as I rummage for keys or an old receipt. If I open the bag, I can touch the pieces, the white knobs that carried the imprisoning electricity, the metal fragments the ashy color of Auschwitz. Stumbling on evil is not always a bad thing. Perhaps I’ll plant them in my garden.