We have a long weekend off from the summer law program at Charles University in Prague, so Rachel, Gil and I board the night train for an excursion to Poland.
Employees in maroon uniforms and hats that say “MARS” nervously pace up and down the hall to show people to their rooms before the train starts moving. I enter our room first and pick the top bunk because it appears to have some semblance of privacy. Although I don’t realize it at the time, this is a mistake. Within two hours, the temperature in the top bunk hovers somewhere between “Africa-hot” and “rainforest.” If gets any hotter, I may openly weep.
Music: “Dancing on the ceiling” by Lionel Richie
Our train pulls into Krakow around 5:00 a.m., and we have time to kill before things open. As we leisurely stroll past small restaurants and shops, something suddenly lands on the top of my head. To my disgust, it is white and has apparently originated from a pigeon. ARRGGHHHHH!!!!!!!! I run down the street in a rage trying to kick birds as they scatter in every direction. When there aren’t any pigeons left within kicking distance, I sulk back to my friends, who are doubled over laughing. Through his laughter, Gil tells me that in Jewish culture, this is considered good luck.
“Yeah right,” I reply as Rachel hands me a napkin to wipe off my head.
“No really, it’s true” he says. I don’t want to believe him, but what the hell. At this point, I have no better option. I clean up, and we continue to walk around Krakow, eventually finding a small restaurant that just opened. As we take our seats, a Lionel Richie song plays in the background. Now here is something you don’t do every day … sit down for breakfast in Poland, while listening to Lionel Richie with bird poop on your head. Hahaha.
After breakfast, we walk to the town square. There is not much going on this early, but several groups of odd young men in cloth ponchos walk around singing and chanting. I want to take their picture, but don’t want to be responsible for the melee that breaks out when it turns out they don’t like to be photographed. To avoid antagonizing them, I snap their picture as Gil stands in front of me and pretends to be the subject of my photo.
Music: “Quartet for the end of time” by Oliver Messiae
An hour later, Rachel announces that it’s time to catch the bus to Auschwitz. We walk to the bus station and try to read the bus schedule but is about as easy as translating a torts casebook into Apache. Rachel eventually figures out what bus we need to take with the use of her Polish phrase book, and we board one heading to the town of Oswiecim, the site of Auschwitz.
Nearly two hours later, our bus arrives at Auschwitz. The camp is not visible as we get off the bus and walk up a narrow road past thin white birch trees.
Before entering the camp itself, we are ushered into a small theater to view a documentary film shot by the Russian army during the camp’s liberation. I have seen some of this footage before, but that doesn’t make it any easier to look at the haunting and sunken faces of the prisoners. After the film, we talk quietly as we walk down the dirt path to the main gate. Suddenly, we stop in our tracks. There it is. Arbeit Macht Frei. Works Makes You Free. After seeing this gate hundreds of times in photographs, I cannot believe I’m actually standing in front of it.
A double electric fence runs on both sides of the main gate. As we walk through the gate, we notice a large black and white photo on the side of the barracks to our right. It is a photo of the prison band, marking the spot where the band used to play for prisoners marching off to work.
In stark contrast to the electric fence and brick barracks, colorful wild flowers grow throughout the camp. Although they can conceivably be described as beautiful, they only serve to enhance the sense of overwhelming grief that emanates from this place. As we continue our tour, we find that many of the barracks have been turned into museums of sorts. In one, huge piles of items the Nazis took from prisoners lie behind glass partitions. There are piles of eyeglasses, brown leather suitcases, assorted shoes and a huge mound of human hair. Upon noticing a tiny pair of baby shoes, a young Jewish boy sits on the floor and cries.
We continue to walk through brick barracks around the camp. Several countries, including Russia and Poland, have turned several of the barracks into their own personal statement about the Holocaust. The Polish building features a long line of life-size figures in prisoner uniforms marching off into oblivion next to an endless list of the names of Polish victims. It doesn’t take long for me to find “Rudnicki.” The Russian building contains strange large metal industrial-looking objects that look as if they haven’t been maintained for years.
Our final stop is the gas chamber. A small gallows sits outside of its entrance. Our guide tells us this is where the camp commander was hung after the camp’s liberation.
We quietly descend the concrete stairs into the eerie confines of the gas chamber. At the far corner of the chamber, a steel door leads to a small room with two brick ovens, and the black metal devices that fed bodies into them. Our guide mentions that the ovens had to be reconstructed after the war, since the Nazis smashed them in an attempt to destroy the evidence.
Small colorful flowers and lit candles adorn the ovens.
Music: “Different Trains” by Steve Reich
We are emotionally drained as we board a shuttle bus to Birkenau, the largest camp of the Auschwitz complex, approximately a mile away from the smaller camp. Behind Birkenau’s main gate and guard tower, the camp is cut in half by ominous train tracks that abruptly end directly in front of us. The wooden barracks of Birkenau have not been well maintained since the war, but the camp is enormous, and stone chimneys dot the landscape where buildings have disappeared through the years.
As we walk among the dilapidated barracks, we come across an old man with a small boy at his side. As I walk by the man, I overhear him say, “and that is where I slept.” I realize he is not just a tour guide. I quietly ask him if we can listen to his story. He introduces himself, his name is George Brown. He welcomes us to join him and his grandson.
For the next hour, George tells us his story. At one point, we sit on the train tracks, he talks about his family’s arrival at Birkenau. “When they let us out of the train,” he says, “an SS officer directed the women to the right, men to the left. The old, feeble or young were sent right to the gas chamber. My mother was sent to the gas chamber that day.” When he points out the last place on the train tracks where he saw his mother alive, he starts to cry. So do we.
We miss the last shuttle bus back to the main camp.
We don’t care.
all photos and content (c) Lee Rudnicki 1997