After the first year of law school, I spent the summer studying international law in Europe. One weekend, a random train ride to Poland unexpectedly turned into a life-changing journey and experience, like none other.
With law school on break for a few days, Rachel, Gil and I boarded the night train to Poland. Employees in maroon uniforms and hats that said “Mars” nervously paced the hall, checking tickets and showing people to their rooms, like the opening scene of Titanic. I got in our room first, and picked the top bunk. Which was a strategic blunder. Within two hours, the temperature was rainforest-hot. TIP – Never take the top bunk.
Our train pulled into Krakow around five a.m., we had time to kill.
As we strolled past the closed restaurants and shops, something landed on my head. To my disgust, it was white … and originated from a pigeon. ARRGGHHHHH!!!
I ran down the street in a fucking rage, trying to kick birds as they scattered in every direction. When there weren’t any pigeons left within kicking distance, I sulked back to my friends. Through the laughter, Gil told me in Jewish culture, a bird shitting on your head is good luck.
“Great,” I replied. Rachel handed me a napkin, nearly in tears from laughing.
“It’s true” Gil explained.
I didn’t want to believe the bastard, but what the hell.
Even if he was lying to cheer me up, I was in fucking Poland, nothing was open, I had no source of running water closer than Black Sea, and bird just pooped on my head with the precision of the US Air Force twenty-years from now.
Fuck. Alrighty then. There is no choice, but to hype.
I cleaned the bird crap off of my head via a brown paper bag and a napkin. Then we continue to walk around the everything-is-closed-version of Krakow, eventually finding a restaurant that miraculously opened at 6:00 AM.
Inside the little place, Lionel Richie music played on the stereo. Over-and-over-and-over.
Note to self. This is fucking genius. We live in in a sitcom.
After a brilliant continental European Lionel Richie breakfast in the continental Europe Lionel Richie restaurant, we walked to the square. There wasn’t much going on, certainly no more Lionel Richie music, but strange young men in ponchos walked around, sang and chanted among the pigeons. I couldn’t risk causing a second international incident with Poland in one summer, so I covertly snapped their picture, with Gil pretending to be the subject of my photo.
Music: “Quartet for the end of time” by Oliver Messiae
An hour later, Rach announced it was time to catch the bus to Auschwitz.
We walked to the station and tried to read the bus schedule, which was like trying to translate a screenplay into Apache, using nothing but John Wayne movies for a reference. 20 minutes later, Rachel figured it out with a Polish phrase book and psychic powers, and we were on our way.
Nearly two hours later, the bus arrived.
The camp was not yet visible as we walked up a narrow road past birch trees. At this point, our field trip to the dark side of the Third Reich was still interesting, in a History-Channel-glass-of-wine-I’m-so-fucking-smart-and-worldly-I’m-a-law-student-kinda-of-way.
We were ushered into a small theater to view a film shot by the Soviet army during the liberation. I’ve seen some of the footage before, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at the haunting sunken faces of the dying prisoners. After the depressing movie, we walked down the dirt path to the main gate.
Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.
There it was.
After seeing this evil gate hundreds of times in photos, I couldn’t believe that I was standing right in front of it. It was suddenly real. R-E-A-L. Real. Arbeit Macht Frei. Works Makes You Free.
A double electric fence ran on both sides of the gate. I noticed a large black and white photo on the barracks. There, a sad photo of the prison band marked the spot where they played music for the masses of prisoners marching off to work and/or die.
In stark contrast to the fence, colorful wild flowers grew throughout the camp. Although they could be conceivably described as beautiful, they only enhanced the sense of overwhelming grief emanating from the grounds.
Some barracks were turned into ghoulish museums. In one, huge piles of items the Nazis stole from their victims were behind glass partitions. There were piles of eyeglasses, leather suitcases, assorted shoes and a huge ugly mound of human hair. Upon noticing the pairs of baby shoes, a young Jewish boy sat down on the floor and had an breakdown.
We walked through more surreal barracks.
Several countries, including Russia and Poland, turned barracks into their statement about the Holocaust. The Polish building featured a long line of life-size figures in prisoner uniforms marching off into oblivion, next to an endless list of Polish victims. It didn’t take long for me to find “Rudnicki.” The Russian building had strange large metal objects. I’m not sure what it all meant, but the then-Soviet Union spilled a ton of blood fighting the Nazis, so the Russians get a vote in the decor here.
Our final stop, the gas chamber. A gallows sat outside of its entrance. Our guide told me this is where the Auschwitz camp commander was hung. Good.
We descended the concrete stairs into the gas chamber.
At the far corner, a steel door led to a small room with two brick ovens, and the black devices that fed the dead bodies into them. Small flowers and candles adorned the ovens.
At this point, the field trip turned into something else, something dark, heavy, and sinister.
You learn quickly that it’s not fun to walk around Auschwitz, nor interesting. I’m glad I went, but it was fucking horrible, actually, like standing at the edge of life itself, peering down into the abyss, and getting a glimpse of Hell. The energy pouring out of the ground is so dark and evil, you don’t walk away thinking your life has been enriched.
You walk away questioning humanity.
Emotionally drained, we boarded a small shuttle bus to Birkenau, the largest camp of the complex, about a mile away. This is where a profound life experience went up another 700 levels. It’s one thing to see Nazis in the movies, with their banners, flag, uniforms and salutes. It’s another to stand on the killing fields.
Behind Birkenau’s main gate and guard tower, ominous train tracks cut the camp in half. The wooden barracks have not been well maintained, but the camp is enormous, and stone chimneys dot the landscape where buildings disappeared through the years.
Suddenly, as we walked among the barracks, we came across an old man with a small boy at his side. I overhear the old man say, “That is where I slept.”
I realized that the man is not just a tour guide. I asked if we could listen to his story.
The man introduced himself, and welcomed us to join him and his grandson. His now Americanized name was George Brown.
For the next hour, George told us his story, as we sat on the train tracks.
George spoke of his family’s arrival at Birkenau.
“When they let us out of the train,” he said, “an SS officer directed the women to the right, men to the left. The old, sick or young were sent to the gas chamber. My mother was sent to the gas chamber.”
George pointed out a patch of grass, the last saw on Earth where he saw his mother, alive.
George started to cry.
So did we.
Listing to George’s story, we missed the last shuttle bus back to the main camp.
We didn’t care…
all photos (c) Lee Rudnicki 1996