We took an overnight train with a first-class sleeper compartment from Prague to Krakow. Starched white sheets on the bunk beds; bottles of water by our private sink; the conductor promising a wake-up call and our choice of coffee or tea before we arrived.
I lay in my cozy bunk, feeling the rhythmic rocking of the car, and I kept thinking:
We are Jews on a train to Auschwitz.
Oswiecim – the Polish town that predated the camp and gave the camp its infamous German name – was one of the stops around 4 a.m. on our very-local train route. Of course the contrast couldn’t have been greater. We were American tourists, buoyed by our almighty credit cards, free to move where we chose within the borderless EU, free to fly home to California when we were done.
We were also Jews on a train to Auschwitz.
With help from the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, we had arranged a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps for our third day in Krakow. The camps are about a 90-minute drive from the beautiful medieval city center. On our way, we stopped in the town of Oswiecim to visit its fairly new Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and education center that preserves the only remaining synagogue in the area.
This was new to me. Like most American Jews, when I hear “Auschwitz,” I think of the death camp that killed over a million Jews from all corners of Europe. What I didn’t know was that before this, there had been a thriving Jewish community within the small town of Oswiecim itself.
Jews arrived in Oswiecim in the 1500s, fleeing persecution in nearby Bohemia and Moravia. They flourished during Poland’s brief window of independence after World War I: By 1939, Jews made up an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Oswiecim’s population of 14,000. There were 20 synagogues in the town!
Like elsewhere, Orthodox and more modern Jews jockeyed for influence. Jews served on the town council, which provided food and other relief to both poor Jews and poor Catholics. The Jews were careful never to court ill-will by serving as mayor, even though they were a numerical majority: They typically served as vice mayor, under a Catholic mayor. Some Jews were successful industrialists. Among the museum items on display that fascinated me were glass bottles and marketing brochures from businessman Jakob Haberfeld’s very successful vodka and liquor factory.
Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Center/ Photo by Ilana DeBare
Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Center
But on to the camp.
In retrospect, I realize that I approached our visit with trepidation. Like most American Jews, I’d heard about the death camps from a young age. I’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a teenager; bought Art Spieglelman’s Maus for my own daughter; visited Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC; seen Schindler’s List and The Pianist and so on. Although my family came to America in the mid-1800s and I lost no known relatives to the Nazis, the Holocaust was always more real to me than much of American history. Even today, I can name more concentration camps than Civil War battlefields. Many times over the years I had played the mind-game with myself: Of all my non-Jewish friends and co-workers, who are the ones I could truly trust to protect me if something like the Holocaust happened again?
And Auschwitz represented the dark core of all this to me for 40 years – symbol of what Europe did to Jews, what it would have done to me, the worst that human beings can do to other human beings.
I was worried about what it would be like to visit.
I wasn’t worried that I would be overcome by anguish, but that I would not be overcome enough.
I feared that it would seem mundane. That I would not experience an epiphany worthy of the place. That I would not be changed.
Wouldn’t that be the individual equivalent of the world looking aside as Jews were gassed? To visit Auschwitz and not be changed?
How could the actual Auschwitz live up to everything I’d read and thought about it?
But I wasn’t conscious of this at the time. I only felt a vague nervousness. Thus the dark jokes about Jews on trains.
We met our guide in the parking lot. (Already it felt surreal. I could imagine a short story titled “The Parking Lot at the Death Camp.”)
Our guide was terrific – a youthful non-Jewish Pole in his 40s named Wojtek. He knew the history of the camp inside out. He understood Jewish culture and history. He explained things, but not too much: It would have been horrible to have someone chattering non-stop through the visit, but he knew to leave a lot of silent space.
I asked him what motivated him to choose work as a death camp museum tour guide, and he answered that his parents had both worked at the camp museum since it opened shortly after World War 2, so he grew up around it. I imagined them as nearby residents looking for a paycheck, maybe staffing the ticket booth or maintaining the grounds. Only later did someone tell me that Wojtek’s father had been a prisoner in the camp for five years, and was the first director of the camp museum.
There are two parts to the preserved camp – Auschwitz and Birkenau. We started in Auschwitz, which began its life as a Polish army base and was the earlier and smaller section, where Polish political prisoners were placed after the Nazi invasion. It’s a series of very neat, very rectangular two-story red brick buildings lined by rows of poplar trees. If you disregarded the barbed wire and electric fences, it looked from the outside like a cheery colonial-Williamsburg-style restoration – imagine a 19th century New England textile mill turned into a historical park.
The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Inside, the buildings contained some very low-key historical displays. No touch-screens or videos or holographic projections; it was more like a museum presentation from the 1950s. There were historical photos as well as opportunities to walk through cells, barracks, and the camp’s early gas chamber and crematoria. Here’s what struck me the most:
One of the brick buildings held a series of large glass display cases, like you might see holding a diorama of stuffed zebras at a natural history museum, only much bigger. They were filled with relics of the dead. One display case was filled with two tons of hair shorn from gassed women, and sold to German industry for 50 Pfennig per kilo.
Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Another case was filled with tallitot (prayer shawls), and another with eyeglass frames. There was a displaycase the size of a swimming pool filled with metal pitchers and platters – people’s prized household possessions, which they had brought on the train with them to their “new home.”
There was a case filled with crutches and prosthetic limbs. A case filled with women’s shoes. A case filled with baby shoes.
There was a room-sized case filled with suitcases – brown leather mid-century suitcases – all carefully labelled with their owners’ names and addresses so they could reclaim them after their “delousing.”
There were thousands upon thousands of these items. And these were just the remnants that had been recovered after the camp was liberated – the bits that had not been shipped to Germany or destroyed in the bombing. The tip of the iceberg.
Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Children’s shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Another brick building had a long corridor lined with ID photos of prisoners, from the early days before they started tattooing numbers on arms for identification. Most of the prisoners before 1942 were non-Jewish Poles.
Our guide told us that the photographer was a non-Jewish Pole of Austrian descent. When the Nazis invaded, they offered him German citizenship due to his background. He refused and was imprisoned, where he had to take all the ID pictures. He survived the war but never took photos again.
What struck me were the dates alongside each photo – the date each person entered the camp, and the date s/he died. Three weeks. Five weeks. Two months….. I kept looking at one face after another, and realized that most were dead within three months.
Most of us have learned about the camps from stories and memoirs by survivors – Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel etc. Those memoirs are essential and powerful. But they are by necessity the stories of people who survived. Even if they describe friends, relatives and barrack-mates who died, the focus remains inevitably on the writer, who lived.
The photos and their dates in this corridor brought home to me the reality that most, most, most, most people didn’t survive. They didn’t live a year. They didn’t even live a half year. They arrived, they starved, they sickened, and a few weeks later they were dead.
Photo of 15-year-old twin sisters who died in Auschwitz. They entered the camp on Feb. 5, 1943. Maria died on May 23, and Czeslawa died on July 23.
Practicing for mass extermination
One of the brick barracks included rooms in the basement where the Nazis practiced for mass extermination. They experimented there with Zyklon B to see how much gas, for how long, it would take to kill a room full of people. They tried different doses and different time intervals until they got it right.
That was another of the takeaways from Auschwitz for me – it brought home how methodically, scientifically, the Germans approached their Final Solution. To me, this does set the Holocaust apart from other genocides of the past 150 years. It’s of course terrible to massacre any “other” in a frenzy of religious intolerance, a pogrom, a riot. But there is something worse about the rational, deliberate approach that the Nazis took. No one in Rwanda or Serbia or Turkey/Armenia spent years doing scientific studies of the most efficient way to kill their targets.
We finished with the brick barracks of the main Auschwitz camp. All three of us felt a little disoriented – it hadn’t looked like we imagined. The barracks were too well-built, too tall, too landscaped, too…. normal. Even the “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the main gate seemed thinner and flimsier than what I had imagined.
It was also a gorgeous summer day outside – grass green, sky blue, jackdaws pecking for snack crumbs in the parking lot.
“People think it’s always winter here,” our guide said. “They see the black and white photos, they think the sun never shined. Of course the sun shined. I had a survivor on one of my tours who said, ‘You can die in a place of beauty.’ ”
We took the short drive over to Birkenau. This was the larger camp – the one built explicitly for extermination, with gas chambers and crematoria that could kill 525,000 people per year, and barracks that could hold 100,000 people.
This looked more like what we had imagined. Long low buildings, mostly wooden on a treeless field, filled with wooden shelves that slept four people each. This was where the famous photos of emaciated prisoners had been taken upon liberation.
Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Birkenau was sprawling and massive. We started at the back of the camp, with an abstract stone memorial erected in the 1950s or 60s – 22 plaques, one for each of the languages spoken by people killed here. We passed the site of the crematoria and gas chambers, but they had been blown up or bombed toward the end of the war and today are just fields of rubble.
People’s ashes were often sold as fertilizer. Our guide told us that local farmers still find little unburnt body pieces in their fields.
We walked to the debarcation area – where the trains unloaded their passengers, and people were lined up and sorted for immediate death or imprisonment. There was no waiting around, no bureaucratic delays, no grace period. Those chosen for death were taken to the gas within minutes.
Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp – train track on right, front entrance to Birkenau in the distance / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare
In retrospect, I wish we had stayed at the unloading site longer. We saw it, we took photos, we lingered a little, we moved on. It was hard to think at that point in the afternoon. We were all somewhat numb. In retrospect, I’d like to have sat on the grass and reflected quietly or sketched or written poetry or said Kaddish. Something slow and reflective, something that in my non-religious way would acknowledge the sacredness of all those lost lives.
Instead I took notes. Throughout the tour, I jotted notes in my little spiral book. After twenty-plus years of being a reporter, taking notes is like breathing for me. I take notes in meetings even if I’m not the organization’s secretary. And I sort of had a reason, in that I’d been toying with the idea of writing a travel article about our trip to Poland. I asked our guide lots of factual questions and wrote down lots of factual answers.
But really it was a displacement activity. It was a way to keep myself busy in the face of this terrible place. I could take something unmanageable and manage it, treat it like a routine City Council meeting. I processed it into notes. I locked it down on the page, like Harry Potter locking a boggart back into its cupboard.
It’s taken me three weeks to feel ready to write something about visiting Auschwitz. I wasn’t sure what I had to say. All the important things have been said already – the banality of evil, the importance of bearing witness, the systematized, industrial character of Nazi anti-Semitism, etc. And honestly, I’ve learned much more about the Holocaust and the death camps from years of reading than from this three-hour visit.
Auschwitz – together with the rest of our trip to Poland – did spur me to revisit the uncomfortable question of what would have happened to me during the Holocaust. We all like to imagine ourselves as the rare survivor – the one who finagles false papers, who joins the resistance in the woods, who has the luck to survive and even help others.
In reality, I would most likely be dead. I’m not particularly cunning. I’m not particularly strong. I tend to follow rules. I would have ridden the train and, if not sent directly to the gas, would have starved and gotten typhus and died.
And if I’d been a non-Jewish Pole? Would I have risked automatic death for myself and my entire family – the official penalty – for helping a Jew? I don’t know. I hope I would. I fear I wouldn’t.
So…. no great epiphany. No piercing new insights to give the world. Yet I’m glad I was there.
Auschwitz is important as a pilgrimage site, a place to go to honor those who died and to try to take in the sheer scope of their murder.
I do believe that is one of our moral obligations – to try to take in the scope of the Holocaust, to make it as real to ourselves as possible.
And of course to prevent it from happening again.
As strange as it sounds, I would actually like to go back sometime. This initial visit allowed me to see the physical structures, the size, the layout. Now I know what it looks like, I know what is there. I don’t have to get those questions answered.
On the next visit, I would go and reflect. I would skip the tour and just go sit in the field where people disembarked and were sorted, the green summer field where over a million people died in a place of beauty.