Ashes and Miracles: Extract

Chapter III

The sky is the first of many surprises: cloudless and blue as a peacock’s neck when my inner script apparently called for the leaden sky of wartime photographs: I am on my way to Auschwitz. Having decided against an organized bus tour, I head toward Krakow’s old railway station, unreasonably jolted to find my destination – a name haunting millions – printed above a Polish ticket counter.

Today’s Auschwitz – Oswiecim in Polish – is a small industrial town serviced by a commuter train full of Poles bearing magazines, flowers. Wearing sandals and dark dress, I stand in a long queue; then, speaking Polish, say the improbable words, “One-way to Auschwitz, please.” I say one-way because the schedule makes a return by bus more convenient. Auschwitz, I say, and no one blinks or winces. Just another name on an ever-changing map.

I get on the train, sitting across from a red-haired woman frowning over a crossword puzzle. She glances up from her magazine, taking in my English paperback, my well-cut dress. I am clearly a foreigner and she smiles brightly, soon offering me a home-baked cookie.

Her name is Zofia Russak and she is a schoolteacher in Auschwitz. Her father having been a railroad man, the family was allowed to stay on in Auschwitz during the war, after most Poles had been relocated. Russak is too young to remember the war, but her parents often speak of it, she tells me. Her sons, on the other hand, are tired of the subject. “You can teach kids their ABCs,” she says, “but not the lesson of history.”

“What is the lesson, exactly?” I ask.

“Doubt yourself.” Russak brushes cookie crumbs off her skirt.

“Doubt yourself?”

“Your cause, anyway,” says Russak, reminding me of Bertrand Russell who, on being asked whether he would die for his beliefs, exclaimed: “Good God, no! I might be wrong after all!”

“So you think Hitler–”

“Not only Hitler,” she interjects with a didactic shake of her head. “The worst slaughters of history were committed in the name of some worthy cause, no?” She gives me a grave, penetrating look.

“Yes,” I say; then, “my father’s family perished in the war.”

“Ah–” sighs Russak, the conductor’s arrival forestalling further comment. The train clanks, whistles, chugging along past haystacks and grazing cows, and long-skirted peasants gripping black pitchforks. Having only yesterday walked through Krakow’s old Jewish district I find it unnerving to ride, a book in my lap, the very railroad Americans had declined to bomb, unable to believe the reports from Europe. But a trip to Auschwitz is a pilgrimage to the realm of the unbelievable, a mental surrender which perhaps explains the almost-hallucinatory moment I experience on getting off at the Auschwitz station.

I have come up to the second floor for directions, to a vast a area with wickets and tropical plants. Though I am well acquainted with these plants – palms, philodendrons, dieffenbachias – the sight of them stops me dead in my tracks. Never, except perhaps in some botanical garden, have I seen indoor plants grown to such monstrous proportions – all the way up to the cathedral ceilings, aggressively spreading left and right. True, the light is excellent, the pots enormous, but is that enough? It probably is, but standing here, on the edge of Auschwitz, these prodigious plants seem oddly macabre; a row of robust but portentous sentries on the threshold to a nightmare.

I have no relatives on my father’s side – no grandparents or aunts or uncle, no cousins – not even their photographs. Though I do not know where any of them died, I soon find myself at Auschwitz-I, doggedly looking for them among the countless snapshots. There are long corridors in the brick barracks, closely lined with the inmates’ faces. I pause before each photograph and scan the features, names. There are dark and pale faces, plump and gaunt; humble and grim and defiant faces.

“As you can see,” says an elderly woman to her younger companion, “a lot of them were Polish.” And she is right, though the vast majority of victims in the Auschwitz complex were certainly Jewish. According to recent studies, a million and a half prisoners are said to have died at Auschwitz, 10 percent of them Soviet prisoners of war, Polish political prisoners, Gypsies. I am briefly astonished to find that the camera has caught some of the inmates smiling. But then it comes to me: the snapshots were taken on arrival, with many of the prisoners still crediting the Nazis’ relocation myth. There is, in one of the barracks, an enormous room full of chipped cookware, another with a mountain of old suitcases, the owner’s name and address inscribed in white. The prisoners’ possessions, confiscated on arrival, were sorted out in an area known as Canada – symbol of abundance in Poland. They are empty now, these old suitcases, but the handwriting on them is brutally evocative, its individuality so eloquent that it instantly calls up a vision of men and women in chaotic rooms, feverishly packing up for an uncertain journey. But this is a post-Schindler’s List visit. It is difficult to be sure what the imagination would yield without Spielberg’s memorable direction.

My father grew up in a small town called Kazimierz Dolny, son of a religious scholar named Shulom and Braha, his sharp-tongued, resourceful wife There is not much more I know about my grandparents, but I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere, in one of these old barracks, I will stumble upon their faces. When I finally give up on the photographs, it is with the wry thought that had this exhibit been organized by the Germans, the photos would likely be displayed in alphabetical order. Nor am I alone in my adherence to stereotype. Just yesterday, a taxi driver told me, “Poland would be in fine shape today if only it had managed to keep Poles for labor, Germans for administration, and Jews for commerce.”

The Jews are almost all gone now, but their surviving possessions suddenly threaten my stubborn composure. What finally does me in is the display of children’s clothes: tiny, doll-size vests and dresses, much like those once worn by my infant daughter. And then the mountains of shoes, artificial limbs, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, hair. There is a sample of cloth woven from inmates’ hair, and examining it, I feel an inner compulsion to seize some Holocaust denier; drag him up to the glass enclosures, the fading, spurned evidence. Would he, I wonder, deny the denials?

“That’s really sick,” says a tall American girl in white stretch pants. “Imagine using cloth made of my hair!”

The girl’s hair is long and dark, glossy as a chestnut. It would have been handled by one of the so-called crematorium ravens, the Jewish squads forced to work on corpses, cutting long hair, pulling out gold teeth, artificial limbs. In time, these Sonderkommandros too would be gassed, but meanwhile, their teams played soccer against SS teams!

I go out and take a deep breath at this point, looking out at the clear sky, the bleak grounds full of milling tourists. There are elderly couples with halting steps, students in jeans, many Germans and Japanese with video cameras. They walk from one barrack to another, pausing to consult their guidebooks, pose for photographs. I sit on the stone steps, watching all this, surprised to see families with children, some young enough to be clutching teddy bears. Having occasionally been accused of being an overprotective mother, I now ask myself, How old should our children be before we acquaint them with life’s ultimate horrors? When my own daughter was small, I could not even bring myself to tell her that an animal had been slaughtered so she could enjoy her favorite lamb chops. It seemed such a shameful secret, the suffering inflicted on helpless animals.

I ponder this as I go to use the public washroom, taken aback by the cooking aromas wafting from the kitchen. Yes, there is a cafeteria at Auschwitz, crowded at this hour with noisy diners. Though I too am hungry, the sight of the heedless lunch crowd fills me with aversion. I feel I will be unable to eat for hours, days, possibly not until I get back home! And then – perhaps because of my recent musings – I recall my first trip to Greece, where I saw lambs grazing beside their mothers, then butcher shops with lamb carcasses hanging on hooks, attracting summer flies. It was not, in subsequent days, as easy to shut out the brutal facts as it had been while shopping at Canadian supermarkets, but did I – I who had felt shaken by the sight of dripping lambs’ blood – quit eating meat? I didn’t. When all is said and done, it is not all that difficult to shut out the knowledge of others’ pain; to silence, when it suits us, even an exigent conscience.

The grim relevance of all this pounces on me as I make my way back toward the Auschwitz barracks. What troubles me above all is the bald fact that any issue is open to rationalization, the insidious process through which we reach moral compromise, often abetted by society. And yet we ask – how can we not ask, visiting Auschwitz – how intellectual giants like Heidegger fell in with the Nazis; how thousands of ordinary decent people could go about their everyday lives seemingly unperturbed by others’ agony. The answer, as Sir Isaiah Berlin suggested, is not to be found in the common depiction of the Nazis as mad, pathological cases, but rather in the diabolically successful brainwashing of a normal populace persuaded that Jews were a subhuman species inimical to their own survival.

Certainly, any reader of Nazi diaries is bound to be struck by the pervasive sense of moral rectitude. Engaged in mass shootings and gassings, most Nazis apparently perceived themselves a positively heroic. They carried out what they saw as loathsome but essential tasks, cultivating a self-image invulnerable to the most gruesome contradictions. “It is not the German way to apply Bolshevik methods during the necessary extermination of the worst enemy of our people,” states a military court verdict against a notoriously sadistic German officer.

It is this warped vision – the human capacity for self-deception – that makes me recall Zofia Russak as I go on to visit Auschwitz’s Surgical Department. It was in this building, a putative infirmary, that the infamous Dr. Mengele carried out his experiments on human prisoners, whistling operatic tunes. The place quickly became known as the crematorium’s waiting room, Josef Mengele as the Angel of Death. The dashing doctor, however, steadfastly saw himself as a dedicated scientist engaged in valuable medical experiments. Doubt yourself.

As I leave the infirmary, my thoughts turn to the medical research institute where I once worked as a young student. Though I was often unnerved by the condition of postoperative dogs, I did not question the scientists’ moral right to conduct the experiments. I feel I must question it now, even as I wonder: Were my own daughter desperately ill, were it possible to save her through the sacrifice of some animal, would I not jump at the opportunity?

These are the questions that plague me as I pause before the Black Wall, where prisoners – mostly Poles, many of them Resistance fighters – were executed, crying out, “Long live freedom!” Today, tourists stand photographing the lit candles and wilting bouquets, the high windows boarded up to block prisoners’ view of the courtyard. My own camera, full of images of monuments and cathedrals, is back in Krakow. I have brought a notebook but rejected the thought of taking photographs. Why should note-taking seem a more respectful way of recording impressions than photography?

As I mull this over, two young Englishmen and a girl arrive and start snapping pictures. Standing before the wall, one of them slaps his hand against his chest and falls sideways, an imaginary victim of the firing squad. The girl laughs, then turns and asks would I take a picture of all three of them.

“Sorry,” I say and hasten away, shaken, stopping only when I arrive at the old camp gate with its famous sign, ARBEIT MACHT FREI – work brings freedom. Here too the photographers are at work, posing, gesturing, laughing. It is clear that to the young, World War II is ancient history. They are as morbidly curious, as unmoved, as schoolchildren in the Tower of London.

“Oh look, look – what’s that?!” a young woman’s voice cries out suddenly. She stands shielding her eyes from the sun, pointing toward one of the watchtowers. Despite the sun and the summer sky, the towers look as sinister as they do in war films. It is impossible to look up and not experience fleeting surprise at not seeing a truculent face, a pointed shotgun. But what I actually see is a bird nest – a large, round straw nest in which two storks are plainly visible.

“Listen to those tourists,” a Polish woman says to her husband. “They’ve probably never seen a stork before.”

“Probably,” says the husband. He sighs. “We won’t be seeing them much longer either if they don’t do something about the pollution.”

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