“Oh really?! And how was it?” – I get this question from none of my friends when I say that I’ve visited Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“I went to Auschwitz”
On the other side of the table is just silence, a distracted stare. My usually bubbly friends now seem like the people who don’t know what they are allowed to say, or how to behave.
“I deal with that every day”, I continue. “You can ask whatever you want.”
Thinking about Auschwitz is, in fact as complex as to think about the Universe. Try to push your mind, way up in the sky, to the galaxies, and there you are lost. Your thoughts are abandoning you, in the vastness of inexplicable.
Because what mind cannot fathom, words cannot describe, so everything stops. The thoughts, they stop. Questions too.
A million people. Like million stars. Millions of specs of dust in the desert. One, a million times. Brain is cluttered with this dust, it’s everywhere, in your ears, your eyes… A million is number that makes you feel dizzy and all you are left with is Word: Never Again and Past is Present.
I am travelling from Krakow to Oświęcim by mini-bus. It is mid January, snow is falling slowly, it’s all ghastly white. We are passing Polish plains, and those forests, painted so vividly by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. He is one of only a few people with impeccable talent to visually present Shoah in all its horror.
Forests, the last beautiful thing that all of them will ever see.
For local Poles, this day is like any other. They chat, they laugh, they travel to nearby villages for work. For me it is the day of change, but I knew that long before today. I am embracing this experience with absolute knowledge of the repercussions.
Outside the bus, walking toward the first building, Auschwitz 1, infamous for its sign that says that work will set you free.
Tourists are walking slowly, in groups, careful not to slip on ice. Guides are equipped with Bluetooth’s. This is not the place where one talks loudly. This is the largest cemetery in the world.
Snowflakes are whining under my shoes, then sound of church bells, sound of nearby trains passing. Everything irritates me, gives me creeps. I shudder.
I’m entering barracks, staring at the wall where they shot tens of thousands of people, walking into rooms where Nazi death-doctors performed impossibly gruesome experiments on women, children, and men. I am still composed. I’ve been prepared for this through Lanzmann, Polanski, Spielberg, as well as with Goldhagen, Wiesel, Primo Levi. I knew where I was coming.
Then a small doorway with the hole that looks like spyhole on an ordinary home. There’s nobody around as I approach it, entering slowly. I don’t read signs, don’t need explanation. Few bulbs are shedding the light onto tired, cold walls. Tubes, like cobweb, right above. I am all alone in the gas chamber.
This feeling must remain just a feeling, because nobody ever managed to translate it into words.
Suddenly, it all comes pouring back: my past, their past, my ancestors who left Krakow just in time, my life, so many deaths, Stalin’s army opening these gates, the Americans who could have stopped all this but didn’t, Eichmann, Himmler, naive Arendt, unrelenting Golda, then Dagan, Gurion, Iran, Bibi, Obama, Charlie, police outside every Synagogue in the world, Dizengoff.
Above all this, up in the air, like some strange red balloon, Shoshana Dreyfuss from Tarantino’s movie “Inglorious Basterds” is putting on her lipstick to the sounds of Bowie’s “Cat People”. She enters the movie theatre and kills Hitler – changing the course of history, on the silver screen at least.
My head is like a bottle full of wasps. I cover my eyes with my hands, I don’t want to see what I came here to see. Next to the chamber is a crematorium. Close, so that everything is efficient as the evil idea itself. I cry. Then I stop. Then I start being angry.
In fact, I am raging. And I do not think about being cold, adrenaline has its way of keeping us warm, so I leave for Birkenau, in a freezing bus.
Birkenau is everything you know from the books, movies and collective consciousness: Train. Raus. Two lines. Some go directly to be gassed. Than to crematoria. Black smoke from the chimney. Black smoke over Polish woods. Birkenau is so mounstrously big, and yes, it could kill a million.
Some define it as a dusk of civilization. But no. It was pitch-black darkness of civilization. And after that darkness, the days of human race became grimmer.
As I stand on the rail tracks, I see small stones. Those tracks carried trains that brought a million for annihilation. I take off my gloves, place one stone on the track. I kneel for a while.
Because each and every one of this tracks is a grave, in fact. And you don’t put flowers on Jewish grave, you place a stone. Flowers die, stones are forever.
Back in Krakow, I turn on my phone. A few messages from colleagues who had already been to Auschwitz. “How do you feel?” they say. Do I need a hug, they ask.
Well, I feel like I’ve been hit by the same train that brought innocents to that unexplainable place. But at the same time, my mind is cleansed, like I went through catharsis that only strengthened my stand: There is only one guarantee that Never Again will be more than just words. That guarantee is Israel. The truth is simple: If we’ve had Israel in the 1930’s as we have her since ’48, there would have been no Auschwitz.
Few hours later, driving to the airport, I need to relax, to put my mind someplace else. On the radio, a tune from the new James Bond movie. Driver wants to know where I’m flying to.
“Belgrade, Serbia”, I answer.
“Your English is very good. Have you spent some time in the UK? You know, I did… I lived there”. He is proud of his British experience.
“Yes”, I admit. “I’ve lived in London for a few years”
“So, do you think that Craig will play Bond again?” taxi-driver asks.
“Well, I heard that they offered the part to another guy. Idris Elba. You know, that black actor who appeared in…”
He did not let me finish my sentence.
“...Of course. This is how it begins. First a black Bond, than woman-Bond, and then, god forbid, a Jew.”
The rage, the anger, they now all become like Old Testament wrath: Bring Sayeret. Give me a weapon for idiot-destruction. Take me out of here until I do something that will put me in jail.
It seems that there is no time to relax. Not then, not now, not ever. I am terrified as I see Shakespeare’s Shylock, grinning in my face, reciting words that turn into chant:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
But all this chauffeur gets from me is a good tip, and a remark that it is better for him to shut up. I remind him that he is obviously not intelligent enough to know if someone flying to Belgrade could be a Jew, and most evidently a woman.
While the airport doors are closing and the warm air calms me down, I notice him, the driver, standing in front of his car. He is ashamed. He is pissed off. But he is alive. Alive.
Photo 1: Anselm Kiefer, Nothung 1973.
Photo 2: Birkenau, 2016.
Photo 3: Flight 301. Israeli Air Force F-15 fly over Auschwitz - Birkenau, 4th of September 2003.