last bus to Birkenau

This is my final posting in honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2011. The following words are the prologue to my story, A Decent Man. It also happens to be a memoir of my Operation Zachor trip to Poland. For those of you who have been there, I would appreciate your comments.

The American teenagers ranged along the sidewalk, talking and laughing and joking with each other in their slangy idiomatic English. Tall, well-fed, confident, they swung their arms as they took long American strides, comporting themselves with gaudy American ease.

In the gray city of Warsaw, the buildings gray, the sky, the clouds too, the Poles turned their heads to stare at them as they passed. “Zhid, Zhid,” they hissed incredulously to each other, to total strangers. Jew, Jew. In 1979, no one saw Jews anymore, but here was a whole group of them shambling down the streets around the vanished Ghetto, the boys wearing blue jeans with knitted coverings on their heads, the girls in skirts made from the same highly coveted blue jean material.

They crowded together to read the plaque on the monument at Mila 18–they’d all read the book, it was on the required reading list–and then they trekked across the grass to reflect before the massive slate-gray memorial dominating the Zamenhofa side of the park, a bas-relief sculpture of resolute Ghetto fighters.

From there, they went to visit the old Jewish cemetery on Okipowa Street, where a courtly little man with brilliantined hair stopped at various intervals to explain in limpid Yiddish who was buried beneath the weathered headstones.

It was late August, the first yellow leaves were beginning to appear on the trees. There was a palpable air of neglect to the place; here and there, a stone lay shattered in the dirt–pushed over by hoodlums, the old man said through the translator.

Scrubby weeds flourished between the graves. A greenish forest mold crept across the carvings and invaded the pitted stones that were sinking slowly into the earth. The old man gestured at a monument that featured a needle and a spool of thread; Lowy, tailor to the royal Sobieski family. Maurycy Fajans, founder of the first steamboat line on the Vistula, in a large mausoleum made from travertine marble. Slonimski, the inventor. Melczer, the candy maker. This stone, with the carving of the hand putting a coin in the pushka, was Krakauer the grocer, he had a beautiful home on Gryzybowski Square and gave a lot of charity. Esther Kaminska, who practically invented the Yiddish theater. Mauskaupf the neurologist, his daughter moved to America in 1928. Here, Flamberg the chess master, there, Wawelberg, founder of the Technical College. The tour guide, a youngish oldish man in his twenties wearing round wire-rimmed glances, tried to keep up with the flow of Yiddish, but the little man outpaced him, hopping nimbly between the mossy gray stones, speaking fondly of the residents as if they were still alive.

Shuffling behind him, the teenagers grew restless, then bored. There were six girls and six boys, traveling away from home for the first time if you didn’t count summer camp, jet lagged from the overnight flight, and at that precise age where they were easily tantalized by the exquisite quivering nearness of the opposite sex. They began to jostle each other and giggle. After tolerating twenty minutes of this behavior, their leader turned on them.

“I know you’re bored,” he said shortly. “But this is the last man on earth who knows who these people were. And after he dies, no one will know.”

After that, the teenagers were quiet.

They were staying in the youth hostel on Marzcalkowska Street, a dull gray Soviet-era slab in the center of the city. As they plodded into the hi-rise at the end of the day, a sour-faced woman in a babushka and an apron was sweeping the sidewalk with a broom made from a branch and a bundle of twigs. It was impossible to guess her age, she could have been thirty or seventy.

The next day, they took the train to Majdanek. The American teenagers trickled slowly through the barren concentration camp–there were few visitors–trying to accept the reality of the long wooden barracks containing nothing but shoes, another barracks with a wiry landscape of strangely colorless human hair. In a different building, there was a tower of neatly stacked yellow Zykon B cans. A room full of snarled eyeglasses awaited their missing owners. There was a pervasive sweetish odor, an odor no one could identify. Smoke, whispered the guide. The smell stayed in the wood.

With trepidation, they followed him down into the gas chamber, a compact, low-ceilinged room, bare, box-like, with scratched and cratered concrete walls. The American teenagers circulated around the guttered floor, their eyes drawn as if by magnets to the grated vent where crystals of Zyklon B had vaporized into gas. Poisonous green stains bloomed and rollicked across the walls, in a peculiar shade of viridian that was not to be found in nature.

They took pictures so that they would remember it, the incontrovertible evidence of the end product of the banality of evil, and then they filed slowly back out, pale under their summer tans, damp with sweat. Outside, they raised their heads to the sky and took deep breaths. There was something wrong with the air in that room; it undulated like a live thing, crackled with an electric evil, just out of reach, beyond this dimension.

The crematorium was startlingly unchanged, preserved exactly as it was on July 23, 1944, the day the Nazis fled before the oncoming Red Army. The guide pointed out, for those who hadn’t noticed it, the ashes in the open doors of the blackened ovens. Staring out at an empty field, a boy from Cleveland asked about the occasional patches of dark green grass. “Mass graves,” said the guide. “Human fertilizer. This way, we’re on a tight schedule.”

The next day, Auschwitz. They changed trains at Katowice, transferring from a passenger train with first class carriages to a rickety local commuter line. As they pulled out of the station, they stared at a train of slatted wooden cars passing slowly in the other direction, and their guide explained, in a matter of fact way, that most of the cattle cars used to transport Jews to concentration camps were still in service.

The commuter train was standing room only. As it bucked and swayed from side to side, knocking the giggling Americans into each other, the guide murmured that millions of Jews had taken this very same journey forty-five years earlier, on these very same tracks, but without a return ticket in their pockets.

After passing through the gate with its notorious worked-metal declaration that work would make them free, they wandered unsupervised through the cobbled, tree-lined streets. Meandering in and out of galleries in the pretty red brick buildings, surveying photographs, relics and documents in glass cases, it was twenty minutes before they realized they were in Auschwitz.

They toured the walled courtyard of Block 11, where political prisoners were shot. On their trendy Adidas sneakers, they walked up to thick concrete window wells, trying to peer into tiny lightless cells where inmates died of asphyxiation. They trooped dutifully through the small gas chamber, viewing the cart and tracks that led to the small crematorium. No one said it out loud, but it was almost prosaic after the unvarnished brutality of Majdanek.

It was late in the afternoon when they caught the last bus to Birkenau. After depositing them a respectful distance away from the camp, it turned around and putted away.

The American teenagers followed along the disused train tracks. On either side of them, sheaves of gray-green grass rippled like a sorrowful ocean. It was haying time, an archaic-looking machine squatted in the fields. Spread above them in a wide arc, the sky seemed to go on forever, a clear pale cloudless blue.

Soon they could see the peak of the notorious guard tower pricking the sky, the long low structure crouched against the landscape. An arched opening high enough to accomodate a train. On the other side of it, the tracks seemed to converge at some end point in eternity. No one had bothered to etch any lies on the entrance to Birkenau.

The tour group bore right, to a row of barn-sized barracks. More shoes. More suitcases. More glasses. More hair. Also dolls, baby carriages, prosthetic limbs. Here were the bunks–bare boards, planks of wood nailed together, three tiers high, like warehouse shelving. A strip of windows under the rooftop admitted a dim, watery light.

Blinking like bats, the American teenagers emerged from the semi-darkness. Before them lay a vast green and yellow landscape, mowed flat, punctuated by…by what? Hazy with late afternoon sunshine, scores of narrow towers rose into the air, a forest of brown brick stretching into the distance, as far as the eye could see. Baffled, they turned to their guide for explanation.
“Chimneys,” he said. Quietly, for they were on consecrated ground. “Each of these chimneys was a barracks. Each barracks held a thousand human beings. Do the math.”

Impossible. There were hundreds of them, each one standing at the front of a rectangular plot of land like a headstone. It was incomprehensible. Unimaginable. Even to them, and they were standing right there.

The tour was over, he freed them to explore on their own. They had less than an hour before Birkenau closed. They would meet back under the arch in forty-five minutes. If they missed the last bus, they’d be spending the night.

Near the collapsed remains of Crematoria III, or perhaps it was Crematoria IV, a girl sat down on a chunk of exploded masonry. The silence made itself felt here; all enveloping, encroaching on the unreal, and completely unnatural, as if a giant glass dome had been dropped over this part of Poland, for all time. Sounds simply ceased; there were no cars, no crickets, no cicadas, no breeze or birds. The only signs of life were small white butterflies stalled in the dusty summer air, and a large black crow stalking pensively through the grass. She took out her notebook, scribbled down the observation. And then she raised her camera to snap a picture.

Absentmindedly, she fanned herself with her notebook. There was a blister on the back of her heel. With her other foot, she pushed off the offending shoe. The sneakers were new, she should have broken them in before the trip. Sweltering in the heat–there were no trees, no relief from the sun–she lifted the mantle of heavy hair from her neck and snapped a rubber band around it.

One of the boys was toiling purposefully in her direction. He halted before the collapsed entrance ramp to the gas chamber, wrestled a book of psalms out of his backpack. Then he prayed, his lips moving silently with the words. “My mother’s whole family died here,” he explained afterwards. He fumbled with his camera, gave up, shoved his hands in his pockets. His eyes were red, tears clung to the base of his lashes. “She’s the only one who survived.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. She struggled to remember his name.

“Daniel,” he said helpfully.

“Julia.”

“I know.” He was tall, with a pleasingly deep chest, a shock of dark hair, and pretty ocean-colored eyes. She might be on a Holocaust tour, but she was still a teenaged girl, and she noticed these things.

“What about you? Did any of your family…” he left the jagged end of the question dangling in the amber August air.

“No. They were in hiding, mostly.”

He nodded. Together, they contemplated the wildflowers growing between the broken concrete. Suddenly he smiled to himself.

“What?”

He looked faintly ashamed. “Oh…I was just thinking of what my mother would say. ‘Phhht, her family didn’t suffer.’”

When she laughed, her irises were striped gold and brown, like polished tiger eye. “Hm,” she said.“I don’t know about that.”

It was a long walk back to the entry gate, he offered to carry her knapsack. With the sun edging down toward the line of trees, there was an autumnal chill in the air. The bus was late. While they waited, they bought packets of postcards in the souvenir shop, a portfolio of guard towers and barbed wire fences set against a background of fiery sunsets.