“After Aushwitz, there can only be poetry.” Gerard Stern.
“I will leave you here,” said Sophia, my guide. It was March 1990 and I was visiting Poland only months after the Berlin Wall fell. Today we rub shoulders with Poles every day, but back then it was a big deal. I had been sent by an in-flight magazine to write enticing articles about visiting Warsaw, the first tourist destination behind what, all my childhood, had been called ‘The Iron Curtain’.
Warsaw was disappointing. I’ve heard that today it is a glittering, vibrant, party town, but back in 1990 it was a grey tip. Only a small part of the old town had been renovated, and most of the city sported the drab legacy of ‘Uncle Joe’.
Being a freelancer has its perks. I decided to spend only a day in Warsaw. I could write the advertorials in my sleep. I would take the rest of the budget and head to Krakow instead. Which is how I found myself at the gates of Birkenau with Sonia, my personal guide whom I had hired for a sum that I cannot remember, but which I know was infinitesimally small.
She walked beside me as I wandered through Auschwitz all afternoon. Occasionally, she would say: “You go in. I cannot see that again and again.” She was erudite and matronly. She spoke six languages. At first she asked me as many questions as I asked her. Then, as we walked through the rooms, we both stopped speaking. She would point and shrug. “There are no words,” she said when we came to a room full of human hair.
As I walked through rooms piled high with suitcases, toothbrushes, prescription glasses, I fell into a sort of trance. It started as I read a ledger that carefully recorded the names and possessions of a family from Brussels. I thought of how reassuring it must have been for them to fill out forms detailing who they were and what they possessed.
I remember my heart stopping at a small glass cabinet. Inside was a faded pink dress. It would have fit a toddler, perhaps two or three years old. I knew at once that her mother had put a matching pink bow in her hair; that her shoes had been shiny and black; that her little socks had been frilly and white.
One room was stark and grey, with no explanations or exhibit descriptions. A glass wall separated the visitors from an enormous pile of shoes. The room was dark, the shoes brightly lit. I noticed a scuffed brown brogue, a white strappy sandal. My eyes scanned the pile, seeing one life after another flash for a brief moment, like a bad montage in a sci-fi movie.
My eyes came to rest on a straw espadrille. The sort that shepherds wore in Greece. I thought of him shivering in the cold snow.
We travelled the short distance to Birkenau in silence. Once there, Sonia showed me the barracks where sometimes people were held before being processed. Most times they got off the train and went straight to the gas chambers. She pointed to the train tracks leading down a long platform.
“The ovens were down there. They went like lambs. They didn’t know. Left was life. Right was death. You continue alone. I will leave you here,” she said and turned back to the waiting car. I walked down the platform as if my feet knew where to go.
I felt myself holding a sleeping baby in my arms. Two other little girls walked beside me. It felt like I was following a crowd. We are all tired and hungry and very alert. My oldest daughter is a little ahead. She turns back to me and I smile and try to look jaunty to reassure her. I can see a man at a desk at the end of the platform. Some people are being sent right, others left. Most of the women and children are sent right.
I snapped out of it when I got to the ovens. They had been destroyed. Twisted concrete and rusted iron is all that was left. I felt glad. I was happy to see their destruction. As I walked back up to the gate I realised that I had been haunted for the past few hours.
No surprise. One million people died in Auschwitz/ Birkenau.
That shit lingers.
I felt the sun shining. I was alive. My daughters were alive. My friends and family were all alive. I felt a soft breeze blow past me, like a crowd of ghosts walking in the opposite direction.
First published in The Bogman’s Cannon website.