~~This piece previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (1999)
On the morning of the October day that England qualified for Italia ’90 (the World Cup soccer tournament), a small group of Englishmen were seen by some of the sports press at Auschwitz, laughing and posing as they took pictures of each other—doing the Nazi salute.
Pete Davies, “All Played Out”
At Birkenau stands a mound unlike those dotting the countryside that Poles have built in remembrance of past generals and statesmen. You will not see picknickers lay out blankets on it or watch their children roll down the slopes. The Birkenau mound is a mass grave for Soviet soldiers killed by the Nazis. The bodies were packed so tightly together that they are still decomposing, and when it rains now, almost fifty years later, human grease rises to the surface and fans out through the grass in a brilliant rainbow of color.
Not far from the mound lies what looks like an ordinary pond. Bend over and peer into its depths and you might be surprised not to see a minnow or two, at least, in the water. Take a stick. Dip it into the water and movie it in circles. Soon, a whirlpool of gray ash will funnel to the surface. This pond is only one repository for the remains of the Jews.
A Polish actor told me that these were just a couple of the sights in the Auschwitz complex most tourists miss. I was with two American women I had met in a youth hostel in Kraków. This was the summer of 1990. The Berlin Wall had been down for only seven months. American tourists were still a novelty to most Poles. The actor, who spoke English fluently, spied us three on the rickety commuter train from Kraców to Oświęcim, site of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He was going to visit his mother, who was a librarian at the Auschwitz museum.
“By all means,” the actor said, “do not spend the entire afternoon in Auschwitz. After you have watched the movie and seen the major displays, go to Birkenau. The barracks still stand unmolested by museum directors. Wander the buildings and you will read messages written in coal by the inmates. You will find fragments of clothing, steel cans, rotted straw, heating stoves. Leave the barracks and follow the tracks to the gas chambers. They have not been reconstructed. They have been left the way they were found, a much more profound statement to the horrors of the Holocaust than the glitz you will find in Auschwitz. Why would the retreating soldiers bother to destroy the evidence if they were not aware of the incredible crimes they had committed against humanity? Do not believe that they felt justified or that Hitler brainwashed them. They knew their sin. You will not experience their guilt among the glassed-in cases of human hair and suitcases at Auschwitz. Only in Birkenau, the much larger of the camps, will you find what you are seeking.”
And what were we seeking? What do the hundreds of thousands who visit concentration camps every year hope to find amongst the barbed wire, the staggering statistics pasted to barracks walls, the bricks riddled with bullet holes and once saturated with blood? What world are we looking for when we pass under the gateway that tells us, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Brings Freedom? Do we find the same closeness to history, a sense of our own place in it, that we find wandering the back alleys of Venice, touring the White House, crawling through the ruins of ancient Egypt, or gazing at the art amassed in the Vatican Museums?
Once at Oświęcim, my two companions and I parted ways with the actor. We went to Auschwitz first, believing, maybe, that we would save the “best,” or Birkenau, for last. When we got to Auschwitz, we watched the gruesome introductory film, culled from the newsreels the Russians had shot when they liberated he camps. The auditorium was filled with other tourists, and with them we walked slowly through the gate and under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign most everyone has seen in history films in high school or in big budget Hollywood flicks.
From there we followed the unguided tour outlined in the small book I had bought at the museum’s gift shop. We slid along the thick layer of gravel that serves as road and walkway, past the red brick building coated with black soot and arrayed like row houses all uniform in their rectangular shapes and two-story height. Interspersed in and around these barracks are the sights of Auschwitz. Like other tourists, my companions and I were overwhelmed by the number of people reputed to have been shot at the Wall of Death. We nodded grimly when we saw the gallows where the Russians had hung Rudolf Hőss, the last Nazi Kommandant of Auschwitz. We shook our heads in the barracks known as Block 5, which contains some of the camp’s most famous exhibits: huge glass window displays of the loot taken from the victims. These include eyeglasses, suitcases, clothes, tableware—anything that could be reused by Germans in the Fatherland or melted down and sold.
One room is dedicated to explaining how the bodies of Jews could be exploited. Tons of hair that had been shaved from those who were gassed lay stockpiled behind glass. The Nazis devised a plan to turn this into haircloth, perfect for the lining of a gentleman’s coat or for an extra layer of protection for a lady’s winter parka. A text panel on another wall describes how human skin, when removed, is transparent, yet durable enough to be stretched into lamp shades. Human ashes make cheap fertilizer. Gold fillings torn from Jewish teeth could be hammered into a wedding band. Anything is possible.
One of the last stops on the walking tour is the barracks documenting the Jewish experience in Auschwitz. Other nations have their own barracks: Russia, Poland, France, etc. Many of these are frequently closed to the public for vague reasons, and all but the Polish barracks are often empty of visitors. The Jewish barracks is stark. There are a few physical objects on display. A yellow star of David an inmate was required to wear hangs framed on the wall. Most of the space is given over to photographs of malnourished children or adults praying as they are about to be shot, and to the text that records the history of the liquidation of the Jewish ghettoes and the Jews’ journeys to Auschwitz from places as far away as Morocco.
The last room in the barracks is dark. Tourists shuffle toward an illuminated square of glass in the middle of the floor. On display is a small urn filled with human ashes. When I was there this first time, a rabbi from the United States asked permission to offer Kaddish, a prayer for the dead. A few murmured approval. Undoubtedly, some of the tourists understood the Hebrew, but anyone could feel the pain in his voice. His keening filled the room, the barracks, and I imagined, all of Auschwitz. People around me broke down in grief, and I felt goose bumps on my arms. Tears sprang from my eyes. Tourists who had entered the barracks with the purposefulness of those on a tight schedule emerged in a daze.
I staggered outside; after the darkness of the barracks, the sun stung my eyes further. My companions were right behind me.
“We still have the gas chamber,” I whispered, looking around. The two women were shaking. Their eyes were rimmed with red, and tears ran down their cheeks. They clung to one another; I doubted they would have been able to walk without each other’s assistance.
“We can skip it,” I said.
They shook their heads.
Thank God, I thought. I did not want to have come all this way only to miss the gas chamber. The night before I had read about it in my Let’s Go, the staple of most American students touring Europe. I imagined it being the most horrible building on Earth. If it was at all possible to get a sense of what happened during the Holocaust, I would feel it there.
I thought of this during our approach. Dread dried my throat. But when we reached the steps leading down to the door, I realized that the building was much smaller than I had imagined. Inside, where Jews would have been “bathed” with Cyclon “B” gas, I was met not with a life changing epiphany but with four walls of gray concrete. No fingernails had scratched lines of desperation into these reconstructed walls. I heard no echoes of dying screams. The room could have been the empty basement of any small American home. I was disappointed.
My companions had stopped crying and no longer held one another. The Kaddish had already faded into the past. We nodded to each other and then passed through the back door into the small crematoria, where we saw the ovens and the sets of tracks used to cart the corpses into the flames. We hovered over the tracks with other tourists, peering into the depths of the ovens. Five minutes was enough. If I felt anything, it was only emptiness. I recalled the advice of the actor and looked at my watch. One of my companions looked at hers.
“That evening train we want leaves in an hour and a half,” she said. “If we want to see Birkenau, we better leave now.”
One year later I returned to Poland as a Peace Corps volunteer. Two months into our pre-service training, the American director pulled me aside and told me about his recent trip to Auschwitz. He described the sights I had already seen. When I said I had been there, he jumped to the climax of his adventure.
“So you know about the display room filled with suitcases?” he asked.
“Did you see the one with your name on it?”
When I hesitated, he smiled. He seemed to think his discovery amusing.
“Well, no,” I said. “I didn’t see that.”
“Right up front,” he said, his arm sweeping in a grand gesture. With Lewandowski in big white letters!”
He slapped me on the back, as if in congratulation: “You have to see it!”
Seven months later, I was again on my way to Auschwitz. During my first trip, I had not fully explored Birkenau with my two companions. We had been rushed and stopped only long enough to follow the train tracks that dead-end at the demolished gas chambers. We missed the sights the Polish actor had said were unmissable. Now there was this suitcase. This time, I could visit the camps not only as a tourist but possibly as the descendent of a victim. Even though there was no way for me to know if that suitcase came from a family member (Lewandowski is a common Polish name), I felt proud on my way to the camps. The Peace Corps director’s enthusiasm about the suitcase had sickened me initially, but now, with nearly a year living in Poland behind me, I was becoming aware of my own place at the current crossroads of Polish history. Officially, I had been sent to help ease the transition from communism to capitalism and democracy by teaching English. The school I was assigned to opened its door the semester I started teaching, and I was the only native speaker, making me a student favorite. I was interviewed on Polish television. Storekeepers who treated most customers with disdain were courteous to me. My Polish heritage helped to alleviate the distrust of many, who would eventually invite me into their homes and treat me like one of their own children.
I felt vital, important. The suitcase, I believed, would help anchor my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and tie me closer than ever before to my Polish heritage and to Poland. I wouldn’t be just another American on a two-year drunken spree, like the volunteers I heard about in Africa—who were more tourists than working citizens, more bystanders than active participants. I would find my ancestral home and experience the Holocaust’s effect on it from an insider’s vantage point.
At the time I was dating another Peace Corps volunteer, who also happened to be of Polish descent. During our Easter break we toured several medieval market towns along the Wisla River, that of Kraków included. Finding a decent restaurant or pub in Kraków was much easier than during my first visit, but the same rambunctious train made its slow crawl to Oświęcim, and the town itself hadn’t changed at all. At Auschwitz, I sat through the same introductory film, filed past the same memorials. At Barracks 5 I made a beeline for the room containing the suitcases. My training director had said the suitcase was right up front, so I started my search at the beginning of the display case, which is maybe twenty-five feet long, and walked slowly toward the end, my eyes scanning the first couple rows of cases. My gaze paused at the marquee names, like Frank and Kafka. Could Lewandowski really be among those?
About three quarters of the way down, I saw it: a blackened leather suitcase, its sharp angles battered and frayed, the brass buckles tarnished, the handle worn by the grip and sweat of someone I would never know. Blazoned across the front in clear white paint was Lewandowski. One case, one name among thousands that were on display in this room, and those just a sample of the hundreds of thousands the Nazis had confiscated.
Even though I had been looking forward to this moment, I was stunned. I hadn’t prepared myself. I felt both angry and grief stricken. Images of would-be relatives—mere facsimiles of myself, my father, my brothers and sisters, my grandparents—stormed into my mind, then twisted in agony in a cloud of gas or toppled to the ground after their heads were broken apart by a rifle butt. I stood there for maybe ten minutes before I felt a touch on my shoulder and heard my girlfriend say, “Wow, there it is.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I wonder if my name is in there somewhere.”
She stepped away and began surveying the display. I resented her for it. For ten minutes I had held that suitcase in my mind. This was my moment. She had looked at it brusquely, and then discarded it to search for her own. The fact that she never found any sign of her family in Auschwitz—as far as I could tell—gave me a vicious pleasure. I was not disappointed when she complained of sickness and convinced me to save Birkenau for another time.
. . .
I had been in Poland for a year and a half when my father made his first visit. He saw this trip, as well as his subsequent one, as a bridge back to his childhood. His first language had been Polish. The snippets of conversation he heard in Warszawa’s airport sent him drifting into his past. He stuffed himself on kielbasa and pierogi and claimed that the paczki (doughnuts) we picked up at a bakery were identical to the ones his mother once fried every Fat Tuesday. Booksellers, tram drivers, and waitresses in Warszawa reminded him of friends he had once known on the streets of Buffalo.
He visited in November, and the day of our trip in Auschwitz was cold, rainy, and gray. This didn’t stop us, or hundreds of other tourists, from making the trek from Kraków. Like the rest of Poland, Oświęcim was being transformed. More cars, many of them expensive German models, clogged the roads. New restaurants and kiosks lined the streets, fanning out from the train station. A private bus funded by a Jewish group from Edmonton plied the two-mile route between Auschwitz and Birkenau. The changes and the mob of tourists made me think that I had been away for six years, not six months.
The first thing my father and I saw after we passed under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was an overweight American. In spite of the cold wind and rain, he was decked out in a bright paisley shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a straw hat. He aimed a video camera before him as he walked down into the gas chamber. His steps were long and tedious, and he was bent so far forward, I feared he might take a tumble any moment.
As he descended, he said, in a somber and drawn out voice, “I am now going into the gas chamber,” as if were narrating a PBS documentary, or was Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface.
Beneath the center gallows, which had been positioned so that, during roll call, the inmates were forced to watch the morning executions, two German-speaking children sat tossing pebbles at one another. The hooks of the gallows—where Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and finally Nazi soldiers were strung up—hung above the playing children. The parents eventually came along and tickled them into laughter before scooping them up and carrying them away.
The Wall of Death, where thousands of Poles were murdered, stands at the end of a wide alley between two buildings. Inmates were judged in the building on the right, the Death Block, and—if found guilty of whatever crime—were immediately marched out to the wall and shot. When my father and I entered the alley, a mother and her two teenagers were posing in front of the wall. A man with a camera stood about ten feet in front of them.
“All right now,” he said. “Say ‘cheese!’”
And smile they did, big and wide. I imagined the man showing off his vacation pictures to the guys at work back in America: “And here’s the little wife and kids at the WALL OF DEATH!”
The first experiments in mass murder with Cyclon “B” were conducted in the cellars of this Death Block. In one corner were the standing cells, where prisoners were packed in so tightly that all were forced to stand until the guards let them out. Most suffocated. Bigger rooms in the basement were reserved for less prolonged forms of torture. Today the cellars are illuminated by bare, low wattage bulbs. When my father and I were there, a group of twenty or thirty Hasidic Jews jostled through the narrow hallways as their tour guide shone a flashlight and barked out directions in English. The Jews were dressed in proper religious attire: long black coats, black hats, and talliths or prayer shawls. When the guide’s beam of light hit a particular point of interest, some members of the group pushed and shoved in order to get clear snapshots. Instead of a people paying homage to murdered thousands, the mob resembled dozens of balls let loose at once in a pinball machine; they bounced off walls, slammed into cell doors, knocked each other into opposite directions, while the tour guide droned on about murder, resistance, and everyday heroics. Occasionally, one of the pinballs would ask a perfunctory question, but most were too occupied changing the film in their cheap cameras or unwrapping hard candy from a piece of crinkling cellophane.
Having witnessed all this with disgust, I found myself apologizing to my father for the behavior of the tourists. “Ignore them,” I said. “Turn away when you see an American.”
We bypassed the crowds by exploring the barracks dedicated to the Polish victims of the Holocaust: these walls were lined with hundreds of pictures showing just a sample of the thousands of Poles who perished in Auschwitz. My father studied each one and read the accompanying biographies. We saw no Lewandowskis, however. Nor did we find any members of the Gac family, my grandmother’s people. My father was disappointed, as was I. But at least we still had the suitcase.
We took in every display in Barracks 5 before moving on to the suitcase room. I reread the history of Cyclon “B,” once again shook my head at the Nazi plans to harvest Jewish bodies, stood in amazement in front of the banks of human hair in one room, the piles of eyeglasses in another. All this was new to my father, and I let him have his time.
We entered the suitcase room after exploring the rest of the barracks for an hour. We started at the head of the window display and read the names on every case: most were Jewish, with only a few Polish ones sprinkled in. The scarcity of Polish names among the cases filled me with pride. Our name was one of the few. Slowly we walked. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the place that was etched in my mind, just beyond the line where two panes of glass met. My excitement grew: the sight would make up for the horrible tourists my father had seen outside.
Smiling, I was prepared to point when I suddenly realized that the suitcase was gone.
“What?” I asked, reexamining the front row. “I don’t see it.” I stepped back to take in the entire display, which looked exactly as it had the year before.
“Maybe they moved it,” I said, scanning the back rows.
“Maybe someone claimed it,” my father said hopefully.
We searched the rows again. The Frank case, the Kafka case—these hadn’t been moved since the last time. I was sure of that—so where was mine? We looked and looked, as the sense of loss grew in my heart. I felt violated, as I had years before in college when my apartment was broken into.
“I don’t know what to say, Dad.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “At least you saw it once.”
We left Barracks 5 in silence. The day had progressed into afternoon, but the weather had turned colder. The American in the Bermuda shorts was backtracking through the unguided tour, his video camera poised, as if he expected a Nazi to jump out of the shadows.
“Let’s take a taxi to the next camp,” I said to my father.
Birkenau, ten times the size of Auschwitz, contained only a handful of visitors: no tour buses fought for position in the gravel and mud parking lot. My father and I walked under the gate and followed the train tracks. Unlike in Auschwitz, it is easy to tell that fifty years have passed since the Russians liberated Birkenau. Within the camp there are no placards to read, no piles of Nazi plunder to contemplate, no freshly painted walls. Only a few buildings have been rebuilt. Some survive as they existed during the war; many others have burned, leaving behind a forest of naked chimneys. Vegetation grows unchecked. The footpaths have not been paved; those that exist were created by visitors.
We stopped where the tracks ended at the unloading dock. Solitary visitors laid flowers and lit candles on the fallen walls of demolished gas chambers, even though multilingual signs warn against the danger of walking among the ruins. Some visitors—both those old enough to have survived the war, and those too young to have read about in school—sat on the cracked, weed-choked concrete and wept.
We gazed at the walls, and then dropped our heads in prayer. I remembered the Kaddish keened by the American rabbi during my first visit to Auschwitz. Suddenly I realized that I had seen enough of Birkenau. Paying homage to the million people who died here was the most I would be able to do. I looked to my right. Lone figures wandered among the barracks and foundations of barracks that filled the camp for as far as I could see. Sometimes these figures would stop and stare up into the gray clouds or stoop for something their shuffling feet had kicked up.
After seeing the gas chambers, we walked down a dirt road to buildings the German officers had once used as a sauna and a bathhouse—until, that is, the crush of Jewish victims became so great that the officers had to give up this luxury and convert the buildings into more gas chambers. Across the road lay the ash pond the Polish actor had said was not to be missed. My father and I looked down into its cloudy depths; perhaps an earlier rain had brought the ashes to the surface.
It started to sprinkle then, and a colder wind ripped into our rain jackets. We saw the mound covering the Russian soldiers in the distance. I thought of the image the actor had placed in my mind years before—here was my chance to see the grease that still rises to the surface. In a flash, however, I saw myself dressed in Bermuda shorts and aiming a video camera at the mound. Enough was enough.
“Let’s head back,” I said to my father. We zippered our jackets and walked along the train tracks toward the barracks that offered shelter from the rain.
As the actor had said, the barracks inside contain no exhibits; they remain as their prisoners and guards left them over fifty years ago. There are no floor boards inside, only cold dirt. The walls are lined with three-tiered bunks. Messages in Polish, German, and Hebrew are scratched into the wood. Some of the buildings still contain the small stoves presumably meant to warm the hundreds of prisoners crammed inside. I tried to imagine what it must have been like, but that was impossible.
I thought again of what the actor had told me. Had I found what I had sought from Birkenau? From Auschwitz? Had I found my place in the Holocaust? No, I decided. It is not possible to find anything in such a place. Profound moments there are illusive: they can no more be easily captured than they can be intentionally sought. Those who did not experience the Holocaust must be satisfied by written memoirs, oral histories, photographs, films, or those rare glimpses afforded by a prayer or a phantom suitcase. Epiphanies like my suitcase, like the six million lives lost during the Holocaust, erupt into our collective consciousness in a brilliant fireball, only to be suddenly snuffed out and sent back into the void from whence it came. We will never know the reason why this happened. All visitors to concentration camps, descendants of victims and non-descendants alike, risk turning Auschwitz-Birkenau into just another stop on the grand tour of human suffering. The photographs we take of the camps will work their way to the backs of dusty drawers, all in a jumble with pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canal. We were not participants in the Holocaust, nor will we ever be. When we try to relieve those horrors, we become voyeurs gaping at the pain of others, like rubberneckers at the scene of a car wreck.
“We should have brought extra sweaters,” I told my father.
The wind whistled and found its way between the boards of the barracks. It kicked up the dirt, which swirled around our feet like tendrils of smoke. We shivered.
“I guess November isn’t the best time to visit Poland,” I said.
“I don’t mind,” he said, staring at the line of bunks. “It seems appropriate, the cold weather.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I first tried to write about Auschwitz after my first visit in 1990. I was studying Fiction Writing in the MFA program at Wichita State. Accordingly, my first attempt to write about the concentration camp was fiction. The protagonist was just me with a different name. There really wasn’t a plot, just a guy walking around having epiphanies. It was awful. I wouldn’t try to write about it again for a few years. By then I had visited the camps two more times, and had spent two years in Poland. Once I was back in the United States I started writing short stories about Poland, but Auschwitz still defied my fiction. My experiences there were just too raw, too personal. Something snapped after I read Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education. I realized fiction was not the way to go. I sat down, determined to just write down what I saw and experienced. The first draft was probably ten thousand words, and included much more about some of my run-ins with anti-Semitism in Poland. At some point I realized I had more than one essay. I removed everything not dealing with Auschwitz. Much of the removed material became a companion essay called “Caroline.” (That essay now appears in A Small Key Opens Big Doors, one of four anthologies of creative writing celebrating the 50th birthday of the Peace Corps.) What remained was a pretty complete draft of “Tourist Season at Auschwitz.” I gave a reading of it while an Instructor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. In the audience was novelist, and good friend, Peter Melman. Afterward, he pulled me aside and said, “Lew, it’s all about the suitcase. The essay is almost there, but don’t bury the suitcase!” He was right, of course. The suitcase had always been there, but it wasn’t yet the symbol it would become. I went home that night and rewrote the essay. The Gettysburg Review accepted it a few months later. ~~Mark Lewandowski
ABOUT MARK LEWANDOWSKI
Mark Lewandowski’s essays and stories have appeared in many journals, including The North American Review, The Florida Review, and Cimarron Review. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been listed as “Notable” in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and twice in The Best American Essays. In 2010, All Things That Matter Press published his short story collection, Halibut Rodeo. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University. He has also taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland, and as a Fulbright Scholar at Siauliai University, Lithuania. You can follow his rants and raves about popular culture at http://halibutrodeo.com/