Part V: KL II-Birkenau
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Part V of the Journal
We parked in the tourist lot next to asnack and souvenir stand and I loaded up again with camera, lenses, and film. Next, I went to the museum office in the main SS guardhouse and picked up a mapof the site, which is well over 350 acres in size. The clerk in the officeacknowledged my presence by pointing to a stack of handouts at the corner of herdesk. I pocketed a copy and took a short hike away from the camp along the railspur to a point where I could get the whole guardhouse into a picture.
I’dseen the flip side of the picture I wanted many times and so have you. It’s theone taken from inside the camp with the horizon filled by a single buildinghaving at it’s center an arched railway entrance surmounted by a squat tower. Three sets of railroad tracks lead away from the vantage point, merge and runstraight through the Death Gate archway. Mine was from the outside looking inand with only a single set of rails. I couldn’t help wondering whether and howmany other visitors had done the same.
I knew what picture I wanted, but Iknew nothing about Birkenau. In fact, I’d never have known about it at all if Ihad not seen the PBS film Kitty, which was the story of Kitty Hart. She had beena member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando at age thirteen and had survived. Thefilm documented her return to Birkenau accompanied by her son. In the course ofthat film, the two of them visited the places she knew intimately and she pointedout to her son things, like piles of ash, that a casual visitor would probablynever notice. I knew no more than what she had reported and given that I wasignorant, I approached the place warily and slowly. The time spent in framing myguardhouse photograph was also time working up the courage to go in.
All Ihad to do to get the image I wanted was to cross the road that ran parallel tothe guardhouse and walk away from the camp until the guardhouse fit the framecompletely and then move out a little more. Once I had done that, I stood on thegravel between the rails and looked left and right and behind me marking the openareas and structures all around. On my left were open fields and on my rightwere some more fields and some brick buildings too distant to make out. Thebuildings had that institutional look and I wondered whether they might be a partof the camp and, if so, what purpose they had served.
The only corner ofthe camp that was visible from where I stood was off to my left. I could see anumber of guard towers off to my left and to my right and I could tell the fenceran quite a way off to the right but I couldn’t clearly see that corner. I couldtell about where the line of fenceposts ran out and that there was a large openarea opposite the buildings I had seen, but I couldn’t tell what it was. For allI knew, it was just part of the farmland that lay outside the camp.
As Istood here or there or walked around at my vantage point, I marked every aspectof the scene, right down to the stones on which the tracks were laid. Mostly,they were river rocks, cobblestones, and hunks of what we would call bluestone. But, some unusual clinker got my attention. Scattered along between the railsfor ten feet or so in front of where I knelt to take pictures were pieces thatseemed to be matrices of iron slag with imbedded chunks of unburnt limestone. Ipicked up a couple of pieces and turned them over and over in my hand. I’d neverseen clinker like it before and couldn’t figure how it came to be where it was. The ovens, after all, were inside the camp and I didn’t think steam locomotivescould have been the source. I pocketed a piece to look at later.
Afterabout ten or fifteen minutes, I poked around with my camera trying onecomposition and another. I wound up kneeling on a railroad tie and takingseveral shots of the guardhousealone as well as a couple of panoramic sequences. But it wasn’t just rocks andbuildings I was paying attention to. I was aware of everything, including whatmy driver and one other were doing, which was watching me. After taking mypictures, as I moved back and forth picking up and discarding stones, I saw thesecond driver tap my driver on the shoulder and point in my direction. I took itthat he wanted my driver to pay attention to what I was up to.
Sensingthat something was wrong either with my actions or their noticing me, I headedback. Sure enough, my driver intercepted me on the way into the museum and askedwhat I’d picked up. Just a stone, I said, and I went on. My curiosity waspiqued and I resolved to keep the clinker until I could take a close look at it. This would not be the last time I would notice I was being watched or, moreprecisely, chaperoned.
I took the Cook’s tour of Birkenau on thatbeautiful and partly cloudy afternoon, starting with the guardhouse. Long,narrow and completely utilitarian, the building contained many rooms. Some, suchas the one where I picked up a brochure, were museum offices or staff lounges. Other rooms were used for storage. Public restrooms were in the back. Thetower, which turned out to be an empty room with windows affording a view of theentire camp, could be reached by a cramped stairway that ended in a small roomthat must have been the guard station. A short stairway on the opposite side ofthe room led to the tower proper.
A recorded narrative was available (intwelve languages) at the push of a button as part of the tower exhibit. I passedon the recording and took several minutes to look out the opened windows andframe a mental image of the layout. I also took a couple of pictures from thereof the railway spur running intothe distance of the camp and of the buildings and remnants of buildings in theseparate compounds to the left andthe right of the tracks. The angleof the sun on my left kept me from taking a complete panoramic sequence. Theplace was huge and I couldn’t see its boundaries even from the tower.
Entry to the camp by rail was through the central archway. An iron gate was inplace and it was locked. To the left of that, there was a gated vehicle entrancethat was now used as the visitor’s entrance. I went in that way and found that alarge black on white map and legend was mounted on the left wall of the entrance. I stopped to look at it briefly, trying to match my aerial view with that on theground. I also compared it to the version in the brochure I’d gotten.
Neither map seemed too helpful, so I took a picture of the one on the wall forlater reference and I went on, stopping again just the other side of the entranceto look left and right and ahead. To the left and right were separatedcompounds. Running ahead of me was a one-lane blacktop road which paralleled therailroad tracks. Both the road and the tracks seemed to go clear to the oppositeend of the camp, which is where the crematoria had been.
The area off tomy left was relatively thick with calf-high flowering weeds and seemed unvisitedand uninviting. There was a break in the near corner of the fence, but no signof regular traffic through it. Some distance away were one wooden building,several brick buildings, and a few foundations with chimneys. A hundred yards orso off to the right and fifty or so yards behind the guardhouse were several lowwooden buildings which seemed at first glance to be like those at Auschwitz I. Beyond and behind them were more slab foundations with chimneys.
A gateand short bridge over a deep drainage ditch opened onto a well-travelled path andallowed visitors access to the area onn the right. I headed that way, lookingaround like I was hunting arrowheads in a plowed cotton patch. As I moved inthat direction, I saw what I thought might be a great shot – The corner post ofthe perimeter fence was in the shadowof the guardhouse. I took some wide-angle pictures using the shadowed wireand post and lamp to frame for sunlit buildings. Then I moved on to take a lookat those buildings. As I approached the bridge, I couldn’t help noticing a red and white universal No Smokingsign attached to the fence. I stopped dead in my tracks. Not reallyappropriate, that, I thought. Not for this place. Not as the first noticeablemarker you encounter. Not here. Was it someone’s idea of a joke?
All thebuildings in that section of Birkenau were originally prefabricated stables. In that, theydiffered from both the wooden buildings at Auschwitz I and the one I had seen offto the left as I entered Birkenau. That they were stables was evident from thedoors and the rows of windows atop and along each side of the roof ridge. Allthat was missing from that livery image were weather vanes and a paddock or two. Had there been any grazing horses, I’d have passed the section by.
In eachbuilding, where three or four dozen horses, tack, and supplies might have beencomfortably kept, were once kept 1,000 to 1,200 subhumans at a time. These werethe Quarantine blocks. New arrivals selected for slow death at hard labor hadfirst to survive spending several weeks there in incredible squalor under thecontrol of Block Seniors whose offices and private quarters, the tack roomsflanking the entrance, were luxurious in comparison.
Originally, thestables-cum-blocks had been built dead on the ground without footings orflooring. Now, most had concrete footings and concrete floors, which marked themas reconstructions. Most were also empty except for the heating system – achimney and long flue which ran down the middle of the floor. The very lastbuilding, which I didn’t enter, was hardly weathered and obviously recentlybuilt. I looked in or at every building on that exhibition row and only the oneat the middle of the row seemed to me to have been essentially untouched sincethe war. I gave that one the most attention.
It was one of only a fewthat had anything inside. Its flooring consisted of compressed earth. At oneend were the Block Seniors’ rooms, oneon each side of the entrance. Between them was a furnace with flowers rising from behind its rusty iron door. Beyond that were the tri-level, woodplank bunks – dozens of them – jammed in side by side and standing at all angles to one another,each completely out of plumb on every corner and at every level. The wood ofboth framing and bunks was rough cut but worn smooth by touch and bearing theunmistakable patina of decades. At one time, the rafters, posts and roof beamshad been whitewashed or painted white. Now, they looked as if they’d been dustedwith kaliche. Here and there were initials, dates and other carving marks.
White painted circles bearing bunknumbers could still be seen on the front of each bunk frame. Under the bunkswas bare, powdery earth which needed only a little water to become a glutinousand slippery muck. At the far end, therear double door had caved in, allowing light to enter. To me, all was as itcould have been the day of liberation, with the only differences being that thebunks were empty and the air sweet.
It was so dark in the block that Ineeded either a flash unit or something to brace my camera. The rooftop windows let in littlelight. So, I leaned up against bunks and doors and the flue rather than usemy strobe. It was, I felt, the best way to get the sense of the place. And Iwas reluctant to use my flash because now, as much as during the war, what I sawcould not stand to be in the light. Stripped of the dark closeness, the raftersand bunks and posts and walls would have lost all meaning. I took severalpictures and hoped I’d caught on film the sense of what I was feeling in myeyes.
When I started out of the building, I saw the man I had earlierphotographed entering Crematorium I. He was standing outside about ten yardsfrom the block entrance taking pictures. As it happened, we both reached theentrance at the same time and exchanged greetings. I noticed he was wearing aname tag from The Germany-Israel Conference.
We passed each other at theentrance and suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and started swearing. He wasimmediately red-faced and angry. It wasn’t me he was swearing at, but what waswrong, I asked. “See what it says there?” he asked, pointing at a roof beam. Ilooked, of course, and saw a hand-done slogan painted across the whitened beam’scenter in black, Germanic script. I’d seen it before, but didn’t know what itmeant. “In bloch mutzen ab!”, it read. “Hats off in the block!”, my companionblurted out, “And look at that one.” he went on, pointing to the next beam in, “Sauberkeit ist Gesundheit.” Cleanliness is health.” he sputtered, overwhelmed and voicing both his rage andthe depth of the humiliation undertaken here. We both went on to read everyslogan on every beam, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask for additionaltranslations. The man was beyond outrage as it was. It was mine to try tounderstand, not to inquire. I now know them to have said “Lie down in the block”(En bloch ruhe), “Be honest” (Sei ehrlich), and more besides.
Mydistraught companion soon stepped back out to take his remaining three frames andasked me to take the third. I obliged him after setting up the shot with himleft in the entrance, rather than centered as he had positioned himself. Then,we parted, he in an unimaginable visible anguish by which I had been profoundlytouched. I was closer still to knowing where I was and what to look for. Iwouldn’t miss the smaller things again. And my light of day sentiments bedamned. I needed clear pictures of everything. So, I went back in with strobelight ready.
I went on to circumnavigate the entire quarantine section,going in or around every building and checking its authenticity. Along the frontof the row of stables, the weedy grass was regularly mowed like we mow highwayrights-of-way and there was a well-worn dirt path which extended only one or twobuildings beyond the one I had thoroughly explored and photographed.
Others had obviously had the impression that nothing more needed seeing beyondthat point. But I was not deterred by the trail’s end. I went on to make myloop around the row. Behind the buildings, the weeds were calf-high, but therewas a thin trail. I was glad to know that I wasn’t alone in my curiosity aboutwhat might be behind all this.
What lay behind that first row of buildingswas an inner run of once-electrifiedfence and overarching lights which enclosed a larger pair of pens. Thosepens once held about two-thirds of the compound’s buildings. I say compoundbecause, technically, the segregated interior areas were different camps(lagers) These were the camps at Birkenau. What I saw while walking behind theblocks of the Quarantine Camp were the fences and remains of the Family Camp andthe Gypsies’ Camp and others. Originally, no camp opened into another, but allopened onto passages to the central paved road and railbed – theLagerstrasse.
Nothing was left of the Family Camp or those beyond but asingle building and theskeletons of scores of others – floors, chimneys and flues. Bricks had beenpiled neatly at the ends and sides of each and I guessed that they served assources of building or (one hopes) preservation materials. There were severalgaps in the lower strands of the fence separating me from those foundations, butnot even minimal trails leading away from the gaps.
The weeds in thatuncharted area were also about knee-high and full of bees. Given my insect biteallergy, I chose not to inspect the area as closely as I had the first andsettled for a few pictures from along the fence line. I tried hard to imaginewhat it must have been like when the land had been made barren by millions offootsteps. The only parallel I could come up with was to see the bleakness ofthe camps in winter and covered by snow.
I eventually made my way back tothe Lagerstrasse and continued my tour. And, like I said, I was on the tourtrail by default. The camps were all still well-secured by the primary barbedwire fence and I couldn’t go far without running into it. I was reluctant to usethe breaks I saw in the fence.
Three sets of railroad tracks ran parallelto and maybe five meters away from the Lagerstrasse. The strip of land on thefar side of the tracks from where I walked was the ramp onto which the transportpassengers dumped themselves and their baggage. Selection for death now or deathlater were made on the ramp. SS officers including Josef Mengele had once stoodin judgement there. Hundreds of thousands of deported men, women, and childrenhad lined up there in silence and had been directed to go to the left or to theright. Those directed to the left were dead within hours. Those who went righttook a little longer to die. Many thousands of others had been brought in bytruck and had met the same fate.
A perpendicular road bisected the campabout half-way between the guardhouse and the crematoria sites. That roadprovided both a part of the tour trail and a way to get from one side (actually,one end) of the camp to the other. It also divided the womens’ camps on my leftand, on my right, split the quarantine, family (Czech) and Hungarian camps fromthe men’s, gypsy and medical camps.
Stopping at the intersection of theLagerstrasse and that dividing road and looking to my right and left, I saw thatthe road was dark gray, muddy and well-used off right, but could not see why. Itseemingly went nowhere, yet it bore the marks of tractor tires. To the left theroad was a dry gray stretch along which the tour trail ran. As I stood there fora while to reorient myself I began to take more notice of work inprogress.
Off to my right near the intersecting roads were many newrailroad ties waiting to be laid. The railroad track nearest me was new andnewly lined and the ties showed little age. Long runs of both the railbed andoffloading ramp were newly covered with uniform, pinkish-tan washed gravel. But,the slightly more distant and obviously aged rails had been laid over rougherstones of many kinds. There, the track was in a very different state of repair,overgrown, rusting, and barely restrained by rotting ties. The contrast betweennew and the old was so great that it made me uneasy. I felt that something wasawry and I started hashing over what I had seen so far.
It occurred to methen that what I had been seeing was more deliberate than faithful. For example,one of the block restorations inthe Quarantine camp consisted of a complete concrete floor with a collar runningaround it and a nice, neat chimney and flue making up its spine. Ringing thefoundation was a narrow curb. Between the curb and the foundation was agravel-filled drainage ditch about half a meter wide. Brick footings ran fromthe outer collar inward to near the flue. That is definitely not how theoriginal stables were built. I half resolved to go back and take a good look atthe one completed new building, which had been erected over an identicalfoundation to the one I’d seen in the open.
I went on to walk the length ofthe rail spur, stopped where it met thememorial and then doubled back to the intersection to pick up the tour trailagain. Once back on the trail, I figured out what the cross-camp road was partlyused for. The key was a number of wood-stake tripods like you’d see over acampfire and scattered among the blocks of the Women’s Camp. There were quite afew of them standing between the buildings and in the open spaces near theperimeter fence. I first took them for cooking tripods because they wereblackened as if by smoke. But, that didn’t make any sense in this context and ifthey weren’t part of the exhibit, what were they? A little thought brought theanswer. The tripods were used for drying hay – I’d seen them in the outlyingfields – and the road was used by mowers at least. Other traffic, too.
So,Birkenau continued to provide commodities for local consumption. I was dismayed. If this place, which should be hallowed ground, could be exploited for fodder,how far might the exploitation go? How far from valuing and honoring the truthmight we have come in just fifty years? For the present, I couldn’t answer. Icould only wonder as I walked in, among, and around the tour stops. I wasgetting tired and had not yet come to the site of the crematoria. It was wellafter 3:00 and I had to be back at the taxi by 4:30. And I had started stumblingunder my weariness – I had been on my feet nearly six hours. Just then, I washeartened by the most amazing thing I have ever seen anywhere!
Get this! There I was, dead tired from travelling and walking and thinking andpicture-taking, standing at the scene of our most heinous crimes, when I glancedback over the route I had taken. Out on the Lagerstrasse was a fully unfurledlarge (and I do mean large) Israeli flag waving defiantly in the light, steadybreeze as it was borne along by a dark knot of visitors too distant to see asindividuals. It was a beautiful sight and it seemed only fitting. I was morethan impressed!
I have seldom been so moved as I was by the sight of theblue stripes and Mogen David on their bright white field moving up that infamouslane and catching the full light of the afternoon sun. This was more thanchutzpah! This was triumph! I watched that flag until it disappeared out themuseum entrance and then went back to my tour with renewed energy and with apicture that lives only in my memory. I could not have done it justice in aphotograph.
As I turned back to my route, my eye was caught by somethingnext to a longer than usual building. Its twelve or thirteen chimneys marked itas a camp kitchen. There, under an add-on overhang, a wooden wagon stood. It had largerspoked wheels in back than in front and at one time had been brightly painted. Now, only faded blues and reds and yellows were visible against the aging gray ofthe wagon body. The wheels and spokes were once very white. I don’t doubt thatit was an all-purpose carrier and used frequently to haul whoever died in theblocks or on the grounds to the crematoria. But, once upon a time, it had beenbrightly decorated in celebration. Perhaps, of gypsy life. Anger over the stark,inescapable, and deliberate contrast of life and death in this place welled up inme once more and my newfound energy was instantly sapped.
I went on throughwhat was left of the Women’s camps, which were monotony incarnate. Fewer thanthirty buildings still stood, much as they had been found by Soviet troops in1944. All the brick blocks were the same inside and out, as were the two typesof latrine. There were no signs, no photographs on display, no hint of what wenton in those masonry hovels. But theatmosphere in each was uniformly oppressive, dark, and cramped even whenempty. At the time, hundreds of people had been housed in eachdormitory.
Entry to a block was through a door in the middle of one side. Flanking the door and forming a short foyer were the blockfuehrers’ rooms,complete with collapsed wide plank floors. Inside, the flooring was packed earth. The roof of each was exposed. Alongthe walls and down the center of the block, five foot wide sections ofthree-tiered bunks in which thirty or more people were warehoused were built intoand separated by brick partitions that have kept even the most deteriorated ofthem from going all cattawampus.
On that day, the blocks were dry and cool. Inside, the smell of aging brick and mortar and of the dust underfoot waspungent and familiar, like an abandoned brick farmhouse. The smell of the woodenrafters, cross-beams, and bunk supports had long since faded into nothing. Heretoo the rough-hewn bunk supports had been smoothed by the brush of millions ofhands. Line drawings, words, names, and dates were here and there on the wallsand wood. Pigeon droppings and whitewash remnants were everywhere.
It’simpossible to convey in words what it must have been like to have lived there inwinter without heat and in summer when it was hottest. I’ve been in unheatedcabins in the coldest of Alaskan winters, but I was dressed for it and roaringfires were easily built. And I’ve stacked hay clear to the rafters of corrugatedsteel barns in Texas in mid-August, but I was young and fit and myair-conditioned home was never too distant. There had been no escape here andone of the most distressing ironies of Birkenau was that the respite which cameto be most prized by many of the prisoners was simply the lesser misery visitedupon them by the wooden planking and brick walls of the blocks.
Equallydifficult was the closeness of the quartering. Where three people might havelain side-by-side, six to eight were forced to lie foot-by-face upon their sides. None but small children could have sat upright and no small children had made itthat far. The least successful found themselves on the dirt flooring beneathnearly a score of others and wallowing in the foul water and human waste thataccumulated there. The stench would have been overpowering to the uninitiated. Rats, lice, and other vermin had ruled in the darkest corners and had openly fedupon the dead and the nearly dead. To be near a window was seasonal bane orblessing.
In some places, wall and bunk repairs were obvious but faithful.But, glass had been installed in the windows of many buildings on the tour routewhere there had once been only barred holes in the walls. Skylights relieved thedarkness just around the entrances. Everywhere else it was dark. I really hadto hunt for enough light to take pictures even with ASA 400 film. In some, I hadto provide my own light.
Next came the outer column of blocks, thelatrines. They were outwardly almost identical to the dormitories. The maindifferences were that they had windows only on one side and entry was by a singledoor at either end. Some were locked up for reasons I don’t know. Others wereopen to tourists. Many had glazed windows. Long, concrete-collared pits ran down thecenter of the one room which made up each latrine. The collars were spannedby concrete seating sections with holes in each in an alternating pattern. Therewere no signs of outlets for water and there was no hint that electric light hadever been installed. The walls had once been painted gray or black from aboutwaist-high down and white on the upper part, with a red, dividing pin stripebetween. As in Quarantine, there were painted orders. Verhalte sich ruhig (No noise) appeared a number of timesand Sonne, Luft, Wasser (Sun, Air, Water) arced over a cartoon sunrise belowwhich was written Erhalten sich (take itin).
Thousands of people once were simultaneously given a few minutesat odd occasions each day in which to relieve themselves in these primitiverooms. Urine and feces and vomitus and blood and water once mixed and flowedacross the floors and out onto the surrounding grounds. Sewage treatment, whichwas poorly planned, in the first place, was never fully functional. What didn’toverflow the latrines passed untreated into the Sola river only a bit more than akilometer away. Typhus and cholera were constant threats. It was dangerous justto be in the vicinity. Sitting and taking a shit would have been suicidal. Ican scarcely imagine such filth as once presided there. Those who had seen itand lived could not have forgotten it.
I wandered in and out of the blocksand latrines for a while looking for slogans and other hints to what had passedfor life in that place. Soon, however, I had to pick up the pace. Time wasgetting away from me and there were major features I hadn’t seen. So, I moved onand outward to the Southwest corner of the perimeter fence and took a few shotsof the Women’s camp from there. Then, I headed in the direction of CrematoriumII.
We’ve all seen pictures of the remains of Crematorium II – abuckled concrete floor below a stout chimney. When I got there, I found thechimney gone. But all the rest of the rubble was there, as was the imploded 100meter long pit that once had been theChanging Room. There, hundreds of thousands of people had disrobed and filedinto the “showers” never to be seen again. A thousand or more at a time, men,women, and children were suffocated by Zyklon B, an industrial pesticide.
Above ground had been a large frame building resembling an institutional bakery. Within were elevators which carried the dead up to be robbed and shorn andburned. Corpse processing was done in rooms where thorough searches were madeand the gold teeth or jewelry thus found were removed and melted down or boxedfor delivery to officials. Hair was also shorn and then washed, dried, combedout and bagged. Fifteen or more state-of-the art furnaces had done the burningof people who were truly of no further use to the Third Reich.
Only anenlarged photograph on display nearby recalled for the visitor how this crematorium and Crematorium IIIappeared in use. But, the accompanying cut-away view was misleading in thatit gave the impression there were only five firing chambers. In reality, therehad been fifteen. Each station had consisted of a coke-fired oven with threemuffles. Nine bodies or more could be processed at once at each station. Withthe proper mix of one heavy and one lean adult, plus one child, as many as 12,000people could be reduced to ash and odd bits of bone every twenty-four hours bythe four crematoria at Birkenau. And plant capacity was frequentlyoverwhelmed.
Again, I took several pictures. One or two you wouldrecognize, because I took them from WWII combat photographers’ vantage points. Ialso photographed the enlarged portrait and diagram of the crematorium. It wasthen that my suspicions about guided tours were confirmed.
A group of fiftyor so teenagers and adults made its way down the tour path to a point twenty-fivemeters away from me where the rubble was highest. They stood there for a fewminutes as the guide gave them her spiel about this being the ruins ofCrematorium II and the wreckage being the remnants of the undressing and gassingrooms. Then they all headed over to the monument. No more than five minuteswent by. They went nowhere near the marker where the photograph was. They hadbeen shown nothing.
Between the sites of Crematorium II and Crematorium IIIlay the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism. Made up of thousandsof stones and mortar, it was essentially a huge, dark, gravestone that rose by broad and easy levels to a pointseveral feet above grade. It seemed nothing had been disturbed to build it.Concrete fence posts, still tethered at the insulators by barbed wire, wereincorporated into the monument. The dark stone simply flowed around the postsand under the strands of wire.
The infamous Birkenau spur ran right up tothe memorial. Beyond and behind it was a stand of birch trees. From the front,the darkness of the railbed was carried to the rising levels of stone and then onto the dark green foliage of the trees. Walking across the blackish stones waslike floating over a huge pit. Even the brightest sunlight could not penetrate orrelieve the somber mass of the memorial.
With its crown of several massive stones, Ifound it a solemn, if not sullen, expanse and it still defies description. I wasuncomfortable there, unsettled and disturbed by its vastness and lifelessness. Unlike The Wall in DC, which reduces me to tears, I couldn’t grasp the monument,couldn’t take it in. Maybe that was the point. How else would you memorializethe obscenity and scale of Birkenau?
There was more camp to see, but bynow I was exhausted and I knew my driver was waiting. I took off my flannelshirt, tied it around my waist and headed back. It was the hottest part of theday and the car was a long ways off. I grew more numb from fatigue and the experience with each step.
Thedriver and I didn’t talk a lot on the return trip. I asked questions aboutthings I saw, like a distant church which he said was actually a monastery. Forthe rest, it was small talk and polite. As we entered the outskirts of Cracow, Iasked if he might be available the next day. He said he would. At the HolidayInn, I gave him US $55.00 and said I’d see him the next day when he arrived. Then, I went on up to my room, took a bath, and ordered a cold-cut dinner andCoke from room service. After I ate, I watched a bit of MTV International andsome of a movie that came courtesy of Playboy at Night. At about 10:00, I askedthe desk for a 6:30 wake-up call and then I slept.
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