I arrived at Birkenau II on a bus from the nearby Oswiecim train station, free transportation provided for the fiftieth anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation. This was the famous gate with the now unused rail line feeding into the brick “mouth” of the facility, which once had swallowed arrivals. I had travelled overnight from Central Slovakia, where I was living at the time, having to change trains three times, waiting at outdoor platforms in the bitter January cold. Many of the 70 thousand Jews deported from Slovakia had taken the same route – and had suffered far harsher conditions.
I trudged toward the monument where the ceremonies were to be held, taking in the endless rows of concrete posts, curved at the tips. They were strung with barbed wire like lines on sheet music, left there to play an eternal dirge.
The wind gusted, perpendicular to my path, as snow flurries swirled. The icy air stung my cheeks and made my eyes water, all of me that was exposed between my woolen toboggan and scarf wrapped twice around my neck. Hadn’t the prisoners run around in little more than pajamas? Wasn’t my London Fog overcoat the sort of thing the camp guards wore?
I mouthed the lines of a poem I’d learned in a German class two years before, the German-Romanian Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” or “Death Fugue.”
Schwarze Milch der Fruhe wir trinking sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
Black milk of the early morning we drink it in the evening
we drink it at noon and morning we drink it at night
The unpunctuated verses go on like the monotonous routine of work, minimal sleep, roll calls, and physical exams, with repeated images of guard dogs, whips, shovels, golden hair, and ashes.
Brick chimneys rose at the far side of the complex. The wooden barracks they had once been part of had been burned down by the Nazis as the Red Army approached, leaving only these bare esophagi that had once belched victims into the sky.
Between two of them stood a monument, built in 1967, of rough, chunky dark stones resembling a jumble of graves. This is where the main ceremonies were to take place.
Still a hundred yards from the structure, I passed through a checkpoint, since several heads of state were to be present. I opened my backpack and showed the contents: a change of underwear and socks, a quarter loaf of grainy bread, hard salami and a bottle of mineral water. Provisions for the overnight trips here and back, still luxurious by the standards of the transports.
On this morning there were tribunals, interpreters’ booth, and bleachers. Former prisoners, now mostly in their seventies, sat in wooden folding chairs near the monument, wearing scarves and armbands with blue and white stripes, like the prison uniforms. Most of the scarves had a red triangle with the letter “P,” the designation for Polish political prisoners.
A dozen teenage Polish scouts went around with pump thermoses, handing out Styrofoam cups of tea and coffee to the waiting crowd, one simple comfort.
The foreign dignitaries filed in to marshal music. After a moment of silence, a cantor chanted in Hebrew. Then a priest read scripture in Polish. Prisoner # 31, who’d survived the longest of any remaining inmates. Former prisoner and lifelong Nati-hunter Elie Wiesel soon followed with his message: “Close your eyes, open your heart… and listen.”
Another former prisoner, now a Knesset member, spoke, followed by a “Message to the Nations,” drafted several days before the event. Polish President Lech Walesa addressed the crowd last. Finally, representatives of thirty-eight countries lay wreaths at the monument.
From fifty yards I could spot Václav Havel, architect of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Hungarian President Árpád Göncz, and German Federal President Roman Herzog. How wonderful that this event was taking place after the fall of communism, when a reunited Europe could recall hardships overcome.
We spectators the trickled down from the stands into the monument area and began to mix, young and old, former prisoners and those who could only begin to imagine the horrors they had endured. One elderly man told a group of a half-dozen who’d gathered around him in an arc that he was there for the first time in fifty years. I wondered how many others there were like him – and how many survivors continued to stay away from the memories of that time.
“I lost my parents. And my fifteen-year-old sister,” said a woman of seventy. It couldn’t have been easy for her to come here.
Two elderly Polish women told their stories to a man in his twenties with dark, curly hair, laden with cameras, though he wore no press badge. A long-haired German man, a bit older, with anti-Nazi patches on his jacket listened in silence. By this time, groups like this had formed spontaneously throughout the camp.
“There was no warm water to bathe in,” said one of the ladies. “Sometimes we wanted to wash in the moats near the fences, dirty as that was. But if you approached them you were shot.”
Other survivors showed the barracks they had stayed in. “Up there, on the bunk,” said one man, pointing, “was where six of us slept.” The “bunk” was just boards wedged in between brick dividers. Each “shelf” was strewn with hay. Often they would sleep on their sides – for warmth, and just to fit a half-dozen people into the spaces.
Another line from Cezan’s poem speaks to this point: “wir shaufeln ein Grab in den Lueften da liegt man nicht eng“ – „We shovel a grave in the air one has more room for lying.” Death brought comfortable rest.
Survivors, on this day at least, showed no anger or sadness. They related their experiences in stoic-to-friendly fashion. We observers asked no questions or names.
While many survivors do tell their tales to other audiences, on that day, anonymity seemed to have been appropriate; these people spoke for all who had been there, for all the nameless, and for all whose names have been recorded.
Ten years later, I was contacted by a Columbus, Ohio synagogue to work on a project of compiling names of Holocaust victims from a Czech congregation. That community, destroyed, of course, was adopted by the American one, to keep the records of their members’ deportations and, where known, of their dates and places of deaths. Though neither Jewish nor East European, I felt a connection, however vague, to these people. Most had perished in Auschwitz, others had been sent to Dachau or Sachsenhausen or elsewhere. We found no indication that any had survived.
The other essential point of the project was to list their names, in flawless Czech orthography, to be engraved from a PDF onto a silver Torah breastplate.
The words at the top of the breastplate say it all: “MAY THEIR MEMORY BE FOR BLESSING.”