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AUSCHWITZ (RE)VISITED

by Ariel Parker

The trains, the trains... I have just been dragged out of a train at the end of a long journey. I am standing on the sorting-platform at Auschwitz with my family. In front of us, men in greatcoats. The cold-eyed appraisal, then the jerk of the thumb: to the left, to the right. And everywhere noise, movement, confusion. Men in uniform shouting, clubbing, dragging men, women and children not in uniform the way they are to go. Left or right. It is night. It is always night. Cold doubtless. The pile of bags and suitcases on the edge of the platform grows larger. The lines of human beings, left and right, grow longer.

It is my turn. The appraisal, the thumb.

To the left. My family to the right.

This is the worst thing in the world. Separation. To die unknown, alone.

Rifles thud down on outreaching arms. The tearing apart; cries, tears. To the left. And I am alone. Everyone is alone in this night, this endless night. And then... And then...
 

 Auschwitz

Photo: Guy Wagner
...and suitcases, marked with the details of their owner (“Waisenkind, Hana Fuchs,
3. Jun. 1936”).


***

Of course I didn't go by train. We were driven there by Antóny and we knew our time at Auschwitz was limited: we were to leave at one o'clock, to be back in Cracow in time for Good Friday lunch. For us there was life afterwards, elsewhere. We took nothing with us.
It is daytime, cold bright sun alternating with dark-driving snow. Graceful willows in early leaf bend their boughs like long tresses, greenish-yellow.

Dein goldenes Haar Margarete.

Antóny has found us a guide and then it is in front of us, that black iron gateway, ARBEIT MACHT FREI. We are going inside.
The barbed wire perimeter fence, yes, the guard-towers, yes, the rows of huts, yes ; it's all so familiar. You've been there so often, in films, in books, in imagination. Familiar and so utterly, utterly empty, drained of the horror.

We begin our visit. Here was where you mustered for roll-call. They had to get the numbers right, even the dead had to be counted and the living had to carry the bodies back to the camp at the end of the working-day. And you stood there in your thin uniform, feet bare in wooden clogs, while they counted, and counted, until the numbers tallied. Once it took twenty-two hours.

The wind drives wild through the rows of huts; we shivered in our thick winter clothes.

The huts now harbour the museum: documents, objects, evidence of the literally unimaginable. Memory.

And statistics, endless statistics. Auschwitz is about numbers. They turned you into a number when you arrived and you became part of the statistics. So many prisoners, so many canisters of gas. so many minutes to die. So many kilos of human hair for the textile industry.

And you walk between ceiling-high glass cases, grey slag-heaps of shoes and boots, of eye-glasses, of bags and suitcases, marked with the details of their owner (“Waisenkind, Hana Fuchs, 3. Jun. 1936”).

Of human hair. Long tresses of hair, curls, plaits, once raven, Titian, or silver. Now the colour of ash.

Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.

Of household utensils, of religious objects, of tins of boot-polish. Families took with them the things they thought important for their life: a cheese-grater, a prayer-shawl, shoe-polish. The absurdity. The unbearable irony of taking shoe-polish to Auschwitz. And yet. Is that not exactly the point?

Of children's toys. Of all children born at Auschwitz, forty-six survived.

Further on is the prison block, where there is a row of four "standing-cells", used for punishment. They are like chimneys, about 80 centimetres square, with a gap at the bottom, closed with an iron grating, where they push you in. Four of you to a cell. You are made to stand there all night. You can't sleep, of course. You have to go to work next day, then they bring you back again at night.
Outside the prison block is the Death Wall, where they shoot you for pocketing a crust, say. They strip you naked beforehand, so the uniform is not spoiled. The wall is covered in a special material to deaden the sound.

Gas Chamber Number One. There were three, one at Auschwitz, two, much larger, at Birkenau, which were destroyed. A notice asks us to be silent in memory of those who died here. I am standing in Number One. A long grey concrete room; the places in the roof where the gas came down; ash-grey walls, pitted and scarred; I press my hand against one, surely in the same place, someone... But nothing happens, no shock, no vision of horror, just this wilfully emptied silence.

In the centre, someone has laid a few flowers on a stone block, a simple shrine.

The ovens. They had a logistical problem: they could gas eight hundred people in one session but they could only incinerate some three hundred and forty per day. Sometimes they had to just burn the bodies in the open air. After stripping the human remains of sellable hair, rings and gold fillings. Other humans did this. Prisoners were made to do this.

The Commandant's house is just a few metres away. He lived there with his wife and children and wrote every day in his diary details of everything that happened at Auschwitz.

A little line of low blue flowers grows this side of the barbed wire not far from his house.

Not far from the gallows where he was hanged after the camp was liberated.

***

Our time is running out. Back to the car and on to Birkenau.

Birkenau is vast and flat and whipped by an icy wind. Most of the huts are made of wood and are more primitive than at Auschwitz.

They were originally conceived as stables for fifty-two German horses, but were specially transported here to hold up to four hundred prisoners. Five of you had to lie crosswise on each slatted wooden bunk. The rain rained on you through holes in the roof, even so, the top bunk was preferred to the two underneath.

There were six sanitary huts for the whole camp. You were allowed to use them just twice a day, morning and evening. A long low stone block with a double row of holes occupied one half of the hut: this was the lavatories. You had very little time.

It is to Birkenau that the railways lines lead and here that the trains end, at the sorting-platform. And this is where we came in. There is a hut where the camp-doctors sheltered from the cold between arrivals and sortings. They sent you one way, to die later on, if they judged you could still work, or serve some other purpose. They sent you the other way, to immediate death in gas-chamber and furnace, if you were deemed too old or too young or too weak or too ill to be of use to them.

This is the worst thing in the world.

***

I leave the sorting-platform and the standing-cells and the gas-chamber and the Commandant's diary and the long grey tresses of women's hair behind. But they tiptoe after me, whispering their questions in my ear.

What kind of men actually sit down and plan all this?

How do you get human beings to do these things to other human beings?

Could it all happen again today?

And outside, the long yellow tresses of the weeping-willows nod in the wind.

Dein goldenes Haar Margarete.



© Ariel Wagner-Parker, 2001 - published in "kulturissimo", May 16, 2001

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