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,
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...
...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
It is daytime, cold bright sun alternating with dark-driving snow.
Graceful willows in early leaf bend their boughs like long tresses,
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
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.
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
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
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
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