Today a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Grueling, but then it’s
supposed to be. The train trip began in forest but gradually yielded to
rolling farm land and marshy patches of woods. I kept flashing on the
iconic image of the train tracks running straight into the main
entrance of the camp as well as another picture I had of rust-dusted
railroad tracks curving through a dark green forest near the entrance
to Auschwitz. Neither image was correct; the former is actually of
nearby Birkenau while Auschwitz proper is located in a kind of
industrial park on the outskirts of the pleasant little town of
Oswiecim, Poland. Across from the rows of tour buses in the parking lot
were bright red-yellow signs advertising pizza and kebabs. From the outside Auschwitz looks like a popular tourist site.
Once inside, the theme park aura fades before a
complex, staggeringly well-documented museum. The main compound is
not large – maybe 20 acres – and is groomed with tree-lined, uniform
rows of red brick buildings sectioned by polite little boulevards.
Standard military housing except for the electric double fences. Today was
a beautiful Indian Summer day; windy with a few deciduous trees
sporting small, bright swatches of fall color, as though Autumn had just brushed
by while hurrying north to take up its true position and begin the season.
Auschwitz partly functioned as a hub. It
was centrally located, an easy access point from which to ship Jews and
others from Hungary, France, Belgium, as well as Eastern Europe and the
Balkans. Each nationality or group now has its own building, its own
separate museum documenting what happened to them, how they ended.
The other displays explain how the camp operated. In addition to administration there was the camp jail/execution
center, and the “hospital” where the ghastly medical experiments took
place. Each museum display was different and succeeded in making what
happened in that building, that room, immediate and alive.
The context was so comprehensively horrible that the
inspiring stories of the Polish Resistance and Oskar Schindler made no
dent on my overall feeling, which was one of a slow-growing body blow.
It was sort of beyond emotion, although someone more personally
connected to what happened here – who, say, lost relatives in the camp
– could have easily spent the day crying. After a few hours of
breathing the sad air, I left, walking careful and slow.
I once went to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC
and had a similar feeling. My second reaction was amazement at the
utterly dissociated quality of the machine the Nazis built, how implausible, fantastic and science fiction-like it was.
A pitiful little coda to the DC visit came later when I was standing in front of
the museum waiting for my ride. A
pickup truck drove by and a young man leaned out of the passenger
window, his face twisted like an angry gargoyle. He gave me the finger
and yelled, “You fag!!” I don’t get taken for gay very often; it
took me a moment to figure it out. I was wearing my rural Oregon cowboy
boots, standard issue where I come from. But cowboy boots are popular with
urban gays. A Gay Pride parade the day before had stirred up the
archetypes and memes. See boots, think gay, feel
threatened, spew hate.
In a broad fragmented way, similar forces are
gathering themselves again. I don’t mean just anti Semitism, although
all the classic forms of it are back in new clothes. There’s also anti
Muslim, anti Arab, anti western, anti secular as well as anti Semitism
– the strangest term since Arabs are Semites too. It means that both
sides in the Middle East hate themselves.
If Auschwitz is a museum, nearby Birkenau is a
monument. Past the famous gate through which the trains passed, it sits
in an open field like a huge, vacant farm. While not pastoral, the camp
rested today on a bed of late summer green in high
contrast to the grim onsite winter photos of its heyday. Instead of
brick buildings there were rows of long, low barns. Half of the space
inside each one was rocky floor, once dedicated to sleeping. The other half
housed two banks of latrines; long, narrow cement blocks pocked by what
looked like giant bullet holes.
Several rows of barns had burned leaving a field of
pink chimneys resembling thin Roman ruins. Tourist detritus – racks of
postcards, ads for guided tours – lightly festooned the entry building
but not the watch tower. The famous train track ran straight away from
the gate before discreetly submerging beneath a lush hedgerow that
crossed a working farm. There farmers were gathering hay and raking it
into piles in time for harvest.
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