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Poland: Auschwitz

    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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