Steven Heller | Essays

A Day Trip Into Darkness

Outside the Auschwitz gas chamber.

It is 3:13 on Monday morning in Krakow, Poland. It is dark out. I cannot sleep. In a little over five hours I will climb into a VW mini-van with six strangers for the one and a half hour daytime drive to Oświęcim, the Polish town that the Nazis renamed Auschwitz, which (with neighboring Birkenau) was the largest of all the Third Reich’s hundreds of concentration camps.

Since childhood I have been obsessed with the Holocaust. I have seen films (fiction, faction, and documentary), read histories, articles and novels, biographies and memoirs, visited museums and archives, attended memorials and services and constructed a vivid diorama in my mind of the iconic and horrific scenes that define the mass extermination of Jews, Poles, Gypsies and many others in the abomination that was the Holocaust or Shoah. I never met the members of my grandmother’s immediate family, who were unlucky enough to be born and murdered at the wrong time and place in history. I have internalized a wide range of images that attest to the brutality they must have endured. I have assimilated and aggregated these visions in my imagination and suffered vicariously through their unimaginable ordeals. Yet despite this overwhelming—at times self-indulgent—fascination, I had never been to the actual source. Today is the day my internal images will become real—and imbued with new relevance.

Friends have said this will be cathartic, enlightening, sad, and traumatic. I liken it, somewhat, to an adopted child or adult meeting a birth-parent for the first time. Maybe this is apt and maybe not, but for me the Holocaust has been like standing behind a one-way mirror, now I’ll walk through it.

Some people told me not to go; others, not knowing how to respond, told me to “enjoy” my trip. The wisest advice I received was to make some time to contemplate the experience and be very careful not to overly (or disingenuously) identify too much with the victims. I am not a victim or even close.

Before leaving for Poland, I explored (and asked others to help identify) genealogy websites to find—without any luck—what I could about my maternal great grandfather, whom I honor with my Hebrew name. His name was Shmuel [Samuel] Zucherbrot [sugar bread]. I am Chaim Shmuel. My grandmother’s father either died along with my great grandmother (whose name I never learned) and another daughter (an aunt also unknown to me) either in the Lodz Ghetto or Auschwitz – Birkenau. Any chance I had to obtain additional family details died three decades ago along with my grandmother, who did not care to discuss the Holocaust at all, and who I stupidly never asked, despite my interest.

* * *

It is 3:45 now. It took around a half hour to write the above. I turn off the computer, but I cannot fall back asleep. I cannot stop thinking about how I will ultimately feel when I see first-hand the famous iron Auschwitz gate atop with the mockingly sarcastic slogan “Arbiet Macht Frei” (work will make you free), and the indelible specter of the Birkenau portal through which passed hundreds of cattle cars filled with dead and dying souls. How will the concrete electrified fence polls, the barracks still standing after seventy-three years and foundations of those wooden ones that had collapsed stretching in row upon row for acres haunt me? I anxiously – indeed guiltily – pondered what it will be like to actually step foot in a parking lot adjacent to the largest death “camp” in the world for a three hour look-see, and then return to Krakow for a delicious dinner with friends at a lovely restaurant serving foods that will remind me of my grandmother’s cooking. We’ll see.

* * *

It is 4:00 pm and I am back in my Krakow hotel room. The anticipated visit is over. Not a word was spoken by anyone on the way back. Only a radio station playing perky Polish pop dance music broke the silence.

The tour began with a young, blonde female Polish guide. Her narration was both blood-curdling yet calming in its pleasantly accented delivery. I listened to her melodious voice amplified through a headset as she spoke into a clip-on microphone. Other tour groups with other guides passed by but they were blurs. I listened to our guide’s sonic breathing as she spoke with compassionate authority about the people who suffered the unthinkable horrors presented in each of the two-story brick barracks (neatly arranged former Polish army housing) that was Auschwitz I. I spoke to no one, no one spoke to me—and I had no wish to share my thoughts with others. I only looked at the evidence—the severe wooden stalls in which inmates slept on straw, the few seatless toilets that each person could use only twice a day for five minutes at a time (or face extreme punishment) despite the rampant dysentery that left their bodies dehydrated, the hundreds of empty Zyklon B cans opened but not discarded after use, massive mushes of tangled, matted cut hair that filled an entire room, stacks of worn shoes and piles of spectacles, among other possessions collected prior to death. The guide reminded us that each shoe, each eyeglass belonged to an unknown person who believed with all their heart that Auschwitz (at first a labor camp) and Birkenau (intended as a mass extermination factory) was the first installment of a Nazi resettlement policy.

I looked for the name Zucherbrot as I walked past the massive vitrines filled with leather suitcases (many belonging to the one million and more children murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices). “It was better to kill children,” said the guide, with a hint of anger speaking about the Nazi guards, “than serve on the front lines.”

The guide also said the images inside the buildings comprising the Auschwitz “lager” spoke for volumes. You can read millions of pages of documentation and literature (and watch Schindler’s List a hundred times) but confronting that physical manifestation burns forever deeply into your consciousness. However, nothing I saw—not even Block 11, known as the “death block” because that’s where the Gestapo interrogated, starved, and tortured their prey in a basement warren of cells designed to dehumanize even the animals among us—could have prepared me for the coup de grâce: the death chamber and crematorium that is so well known that it seems as though it cannot be real. It is definitely real.

Only one of the industrial gas chambers/showers and crematoria was not destroyed and that was the one, explained our guide. It is just a few hundred yards from the Commandant’s villa, and it was where the Nazis used to test for the most efficient amounts of Zyklon B pellets to kill the largest number in the least amount of time. Our guide added that the barracks were necessary not to imprison but to detain Germany’s victims until they could be murdered and disposed. Walking through the underground dressing stalls into the gas chamber, which had a rooftop opening for pouring in the pellets that turned to lethal, strangulating gas and which was adjacent to four large baker’s ovens for immediate corpse disposal, is the quintessential picture I cannot erase. And that was the point of the visit itself. For all the images conceived and produced to protest man’s inhumanity to man, I have never seen a graphic or photographic work (and there are some amazing ones) that will ever do what that visit to that hell could do.

But there is also some cognitive dissonance. Once supposedly secret, Auschwitz–Birkenau is a “destination.” The very place that no sane person would ever want to be sent to is the very place that on this cold, overcast day in March I visited, and is the same place that the hundreds of co-visitors felt the need to see for themselves. People of all ages, nationalities, and religions bought tickets from tourist agents in Krakow, stood online to get their gratis receivers and headsets, then afterward went to one of the three snack bars for sandwiches, sausages, and sodas.

I once heard about a survivor of the camp who, decades after the ordeal was over, at his daughter’s dinner table would roll up tiny wads of bread and place them in his pocket, just as he did when he was at Auschwitz. I thought of him as we were released to have snacks and drinks at the stands. I did not eat. Most of all I thought and thought and thought. I’m still thinking as I finish this around 3:00 am, not being able to sleep again.

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