Bicycling to Auschwitz (The
Oswiecim (pronounced "OSS'VIE(N)-CHIM") is an industrial town in Southern Poland, between beautiful, antique Krakow and the jagged high Tatras mountains. Kate and I passed through it last Summer on a bicycle tour around Eastern Europe.
Riding in, the first thing we saw were the billowing refinery smokestacks over the straight road, and for at least a mile outside of town we followed a high concrete fence topped with barbed wire enclosing a huge chemical plant.
Oswiecim ("Auschwitz," the concentration camp there, is a Germanization of the name) was an industrial town long before and long after the Nazis moved in and made it infamous. That was part of the ruse: the existing smokestacks and factories would hide the new work.
It’s a relatively easy ride from Krakow, but we got in late, looking for the famous camp and a place to stay. We were following signs to the "Holocaust Museum," but they strangely vanished when we got into the city. There are no hotels or campgrounds near the "Museum," but we found a small hotel that's actually part of the camp, and that's where we stayed.
The accommodations were rugged, something like a youth hostel, and cheap. A kind woman at the desk suggested a restaurant and told us which the bus to take. But when we'd braved the public transport to get out there, we found the place closed for a wedding. As far as we could tell, on Saturdays all restaurants in Poland are closed for weddings,
We ended up eating in the train station, the only place open--scary sausage and cabbage soup with a salt content to rival the Dead Sea; sugary generic soda to wash it down with. With us were tired young soldiers in unbuttoned shirts and old men with nowhere else to be.
lt was strange trying to sleep there: if you're ever going to anticipate ghosts and nightmares, this is the place to do it. We slept fine.
We ate breakfast in the adjoining restaurant and even managed to wrangle some eggs. Everyone else was having that same sausage and cabbage soup. From behind the counter we were served by a loud redhead who bickered with a dark-haired woman.
Outside was a parking lot full of fancy, colorful tour buses, most from East Germany, some from West. And just around the comer was the Holocaust Museum, otherwise known as Auschwitz. the concentration camp. We joined the piles of people, and were led into a dark theatre to see a Russian documentary about their liberation of the camp in 1945. It was dramatic and thorough footage, full of facts about what-the Red Army found there: 836,525 women's dresses. 16 tons of human hair, among other things. The movie was full of this "Glorious Red Army" stuff you hear throughout Eastern Europe, but made its point.
From there we passed out into the rain, and through the famous gate which reads, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Will Make You Free, that all those prisoners saw as they entered the camp.
Auschwitz was originally this set of 28 barracks and a single crematorium. Some of the stuff is left how it was found: the prisoners' quarters. the standing-torture rooms, the Wall of Death and the gallows in the courtyard in between. Other barracks have been turned into displays, memorials and museums representing the various countries and races that contributed to the numbers of dead.
We turned through a few of these; in the barrack that is now the Memorial to Jewish Martyrs. we confirmed what an American girl in Krakow told us: this is the only place in Auschwitz that is bugged. (The bugs are obvious--they're like sprinklerheads on the ceiling. except they look like microphones.)
As we wandered, the rain got harder, and it started to look like we wouldn't riding out of Oswiecim that day as we'd planned. We slogged on--a couple of sorethumb tourists, decked out in our bright yellow Goretex rain gear.
People had told us to check out Birkenau, just down the tracks, the huge camp that was built in 1941 and '42 as an expansion of Auschwitz. It's not officially part of the "Museum," but a lot of the tour buses drive the three kilometers over. We walked, half an hour in the rain hard and steady, resigning ourselves to chilly saturation—and another night at the Auschwitz Hilton.
The obvious thing about Birkenau is Its scale. Physically, it covers several times the area of Auschwitz. And it was still growing: new acres were under construction when the camp was liberated. Auschwitz was a prototype, an experiment of sorts; Birkenau is the perfected product, the result of years of serious study. Using skilled logistics and engineering and psychology and architecture, it is a sublime design for the mass extermination of human beings.
We walked from the towering gale, down Ihe tracks to the crematorium. Into the women's barracks on the left, and the barracks for quarantined prisoners on the right. Past unfinished sewage silos that were planned to convert human waste to methane gas: waste not, want not. A group of Israeli students danced past us through the mud, waving their large blue-and-white flags and singing songs that sounded, to us, celebratory.
Unlike Auschwitz up the road, Birkenau was left as it was found. Its four cremaloria and over 200 barracks were almost completely destroyed by the Nazis as they fled. Most of the barracks were wooden, a military field stable design inlended for 52 horses. At Birkenau they held up to 1000 prisoners each. Inside. wooden beds like storage shelves, and brick chimneys at either end connected by a primitive oven for beat. Over most of the grounds, these brick chimneys are all that remain, like scattered stallks of dead weeds, still fenced in.
It seemed like the thing to do, so we walked miles, to feel this thing top to bottom, inside and out: a gloom that gets way inside you. Inchoate and fragile, it lives in your digestion and in your respiration: the aftertaste of something you swallowed a long time ago and for the first time you're afraid it's some strong drug, some slow poison.
This place, enclosed by fences and farms beyond, saw the deaths of the number of people in a city the size of Chicago: this small, well-organized spot, in four years, processed four million people into ashes and smoke. Just outside the fence. a building that was officers' quarters is now a church.
Back at our room we changed into what dry clothes we had left. got back into our Goretex. and started toward town for dinner. We were exhausted and famisbed, but determined to starve rather than eat at the train station again. We commandeered a cab snd instructed the driver to take us to a "dobre restaurancia "--a good restaurant. He let us know the only ones were a little out of town, and we said proceed.
We were out in one of those concrete highrise developments where all the people in Poland—and Eastern Europe and Russia--really live. He pointed out two places and dropped us off. One of the restaurants was closed, and the other was basically a beerhall--where guys over there go on Sunday since there's no ballgame on TV, and no TV.
It was all brown-faced working men with big yellow beers in front of them. smoking and jabbering relentlessly. We walked in. bright yellow jackets and well-scrubbed, grabbing a table near the door. I started to scan the place for the food or a waitress and saw neither.
Across from us was a man wi th a beard, about 30, dressed all in white. He didn't look as blue collar or dead drunk as the rest of them. He looked us over with curiosity and amusement, as though he were about to start a conversation. We smiled, h e said something in English and waved me over to his table. I told him we were looking for food, and he made a gesture like a knife slashing his neck and said, "The food bere, not so good". He didn't have any suggestions, so I made my way through the noise and crowded tables to look for service.
When I got back, something had happened. Two drunks, on their way out, had pawed Kate. She was stunned, but didn't have time to react. The guy with the beard looked concerned. sel back down next to ber. and she was shaken: disgust, hunger, the heavy sorrow of the day.
But before I could conjure any comfort, two more seriously drunk men with dark faces and big hands came staggering and falling towards us. When they reached us, they were on their knees, crawling and puckering, as though to worship at Kate's feet.
Well, that was it. Something snapped inside of poor Kate. She rose to her feet, and in a loud voice, a barely restrained hysterical scream, started yelling in English: "I can't take it anymore! Get your goddam hands off of me, you pigs! I can't stand this shit!" And with that she darted out of the place. The drunks registered the slow shock of drunks and fell back. I was right behind Kate, and the bearded guy dressed in white was right behind me.
She was sobbing but okay, and I was proud of her for yelling like that. The bearded guy was walking along with us, friendly and shyly apologetic.
At the end of the street we stood trying to figure out what to do next. When you cycle-tour, your food is your fuel: if we were going to ride in the morning, we had to eat. The guy said we should get into a cab with him, he would take us to another restaurant.
Kate was still in a bit of shock. And since we come from New York, we had this instinct to suspect kind offers from strangers. But, on the other hand, we were up a creek without a paddle--no position to refuse one.
The cab took us back to the area of the Auschwitz camp. We got out at a new, empty-looking motel, and the guy wouldn't even let us pay for a cab: being in his debt made us anxious too.
And no, the motel's restaurant wasn't open. So the bearded guy smiles and says we must come to his place, and starts walking off in the direction of another complex of highrises.
We're not too sure about going up to the apartment of a stranger who out of nowbere is offering us dinner. I'm nervous, but open-eyed and ready to see what happens, not to mention hungry. It would be uncool to say no, with no reason save our city-bred paranoia, and I tell Kate as much.
It was a nice apartment,a couple of bedrooms. concrete deck with a view of the parking lot. He put us down on the couch and turned on a big old reel-to-reel tape player. He loves American jazz, he says, and knows more about it than we do. I He gives me the only book he has in English--a big picturebook about the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow--and disappears into the kitchen.
Presently he reappears with a tray of scrambled eggs with sausage, bread with butter, and tea. He shares a tea with us and smokes a cigarette while we joyfully devour the food. He tells us he works as a mechanic in a coal mine and his wife and kids are with the in-laws. We ask him what it's like living in a city so well known for one terrible thing, and he just says, "Sad. " We try to make more conversation, but he's content to just serve us and doesn't even want any interesting Western info in return.
We finish our delicious meal, he puts out his cigarette and says. "Now I will show you back to your hotel”--not forcing us to leave, not making us stay, just doing what we want.
When we get within sight of the hotel, he stops in the path, shakes our hands, turns and leaves. We continue up to our room, amazed at these fast events: rescued from the scary foodless bar and well-fed just like that by a generous stranger whose name we never got.
It was scarier turning the lights off that night, after the rain and the long walk, infused with the shadows of the millions of souls who perished where we slept. In the morning I had my only sort of mystical or spiritual experience of the trip: I was in half-sleep, just waking, when I heard five clear tones in my head--a distinct melody, sort of like the message from the aliens in “Close Encounters.” And there were five syllables that went with the tones, and they were these: "We are not complete."
We got eggs again for breakfast, served by the same two ladies. They were engaged in the same anonymous argument as before, and being rude to each other in no way hindered their ability to be rude to the customers. But that morning we felt immune. Riding out of town we were blessed with a sunny day and a tailwind, the first of the trip, which carried us quickly away from the cement smokestacks and gray earth and gray memories of Oswiecim, and far into the green and rolling hills of southern Poland.