Thursday, January 27, 2005


I've visited Auschwitz twice in my life: the first time with Stephen and Craig early January 1996; the second time I was alone and it was just a few weeks later.

The first time I was struck by the ice cream shop just outside the Arbeit Macht Frei gate as well as the coffee vending machine inside the lobby. I mean, we want your stay at Auschwitz to be ... well, comfortable. After walking from building to building, from exhibit to exhibit, from display of human miscellanea and superfluity--here a room filled with luggage, there a room filled with hair; here a room filled with spectacles, there a room filled with artificial limbs--to display, we stopped for a browse in the gift shop and then snacked before hopping back on the super lux bus headed to Krakow.

I was back in Krakow just a few weeks later. Morgan and I were visiting friends in Zakopane (a gorgeous village in the Tatra mountains). From there, I took a bus to Budapest, where I stayed for just under forty-seven hours, before taking a 12-hour train ride to Krakow, where I would meet up again with Morgan before we headed back to Lublin. I checked my bag at the Krakow train station and got on the super lux bus to Auschwitz. Sleep-deprived, anxious, exhausted, and depressed (both physically as well as emotionally)--I was also most likely undernourished after having lost close to 30 pounds in the previous four months--I stepped off the bus and immediately knew I had made a mistake returning so soon. And alone.

I decided I wasn't going to revisit the main camp but instead venture to Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II). The cabbies circling the tourists outside Auschwitz hollered out their fares for the short drive to Birkenau. After having lived in Poland since late September, I knew these fares were seriously inflated, so I politely said spadaj ("Drop off.") before heading down the road that followed the train tracks on foot.

Birkenau is eerie and disconcerting in ways that Auschwitz is not: it's a ghost town of suffering. Auschwitz has nice, red-brick buildings, and for god's sake, a vending machine in the lobby that dispenses hot coffee. Birkenau has been left to fend for itself. No artificial smoke stacks dot the horizon around this field in the desolate Polish countryside: they're all real. Wooden shacks that housed the unfortunate camp internees--those that lived in the death camp--have been abandoned to the elements. And history. Many had fallen down, collapsed, since the liberation. They remain where they fell. And it wasn't a small cluster of buildings near the entrance gate. The field stretches out before the eyes that want to shut not just from the freezing wind and blinding snow blanketing this killing field.

I found the memorial after walking much further toward the back, after seeing a deer run through the birch woods, after finding a small cluster of stars of David and crosses dotting the winter landscape and looking not unlike an unlikely Christmas card: broken blocks, fractured, disruptions of form and text. Overwhelming. I began sobbing, walking the perimeter of the memorial, round and round. My tears froze to my face.

Back in Krakow, the sun already low beneath the gray, overcast horizon, I began retracing my steps with Stephen just a few weeks prior: I ate where we ate; I visited sites we visited; I drank coffee where we drank coffee. Anything to feel normal again. Then I saw the kino. A poster advertising the new film by Wim Wenders entitled Lisbon Story. Throughout this film, the music of Madredeus envelopes you. I was transported to sunny Lisbon, to heaven, to anywhere that was qualitatively different from where I actually was. Ah! music, balm of the damaged soul! It was music that saved me from the abuse I suffered as a child, music that saved me from the torments of bad relationships, music that brought me home every time I was a long way from home with no way of returning. And music rescued me again that night.

As if the universe were amusing itself for my benefit, Stephen was listening to Madredeus when I arrived home last night.


  1. My visit to Auschwitz 10 years ago was haunting. I am haunted again by those memories as I see the images of the camps flashed on the news for the 60th anniversary of the liberation today. Though I don't wish to be confronted with the reality of that kind of horror again, I can't say that I regret visiting in the first place. Being haunted by Auschwitz lets me know I'm human and prevents me from becoming insensitive. It would be so much easier, and so much more terrible, to become hardened. Perhaps the latest horror is the 75% of respondants to today's "Quick Vote" on believe that an Auschwitz could happen again. I agree and I think it has happened already.

    Thanks for being there with me, Frankie. I couldn't have gone alone.

    I was glum last night and needed the beauty of Madredeus to bring me out of it. I'm glad their music works the same for you.


  2. You tell that story so beautifully!

  3. You do tell it beautifully. I've never been to Auschwitz, but I was taken back to my visit to Dachau, now almost 20 years ago. Some of the barracks had been reconstructed for tourists like me to look at--and there may have even been a coffee machine somewhere--but images from the short film containing footage actually shot by the SS, and then footage shot during the liberation of the camp will never leave my memory.